Intensification Paradox

The paradox by which a developing economy, whose productivity is improving, actually requires increasing quantities of labour (and the other factors of production, land and capital) to keep each individual supplied with food and shelter. Represented simply as the cost—in terms of labour, land and capital—of supporting the life of one person, the process of development is a process of declining efficiency.I54

At first this seems odd because—as Adam Smith described—in the developing intermediate economy, we see a vast increase in output per person, perhaps through improved technology. Surely those productivity improvements represent an improvement in efficiency? The explanation is that the increased output goes primarily into creating and maintaining intermediate goods such as aqueducts, transport and administration—that is, the new infrastructures and gismos which the individual never actually gets to consume, but which become necessary for keeping the developing (intensifying) economy in existence. The need for all that stuff is the nature of intensification, and the essence of its increasing inefficiency.I55

Here we discover the crucial distinction between labour-saving productivity advances and scale-enabling productivity advances. Those early productivity advances—which actually arose mainly from a massive increase in working time—were mainly scale-enabling: ploughed straight into intensification and its attendant multiplication of intermediate infrastructures. And that process, with varying degrees of intensity, has continued in our economy ever since. In a large economy, it takes more work, more stuff, to keep you, dear reader, alive.

So, here we have the Intensification Paradox, elegantly summarised by Marvin Harris: intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies.I56

The paradox is central to several key entries (listed at the end of this entry). And it is quite an optimistic idea, because it means that as the economy of the future deintensifies, it will become more resource-efficient: it will need fewer resources as it shrinks, and it will use its resources more efficiently. There are economies of downsizing. The deintensified society will be more efficient; it will require less labour and energy per capita. Hunter-gatherer societies were supremely efficient in terms of labour and energy. There is no argument to be made for “returning” to a hunter-gatherer society; and yet, the argument is widely made—not just in Lean Logic—for permaculture, which is in a sense a halfway house. Herding is half way between hunting and livestock farming; permaculture is half way between gathering and vegetable gardening or arable farming.

A frank recognition that the process of intensification is the upside of the adaptive cycle (as discussed in the Wheel of Life) leads unavoidably to an equal recognition that the cycle will have its deintensifying downside too. Yet the ambiguity won’t go away: there is no doubt that a small economy can achieve such efficiency gains (with its material demand shrinking faster than its size), but the extent to which it is possible for a large economy to achieve them is not clear. But hold on, if the giant infrastructures are needed for a large economy, how can we contemplate the idea of our large economy getting by without them? Well, we can’t, but there may be some scope for a reduction in their scale. This is because the principle, or presumption, of economies of scale has been so dominant that the practice has been taken even further than necessary. Patterns of behaviour, once established, turn into ideologies, powerful and unquestioned; there is overshoot.

We could still support our large-scale political economy even if we had local abattoirs, post offices, schools, magistrates’ courts, railways, more local food production and empowered local communities. And modern small-scale technologies, so long as they continue to be available, enable deconcentrated — localised — industry on the neotechnic pattern, with some progress towards the proximity principle. So, in this sense, a considerable amount of rowing-back from the present extremes of intensification is possible. And yet, that still leaves intact the big structures—the long lines of supply in food, energy, water, materials, equipment and money. Intensification can, therefore, be mitigated; it cannot be reversed. And this is where the ambiguity stops: that mitigation, deintensifying as fast and as far as the size of our present population allows, is essential. Whatever future is in store for us, a deintensified, somewhat-more-local economy will be a lot better placed to survive it than one in which the whole concept of local competence has been wiped off the map.


Related entries:

Intermediate Economy, Regrettable Necessities, Lean Economics, Capital, Intentional Waste, Competitiveness, Slack and Taut, Culture, Unlean.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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