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Thoughts About Quality, Efficiency, Economics And The Environment

A long, long time ago, I read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For me, it was a seminal book in terms of my personal outlook on life. For those who have never read the book, it is an exploration into the metaphysics of quality. It was largely through this book that I came to understand, for example, that no matter how much quantity we try to stuff into a less-than-happy existence, it can never replace a lack of quality that we may be experiencing. I learned that the essential experience of quality could only be found in being present, fully present in the moment.

Quality, or a lack of it, has been a recurring feature of my thinking over the years. Quality is one of the defining measures of how I earn my living. As a software engineer, I have spent many years dealing with defects and programming errors that detracted from the “quality” of the software with which I was working. As a parent, I’ve fretted over the “quality” of education for my kids and the food they eat.

When you get right down to it, you really can’t discuss any aspect of life in any depth without touching upon some aspect of quality. It is that nebulous “standard” by which one measures the goodness of things. Being born and growing up in North America, I came to accept a certain quality of life as a given. Moving to Japan, I learned by firsthand experience that quality of life can vary greatly, even in highly advanced nations. As an example, it’s commonplace for kids in North American families to have their own bedrooms. In Japan, it’s quite common for entire families to share a single sleeping space. In North America, broadband is an expensive snail’s pace compared to the fibre to the home we enjoy in Japan. The dichotomy is striking.

In lieu of quality, many turn to quantity to make up for a sense of lack. If you can’t have a couple of pieces of great pizza, by golly, you can sure feel full on a dozen pieces of lousy pizza. A few cultures have entirely latched onto this idea that if X amount of something is okay, three times the amount of the same thing must be three times as good. There’s a confusion between quantity and quality. And as long as that confusion exists, I find it hard to imagine that, culturally speaking, people will find much in the way of genuine happiness.

I think that our supersize me, quantity is #1 culture is the ultimate statement of settling for less in the name of consuming more. It’s a distressing sign of the times. Moreover, it’s simply not sustainable. It’s not sustainable because of a word that I consider to be intellectually inseparable from quality: Efficiency.

Many of us look at efficiency as a measure of how quickly or effortlessly one can accomplish something, and that would be an accurate idea. Maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense is pretty much a dictionary-perfect way of describing efficiency. The bigger picture gets more complex when you look at describing things as economics. What is economic efficiency? And what are its implications?

In a nutshell, economic efficiency combines Pareto efficiency (the state at which no-one in a system can be made better off without others being made worse off) with a state in which output is maximized and no more can be accomplished without additional input, plus cost being absolutely minimized. Economists like efficiency because it points to a system that is operating at optimal levels in various aspects.

I was prompted to write this article because of an article in The Huffington Post by Brian Whetton, called “Obama, Romney and the Future of Capitalism“. It was a good article, and it pointed out a fact that the U.S. economy has been in a state of exponential growth for the past 200 years (forget blips; we’re looking at overall trends). Exponential growth is not a trend that is sustainable, yet it’s precisely what investors and shareholders look for in companies. Growth, growth, growth. Anything else is undesirable.

Metaphysically speaking, a lot of folks like to talk about the infinite universe and how there’s abundance for all. That’d be shiny but for the fact that the universe is a closed system, so rather than working with infinite values, we’re constantly working with recycled energy. In order to create anew, you must destroy the old. In a model of Pareto efficiency, we cannot create ever greater abundance in a closed system. There are finite resources and, therefore, there are consequences that are inescapable and unavoidable.

It might not be convenient to view the world we live in as finite, but empirically it’s difficult to find any evidence to the contrary. The Circle of Life is a vast recycling depot that displays its mechanisms wonderfully through the birth-life-death-rebirth that we witness through the four seasons of each year. That beautiful topsoil that we need for our crops doesn’t come from the nebulous ether. It is the creation born of the death of organisms that came before.

Whetton’s article made a point of asking whether companies are genuinely creating value or just taking from the system. It’s a great question and one that shouldn’t be glossed over. For public companies, value is in the eye of the shareholder. Because of this, companies don’t always act in ways that are sustainable and altruistic. In fact, it’s almost a religious mantra that companies must meet shareholder expectations by posting profits and growth, quarter after quarter. The problem is that when your whole system is predicated on consumption, the only way to satisfy demands for more growth is to consume more. Despite well-meaning intentions to the contrary, the more efficient the economy, the less able that economy is to grow without consuming additional resources.

In a system based on projections of infinite growth, failure is mandatory and monopolies are inevitable. In a system based on infinite growth, there’s no room for altruism or even genuine value. Quality? The essential nature of quality in its purest form is only found in the raw expression of the Moment. The Moment and pushing forward with an expansionist policy are very much unrelated experiences.

As business owners, many of us have faced that point of diminished returns where we have to expand beyond our current means in order to thrive. It’s a fact of business. Or is it? What if we were to grow our businesses to be Just Right? What if we engineered our political systems to encourage right-sizing of government for governing instead of designing processes with the sole purpose of using up all our allocated budget (to justify asking for increases the following year)? Any of us who have managed funded projects know well that unless you use up all your resources for the current year, you’re not going to get as much or more the next one. And, once again, these modes of working aren’t sustainable.

What is the essence of quality? What might be the purest expression and experience of quality you have in your daily life? For me, it can often be found watching the sun rise while listening to the Japanese bush warblers singing their praises to the day. Others may find that in the silence of meditation or in the perfection of finding that perfect wave that drives you toward the beach. Wherever you find it, look at how that moment can be translated and transferred into other areas of your life. Find Quality in your work flow, in your interactions. Quality shouldn’t be relegated to your experience as a consumer. It should be about your overall experience, day to day, year to year. What is the quality you lend to the universe itself? What value do you offer? And is that value that you’ve just thought about something that benefits humanity, honestly, or is it something you do to thrive as an individual? It’s a hugely important question.

Efficiency should be measured not just in economic terms, but in environmental terms. I propose that a working corollary of economic efficiency be defined such that environmental efficiency requires sustainable practices. That economic growth can only be found acceptable if environmental impact is nullified. And, finally, that environmental efficiency means that our resource utilization emphasizes the lowest physical use of those resources that are non-renewable.

We should have understood these issues a hundred or more years ago. We already crossed that threshold where we’ve used most of our arable land for agriculture, pasture and, sadly, urban development. What remains is either desert, mountains, open water or forest. We’re really not in a position to cut down more forest. We desperately need biodiversity in our environment to ensure that our entire food chain can thrive. We’re not in a position to expect growth any longer. It may be geeky and romantic to think of Coruscant as a potential future for us, but we don’t have the technology to drive in that direction. If we dare try to turn Earth into a giant city, we will fail.

These are no longer somebody else’s problems. When I was a child, my sky was filled with so many stars that they almost hurt the eyes on a cold, winter’s night. My children have grown up to a night sky that features ~30 stars and planets on a good night. Unless the evening is exceptionally dark and clear, we can’t even see all of Orion.

Quality. Efficiency. What will your legacy be?

This article was edited 2012-08-01 @ 4:53 p.m. to correct typos and grammatical errors that should have been caught during proofreading. My apologies to readers who suffered through the first draft.

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