Efficiency Is Not the Enemy of Resiliency

March 7, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
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"I ain’t so tough."

I’m an odd duck. When I was in college, I started on a coterminal master’s in industrial engineering even as I was finishing up my undergrad degree in English. This meant I would go from Fiction Writing one hour to Circuits the next, a true ambi-cerebrum experience. After nearly a decade working in industry, I decided it wasn’t my cup of tea and reverted to my fonder love, writing. But my education and training left me with affection for efficiency, a fondness that to this day causes my heart to swell indignantly every time I see it maligned.

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Hemispherical cross-training

On a simplistic level, efficiency is maximum (or optimal) output with minimum waste. The output could be a product from a manufacturing line; it could be a warm house; it could be nutritious food to eat. Efficiency is not the opposite of resiliency. It does not equate with fragility. It does not, in and of itself, impede a system’s ability to cope with difficult conditions. In fact, it can vigorously improve that ability.

I think efficiency gets its bum rap because it sometimes involves eliminating wasteful redundancy. Poorly performed, without due consideration of externalities and risks, eliminating redundancy can indeed increase fragility. Efficiency is also closely linked in many people’s minds with just-in-time supply chains that have been deservedly criticized for being fragile and vulnerable. Let’s examine just-in-time first.

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My former life

In the 1980’s, I worked as a manufacturing engineer for Procter and Gamble while the company was in the process of implementing just-in-time into its operations. I managed teams that made and packed toothpaste. My days were noisy and minty. During those years just-in-time was explicitly adopted to reduce working capital tied up in raw materials and finished product. It was never, ever about efficiency, except perhaps efficiency of money. In fact, the short production runs just-in-time demanded lowered the efficiency of manufacturing because every changeover was costly in terms of set up time, product losses and machine reliability. In response, we engineers scrambled to reduce these costs, muttering under our breath the whole time.

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Theoretical perfection

However much just-in-time requires efficiency–in logistics, manufacturing, and shipping–it is not inherently efficient in and of itself. This is not to say there are no efficiency benefits to just-in-time. The longer finished goods hang out in a warehouse, the more they get beat up and eventually must be scrapped. Just-in-time keeps product from lingering long anywhere in the supply chain. For a product that has a defined shelf life (such as toothpaste) just-in-time reduces the likelihood a tube will expire before it gets to the consumer. And smaller batch sizes mean quality problems get identified and addressed earlier, resulting in less waste yet again.

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Don’t blame efficiency

The fragility of just-in-time lies precisely in what it tries to create—minimal inventory. If anything breaks down—pretty much anything at all—the whole supply chain, from raw materials to product on store shelves, seizes up within days. (Let me point out that when this happens, efficiency is thrown to the wind.) So it’s a fine line companies walk with just-in-time, a balancing act heavily dependent on trucks powered by diesel to transport minimal quantities of raw materials and finished product at precise intervals. Understandably, this lack of slack in the system is what worries resiliency advocates. So far, since trucking has been reliable, it’s worked. Just remember that efficiency is not the driver here, just a hired hand doing what it’s told.

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Efficient redundancy

Now let’s look at redundancy. Efficiency, it’s claimed, creates fragility by cutting out the superfluous. On some level, this is true. No point duplicating functions and equipment if they’re not needed. The trouble comes when efficiency cuts slack to the point that a system can’t bounce back from trouble. I would contend that this occurs primarily when both the likelihood and cost of failure have been underestimated. An efficient system is not one that only works in the best case scenario but in most, if not all, scenarios. If the cost of failure is extremely high—say an airplane falling out of the sky—then an efficient system is one with enough back ups and redundancies to never fail because that is the optimal outcome. If occasional failure is okay, then fewer back ups and redundancies are needed. However, if we continually underestimate the likelihood of failure and failure’s cost, we will design efficient but brittle systems that fail far more often than we expect or want. This isn’t due to efficiency per se, it’s due to recklessness. On a personal level, if the cost of failure is a cold house, questionable water, or hungry bellies, it would no doubt behoove us all to have more than one way to heat our homes, have access to an emergency water supply, stock back up food stores, etc.

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Waste is not resilient. Worse, much of the waste in the US goes beyond inefficiency to wanton carelessness and downright stupidity. A full third of the food in the US that is grown, processed and transported will never be consumed. Most of this food not only goes on to create methane in landfills, it represents a huge amount of embedded energy used up for nothing. Leaking pipes in the US that lose an estimated seven billion gallons of drinking water a day are not resilient. Sprinklers that water streets and sidewalks are not resilient. Office buildings so cold that people run space heaters under their desks are not resilient, nor are apartments that are so hot that windows must be kept open in January. Vampire devices that suck energy 24/7 even when they’re only used a few hours a day are not resilient, they are badly designed. Twenty-year-old refrigerators in the garage that do nothing but chill beer and soda pop are not resilient. Driving 5000lbs of steel half a mile to buy a loaf of bread is not resilient. And the list goes on. 

