What is there in speeding up the flow of events when it eventually ends up that we take the free time we have and start to fill it in with something else. This only leads us to getting schedules jammed packed with activities and no breathing space in between. Quite literally it can suffocate us to the point of burnout or exhaustion. But aside from these negative concepts of efficiency, it is not all bad.

Efficiency in thermodynamics is described as the ratio between the energy output and energy input. It is usually a value between 0 and 1. And of course this assumes a closed system where the energy input, output and loss are all accounted for or at the very least, calculable. Now let’s look at this definition as a philosophy that we have embraced for decades to assist us in our processes and make our lives easier.
An efficient person is one who delights in their ability to save time. Saving time can mean saving money or it can mean saving someone’s life. It can be quite intense and delightful to improve a process or smoothen the flow of things. And then one can rest easy for a while, knowing that things are going the best possible way they can. But efficiency gets us short respite until the wear and tear of events creates a situation where we once again have to put our tactics of efficiency to use. We do not create perfect processes and systems so no matter how efficiently we do anything, it will change over time in response to the internal environment and due to the effect of internal processes.  So, this is to say that efficiency in processes doesn’t always last.

Saving time

Saving time can also be great but any book on time management can tell you this. And since when did the immaterial concept of time become a resource that can be saved? We have 24 hours in a day. Saving any of these hours today would technically mean that we can use them another day, so if I save 2 hours today, I should be able to enjoy twenty-six hours tomorrow. But that isn’t what happens. It so happens that we get 86,400 seconds in our time bank accounts each day to spend as we wish and when the day is over, anything leftover or ‘saved’ is gone. The next day, we get 86,400 seconds once again. The concept of time is a convention. It is for convenience. It is neither something ‘real’ that’s ‘out there’ and neither something subjective ‘in here’. Time is a concept that is an agreement among all of us that the line going through Greenwich in UK will be the reference point for the convention of time. Where earlier we used the position of the sun, stars and other planetary bodies to tell time or the time of year and other things that would help us orient ourselves in the universe, now we began to use time. In our industrial and information ages it later came to be used as a means of measurement. ‘Oh, you spent 20 hours on this task, so that must be how much your time is worth.’  And to another, ‘Ah, you spent 15 hours on the same task? Your time must be worth more.’ In this way we formulated ways to measure effort and translate them into economic value but we grossly missed out on things that cannot always be measured in economic value. Things like talent, expertise, creativity, commitment, patience. And these are only a few of so many innumerable qualities that we do not yet recognize as being valuable in a human sense, let alone an economic one.

Efficiency is an important attribute because all inputs are scarce. Time, money and raw materials are limited, and it is important to conserve them while maintaining an acceptable level of output.

Efficiency in economic models seems to be the prerequisite aim for any country subscribing to capitalism. Where it seems that a country’s economic efficiency is declining, it is deemed to be in a recession and even though it might be doing just fine it is judged on its inability to do better. It seems that doing okay is just not enough. We need to be doing better. In individual economics, people are more than willing to sell their time and most of their lives for a luxurious end to their lives. They are willing to postpone living for a prospect of being able to live better tomorrow, 10-20-30 years from now. ‘All good things take time’ is what we are sold on. But what about ‘all the best things in life are free’? In light of our capitalist endeavours over the past decades, the second statement seems to be less and less believable for us. Because capitalism works on growth and once the point of growth is saturated it seeks to grow in unexplored avenues. At some point unexplored avenues will become fewer and rarer and we will be forced to re-evaluate our capitalist tendencies. But maybe capitalism wasn’t meant to go down like this. Maybe it was meant to sustain our growth to healthy levels and keep it there but our human greed left unchecked exploited this model just like human beings have exploited resources on our planet.

The Flow State

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi after a long amount of research in the 60s talked about something called a ‘flow state’. This wasn’t a new concept as it had been mentioned in common language as being ‘in the groove’ or ‘in the zone’ or even ‘possessed’. He called this state the flow state and described its characteristics as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies…Your whole being is involved.” He saw such a strong corelation between experiencing the flow state and an individual’s levels of happiness that he named his Ted talk – Flow, the secret to happiness.  Where the concept of flow grates against the concept of efficiency is at the question of motivation.

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model describes mental states in terms of challenge and skill levels. In the flow state we see the skill level to be high and the challenge to be high as well. When one can take on a task and the task has enough challenge to keep one on one’s toes, in a metaphorical sense, then one is in the flow state or in the zone. Think of racing car drivers, Olympic athletes, great chefs, painters and possibly any and every profession. The flow state can be seen in all industries and professions however it is not the industry or profession that is conducive to creating the flow state.

