Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency
The problem with efficiency as a numerical ratio is that there is no formula, no rule, no general principle for choosing. The choice of a ratio can be quite arbitrary - or, as we will see, strategic. Consequently, the very act of choosing a ratio determines value and the distribution of value.
I may claim my farm is efficient because I get more bushels per acre. But my neighbor claims she is more efficient because she spends less on machines per acre. I’m highlighting the value of production volume; she’s highlighting the value of minimizing capital costs. It is impossible to say which of us is doing better. I may like filling my silos to the brim each year; she may like extracting another year’s life from her grandparents’ old tractor. Both of us may be terribly efficient, given what we value.
But without further specification, neither of us can claim to be more efficient than the other. Even if my neighbor and I both claimed our choices were means to, say, maximum profits, the efficiency ratios themselves are incommensurable. I’m measuring volume of grain, she’s measuring a machine’s usefulness.
Efficiency ratios are thus neither self-evident nor is their increase unambiguously “good.” No third party can set an unambiguously precise and comparable measure. Every choice of a ratio reflects a choice of values, a politics. And those values do not just separate along the familiar divides of modern and traditional, new and old, fast and slow, as this farming hypothetical might suggest. They separate along divides of time frame - short term and commercially meaningful versus long term and ecologically meaningful – and cost displacement – the ability to externalize the costs of production and consumption in time and space.
And yet, in modern society, efficiency is equated with all that is good. And not just good for a few but, the rhetoric has it, good for all: joint gains, gains from trade, win-win, all boats rise, jobs aplenty. The discrepancy between the ambiguity of value distribution and the definitiveness of rhetorical claims can in part be explained by a failure to specify ratios, as well as a failure to be explicit about what is left out of those ratios.
A pure efficiency exists only on paper. In the real world, some people gain as others remain the same or lose. Those others may be one’s neighbors or fellow citizens. But with increasing environmental criticality, risk export, and responsibility evasion (chapter 2), they are people downstream and downwind or on the other side of the globe, or they are future generations….
Efficiencies thus have a “simplification bias.” A simple, two-element ratio of concrete measures is preferred. Numbers that express lumens per kilowatt, grain per acre, and shoes per worker catch our attention. Scientist and lay citizen alike can understand and work with a ratio that is simple and concrete. The language of efficiency becomes universal when simple measurables are on the table. Immeasurables are for the clergy and the philosopher, sometimes the environmentalist.
So in my decision to adopt the technology, I can’t know ex ante whether the narrow efficiency gain for me will be offset by the broader efficiency gains (or, better, the access gains) of others. Once dependent on the medium, however, I have little choice. Today’s efficiency is tomorrow’s dependency.
Efficiency claims, for all the history or lack of history, are indeed political claims. They may be dressed up in the language of science and technology and progress, and thus have an apolitical appearance. But appearing apolitical is a political act. A way of avoiding awkward trade-offs. It is a way of advancing a narrow agenda (increased return on investment, a new building, a changed curriculum) by appearing to advocate a broad agenda. And that broad agenda is palatable, indeed attractive, not because it represents the painstaking process of finding common ground among people of diverse interests and values, nor even because matters have been reduced to a common denominator such as money. Rather, it is attractive because everyone sees a gain. Efficiencies wash away the divisiveness so consensus can settle out. Environmentalists, industrialists and politicians can fight tooth and nail about the value of a wetland or the importance of biodiversity. But, with efficiency, they can all come together: the environmentalist sees nature preserved when a housing developer agrees not to build on every acre. The developer sees lower costs because excavation and utility hookups can be consolidated when houses are clustered. Local officials see the same tax revenues with fewer government services.
It is easy to agree that the land should be protected, that climate change should be arrested, that pollution should be abated, that energy should be saved, that water should be cleaned. And it is easy to act to improve the environment if it appears that the efficiencies are just there for the taking, like hitherto undiscovered fruit waiting to be picked. It is quit another matter to spell out exactly where that fruit comes from, and what is forfeited by consuming it now and at this rate. It is quite another matter to reveal what happens downstream, downwind, to reveal who benefits and who loses, and to do so over an ecologically significant period of time.
A policy that promotes efficiencies – roadway for transport, electric bulbs for street lighting, administrative structures for medical care and retailing, recycling for waste management, and concentrated animals for intensified farming – promotes increased personal and social wealth in the here and now. It elevates monetary values as it depreciates values associated with the long term, with the security of ecological integrity and economic well-being.
Efficiency is suspect in the first instance because the ratio is rarely made explicit. In the second, it is suspect because ratios perceived are rarely ratios realized, because ratios proposed for all are only for some, because efficiency claims lead to the shading and distancing of costs, to deferral of impact in time and space. Efficiency is suspect because the benefits are readily highlighted, and the costs are shaded and left for others to pick up.