This week's blog is taken from Chapter 87 of my book, Escape from Bubbleworld Seven Curves to Save the World.  It examines the danger of optimization.  Efficiency measures, more from less, optimizing production and design and increased technology are mantras of the Enlightenment, where we view optimization at the human level as central to our own progress.  Yet we are not alone, but part of a much greater whole, the biosphere.  Systems require sub-optimality at each level for the greater functional good, as we shall see if we go down to the neighbouring woodland...

He’d buried them somewhere around here.  Hundreds of acorns carefully gathered and secreted away for the winter, each one chosen with a feast in mind.  And now, this snowy morning, waking to the feeling of overwhelming hunger, all Mr Squirrel had to do was remember where he had hidden the damn nuts.  This was getting ridiculous.  Squirrel Nutkin indeed!  More like Squirrel Nothing, with the “nothing” referring to the substance of his memory and the content of his belly.

And this wasn’t the first time either.  Just a couple of days ago, it had taken him three hours to track down one of his caches.  Maybe he was being too cryptic, placing the tasty morsels in more and more obscure hidey-holes.  If only he had some way of recording exactly where and when he had hidden these nuts.  Maybe some kind of hand-held global positioning system device or...

Then, from nowhere, a magical cloud appeared in front of him, full of sparkles and fireworks, and out of it stepped a rather muscular little wood mouse, oozing attitude and zeal.

“You see,” the wood mouse proclaimed with a flourish of his paw, “it’s the way it’s meant to be!”

Mr Squirrel just stared at this flamboyant little chap, and was about to try to think of something to say when the mouse took a stick from the ground and sketched out a rectangle in the air, which transformed into a flat screen monitor.

“Let’s take two scenarios here, Squirrel.  First, you remember where all the nuts are.  You become the recall rodent himself – not one acorn escapes your crystal clear thinking.  And you eat them all.  Year after year, you keep eating them all.  What do you think will happen, eh, big guy?”

“Well,” said Mr Squirrel “I suppose I’d be nice and full, and a lot less frustrated, and I’d be much more operationally optimized too – think of the efficiency savings! I could start studying again for my Master of Business Administration with the Open University. I’d have more time for my family too...” “And there’d be no more squirrels in the woodland.” interrupted the wood mouse, in a monotone that cut across his bows.  “Take a look for yourself; it’s all on the screen, this forest, in one hundred years time, with your perfect recollection and kernel collection.”

They both stared at the screen, which flickered into life.  It was terrible.  The trees were all dead, as were almost all of the animals.  There was no bird-song, no chirruping of the grasshopper, no buzzing of the bees and no rustling of the squirrels.  There were no squirrels.

“What...happened?” stammered the squirrel.

You and your sort ate all the nuts, that’s what happened.  The trees were unable to reproduce because you ate all their babies.  So the forest died, and you lot starved to death.”

There was silence.  The screen flickered and went blank. 

“Of course, you could have forgotten where all of the nuts were hidden...” and the screen flickered back into life.  The forest looked relatively healthy, although there were a lot of birds around... too many birds.  The place was covered in birds.  And there were no squirrels.

“What’s with all the birds” Mr Squirrel asked, honestly puzzled by this Hitchcockian scene. “And where are all the squirrels?” he added, more tentatively. 

“Well you couldn’t remember where any of the nuts were, so you all starved to death.  Remember in the spring, you eat bird eggs?  Lots of them.  Without your predation, the bird populations spiralled out of control.  They’ll all starve eventually.  A population explosion.  And then, a population crash –Malthusian Mayhem, they call it!” 

The wood mouse made the screen disappear, and started to walk off into the forest.  Turning to look at the stunned squirrel, he said “You see, the optimal way for nature to operate is with each of its components acting sub-optimally.  If you try to strive for efficiency, the whole house will come tumbling down.”

From our earliest times, humans have solved problems, as many other organisms do.  However the manipulation of our environment has increased rapidly over our history, and central to this has been the process of design. Victor Papanek, the Austrian philosopher of design, defined design as “the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order”. Alex Steffen comments that “Design is also about the way things are used; how they are committed to the world, and the way they are produced”.

While design has delivered solutions to humans, the implications of design products upon the rest of the planet have often been problematic. Schmidt and Donnert, writing in 2009, stated that “Everything was fine in the ancient past. Nature produced no embarrassing shapes and colours, humans were busy struggling for survival and had no time to decorate their first wedges with scrolls. Everything was fine, because in the ancient past there were no designers”.  Papanek has further observed that "There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them...Today, industrial design has put mass murder on a mass production basis". The late, great Nigel Whiteley, Professor of visual Arts at Lancaster University, argued that designers have a moral and ethical obligation to be responsible for their designs, and the social and environmental impacts of their work.

