Monthly Archives: March 2013

Blind Spot Thinking: Visible Personal Sacrifice Saves the World

adrienneIntroduction

“The world is in deep trouble. I’m going to do my small part to save it by [fill in the blank]. I’m doing my part. You should too. Then we will all be doing our small part, and the world will be a better place.”

This is Visible Personal Sacrifice thinking (VPS). For many people VPS thinking is the emotional core of solving various knotty problems ranging from resource exhaustion through animal rights to global warming. The heart of the thinking supporting VPS is, “Yes, this problem is big and scary, but part of solving it is for each of us to do our small part by making a sacrifice in a personal and visible way. So here, I’m doing my part. See!”

This is noble and good intentioned thinking. But it’s also instinctive, which means what it recommends as feeling like a good solution should be examined carefully using analytic thinking, or it will create waste not good results. When this careful examination is not conducted, we have blind spot thinking rather than a good solution to a serious problem.

Why is this important? It’s important because thinking blind spots lead to long-term wasteful activities. People undertake the sacrifices and then think, “See! I’m doing my part to save the world… and you should, too!” But the reality is that the sacrifices are not solving the root problem at all, and there can be huge waste caused by the misdirected attention that comes with solving problems using blind spot thinking.

So we have a new Roger Truism:

Blind spot solutions: They feel good, but they aren’t solving.

And there is a surprise connection: It is between VPS and fashion. What I see being promoted in fashion magazines as ways to look beautiful are ways of showing off VPS — sacrificing for beauty. Striving for beauty is as old as mankind, so this connection may explain why VPS resonates strongly with many people’s thinking.

Discovering this blind spot

The first inkling of this blind spot came to me years ago when then-VP Al Gore complained that companies advertising “X percent recycled” were often “cheating” because they included recycling that went on within the manufacturing plant. He wanted only what made it into consumers hands and then back again to be counted.

“Seems a bit strange,” was my thinking at the time, “Either way, it’s getting recycled,” then give it little further thought.

But over the past few weeks I have detected a new pattern, and that new pattern is the comfortable thinking VPS can bring to people who are supporting causes. When VPS is supporting a cause, supporting the VPS can become the center of attention, displacing really solving the problem. I notice this happening when VPS is connected with liberal causes fired by good intentions.

(Keep in mind that VPS is far from the only way to support blind spot thinking. Another common way is Pillar of Faith thinking, a style which more commonly supports conservative causes. Yet another common way is fear, such as “Save the Children” which supports moral panic thinking.)

The waste supported by VPS

As pointed out in the Al Gore example, VPS can support seeing-trees-versus-the-forest thinking. The ecology->environment->global warming movement of the past four decades is filled with examples of good intentions supporting wasteful solutions, so I’m going to use it as a backdrop.

Back in the seventies recycling to save our environment became a popular issue. This started the putting trash in appropriate receptacles movement and the “plastic or paper?” question at the groceries.

The inefficiencies that these VPS choices supported are:

o The first is inflexibility: What to recycle and who wants to buy it are constantly changing markets. Because of this constant change, recycling can best be conducted at a collection point: the landfill and the junkyard. The sorters at these locations can know on a day-by-day basis what is valuable to collect, and the consumers of recycled materials have a one-stop shopping spot.

o The second is poor analysis: Plastic and paper covered up and sitting in anaerobic conditions (as they are when buried in a landfill) both last centuries. An example: Read the articles about the delight archeologists have when they unearth centuries-old leather and cloth objects from middens and tannin-filled swamps. What this means is that for landfill-destined stuff weight is more important than degradability — which means that plastic bags, which weigh a tenth of what paper bags do, are better for the environment.

Following that campaign, the VPS environmentalist types decided that putting more renewable resource into gasoline would help save the world. Supporting farmers and resource conservation combined! Whew! An emotionally powerful combination! The Ethanol in Gas movement sprang into being. Nice… Noble… But over the last few decades this has become a textbook example of good intentions being highjacked by special interests.

