The root of all evil

There is a famous saying in computer science:

The real problem is that programmers have spent far too much time worrying about efficiency in the wrong places and at the wrong times; premature optimization is the root of all evil (or at least most of it) in programming.

Donald Knuth

What it means is that trying to optimize all of the parts of a computer program to make it run faster is often counterproductive: you spend lots of time focusing on performance rather than outcome, you make the program harder to read and comprehend for yourself and others increasing the efforts needed to maintain and improve it, and in some cases, the resulting improvements are not noticeable by the end user. Optimization makes sense in precise cases and when the desired outcome has been reached or is within reach.

As we are left with ever less time and resources to address the growing ecological catastrophe, it would be wise to listen to Knuth's warning.

A lot of what we do is a form of optimization, often dealing with the question: How to achieve more with less? The aim to minimize the use of resources is usually not a goal in itself, but a result from the realization that resources are limited either for financial (too expensive) or physical (not available) reasons. Optimizing for resources is more of an aim to free resources for other doings (in the industry often to increase profitability), meaning an aim for more. The search for more has become our collective goal.

I want to stress that this is not a value judgment. Doing more can be seen as desirable or not depending on what is done. Anyone can find examples of some doings they would like to see more of, and others they would like to see less of. There are however physical constraints to achieving more and more in a limited world, as discussed in a previous post.

With growing concern for the ecological catastrophe, we see an increasing number of proposals to optimize for resources as an aim in itself: measuring and reducing CO2 emissions, water usage, energy consumption, etc. These solutions often fail to address the practical consequence of the search for more: the fact that gains in efficiency in a world striving for more are always compensated by an increased consumption, a.k.a. the rebound effect. This has been seen again and again, leading many, including myself, to think that technology cannot play a major role in a credible answer to the environmental catastrophe, as technology is mostly focused on optimizing every aspect of our lives. In fact, it has been modelized in The Limits to Growth, first published in 1972 by Donella Meadows and her peers, which states:

We have felt it necessary to dwell so long on an analysis of technology here because we have found that technological optimism is the most common and the most dangerous reaction to our findings from the world model. Technology can relieve the symptoms of a problem without affecting the underlying causes. Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem - the problem of growth in a finite system - and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it.

The Limits to Growth - 1972 - Donella Meadows et al.

I feel that Academia is also falling more and more into the optimization trap, with a lot of energy focused on ever more precise measurements and models with the hope to better coordinate (read optimize) our answer to the ecological catastrophe. Let's face it, if more than 30 years of IPCC reports, summarizing more scientific knowledge than one could study in a lifetime and already pretty clearly outlining our role as a civilization in the catastrophe we face, won't trigger a reaction, it is not more data nor more models we need. I will go a step further and claim that it can be counterproductive, as giving the sense that a few more years of research in this or that direction could help us optimize our response to this or that aspect of the ecological catastrophe will be used as a reason to wait and see.

To be clear, I am certainly not arguing against innovation and research, they do have their place in our response to the catastrophe we face. But we must be clear that we already know all that is needed to know and more to start addressing seriously the main problem at hand. And that problem is not an optimization one, it is not about using less, it is the search for more. How do we collectively rethink the search to achieve more in a limited world? Does it mean redefining what we mean by "achievement", or striving for something entirely different? It is a problem of ambition, desire and sense of worth. It is a problem of dignity and equity. It is an axiological problem that precedes all optimization issues. This is the truly hard problem to solve as it is not a quantifiable one. One that no decision theory, minimization algorithm, nor accounting method will crack. They might help locally, of course, but only if we can figure out a new collective goal.

I hope that, as the community of people aware and concerned about the ecological catastrophe grows, more of our collective efforts go towards building a desirable alternative to the search for more.

By the way...
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