Edwin Datschefski, founder of Biothinking, reports that “most environmental problems are caused by unintentional side effects of the manufacture, use, and disposal of products. For example, according to one source, over 30 tonnes of waste are produced for every one tonne of product that reaches the consumer and then 98 percent of those products are thrown away within 6 months”. 

Yet the history of design is the history of our relationship with the environment in many ways. No clearer example of changes in design can be found than on the now deserted St Kilda archipelago, far off the northwest shores of Scotland.  This World Heritage Site (unusually listed under both natural and cultural criteria) is the remnant of an extinct volcano, rising, some 60 million years old, from the surrounding 3 billion years old Lewisian gneiss.

Home to the largest northern gannet population in the world, 300000 puffins, 90% of Europe’s Leach’s Petrels, 40000 guillemots, 10000 kittiwakes and one of the largest populations of the northern fulmar, it is truly an ornithologist’s paradise.  The Soay sheep point to another life form: humans.  Soay sheep represent the last link to the original Neolithic sheep, and some of the earliest experiments in animal breeding by humans. The Soay sheep are thought to have been on the islands for some 4000 years. These sheep moult rather than needing shearing, and wool is gathered by plucking.

Since the sheep didn’t kayak to St Kilda, humans must have occupied these islands for at least 4000 years.  The men were notably different than mainland men in one interesting way.  St Kilda men did not have facial hair growth until the age of thirty years.  This all changed in 1726, when a male St Kildan died of smallpox on the isle of Harris.  His clothes were of good quality and were returned to his family.  The result was a smallpox epidemic that killed almost all of the ancient people.  The island was repopulated from the mainland with “bearded” males.

But it was to be another mainland import that would serve as a lesson in the history of design.  Prior to the 1860s, St Kilda existed in glorious solitude.   In 1838, Lachlan MacLean wrote "Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda“. The people survived on birds and their eggs and plumage, sheep and fish.  They paid their rent, under a feudal communalism system, to the MacLeods of Skye, in wool, feathers and fish.  The local parliament consisted of all of the males on the island and met every morning.

Their houses, blackhouses or taigh-geal, were double walled dry stone structures with the cavity packed with earth, with turf roofs covered in cereal straw.  These structures were well insulated against the atrocious winter weather, and heated by turf fires.  The St Kildans were self-sufficient.  As early as 1698, Martin Martin observed: “The inhabitants of St Kilda are much happier than the generality of mankind, being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty”.

In the 1860s all of this would change. Corrugated iron was introduced onto the island as a new roofing material.  Much lighter and easier to assemble, the material became very popular.  The only problem was that it meant less insulation.  Soon coal had to be imported in order to heat the new house designs sufficiently, as peat didn’t release sufficient heat.  Coal imports required money, and so capitalism finally reached this outlier of the British Isles, requiring an intensification of exploitation, and the spiral of increasing imports.

Thus a change in design led to a radical transformation of life on St Kilda. This is a lesson on several levels.  Early humans designed within their environmental context, and lived sustainably as a result.  Although the earth was relatively underpopulated and full of resources, man's ability to exploit these resources was limited and nature constrained our activities and design approach.

Thus design was sustainable long before any school of eco-design was established. Recycling, appropriate use of limited resources, the relationship between society, economics and environment – all of these things were understood by our forefathers. Design emerged from a conversation between humans and their environment, as it does with all other organisms who design things. Design was an organic process. As humans overcame the barriers imposed by nature, their design activities were freed to create an easier life (for surely, laziness is the mother of invention today, not necessity?), while exhausting natural capital and spiralling ever more quickly towards ecological crisis. A form of entrapment and enforced alignment with the rest of the planet took hold, akin to much of the sustainable development dogma currently at the heart of such organizations as the United Nations. 

Yet is the northern, western model really the best for global sustainability, be it social economic or environmental? And surely all three of these aspects can only be resolved together, with sub-optimality expected in each one in order to maximize the outcome for all. In organic design, inefficiency plays a central role, whereas humans strive for perfection for themselves, with no thought for the greater whole. This, of course, is because humans are experts in self-denial, refusing to accept that their survival relies on context and compromise, and compromise requires sub-optimality at the human level.