It turns about that formulating gasoline from crude oil is an art even more flexible than gourmet cooking — how to do it well changes from refinery-to-refinery and from day-to-day as the mix of different kinds of crudes and refining technologies available changes. The good intentions of the VPS thinkers had the federal and California governments slap arbitrary, slowly-flexing limits on top of this fine, fast-moving art. And with time those limits became of much more interest to agribusiness special interests than to VPS types — the VPS types moved on to the next cause. The result: In the 2010’s we have news articles describing how US government-mandated ethanol corn production is raising global food prices — this is waste writ large.

And the 2010’s are introducing their own styles of environment-related VPS thinking. As the Great Recession of the late 2000’s unfolded, resource conservation became a big emotional concern again. (The Great Depression of the 1930’s was also a time of deep concern about resource exhaustion.) This time the concern was named the Green Movement and supported using sustainable resources in place of “Peak” resources that were more polluting and could be exhausted.

The question became whether to support fracking, nuclear, solar panels or windmills. The VPS types supported solar and wind mills, even though doing so cost jobs.

“But… But… Supporting these created jobs!” enthusiasts will argue. Yes, the subsidies created some green jobs, but many, many more jobs of all sorts were not created because the economy didn’t grow quickly. Once again, good intentions outweighed good results, and VPS became the important criterion rather than good analysis.

In sum, the wasteful result of the mistaken analysis is that job and wealth growth have been sacrificed to green in the US and Europe. This is a for-real sacrifice for all because it takes wealth to support green — lack of wealth is making all of us poorer and the world more degraded.

A Roger Truism from twenty years ago:

Technology can give back what it takes away [in ecological and cultural damage], but poverty plays for keeps.

Contemporary China is a good example. It has terrible pollution problems right now because it has chosen to industrialize. But the pollution will be reduced steadily and dramatically over the next decades because it now has more wealth and that wealth is steadily and dramatically rising. Because it has more wealth much more can now be spent on reducing pollution, and will be.

VPS and fashion

Once every few years I find myself sitting in a waiting room and I pick up a fashion magazine. The last time this happened I was surprised at the patterns I saw — the way these women were portrayed was thick with ritual. The one I remember most vividly was that every woman was wearing high heels… except those being posed on a beach… and every one of those was portrayed jumping so their feet could still be flexed into the high heel position! Whew!

I now realize that what I was looking at was VPS being used to portray beauty. Young women sacrificing for beauty dates back into pre-history — the details of the sacrifice change with each generation and culture, but the sacrificing does not. So the VPS thinking supporting various causes has a cousin in the VPS thinking that supports beauty. (I write a lot more about this in my books Evolution and Thought and How Evolution Explains the Human Condition.)

While many liberals are happy to point out that VPS in the fashion industry is a bad influence on impressionable young girls, they are equally happy to remain oblivious to the fact that steadily increasing manufacturing productivity inside factories is doing a lot more to save the world than bike paths and recycling bins. And that electric cars are not solving resource exhaustion and global warming problems until the power plants that charge their batteries are putting out less carbon than the internal combustion engines they are replacing.

Conclusion

These are the kinds of blind spots producing huge waste that VPS allows. This is why we need to be aware of it, and we need to be prepared to do a lot of analytic thinking as well as VPS if we really want to save the world.

VPS is noble, but if it is going to save the world it must be accompanied by hard-nosed analytic thinking which looks at the costs and benefits of choices being made.

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The Importance of a Community Dreaming Big, and Learning to Save

Beach-Fun-01Dreaming Big

The pyramids, the early Mormon temples in Utah, the Grand Canal in China. These are a few examples of a community dreaming big. Even while most of the community was living in mud huts, the people of these communities came together to produce a marvelous work and a wonder. These community members, rich and poor alike, felt that spending resource on their marvelous work was producing more value than spending that same resource on uplifting the average infrastructure of the community — things such as better roads, housing and food.

Why?

In these cases the importance of unifying the community was recognized. Each of these projects gave community members the opportunity to learn about cooperating with lots of other people, especially strangers. They learned cooperation and tolerance instead of learning “just standing around watching others”, or even worse, taking cheap shots at others’ projects with activities such as mocking, stealing and vandalism.

