Economize: to be efficient

Having discussed vertical farms and the environmental impacts of traditional farming, I want to move the conversation to a broader issue: that of efficiency. In a capitalist society, efficiency is prioritized surprisingly little. Sure, prices are reduced and consumers have what they want, but that is market efficiency. A technically efficient economy would maximize social and environmental well-being. Technical efficiency is being defined by the maximization of output with the minimalization of input (including harm to the environment and other factors under the economic principle of externalities) through the application of the best design, distribution and manufacturing procedures possible with the best technology available at the moment.

This is not necessarily possible in a capitalist economy because with efficiency of technology comes the loss of human labor and employment, and therefore an efficient economy wouldn’t have an income-earning consumer base to purchase products and maintain the flow of money. Although the automation of labor occurs in today’s society, it is not applied to the level of complete efficiency. This is to maintain human employment in the industrial sector.

Integral to this system is the assumption that, with the automation of labor, humans will always need to oversee the machinery. The history of industrialization is both supportive of this claim and contrary to it. When industrialization was first taking place, simple tasks were mechanized and a human would supervise the machine. However, it is commonly well known that technology progresses through time exponentially. For example, a shoemaker 300 years ago could probably produce a few pairs of high quality shoes a day. Today an automated shoe factory can produce a pair every 30 seconds, or about 4,000 a day. Thus, as time marches forward, technology will advance ever faster until it eventually replaces all human labor.

Moreover, within capitalism is the idea of planned obsolescence. Essentially, companies must force their goods to be of lower quality and life span to maintain a self-sustainable business model. Otherwise, customers would purchase goods less often, a reality we must fight against at all costs. A modern example of this is electronics like phones and computers. We’ve all heard the story of Joe Schmoe dropping his smartphone and suddenly needing to replace it because it was a poorly designed product. Planned obsolescence, and hence capitalism, reinforces an endless cycle of buying and selling with the mathematical impossibility to produce the most technically efficient goods at a given moment. This results in efficiency of manufacturing, because goods must be replaced soon after their creation, a waste of resources, and damage to the planet. We cannot blame this on individuals or companies, however, because it is merely a part of the market system; companies are functioning in the way they are supposed to.

There is a BBC article on this very topic, titled “Here’s the truth about the ‘planned obsolescence’ of tech.” My hopes weren’t very high going into it, judging by the title itself, seeing as BBC has a lot of pro-capitalist bias. This article reeks of capitalist apologetics and “debunking the crazy communists.” Adam Hadhazy, the writer, attempts to provide multiple and unbiased views by occasionally inserting opposing views, but it rarely criticizes anything substantive and is obviously analyzing the topic at hand through a capitalist lens.

There are points throughout like “the rapid turnover of goods powers growth and creates reams of jobs” and “the continuous introduction of new widgets to earn … customers’ dough … will tend to promote innovation and improve the quality of products.” These may seem like ideas that “make sense,” but the logic of the market system is not what is most beneficial to the planet and humanity. “Growth” means increased consumption and a waste of planet resources, whereas “jobs” are meaningless manufacturing and labor positions in third world countries wherein the only alternative is death. Planned obsolescence does not lead to innovation and “quality of products,” either. Companies do not create with innovation and quality in mind. Profit is their primary objective; everything else is irrelevant.

“Economize” means to be efficient, and yet capitalism is anything but. If we lived in an economically efficient society, we wouldn’t have bottled water and soft drink companies like Nestle and Coke buying the world’s second largest aquifer so it can reap enormous profits abroad. Institutions like the oil companies would not lobby against clean energy. We would not have to endure menial jobs and forced labor for the sake of survival.

No matter how hard companies may try to resist the tide of technological and scientific progress, the market will inevitably reach a point where the technological efficiency inherent to the loss of jobs will become a necessity because it reduces cost. And if one company doesn’t adapt, surely their richer competitors will. Consequently, unemployment will increase to a point of social disorder. That being the reality we face, it is only logical to design an economy that prioritizes technical efficiency, the environment and human needs, instead of one that incentivizes competitive aggression and exploitation. For readers who are interested in this topic and want to learn more, I would suggest looking at organizations such as the Zeitgeist Movement, the Venus Project, and the Next System Project.



Nero Gallagher