“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.
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.