This lesson in cooperating with a larger group than family and friends is one each generation must learn. It isn’t instinctive, which means it isn’t easy to learn. It’s not easy, but it’s a vital lesson for civilized living.

As vital as it is, its importance is under appreciated more often than not. The community chattering classes, who follow their instincts, pay attention to divisive issues, not those which unify the community behind a big vision. The famous media truism, “If it bleeds it leads.” is an example of following instinct, and the result of following this instinct is more divisive thinking in the community. When people of the community aren’t picking up the cooperator lesson, the community learns acrimony instead of cooperation, and this is death on trust, which is death on progress.

For this reason having periodic big dreams for a community to pursue is vital to the community bettering itself. If these are not developed and pursued vigorously, the community will decline… sinking into a sea of acrimony, and a status quo which accepts steady decline as part of the local living package. A personal example of seeing this happening was the Midwest Disease that sank Cleveland and Detroit starting in the 1960’s. I grew up in Cleveland.

Picking the vision isn’t easy

Picking a big vision to follow is vital, but it isn’t easy. Kennedy got it right with the Space Race to the moon, Bush Jr. got it wrong with the War on Terror. One surprise turnabout was FDR as World War Two loomed. Through most of the 1930’s neither he nor anyone else in America could come up with a good big vision. We had the Great Depression. But when he decided that fighting Fascism in Europe was more important than fighting class warfare in the US, he did an impressive about-face and came up with a hugely successful series of big visions, starting with building the Arsenal of Democracy. After a decade of learning acrimony in the 1930’s, Americans learned to cooperate again during the harsh times of World War II in the early 1940’s, and were rewarded with fifty years of booming prosperity following it.

For a more recent example of picking first wrong, then right dreams, check out my book Surfing the High Tech Wave. It’s about Novell Inc. in the 1980’s, first when it got the dream wrong, then got it spectacularly right and became a billion dollar company at the heart of a brand new multi-billion dollar industry.

It isn’t easy, but if you get the dream right, and promote it right, some in the community will grumble, but everyone will get on board and love the result. If you get it wrong, a lot of people choose to watch from the sidelines and there’s a whole lot more grumbling. And it will be followed with a lot of harsh “I told you so!” when the dream founders.

In sum, communities need a periodic big vision. It teaches people how to cooperate. If people don’t learn to cooperate, they learn to be acrimonious. If they learn to be acrimonious the community will support status quo instead of innovation, and slow, steady decline instead of rapid, exciting and disruptive, growth.

Learning to Save: Yes, we need to learn it

This thought was inspired by a video, Wealth Inequality in America, that’s been popular on Facebook. It’s about the inequality of wealth distribution in the US. The implication of this video, and the various 1%/99% movements that have been popular since the Great Recession started, is that this inequality should be fixed by fixing the 1% in some fashion: They should make less and hand out more.

I thought about this: This solution is easy instinctive thinking. And it’s a good intention. …Wait! Good intention: That’s a waving yellow flag for me! It means I need to think more carefully about this…

With some more thinking, I realized there’s some fixing of the 99% that needs to happen, too. From the personal experience of watching how people around me live, it’s clear that living hand-to-mouth is a learned lifestyle. The implication of this is that no matter how much is taken from the 1% and showered down upon the 99%, there will still be about the same amount of hand-to-mouth living going on as there is now. This will be so… until many people are educated to think differently about savings.

People need to be educated to save. This is a lifestyle lesson that needs to be learned. Saving lots of money is not instinctive thinking for most people. Preaching this lesson harks back to the images of grandmas who grew up in Great Depression era settings haranguing their kids to save more for rainy days.

It should: Again, saving is a lesson that must be taught and learned. It’s not instinctive thinking for many people.

But it can be learned, and it’s not too hard to do so. From what I learned while living in Korea, the East Asian cultures have a tradition of putting about 30% of their income into savings.

So, if we want to fix wealth inequality in America, we need to be fixing the 99% as much as we need to be fixing the 1%. The 99% need to be learning lifestyles with more savings built into them, a lot more.

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