A note on Efficiencies

Efficiencies constitute the arrogation of benefits and the abandonment of costs.

To be efficient is to partake in an allegiance with Entropy, the enemy of bounty, complexity and life.

Efficiencies hasten entropy by flattening out the multitudinous steps complexity puts in the way of energy’s dissipation.

The pursuit of efficiencies quickens the dissipation of complexity in the desire to meet simplistic goals and create one-sided pockets of gain.

19 Replies to “A note on Efficiencies”

  1. As we have both observed in the past, you and I often look at the mirror from opposite sides and when we do so, I find myself seeing the world from a perspective I had not guessed existed.

    From my side of the mirror, I see a world of limited resources; whether the resource in qustion is time or material, or spirit.

    And even in the case where a resource may seem limitless, I have chosen to see being conservative with the resource as an ethical responsibility. And so within me there is a sense need to husband resources, which to me does not mean hording these but using what we have been given but using wisely.

    And so, coming from that point of view, to me efficiency has always meant doing the most with the least. Seen in those perhaps simplistic terms, efficiency has always seemed like a noble goal.

    But as I glimpse your side of the mirror, I think I see your point efficiency takes away the richness of experience by a leveling of that, which requires more than the least.


    1. Jeff,

      Thank you for this inaugural comment!

      Your working definition of efficiency is actually very closely aligned with what efficiency isn’t!

      You’ve defined a good working definition of responsible stewardship.

      Efficiency is a reductive, calculating attitude that strives to strip away wider responsibility and accumulate a narrowly defined return.

      The distance between where we find our own views to have moved beyond reductive thinking makes us vulnerable to intellectual capture. This is when someone arguing from within the old paradigm is able to cast doubt over our own sense of what is right because we are unable to distinguish between their doctrinaire definition and our own adapted, yet poorly examined alternate definition.

      When a coal company attempts to maintain validity behind its efforts to destroy a region and pollute the planet, we are hobbled by their pleas of efficiency. “Hey, it’s efficient, well efficiency is always good,” we think; while not giving weight to the fact that what we actually think is efficiency and what efficiency really is are not the same thing! They don’t win the argument, we lose through abdication.

      This is just one small example of how we are hobbled by this dynamic. We’ve evolved beyond our own awareness of our positions. Unless we apply rigor to challenging our own assumptions, we cannot catch up to ourselves.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response. It shines a light on one potential source of the difference in our approach toward the word ‘Efficiency’. As I thought about this discussion, my initial reaction is that the concept of efficiency probably is not inherently positive or negative. As it seems to me whether or not efficiency is a positive thing or a negative derives solely from the specific way that the term is applied in any given situation. In other words, I suggest that our viewpoints on the term ‘efficiency’ differ in the definition of the term but not in semantic sense.

    I also think that our different perspective in this dialogue may result from how we see the term used in general society, rather than thinking of efficiency in a broader and more rigorous context. I think that within our culture there is a tendency to view efficiency as being nearly synonymous with expedient, to narrowly define efficiency as being that which is financially profitable or quickly accomplished, and to mistake rapid bumbling for decisive action.

    From my viewpoint to be efficient, the solution must actually solve the problem, and to properly solve any problem, the problem needs to be clearly and comprehensively defined and if the goal of the problem solving includes efficiency, then the definition of efficiency must be equally rigorous and intellectually honest. It is in this second step, clearly and comprehensively defining the problem and to honestly and comprehensively specify what it means to be efficient, where the goal of efficiency often goes astray.

    As I look at your coal mining example, it strikes me as a really good example of an expedient solution, but not necessarily an efficient one. If one had to state the goal for which mountain top mining was the solution, one might state the problem simply as, “What is the most efficient way to get energy?” But whether this question is an intellectually honest way to state the problem is dependent on whether the term ‘efficient’ is rigorously defined. And if the ‘Efficiency’ is comprehensively defined with intellectual honesty, then the short-hand in earlier comments, (i.e. getting the most from the least) may actually be accurate or at least workable.

    In the case of mountain top coal mining, a comprehensive definition of efficiency must be much broader and more nuanced than mining companies’ concept of efficiency; i.e. getting the most income for the least expenditure of time and money. Seen from a broader and more comprehensive perspective, the definition of efficiency might still be the short-hand that I proposed earlier (getting the most positive with the least negative) but of course, in fleshing out that short-hand the devil is in the details. And, it seems to me, in the example of efficient mountaintop mining, the failure in definition is the lack of careful definition of what it means to have ‘with the least negative impact’. I would suggest that if properly defined, the-least-negative-impact side of the efficiency equation for would need to include long and short term impact on a more global scale, and account for issues far beyond the mining companies’ short term need for profit or a societal need for energy. The the-least-negative-impact side of the equation would need to include such factors as
    • With the least irreparable damage which should include
    o With the least loss of natural habitat
    o With the least loss of life- human, animal and vegetative
    o With the least damage to local sources of drinking water
    o With the least releasing of hazardous material to the atmosphere
    • With the least energy expended for the energy recovered
    • With the least alteration to the planet chemistry and climate that results from the use of this energy source vs. some other.
    • With the least cost but analyzed in a global sense so that the accounting includes the costs of feeding people who previously could provide their own food before green house gas accelerated drought occurred in their regions, or treating urban smog related respiratory illness .

