Industrial Efficiencies

Industrial Efficiencies are Chimerical.  They are the result of a harvesting of the benefits of dealing in externalities while displacing the costs onto the commons.  Period.  This is old news, too bad it’s ignored by the main stream, as they like to see themselves.

This post isn’t about explaining or defending this assertion, it stands up on its own.  It’s also not a diatribe against those who ignore its validity and significance.  Instead let’s look at what it means to us as designers to accept this fact and move on.

If present industrial methods and habits are allowed to just decay away as the physical “Capital” on which they’re based winds down – from oil, to carbon sinks, to biodiversity and accessible minerals – then we don’t get a very soft landing at all.  It’s a great exercise to spend a day making yourself aware of the things you come across and use and how they got there.  The results are another commonplace, everything we use and surround ourselves with in the “built environment” is there as a result of current industrial methods.  Especially in the US, where we never had many remnants of past ages laying around, and have had a ruthless policy of destroying and replacing whatever remnants there were.  In Europe and Asia the modern is still embedded, more or less, in remnants of the pre-industrial, not here.

Anyone who considers themselves to be pragmatic and doesn’t get very uneasy at this level of dependency on a single way of doing things, that is reaching limits and showing signs of collapse all around us, needs to make a serious adjustment, either admit to being a fantasist, or align that beloved pragmatism with the facts.

If the system collapses in a train wreck with no attempts to soften the landing, we have the worst possible scenario.  In aviation there is a maxim, “Fly as deep into the crash as you can.”  This means shedding control over what is not under your control – as opposed to pulling back on the stick because you “want” to go up, even when this will put you into a stall/spin, certain death scenario.

How do we fly as deep into the crash as we can?  Waiting for a consensus from the passengers and the home office before acting won’t do.  There will never be a political consensus.  Politics is reactionary not pro-active.  Those who are most deeply “Invested” in the status quo – soon to be ante – are predisposed to be the last ones to adapt.  This is the show we see around us as the Crisis of Expertise plays itself out.  The big successes of this previous system rose to the top because they were the best at the habits and actions that worked under that system’s conditions.  As those conditions change, they are the most likely to keep pulling back on the stick.

That leaves us designers.  Whether we came at this from Fine Arts or Structural Engineering, we have, by necessity, had to show some aptitude for crossing the boundaries the old system has been so enamored of and thinking and creating things on our own.  I don’t just mean as individuals, although at least during our training/schooling that had to have been the case.  In an industrialized society few people, beyond certain fringe hold-over types, have ever had to think up something and create it.  That’s now called “Prototyping.”  Designers have held onto those abilities, talents, habits of mind.  Designers are therefore the people most likely to combine an independence of mind with an ability to actually make things.

What’s missing from this equation is to join an autonomy of decision making – Who gets to say what gets made? – and the discipline to see through current assumptions and really truly be creative, imaginative and innovative in a purposeful, directed way that addresses the crisis of the end of the Industrial Age.

This is a tall order.  While we are the closest thing to the great Sully Sullenberger out there, it’s still a great challenge to actually gather together the presence of mind and do it!

This isn’t about generating spooky stories or cozy daydreams.  But it isn’t totally opaque, is it?  The key is in sloughing off what’s beyond our ability to control, focusing on what can be efficacious, and experimenting and tuning our response as the situation develops and plays itself out.

If Industrial efficiencies are chimerical in their sustainability, they are real, facts on the ground, right now.  The industrial system all around us is like the worlds greatest “organ donor.”  Like a young strapping motorcyclist riding along at 120 mph, it is there for the picking while it lasts.  The key is to find and exploit it’s current profligacy for what we perceive as the greatest benefit during and after the crash.  The alternative isn’t a winding back of the clock, we won’t find ourselves in 1950, then 1890, then 1860, all wearing stove-pipe hats and telegraphing each other as we ride the Choo-choo!  Any previous level of industrial society was achieved as the accumulation of the developments that led up to it.  This doesn’t work in reverse, just as in a living organism, you can’t remove higher functions and end up with an ancestral form, you get a mangled pile of flesh.

The only way a real effort at this kind, a designed contraction as opposed to a disastrous crash, has any hope of working is if those of us involved can be broad-minded enough and develop new standards for what is truly pragmatic and efficacious.  The first principles are clear.  They cover the entire spectrum of attack from the purely conceptual – “How to get people thinking in a new way?” – to the most detailed and quotidian – “Is it possible to have a razor blade, a metal axle, a stone tool without our current globalized industrial powerhouse behind it?”  Five years from now, twenty, a hundred, how can we make the broadest projections of a trajectory and find the “pressure points” at which we can intervene to provide a reasonable chance for amelioration?

This isn’t a call for centralized, capitalized, Think Tanks, where Experts fit in a little “work” between enjoying their perks.  This is best a guerrilla project, a decentralized scattering of small scale efforts.  The skills and habits that will allow such efforts to “scavenge” for themselves a niche are precisely the talents that will make them useful.  In chaotic times the decentralized approach always works best, whether it’s the mass broadcasting of seeds by some “weed” species after a wildfire, or minutemen hiding behind trees instead of marching down the middle of the lane in crimson-coated rank and file.

There must be a few who now still have the wherewithal who have enough of a sense of self-preservation to be interested in being involved in these efforts.  Small cash in the right places can have great results, compared to the fortunes squandered keeping the “To Big to Fail’ “Whole.”

The time is ripe for this.  The “under-utilized capacities” of the unemployed combined with a small amount of money, money that is now so nervous about where it can find a “safe haven,” can combine to do real work.  Not after some “Grand Political Consensus,” or after “Wall Street” has spoken, but whenever a few of us scattered here and there decide to get started and do something.

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