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Elegant Technology
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Elegant Technology

This synopsis of Elegant Technology was
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 industrial reorganization.

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 systems.

The obvious notion that industrial societies must have industrial environmentalism is the remaining and most rational alternative. The need for elegant technology assumes that:
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 been made.

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 technology.

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 industrialization.

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, possible again.

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 5-7, 1993.

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