Guidelines to Compression Thinking

Why the Guidelines?

I’ve been practicing Compression Thinking for several years. That is, given our morass of environmental problems, how should I think differently? Compression Thinking prompts ideas for dramatic change. As the Guidelines evolved, they became helpful to me. Perhaps they will to you too. 

Practice Compression Thinking and it affects how we see almost everything. All of us have to live daily with expansionary thinking too. Just try to displace it. 

We may have to “fight our instincts,” but each of us can change how we think. Individually, our changes may be small, but better than nothing. If we can draw a larger community into Compression Thinking we multiply our impact. National and global change is an ultimate goal. Political upheaval may be one route to it, but another is demonstrating how we must change.

Most of us learn more from doing than from contemplating. Experimenting – making mistakes – is essential. Thinking differently and doing differently go together. 

Summary of the Four Guidelines

Finite Earth: Seen from its surface, earth may seem infinite, but it isn’t. For practical purposes, our small dot in the universe is fixed in size. Therefore, its capacity to yield material to us is limited. Its capacity to absorb waste dumped into it is limited. If earth is to take care of us, we have to take care of it. This attitude is very different from regarding nature as a storehouse of resources to exploit, a dump for our garbage, and as an enemy to be conquered.

Three subpoints, if you tuck them away, readily come to mind when needed:

  • How can I live as well or better, while using a lot less stuff?
  • What is the return on energy to obtain more energy? Or at least can I become conscious of how much generated energy I am using?
  • Beware of accumulating effects, for example, the slow accumulation of toxins in you or around you.

Symbiotic Thinking: Systems thinking is far from new. Systemic thinkers are always nosing into how things interrelate. Symbiotic thinking extends systems thinking to always include natural processes. For example, think far afield from any everyday experience, like examining your shoes. Where did they come from? What were they made from? Who made them? And how might nature have been affected, even on the other side of the earth? We can never know this in detail, but curiosity makes a huge difference in your thinking.

We are symbiotic with nature. It’s all around us. It’s in us. Ninety percent of the cells we carry around are not really our bodies, but microbiomes. We depend on them. They depend on us. We are walking symbiotic ecologies.

Symbiotic thinking questions magic bullet answers to complex problems. We have multiple environmental crises; ingenious system interventions address multiple crises with one action.

Compression Thinking seeks to live in balance with nature, in all ways great and small. By contrast, financial reasoning, from simple to convoluted, assumes that human systems can grow without limit. Today however, society uses financial reasoning to make most of its decisions, so symbiotic thinking cuts against the grain of prevailing societal assumptions

Organize for Learning (to be more effective):

If we must live in balance with nature, learning to effectively do this is more important than being efficient, although incredible efficiency is necessary when appropriate. Everyone learns all the time, but what? Most work organizations promote continuous improvement and R&D, innovating to compete in a market. However, learning for effectiveness constantly questions the effects of our actions on nature and on all human stakeholders. 

To do this, apply the Precautionary Principle to any significant decision. That’s an obligation to use Symbiotic Thinking to foresee adverse consequences. Research alternatives and their effects on all stakeholders, including the environment, before damage is done.

Organizing for learning reveals our biggest obstacle – humanity’s behavioral blockages to collaborative learning. First, we must be convinced that problems are serious. A few people are, while many more have to overcome strongly held beliefs about how the world works and their status in it. Learning is emotional, not just intellectual. Many ecological initiatives now concentrate more on ecological justice than on ameliorating human pressures on the planet.

Learning in this sense expands our views and experience while compressing our consumption. To protect ecology, one must learn about it. Learn by seeing directly as well as more abstractly. Mix with other people to acquire an understanding of them, how they think, and why.

Dialog to collectively reach mutual understanding quicker. Dialog methods range from basic to advanced. Use whatever works, but it has to be disciplined and practiced. 

Agreeing on facts as nearly as they can be determined is a 21st century challenge. Competing narratives (and ideologies) vie for our allegiance through a welter of media. 

Quality Over Quantity, Always: Commercial quality is the composite of various attributes of a product or service: features, ease-of use, reliability, durability, and ease of disposition at the end of useful life — convenience. But by Compression Thinking, quality includes the quality of all life. We can have more convenience than the earth can stand. How can we re-use, re-purpose, restore, regenerate, recycle, and have better balance with nature?

Quality over quantity rejects the idea that more is always better. Floods of snail mail and e-mail illustrate the problem; convenience becomes annoyance. Excess quantity wastes our time as well as energy and materials. Can we simplify our life and become happier?

Waste has been proposed as an indicator of advanced economies: Huge landfills, with excessive food waste, tons of paper and packaging, discarded clothes, and used batteries and electronic gear. In addition we have too much space to heat or cool, and we travel too many miles. And for two long, we have thought of this waste as progress – toward what?

We have to question whether we really need – or just crave – all our stuff and conveniences. Rethinking this digs deep into social customs and monetary motivations. For example, 70 years ago when my parents took me on any overnight trip, we usually stayed at someone’s house. If they came our way, they stayed at ours. Today the country is awash in motel rooms, and old expectations of reciprocity have been displaced by Airbnb.

We  cannot go back to a lost past. We can learn from it, but we have to invent a new low-consumption future. That’s what Compression Thinking is about.