Wednesday, May 7, 2014

More is Less

As a general concept, or a fulcrum of disequilibrium, the phrase Less is More has often been used to characterize a condition in which the inherent value of a thing is greater than the sum of its total parts (or total mass). A thing can be larger, or greater in number, without any net gain in other senses. 

According to the Wikipedia, the phase was first used in Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto" [1855]. Browning was a great poet, but I'm not interested in tracking down the meaning he intended. Later, the phrase was adopted by Mies van der Rohe as a precept for the minimalist aspect of Modern architecture, during a period that has come to be dubbed The International Style. Buildings constructed under the rubric of this style tend towards a lack of decoration, a pristine simplicity that eschews unnecessary details and elaborations. 

But my point here isn't to delve into the complexities of architectural history, but to appropriate the phrase for a discussion of what MORE might mean to our future as a species on this planet.  

More of anything is a simple mathematical fact. The greater the mass, the greater the number, the more there is of something. All size is relative, but relativity refers to any comparison, so anything may be greater than, or equal to, or less than, something else. Everyone understands this principle, one of the easiest relationships there is. 

But the underlying value of more, versus less, is quite another matter. In many things, we tend to think that more of something is better. In human need, more may be the available stock or supply of something, which we may depend upon, now, or in the future. At any given time, we're likely to hear or be told that we need or should have more of something. We need food, we need living space, we need clothing and warmth and so forth. Our needs may be more or less than what is available.

Humankind has become very efficient in uncovering and designing supplies for our needs, and even in inventing new "needs" that we didn't realize we had. We know that some needs are actual necessities, and others are not really necessities, but kinds of luxuries. Much of the progress we've seen over the last two centuries, has been driven by the perceived "needs" humankind has believed it needed, or wanted. The industrial revolution was driven by the demand for more things that we could use and consume and enjoy. 

There is no doubt whatsoever that our human plight has improved measurably by the great gesture of industrialization and the proliferation of capital expansion and exploitation of resource over the last 200 years. Our quality of life has improved by leaps and bounds. The modern paradigm of convenience and efficiency and intercourse and synergy has transformed the world. We live at precipice of an ascent of development unparalleled in recorded history. 

We've come to think, as a consequence of this rapid explosion of technological advancement, that more of anything is almost by definition good. Of course, more of a bad thing is undesirable, though we may accept some residual bad effects as a consequence of what a certain good thing may bring us. 

Until the 20th Century, the earth seemed large enough that our depredations upon it could only be minimal. As a species, we had become the most successful of our planet's life forms. There was space, and sources of food, and resources sufficiently bountiful, to justify the idea of a continuous expansion of population, and a constantly expanding exploitation of everything. We came to rely on the notion of a constantly expanding technology of manipulation and use of the environment to fuel a constant investment in more

More people
More food
More energy
More space
More water
More goods

The idea that we would always need more people, and that as a consequence there would always be enough of all the things that more people would need and want, has been a central theme of modern civilization. More has been better. Capitalism has been a primary driver of the motivation for the idea of the more is better concept. Religion has joined in, looking for more. Politically, more means more votes, and more development and more taxes. Populations can even compete to outbreed each other, and thus win the race of the races. 

In short, bigger has come to mean better, and people tend not to question the value of big and more. There have been small underground counter currents, i.e., "small is beautiful" or less is more. But in the main, modern society tends to think that more is better, no matter what the consequences. 

But when we think of the quality of life, more of anything may have limits. There's only so much one person can consume or enjoy in a lifetime. We know that a mindless consumption is almost a kind of illness. And we know that balancing the rate of our consumption against the availability of things is a primary tool in maximizing our continuing subsistence. Times may be lean, or times may be prosperous, but we know that moderating our use or consumption is the surest way to enable us to ride out the waves of rich and poor times, whether we're talking about natural cycles, or economic ones. 

What seems clear now, is that humankind has reached, and indeed exceeded, what we might refer to as a natural balance between available space and resource. Much of the prosperity of the modern world is sustained upon an artificial imbalance between regional habitation, and availability of food, water and energy. We would long ago have ceased to grow, as a species, had we not figured out how to grow large amounts of food, and ways to move it around at will. Our numbers would have reached something like a naturally moderate (moderated) mass, had we not chosen, almost by inertia of intention, to keep increasing our use of machines and the energy to drive them. 

What also seems clear, is that we're finally, after a two century mad dash of development, beginning to understand the hard limits to the earth's bounty of space, water, and material resource. It's becoming clear that there isn't sufficient resource to sustain the kind of population growth we've seen over the last century and a half indefinitely. 

And yet in the media we hardly ever hear about limits. Everyone seems to want to believe in the value of more. Latest projections of population expansion assume double digit increases, for instance, in the American Southwest, for the remainder of the present century. The current analyses of water and resource, which do not even begin to address issues of employment and quality of life, suggest that there will inevitably be draconian reductions in the numbers and kinds of things people have come to think of as baseline. 

America as a nation was born at a time in its history when population growth, available open space, and untapped resources seemed unlimited. The idea of the quality of an individual life, as an expression of the imaginative energy and "resourcefulness" of independent thinking and work, was based on the possibility of a constantly expanding society, and a constantly expanding economy. The Founding Fathers would probably have been utterly astonished by the rapidity with which our nation settled its remaining space, and by the rapacity with which it used up natural resources and available water. And there is no doubt that this paradigm of rapid expansion is what accounts for the prosperity and quality of life Americans have come to regard as their natural birthright. 

But the idea of more now no longer suffices to provide us with a viable vision of the future, given the unlimited expansions we've come to expect. More people is no longer necessarily a useful or a favorable outcome. The need or desire for more space and more water and more food and more energy and more jobs and more consumption--as expression of the "more" doctrine, no longer suffices as a best choice for human decision-making. 

Size, as a measure of balanced use, is an unforgiving equation. As each additional stress is levied against the planetary limits, the consequent casualties upon quality of life increase exponentially. One man eating and drinking and defecating and growing a vegetable garden in the country, has a small measurable effect on his environment. 50 years later, this same man, living in a small suburban home, mowing his lawn and driving to work, has a larger, but still manageable impact. But multiply this man by a million, and even ten million, and then the stresses on his environment become elephantine. 

Every initiative we hear these days is for an expansion. We must have more people, more jobs, more water, more transportation, more food, more taxes, more sewage treatment plants, more houses, more schools, more police, more social workers. As we apply the more principle, we increasingly experience more waste, more expense, more delay, less open space, and a generally declining quality of daily living. 

At some point, we begin to realize that wanting and having and needing more and more and more--as if it were inherently a good thing--is a flawed justification, one often designed to facilitate the exploitation of the quality of life we now possess, in order to enable someone to make a quick buck, or to gain a political voting bloc. 

Whereas what we really need, if we care about quality of life, is less. Fewer people, fewer houses, less garbage, less sewage, less traffic. Small may indeed be more beautiful, especially when we don't need to sacrifice the things we enjoy, in return for a crowded existence in which everything, being dearer because more scarce, and therefore in greater demand, is more expensive in every sense. 

The value we place on something can perhaps never be fixed. But in the shifting mélange of priorities, we should examine each new initiative toward increase, to determine, from a purely selfish and sensible point of view, whether its ultimate outcome will result simply in crowding and inconvenience and nuisance and scarcity and conflict, rather than in an enhancement of our actual lives. 

It may be that, in the end, or in the future, which we may but dimly perceive through the obscurity of the present, rather than more being more, more will actually be less

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