A person’s intrinsic motivation to learn a task will encourage them to practice it and get better at it. The higher the motivation to learn, the better one will get. Usually intrinsic motivation is far stronger and long lasting than extrinsic motivation. Here learning is the process and the goal. One learns by overcoming mistakes, learning from them and having the freedom to commit more. Efficiency helps us streamline our tasks and processes, avoiding unnecessary hiccups and mistakes. While this is great for our execution, it doesn’t always facilitate our learning as the freedom to make mistakes and the actual mistake itself has a significant and positive effect on overall learning as a process. Making a mistake should not affect our motivation to learn and get better, yet if we are efficiency-minded we might get deterred by mistakes and feel that they are not welcome or part of the process. And this of course comes from the principle that efficiency seeks to minimize waste. Where this works well is when a system is creating an output, like industrialized systems. Learning is a process and a goal in itself; hence the output of learning is more learning. In such a system there is little, if any, need for efficiency.

The nature of efficiency

In our world of things, events, people and places there is energy being transferred all the time. Physicists who studied the patterns of outer space and the observable universe made the statement that ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be transformed’. Thus, in a system such as the universe or the earth or whichever level of magnification you would like to choose, it is impossible to have a value of efficiency larger than one. If energy would be greater than 1 that would mean that more energy is being transferred out of the system than into it, which would mean that energy is being created. So, if we look at examples of systems that we can study such as mechanical systems and certain biological systems we see that efficiency is something that is definitely useful to mitigate losses, however it is impossible to create an ideal case where there are no losses. It just cannot happen. This highlights the nature of efficiency to be something that helps manage a system’s level of wasted effort to the minimum and aiming to keep the output as close to the input.

But this is only how we manage mechanical systems. How does nature manage its biological systems. And the final question that burns in my minds is why do we have this allergy to waste? Waste of resources, waste of time, waste of opportunity. In nature there is no waste. That’s not because natural systems don’t create waste it is because in the net sum of the whole process, waste is something that becomes food or sustenance for another process. We also have the saying that ‘one man’s junk is another man’s gold.’ It is not only that waste becomes sustenance for another system in nature but also that growth in nature is inextricably linked to waste. Without waste, decomposition and death there can be no growth. A forest that is burned grows back twice as strong because of the organic matter that becomes nutrient-rich food for the land and its organisms. Composting is a way to make dead organic matter a viable food source for other living organisms. Growing plants with composted soil gives them a high nutrient value and also boosts their growth substantially.

Each year we have seasons, one of which is autumn. Here plants and trees change the way they interact with the environment in response to changes in temperature and sunlight hours. This response leads to the shedding of leaves and changes in pigmentation of many plants and this creates beautiful shades of colours in an autumn forest. The principle here is also growth and maintenance. The living organism, such as a tree, must shed its leaves in order to redirect its resources to other parts of its organism. Due to the oncoming colder temperature, trees get rid of a large portion of water in their systems to survive the winter. This is done to prevent the expansion of water due to freezing, which can burst their small fluid carrying tissues called xylem and phloem. But nature does amazing things too! Some trees produce more sugar and this sugar dissolved in water lowers the freezing point of water. So, this almost acts as anti-freeze. One of the trees that does this is the famous Maple tree and the syrup that helps them survive during winter ends up on our pancakes.

I guess this all goes to say that in nature efficiency is not a concept because nature operates as an organism. It is us that think in mechanisms and glorify a banal concept such as efficiency to such high degrees. A mechanism is by definition non-living. An organism by definition is living and always learning.

So, what can we learn from nature about ourselves? And when we talk about sustainability, how much does efficiency really play a part?

 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Denis

    Interesting thoughts here Anu! Really enjoy how you disconnect our social projections of what efficiency is to what nature actually teaches us about.
    My thoughts here: Organic systems and efficiency both work great together! Your whole logic reconciles both so I don’t understand this sad final statement where you exclude efficiency from nature.
    You explain it yourself, efficiency is a measurement for a system to convert input into as much desired output as possible. The “waste” is no waste as we would picture it but rather a “for-the-case” unusable transformed energy (although usable in many cases; think about alternative energy created by breaks in a car reused for charging an EV’s batteries). Finally, assessing human (or organic) efficiency is just tracking down what part of the input is transformed into the desired output, all energy that has not been transformed into the desirable output must not necessarily be useless but can very well become crucial to another system. Thus efficiency still holds a place organically, it is just up to us not to distort what actually happens from one end to the other of a system.
    About sustainability, my thought is that through it we should not aim to get as close to 1 as possible (efficiency scale 0 to 1) meaning to be able to redirect the totality of an input towards a desired output (I believe that is physically impossible) but rather make sure that the delta between desired output and 1 translates into energy that is not linked to any negative impact on what we strive to save through sustainability: our ecosystems.

    Excited to check out the rest of your thoughts, cheers!

    1. admin

      Totally agree with your thoughts! The only clarification I’d add is about the end of the essay.
      It’s to note that efficiency, as we understand it as a concept applies to mechanisms. I believe it doesn’t work for organisms. Nature as an organism would not follow the same idea. For mechanical efficiency, there’s an input from the outside and output leaves the system. There is nothing outside an organism as an organism operates within its environment and is intimately bound to the state and health of the environment. So in essence, an organism-environment doesn’t specifically have input or output since its a self organising, self maintaining process.

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