April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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Blessed Are the Wastrels, for Their Surplus Could Save the Earth

James Martin Research Fellow at University of Oxford

In a world where too many go to bed hungry, it comes as a shock to realize that more than half the world’s food production is left to rot, lost in transit, thrown out, or otherwise wasted. This loss is a humanitarian disaster. It’s a moral tragedy. It’s a blight on the conscience of the world.

It might ultimately be the salvation of the human species.

To understand why, consider that we live in a system that rewards efficiency. Just-in-time production, reduced inventories, providing the required service at just the right time with minimized wasted effort, those are the routes to profit (and hence survival) for today’s corporations. This type of lean manufacturing aims to squeeze costs as much as possible, pruning anything extraneous from the process. That’s the ideal, anyway–and many companies are furiously chasing after this ideal.

Unfortunately, there is often a trade-off between efficiency (producing the same goods at lowest cost) and resiliency (strength against unexpected crises). Protection against crises or disasters generally costs money. You need to maintain reserves and build up unused inventories. You need to develop contingency plans and train workers. You need excessively robust or excessively flexible manufacturing capabilities. You need a branch of your bureaucracy devoted to worst-case scenarios, with all the salaries and time that go with that. And if you do all that–well, there are other companies out there, very willing to swoop in and take all your customers with their reduced costs. Resilient organizations go to the wall.

Bleak swans

Smaller, more regular disasters can be absorbed as a simple cost of doing business. But larger disasters, the large volcanic eruptions, the super-plague (natural or engineered), the one-in-a-hundred-year events…well, how many companies expect to be in business in a hundred years anyway?

Thus, the very efficiency that has driven human production to its dizzying peaks, creates a brittleness and a fragility to crises or disasters that are slightly too large. And the whole system is connected: when one part starts being overwhelmed, when one category of ultra-specialized manufacturers goes under, others that rely on it will start to suffer too. This could be followed by knock-on effects across the economy, hitting consumers and employees and spreading to other industries. A slightly-too-large disaster may bring down our interconnected economy just as effectively as a huge disaster would.

So it is important to preserve sources of resiliency where they exist. And the current waste in the world’s food system is such a source. It’s a tragedy that rich Westerners and aspiring rich Westerners eat wasteful meat and that supermarkets and individuals throw away so much food (indeed half the food purchased in Europe and the U.S. is thrown away by consumers). But what that means is that there is a lot of slack in the system. If disaster struck, we could go back to eating more vegetables and carefully preserving excess foodstuffs. Even if half the world’s food production were wiped out by a super-plague, we’d still have enough to feed most of the people we feed today.

There are other inefficiencies in the world economy that translate into resiliency for our species. Of course, not all that is inefficient is resilient–some waste is just waste (for food, we could do a lot about not throwing away imperfect vegetables, but little about insect damage). What we are looking for is something that is wasteful, but could quickly be changed to be less wasteful if necessary. Perversely (and tragically), this could do more good for the human species than getting rid of all waste, which would improve the lives of more people, at the cost of making the whole system more brittle.

Good candidates for resilient inefficiencies are luxury goods. Spending on strict personal luxuries (jewelry, perfume, expensive cars, etc.) represents more than half a trillion dollars per year; but less blatantly excessive “luxuries” also abound. Organic farms are an example: They use their inputs (land, grain, animals) to produce food at higher cost and lower quantity than conventional farming. The advantages of organic food appeal to richer, western consumers. But if the situation were desperate, organic farms could be retooled for mass production of lower-quality but still edible foods. The same goes for factories making super-plasma, hyper-surround cinema-experience televisions (or similar toys for the wealthy). This rich demand maintains a manufacturing base for extreme luxury products, but one that could be repurposed for mass production of less extravagant but more useful products if needed.

There are many other examples of inefficient resilience. Transport systems are another example: in many countries, there are multiple redundant ways of making the same trip, not all of them filled to maximum capacity. Democracy also qualifies: the great efforts political parties spend denigrating each other can be swiftly replaced with common purpose in case of, to give an extreme example, external attack. Government subsidies represent resources that could be redirected if really needed: the more wasteful they are, the easier this is. A standing army is an ultimate example, serving no efficient purpose at all, yet it makes the country much more resilient. In biology, the immune system and evolution itself are both robust and hideously inefficient.

Surplus requirements

It might seem perverse to promote inefficiency in the name of resiliency. And it is perverse. It would be much more effective to make production as efficient as possible, while some organizations–most likely governments–built up a surplus of goods and capabilities that could be used in case of disaster.

But such carefully planned resiliency might not–if you will pardon the phrasing–be very resilient. The accumulated surplus has no one to speak for it, no constituency defending it, no faction profiting from it. In times of plenty, it would seem to be–and indeed it would be–an unprofitable waste, and furthermore a clear and visible waste–a waste that could be transformed into value at the stroke of a politician’s pen. The same tension that exists between companies would exist between governments, each pressured to spend their surplus rather than accumulate it. On purely moral grounds, could anyone defend accumulating a surplus for a hypothetical future disaster while people starved today?

In contrast, resiliency through inefficiency is much more robust. It has natural constituencies: farm lobbies, healthy eaters, rich consumers looking for the latest novelty goods. It rests on traditional (or inefficient) ways of doing things, requiring no change or innovation. It does not require active policy interventions, or even acknowledgement of the issue. As long as it is left alone, it will always be there, a reserve of resiliency ready to be tapped. As below, so above: the most inefficient way of producing resiliency is also the most… resilient.

Stuart Armstrong does not work for, consult to, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. The Conversation is funded by the following universities: Aberdeen, Bath Spa, Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Brunel, Cardiff, Cardiff Metropolitan, City, Coventry, Durham, Edinburgh Napier, Essex, Glasgow Caledonian, Goldsmiths, Hull, King’s College, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Nottingham, The Open University, Queen Mary University of London, Queen’s University Belfast, Salford, Sheffield, Southampton, Surrey, Sussex, UCL, and Warwick. It also receives funding from: Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Ogden Trust, The Wellcome Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and The Alliance for Useful Evidence.

By Stuart Armstrong

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