The Psychology of Compression Thinking

The Psychology of Compression Thinking (Video 7 minutes)

The Psychology of Compression Thinking

The basic points of Compression Thinking have changed little over the past five years. Their internal logic and consistency seem sound. But they are not trending on social media. Shifting from advanced economic norms remains a bridge too far to perturb the status quo.  Compression Thinking is still dangling over the gorge.

Yes, much is happening to improve environmental sustainability. Green Biz covers major corporate programs. The Green Economy (becoming GUST) promotes environmentally beneficial start-ups.  About 200 members of the New Economy Coalition promote a variety of grass roots initiatives. More environmental activist groups exist than one can track. They should have more to tout. Many people are trying to ameliorate environmental damage, but no society-wide turning point seems immanent. Why?

The current economic system depends on promoting life long habits of consumptive living. It’s entrenched. We think it is normal, so it’s difficult to spark a society-wide turning from expansionary thinking. No magic button switches minds to a nearly opposite paradigm, and Compression Thinking is a 180 flip.

The term “Compression” was picked to describe this situation rather than the more popular term “sustainability” because sustainability infers that with a few changes we can sustain business-as-usual. Compression infers that we must substantially change how we think and what we do. Change that deep can’t be grafted onto the old order.

Commentary on Principles of Compression Thinking

  1. The earth is limited – finite – we can’t use and abuse all of it. Climate change is only one class of ecological danger among too many to monitor closely. Those in denial call all of them fake news. Others are eager to fix one problem while ignoring the rest. We can deal with them all if we take up a different set of values – a new social mindset – as well as very different approaches to technology.
  1. Quality of all life before quantity of stuff. Humans depend on all life. In nature, everything eats something else that was once alive, so we need a more comprehensive idea of what quality of life should be. It’s not acquiring as many “toys” as possible. That’s no path to human life satisfaction besides being disastrous for the earth. We can learn to live better while using a lot less stuff, recognizing that our consumption triggers big blips in nature’s life cycles.
  1. Organize for learning rather than for prodigious production and consumption – for endless growth. If both economic systems and ecological systems change rapidly, the key to survival is rapid adaptation. The learning needed goes beyond soaking up facts and formulas. It’s quickly learning by our own experiences – action learning, or vigorous learning. Techniques to improve learning abound, but a new purpose for learning is the incentive to use them appropriately.

No one in a work organization can say that they are not a learning organization, but what are they learning, and for what purpose. If they are single-mindedly honing performance to become more efficient at narrow tasks, they are probably not learning how to become adaptive to survive long-term if conditions change.

  1. Use scientific logic, seeking evidence, unbiased facts as well as they can be ascertained, and from many sources before taking action. Identify and consider stakeholders, including the non-human ones. Use the Precautionary Principle: those taking action are responsible for foreseeing consequences, far and wide (don’t push nature faster than it can adapt). Of course, technical advance slows, but so do unintended consequences. The quality of any advance should improve.
  1. Measure total system performance. For example, if we want to decrease total energy use, we must measure total energy use – by a town, a state, a country, or the whole world. Our reference point has to be a total system. Just, for instance, boosting per vehicle fuel economy does not assure this. Less fuel used per mile may be more than offset by driving more miles in total.

Measuring performance financially, as with company profitability or agency budget compliance does not monitor their use of resources: water, energy, air, and toxins. In addition, budget incentives for individual operating units often backfire (“burn all this year’s allotment or it will be cut next year”).

Bureaucracies “weaponize paperwork.” Instead, design systems around simple measurements that encourage improving the whole. Perfect measurements are hopeless, but try to prevent perverse interpretation or blind compliance. Measurement dysfunction should diminish if everyone grasps their intent and realizes that measurements are just indicators. Shrinking resource use rather than increasing it grinds our mental gears without throwing into them the sand of measurement madness.

  1. Cultivate systemic thinking. Everybody is a systems thinker, but they may not think about very big systems. Limited system; limited aims. Strive to relate detail to a very big picture of what and who will be affected over an indefinitely long future.

“What will result from this in 100 years?” is a question seldom asked. “What would nature think?” is rarely asked. Such questions should become common. Our Question Template is a starter kit intended to provoke such questions. Regularly asking bigger, broader questions nudges us into becoming a more comprehensive systems thinkers.

Besides expanding your personal curiosity, consult other people. A systems thinker is aware that none of us can know it all. A group, seeing from different perspectives, can put together a better picture of a total situation.

The Integration Puzzle

We know many actionable ways to live better while using much less. A bigger challenge is reversing life habits formed by our expansionary economic system. It’s a fundamental psychological and philosophical shift by people who don’t like to think in the abstract, and most of us don’t. Changing what we do changes how we think, but understanding why is necessary to shift our complete pattern of thinking.

Just one part of this shift is working out of the information muck stuck to expansionary economic thinking. For example, determining the total embedded energy used to put a new microwave on your kitchen counter is not difficult in principle. However, if its raw materials originated all over the planet, from points unknown, pinpointing embedded energy is impossible. That shouldn’t stop us; knowledgeable guestimates are sufficient for most practical decisions. Shrinking resources need not employ measurement-obsessed bureaucracy.

This simplifies if a circular economy is local and visible. Energy use by life cycles of produce from a field, grown from seed bred locally, need not be precise, just simple data discipline with minimal calculation. If you are minimizing fuel use by equipment, did you use more or less fuel for the season? Tracking degree-days (not hard but you have record it) aids intuition. Measure what’s important for action. On a bigger system scale, total energy consumed in a local area is easy to track – if people realize that they should record it and cooperate.

By contrast, the business world today spews information, polished and promoted, possibly for self-promotion, with obscure sources. For example, on May 15 a PR blitz touted a new report on indoor air pollution. Promotional services jumped on a study finished in April, 2018, done by YouGov, and sponsored by Velux, a Danish window manufacturer, so it wasn’t peer-reviewed. It drew on studies by the EPA and the UN World Health Organization. I gave up sifting the promotional glitz to check how the study was designed and what prior findings might have been incorporated. Velux’s promotional page is here.

Velux’s assertions accord with prior studies, so they don’t shock me, but still, how did they reach these conclusions? If interested, Google this spectacle yourself. See if you can find the nugget at the center of the hype maze.

There are good reasons not to disclose all data from studies and surveys. Privacy is one. But to accept a study, one should be able to track its logic to ground; than question its assumptions, biases, methodological design, etc.

But back to principles of Compression Thinking: Cut the artificial competitive hype and live by symbols and data closer to reality. These “principles” are not cast in stone, but merely a guide to help us live in harmony with nature, shucking off the artificiality of contemporary living. It might help us stay sane too.

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