    And so on. And once efficiency is defined in a manner that comprehensively minimizes negative impact while producing the maximum gain, efficiency ceases to be a negative. Or so it seems to me.


    1. Jeff,

      Thanks for continuing this thread, it’s an important question.

      Efficiency is akin to expedience. Efficiency is a term derived from physics and the conservation of energy. If we look at what it means there, to be efficient is to remove impediments to the transfer of energy through a simple system or machine. The inherent assumption is that any leakage of energy input going to anything but the desired “working” of the machine is a negative result. This is a useful guideline at this level. At this scale efficiency is meant as a way to minimize entropy, the “waste” of energy not focused on producing “work.”

      The difficulty arises when this principle is scaled out of its original, simple system and is applied uncritically to complex systems – to where we actually live. In a complex system, or within a panarchy: a nesting array of complex systems all inteacting with each other; patterns develop to allow energy to “linger.” The longer energy remains within a complex system or panarchy, feeding a myriad of sub-systems and micro-niches, the longer it may hold out against the inevitability of entropy.

      What is considered “waste” in a simple system is actually the “fuel” for a complex system. The concept of “waste” is turned on its head in relation to the simple machine model. It’s not how fast you get a result, but how long you are able to juggle what you are given before it slips out of your fingers as it inexorably must eventually.

      A complex system is like a Kachinga game, the ball-bearings will end up at the bottom no matter what, the goal is to delay that inevitability. When some part of a complex system is successful at abrogating efficiencies for itself, it has in effect opened up a hole down which energy falls quickly to a higher entropy. Energy that could have lingered and have tapped on many flappers has now been lost to entropy. The “clever” operator has actually defeated his own best self-interest in his attempt to cheat.

      You required a long list of particulars, posited as “nice things to have” to counter the coal companies “hard-headed” claim of efficiency in our earlier example. This is a weak position, ultimately counterproductive. It’s not a question of asking for forbearance in the face of analytical pragmatism, it’s a question of putting their claim in perspective.

      If anyone truly believes they can live in a “Bell Jar” where simple systemic laws rule, then invite them to go there and stop messing up our complex world! Their position is not the most pragmatic: the one that leads to the most realistic result; it is inherently simplistic and fantastical. End of argument.

      Once our reliance on reductive models within every-day speech and thought is broken, paths towards efficacious results can be arrived at by following a trail leading from first principles, without the need to ask for special dispensations or make overly specific programmatic preconditions. – I have taken to claiming the term efficacious, effective action, as the preferred descriptor. It cuts to best-case results most directly, more on that another time….

      This process is frustrating and nit-picky. It requires us to chase down inaccurate language and habitual assumptions so as to recapture language’s utility as a vehicle for thought and action. This too is a Kachinga game! Right now words and concepts are efficient at dropping to the bottom quickly, allowing those with ruthlessly narrow views to garner short-term benefit. We don’t want efficient language, we want efficacious language. We want language that slows the inevitable fall long enough for us to consider what we want; instead of being left on the side-lines dizzy and confused as all that we care about plummets into the deep hole of entropy at ever greater rates of efficiency!

      A great place to start with system theory is Here

  3. Years ago I heard a radio program in which William F. Buckley Jr. was debating an issue with Ayn Rand. As it turned out Buckley and Rand’s viewpoints were mutually exclusive to each other, and yet they each strove convince the other of their position.

    Eventually, Bill Buckley, realizing the futility of the discussion and wanting to bring down the vociferous tone the conversation was beginning to take, said words to the effect of “Miss Rand, in the parlance of the day, we appear to be having a problem communicating.”

    Without missing a beat, Ayn Rand replied,”Mr. Buckley, I am communicating perfectly adequately. You are simply failing to comprehend.”

    Tony, I am sure that you are communicating entirely adequately, but regretfully, I must admit to all the world that I am failing to comprehend what you are so eloquently endeavoring to explain to me.

    Perhaps, my problem is that I am very comfortable comprehending up to the level basic phyics and mechanics; simple systems acting in a manner that you can trace and explain algebraically. And in those terms I see the term efficiency as neither inherrently good or bad.

    As I try to wrap my mind around the concept of efficiency, I can only grasp the simple concept of getting the most from the least. If its energy that we are talking about, it is the most work from the least energy and that may mean capturing and using as much energy as possible and disappating as little as possible in non-productive ways.

