This synopsis of Elegant
first used as a speech given at the annual
American Economic Association
convention in Anaheim CA, Jan 1993
It was also reprinted
in the June 1993
Journal of Economic Issues
Not long ago, I found myself at a party for the politically correct--a recognizable
subgroup of environmentalists. A woman asked me the usual What do you do?
question, so I told her about my new book--Elegant Technology; economic
prosperity from an environmental blueprint.
Her response to Elegant Technology was telling. She made me repeat the word "elegant" three
times. It was obvious she had never considered the possibility that technology
could be elegant--evil, dirty, dangerous, or dehumanizing, maybe--but elegant?
Yet elegant is the perfect word. In mathematics, when a formula accounts for
all the variables, we call it elegant. Likewise, technology becomes elegant
when all the environmental impacts are accounted for. The fact that the word
elegant is also associated with extravagant beauty is merely a plus. If technology
is necessary for human survival, there is no reason why it should be ugly--for
we must live with it all our lives.
Elegant technology describes the bits and pieces necessary to build sustainable
industrialized societies. The range of human activities where this new and
improved technology is needed is virtually unlimited, and the overriding design
goals are clear: Humans must so arrange their affairs that they can live within
the energy income from the sun and recycle everything. To do otherwise is to
invite the extinction of the human race.
Of course, there are people like my new friend who have never considered that
technology is anything but evil--even though she drives a car and uses electricity.
Like many, she climbs down the technology ladder on vacations and romanticizes
the simple life style. Unfortunately, environmental dilemmas already exist
that preclude the back-to-nature strategy in any application but vacations.
Humanity will be coping with the problems caused by 1950's nuclear fission
technology for generations, to cite the most obvious example. In any case,
primitive does not always equal environmentally benign--as the wood-stove craze
of the 1970s proved in the Pacific Northwest.
Nevertheless, it is fact that the technologies we currently employ are destroying
the biosphere. If we cannot descend the ladder of technology and cannot remain
where we are, the only alternative is to produce better, more elegant, technologies.
This strategy of building our way out of our problems stands in stark contrast
to the alternative environmental plans of action. The failed environmental
strategies can be best named for their adherents:
The Scolds. These people, who totally confuse litter and pollution,
believe environmental problems are caused by the slovenly, who must be coerced
into picking up after themselves. They forget that some of the most serious
pollution problems, including ozone depletion, are caused by the chemicals,
detergents, and solvents used in cleaning. Litter may be the problem of slobs,
but pollution is the crime of the neat and clean.
The Consumerists. Any problem can be solved with consumer education,
because the customer is king. How consumers are supposed to buy the right thing
when it is not yet produced is never really answered, nor is the question of
who will produce the good products to buy. Many important products of industrialization,
such as electricity, cannot be purchased in another form without significant
The Cops. Legislation, regulation, and litigation are the solutions of
authoritarian environmentalists. Unfortunately, making a necessary industrial
process illegal does not solve anything except the employment problems of lawyers
and environmental bureaucrats. Overreliance on regulation has diverted money
and resources away from critically necessary industrial redesign. Interestingly,
while industrial-environmental solutions depend on enabling legislation, the
rules must promote industrial sophistication rather than shutdown. Regulation
must never be confused with problem-solving.
The Hunters. In days of old, the king had royal hunting preserves, which
live on today as national parks and other more democratic efforts. While such
conservation efforts actually have their use in the overall scheme of things,
ultimately, they accomplish little. A fence does not stop acid rain or prevent
harmful ultraviolet light from shining through a hole in the ozone.
The Backpackers. The back-to-nature crowd gave us enough wood-burning
stoves to create real pollution problems, their high-tech camping gear created
toxic industries, and their constant use of scenic areas stress fragile ecological
The obvious notion that industrial societies must have industrial environmentalism
is the remaining and most rational alternative. The need for elegant technology
1. Humans cause pollution (apes and dolphins may be bright, but they never
created a toxic waste dump.)
2. Humans are conscious beings.
3. Pollution is caused by the conscious acts of these humans.
4. The more difficult the act of humans, the more planning it takes.
5. The truly difficult pollution problems are caused by acts of significant
planning and design.
Therefore, pollution is a function of design.
If we can design to pollute, we can design not to pollute. Elegant technology
is rooted in the decision not to pollute.