Just because the US doesn’t indulge in refrigerated beaches and indoor ski slopes like the United Arab Emirates doesn’t mean we don’t squander resources wildly.

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Insanity in the desert

This becomes clearer when we compare ourselves to Switzerland, a country that consumes half the energy per person of the US while enjoying a higher standard of living on almost every conceivable measure. This is not because their population is more homogeneous (26% of the Swiss population is foreign born compared to 13% in the US) or because the Swiss are more urbanized (26% of Swiss live in rural areas compared to 15% in the US.) 

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Swiss efficiency

It’s true that Switzerland has fewer energy-intensive industries, so industry there uses only 20% of their total energy compared to 31% in the US. But it’s also true that lacking an indigenous supply of fossil fuels, the Swiss have spent decades becoming extremely energy-efficient, from highly sealed and insulated buildings to electrified transit to retrofitting with heat pumps. They encourage active transportation to the point that in Zurich, their largest city, 42% of all trips are now made by biking or walking. Another huge difference is that the Swiss tax gasoline at $2.99 per gallon. (Remarkably, this is one of the lowest rates in western Europe.) As a result, the Swiss use one-fourth the fossil fuels per person compared to the US. And they could use less! 60% of their space and water heating still comes from heating oil or natural gas. They have a lot of hydroelectricity but little in the way of other renewables. With solar PV and more heat pumps, they could cut their fossil fuel use in half yet again.

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Toss, toss, toss

Waste does not make prosperity; it does not create resilience. Sometimes waste is a proud announcement of wealth. After all, only the truly wealthy can destroy for naught what others need just to live. I’ll point out that while I worked in industry, I was never once asked to minimize carbon emissions or energy use. Neither were considered important variables to optimize in the production equation. If they had been, our team of engineers would’ve jumped all over them. That’s what engineers do, they optimize. But they only optimize the variables they’re told to, because if they argue too much, they’re not a team player and their next performance review doesn’t go well.

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Less work

Rest assured, efficiency can create resiliency. A well-sealed and insulated house is far easier to heat and cool whatever the fuel source. (Passive houses can be heated by body and appliance heat alone.) LEDs cost much less than other bulbs per hour of use and last for decades. Bicycles are the most efficient form of transport ever devised. Water-efficient appliances not only use less fresh water, they reduce the load on your community’s sewage system. High-efficiency woodstoves require half the cutting and stacking of wood as conventional ones and put out a fifth of the particulate matter. Walking thirty minutes a day is the most efficient form of mental and physical health care there is. These kinds of efficiencies build resilience. They don’t reduce it.

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No speed demon

Efficiency is certainly not a be-all or end-all. Just as there is more to life than increasing its speed (thank you, Gandhi), there is more to life than optimizing its output. Growing vegetables in the backyard may be less efficient than buying from a commercial grower, and home and community solar panels may be less efficient than utility-scale PV located hundreds of miles away, but both will increase the resiliency of that household or community. Even better, they’ll make that household or community less passive and more in control of their own destiny. This beats efficiency hands down.

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Waste from green can power orange and yellow

I will admit that some awful, awful things have been done in the name of efficiency, from urban renewal projects to concentration camps. This doesn’t mean efficiency was the root cause–often efficiency is a flashy banner flown to obscure true motives. Immoral and unethical actions should never be taken under the guise of efficiency; efficiency should always be a servant to human and planetary well-being rather than an altar on which to sacrifice either. But in a country where waste and profligacy have been enshrined as almost a birthright, a country that squanders a nearly unimaginable wealth of resources each and every day, a wise application of efficiency would go a long way towards making our communities more prosperous and resilient. Not to mention that if the US suddenly consumed energy at Swiss levels, the energy leftover from our current consumption could power the continents of Africa and South America. (One third of the population of the planet!) It’s time to make efficiency our friend, a very dear one, not our foe.

Karen Lynn Allen

Karen Lynn Allen is a novelist and blogger who draws on her background in both literature and engineering to write about energy and resilience issues. Her novel, Beaufort 1849, depicts a society that needs to make an energy transition but instead doubles down on its way of life with catastrophic consequences.

Tags: efficiency, resilience, Waste