    If I understand some of your point, in a complex system, even the energy which might be labeled as ‘waste’ still has value if it to can be retained and put to some purpose, even if the value of that purpose is not readily apparent.

    And here is where I was not able to understand what your point. If you asked me before this conversation, I would have thought that retaining and making use of that ‘waste energy’ would seemingly be increasing the efficiency of the system rather and if the work done by that waste energy was productive, then that efficiency was a good thing, and if it was counter-productive it was a bad thing. But I don’t think that is consistent with what your trying to say.

    (for what it’s worth, the internet is a lousy media for my writing style in that intonation is totally lost. If any of my comments seem flip or sarcastic, please be assured I did not mean them to be either.)

    Totally respectfully,

    1. Jeff,

      As always your persistence is one of your most admirable traits!

      I mean that, you are airing the points many think, but won’t take the trouble to articulate. This is helpful.

      At the risk of shifting another paradigm, I’d like to say that the most useful discussions aren’t debates, point/counterpoint. These assume that there are two views and one is right! There are multiple views, they are all right some of the time, and none are always right. At this point, we’d be assisted by the inclusion of another voice or two, to broaden the discussion and provide other entries into the question.

      There is no way that a series of posts or comments and replies will teach anyone the principles of systems theory. The original post was meant as a provocation, to thought, to introduce doubt and shake up habitual assumptions, it should not be taken as a point of dogma. To drill down too deeply on this one detail in the absence of a broader shared framework is counterproductive. I urge you to look into Holling’s work, and to begin to develop a working sense of the principles and potential value of a systems approach. There are and will be more links into this subject.

      Without singling you out, your admission to being “very comfortable comprehending up to the level basic physics and mechanics; simple systems acting in a manner that you can trace and explain algebraically.” is a big part of the difficulties we face. The entire edifice built on these simple systems models has gotten us into a trap from which it offers no insights into how we can move beyond it. As Einstein is often quoted to have said, “We cannot solve problems using the same thinking that caused them.” This disconnect between “common sense” and what we are facing is a terrible impediment.

      That said, there isn’t a ready-made replacement worldview sitting on some shelf ready to be adopted. There are bits and pieces, some people are aware of some parts, no one is out there making a coherent and successful wide-band dissemination of what we need to work towards. I see my efforts as part of this search, a search that is at the same time attempting to develop a new view and looking for ways to get the word out. I think the two tasks go together. We don’t need something to be imposed on people, we do all need to get less comfortable with the old thinking and more comfortable with poking at the edges and looking for connections.

      If any of these efforts are to find any traction, they will need to find ways to meet people of good-will part-way and ask them to join in a mutual quest. This can’t be about creating a new caste of experts to replace the old. The notion that anyone can afford to sit back and leave the thinking to someone else is bankrupt.

      To get back to your question. Whether efficiency is good or bad? I would respond that from the widest perspective, taking into account the entire panarchy of life, efficiency is neither good nor bad. Each simple “machine,” each individual entity, will be looking to maximize its efficiency at what it does. If we expect to be conscious, aware beings within this plenitude, then we shouldn’t be surprised by the way complexity will have its way with our desires. If we persist in the belief that we understand something and therefor have it mastered and can warp it at our will without unforeseen consequences then we will be in error. Whether we will be good or bad, depends on what we want out of the whole thing.

      What most people find so frustrating about all this is exactly what fascinates me the most. All the loose ends connect to all the other loose ends. Start by talking about mechanics and end up with a point of ethics. This is the way it is. Fulfillment does not come from ease, but from engagement!


      1. Tony,

        There are different levels and intents of efficiency. When I watch a fine craftsman who is one with his tools I see a flowing deftness, or efficiency to his work. I can cut dovetails for a drawer, albeit slowly, but when I watch someone who can do it well I see how few unnecessary movements go into the process. It is humbling!

        Advance that process to the industrial level, break out the routers and duplicating jigs, and you enter the realm of industrial efficiency. It becomes mind numbing.

        I watched a potter at work one day. Taking a ball of clay and seemingly, as though creating by force of will, lifting the clay into a vessel. The work went from raw clay to a beautiful and delicate form, as if there was no separation from the artist intent and the final form. This is also a measure of efficiency, as she made four identical vessels after that first one.

        I think maybe we’ve allowed the word efficient to become a four letter word, because of the wanton industrial perspective. Efficiency as an economic imperative is an excuse to mine the planet to death and reduce mankind to a level lower than machinery. As a result of practice and craftsmanship it is elegant, and wonderful to behold.


        a level lower than machinery

      2. I don’t disagree. I do think that currently we no longer recognize the kind of efficiency you point to. We are so caught-up in the values of the machine. I would consider that some other term might be better suited to describe the Grace in action of an artisan at work.

        Either way, we do need to make a sharp distinction between these two meanings. They have nothing genuinely in common, and efficiency as we now know it destroys the efficiency we both admire at every turn.

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