The pieces of an elegant industrial future have already begun to emerge. The
Germans have in place sweeping new rules on recycling, and industry has responded
with plans that hint at zero-emission manufacturing. There may be no perfect
examples as yet, but it is no longer considered impossible. Large technological
gains in waste reduction, energy-efficiency, and resource recovery have already
The new German laws are brilliant for they understand that only the original
manufacturers have the relevant expertise to reclaim raw materials. By making
recycling the responsibility of the producers, these regulations encourage
products that are designed for disassembly and resource recovery. Elegant technology
is not a pipe dream--at least not in a technological sense. The reality is
70 percent of the green technology we Americans install is already imported.
Worse, any plans to accelerate a conversion is met with the howls of "Where
is the money coming from to pay for all this wonderful new technology?"
So this is what we have come to: We know we are killing ourselves and our planet;
we know there is a possible solution because we can see other humans perfecting
one; and, we have millions of highly skilled unemployed whose lives would become
infinitely better with useful work. Why can we not go to work to solve our
dilemmas? We are told that there is no money. In fact, all the nations on earth
are in debt! We are told there is no money for useful purposes now, and there
will be even less in the future as governments are forced by the lords of international
finance to devote more of their tax revenue to debt service.
And why are we all in debt? Because we decided that money was a video game,
programmed it with the banking assumptions and economic ideas of the middle
ages, and let irresponsible children play with the futures of whole regions
of the planet. Of course, there is still plenty of money to play with. According
to the "Manchester Guardian," in the chaos before the vote on the
Maastricht Treaty in France, speculators each day were moving around $1.5 trillion
in various currencies--an interesting figure since there is not that much total
real trade in goods and services between all the nations on earth in a year.
Money may be plentiful, but it is in the wrong hands.
The owners of money are playing by screwy rules--the ideas of dead economists
with no more relevance to today's problems than a smoke signal is to a fax
machine. We are almost to the twenty-first century, yet we just suffered through
45 years of nuclear terrorism over mostly irrelevant arguments between the
followers of Marx and Smith--neither of whom lived in the twentieth century.
The time has come to coldly assess the ideas of the worldly philosophers in
light of the economic thinking necessary to affect a conversion to an elegantly
sustainable industrial infrastructure. The old thinking has resulted in the
twin catastrophes of global economic chaos and environmental collapse.
The ideas of Keynes still have power, but his theories did not differentiate
between various forms of consumption. As a result, ill-conceived fiscal pump-priming
has created mounds of waste, inflation, and the inevitable bankruptcy of most
of the world's governments.
No matter Adam Smith's theoretical value, his disciples, who seem to think
the market answers all questions, are operating from models so primitive as
to be irrelevant. Because it is difficult to make wise consumer judgments about
something as simple as laundry soap, the day when consumers could do anything
except reject an option has long since passed. The only information accurately
generated by markets concerns what people will not buy.
By assuming products only exist when they are bought and sold, marketers neglect
the value of human creativity and the natural order. Human creativity is manifested
in an industrial sense with blueprints. It is impossible to build a doghouse
without plans, yet marketers think an industrial nation can be built by following
an `invisible hand.'
As currently defined, free trade takes its assumptions from Victorian colonialism
and is incompatible with an elegant future. Countries have always industrialized
behind trade walls--the British did it, we did it, and the Germans and Japanese
did it. Free trade was first designed to retard colonial development--the ultimate
form of protection for mother-country industry. Now we can see that a free-trade
philosophy also triggers industrial decline in any country that believes it.
Moreover, tariffs and other formal trade barriers are currently a most insignificant
impediment to trade. Free trade is a fraud if agreements such as GATT are used
to crush environmental regulations in the name of expanded trade while the
World Bank and the IMF insist that all nations of the world simultaneously
decrease imports. Trade must be managed, and frivolous trade discouraged, because
it is difficult--if not impossible--to close the industrial loop when producers
and consumers lie continents apart. Elegant technologies are environmentally
specific--useful trade will only occur between similar environmental regions.
Ricardo's ideas about the competitive advantage of nations are interesting
in the abstract, but in late twentieth century practice they have caused a
downward spiral of living conditions. This is absurd! Poor poor folks make
for poor rich folks. Bankrupt borrowers make for bankrupt lenders. Producers
must be able to afford to buy production. So it is possible to drive wages
down to subsistence levels, but whatever would be the point? We need a more
sophisticated industrial order than we currently have and impoverished workers
cannot build one.
