The Meaning of Efficiency

Every year we as a species get more efficient. For some meaning of efficient. There is a view of dealing with climate change, that it is fundamentally opposed to capitalism, full stop. That is, that capitalism causes climate change, as efficiency of extracting and using carbon-based fuels increases every year.

But that’s only one type of efficiency. Similar in the software world to increasing the speed of the hardware and memory available. Oldtimers of computing often lament that modern computing is so wasteful, when they were able to get so much out of so little. That’s another type of efficiency.

The environmental movement has its Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, and sometimes others, like refuse. But capitalism is focused on its paycheck. An oil company doesn’t care about reducing oil use, as it won’t make them more money. They might care about not wasting oil, but only insofar as they make their employees care. If the CEO’s bonus stays the same whether waste is 1% or 5%, it will stay under 6%, but won’t be minimized.

Capitalism is predicated on every year being bigger. It’s built on the idea that corporations should last forever. The bank is not made out of biodegradable materials, because it expects to long endure. But nature doesn’t work that way. There are highs and lows, natural cycles. Technology can improve, but volumes, they must reach some physical limits.

We’ve had a glut of resources. It’s been cheaper to use more than to figure out how to get by with less. More land to grow and farm, chop down some forests. More ocean to dump trash. Bigger nets to fish with and more boats. And so on. We have seen modest gains in real efficiency, but mostly we have seen gains through more resource use.

Critics of capitalism claim the problem is capitalism itself. That it cannot be but a resource-hungry ever-growing beast. Proponents of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade believe, as do I, that the issue is realigning the monetary costs to reflect environmental reality. To think otherwise, those calling out capitalism might as well call out democracy, which I haven’t heard them do.

We have done it before. With chlorofluorocarbons, with lead, with the food additives that caused cancer, with meat packing, with child labor, and on. Capitalism, while rigid, can be made to care. The notion that this time is different, when we have successfully redressed our past problems without upending capitalism, does not follow.

We cannot have endless growth. We cannot pull all the carbon out of the ground. It will kill us. Indeed, we will need to shrink our population over time. But we can become more efficient, we can continue technological progress. We can do so responsibly. We can pick the right meaning of efficiency.

There may be other reasons to see more serious overhauls to capitalism (or democracy as we know it, for that matter) than simply making it care about carbon pollution. Some of the coming efficiencies via robotics may disrupt labor markets to a grave extent. If we do need to move on from capitalism, or retool it at a deeper level, so be it. In the mean time we need to work on facing the political realities that keep the status quo’s harms alive.