In their attempt to recreate the roaring twenties, the monetarists brought
on the current, barely contained global depression with their crazy interest
rates--proving once again that monetarists can only wreck things. In the eastern
state, self-proclaimed Marxists produced societies that were so awful that
folks are actually willing to try monetarism as an alternative.
Fortunately, apart from these manifest examples of the practice of the dismal
science, there exists a body of economic thought that is relevant to the problems
of a conversion to a sustainable industrial infrastructure. Institutionalism
survives the process of elimination. Elegant technology requires new forms
of economic thinking, yet the work of Veblen means the wheel does not need
to be totally reinvented. His work is relevant because he actually understood
Some favorite examples include:
Veblen called the money traders industrial saboteurs, of which there was no
shortage of examples in the 1980s. It is estimated that three million people
lost their jobs to atone for the sins of Michael Milken alone.
Veblen's division between business and industry is brilliant. The distance
between a Steven Jobs and an Ivan Boesky can be measured in light-years. This
distinction explains why capitalism can sometimes be amazing while at other
times, it is just awful. More to the point, this insight promises that industrial
activity, stripped of the burdens of predatory fraud, could produce technology
in its purest elegance.
Yet nothing was more validated in the 1980s than Veblen's notion of the "peaceful
industrial type" with the emergence of the pacifist economic superpowers
of Germany and Japan.
Veblen came from a pragmatic tradition. Pragmatism mandates that his analysis
be evaluated by the test of time. Descriptively, he has America down cold.
The Theory of the Leisure Class, and other works, can be read today with stunning
moments of recognition. Yet if Veblen has done the homework of description,
he left the problem of social prescription to those who would follow.
Veblenian pragmatism dictates that institutions must align themselves with
the needs of industry--not the other way around. In the 1990s, when industrial
needs are so great because of the mandates of elegant sophistication, institutional
alignment is critical. Specifically, this means:
Monetary reform. Wall Street must become the servant of industry again.
The industrial saboteurs have had their day! Monetarists got us into the mess
we are in, only an anti-monetarism can get us out! Monetarism is failed, barbaric,
experiment. The time has come to try something else. If the money markets cannot
be successfully regulated, the time has come to organize publicly financed "greenbanks," which
would operate in addition to private, commercial banking.
Organized conversion of militarized industry to green industry. The
military got the best and the brightest of scientific talent. The Cold War
is over and the time has come to put these geniuses to work creating elegant
An economic shift in focus from consumption to production. The free
marketers have shown themselves to be intellectually bankrupt, yet the problems
of large-scale industrial planning remain. Failed central planning in the old
Soviet Union does not negate successful examples in Japan and Germany and yes,
even in the Pentagon. Pollution is a function of design--micro and macro. Macro-design
is often called industrial planning. If environmental solutions require industrial
planning, we must study the examples that have worked in the past, not dismiss
the possibility for doctrinaire reasons.
Economists have an important role in this new world. They must translate the
needs of industrial environmentalism into the economic jargon necessary to
make it happen. They must stop practicing the dismal science. People have grown
to hate the reasons economists give for why things are impossible. The time
has come to make big projects, like building elegant industrial societies,
For years, institutionalists have labored in obscurity on the problems of developing
nations. But combine the role of the United States as the world's largest debtor
with the deindustrialization of the Reagan/Bush era, and the new reality emerges
that we have become the ultimate developing nation. During the campaign, Bill
Clinton spoke glowingly about the microlending practices of the Gameen Bank
in Bangladesh. That we should need ideas from such a source says much.
Of course, development has always been a relative term. Compared to where we
must be technologically in 50 years, United States is about the same distance
away from achieving this objective as say, Egypt is from where they must go--the
differences are trivial. In the final analysis, industrial environmentalism
is a development project. At the very least, institutionalists have some experience
in this area. The United States needs to do some serious nation-building. I
hope we are all up to the task.
Larson, Jonathan. Elegant Technology; economic prosperity from an environmental
blueprint. Westwood, Mass. The Riverdale Company, Inc., 1992.
* The author is a north prairie progressive, a patented industrial designer specializing
in environmental technologies, and is currently working to restore the Veblen
farmstead. This article was presented at the annual meeting of the Association
for Evolutionary Economics, Anaheim, California January
ALSO-- Book Review