The Diminishing Returns of Heroic Materialism

The Diminishing Returns of Heroic Materialism
October 30, 2011

I’ve been talking about the age of Heroic Materialism, which we live in now. This is not my term: it comes from Kenneth Clarke, in his classic 1969 documentary Civilisation. This is good because it gives us a name for what we have today. It separates what we have today from other ages and eras.

November 22, 2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?

The age of Heroic Materialism has a certain character. Of course it does. Like dogs: they have a certain character, which is different than cats. Dogs like to chase sticks. They can be amused for hours chasing sticks. Probably no cat, in the entire history of cats, has ever retrieved a stick. You could make a list of the characteristics of Heroic Materialism, just as you could make a list of the characteristics of dogs.

These “characteristics” are really patterns of thinking. They are certain mental ruts that we have fallen into. They didn’t start off as ruts. In the beginning, in the late 18th century, they were fresh, inspirational, exciting new ideas. Today, we have done the same thing over and over for so long that they have become ruts. These repetitive patterns of thinking, at first, created huge advances. We got many new improvements from them. Over time, the results of these repetitive patterns became less and less. Today, I would say that many of the characteristic thought patterns of Heroic Materialism are actually creating problems. In financial-speak, you could say it is a negative return. We are worse off than if we had done nothing at all. It’s just like investing. Let’s say you invest some money in a new idea, and the returns are extraordinary. As more and more capital chases that new idea, which has now become somewhat repetitive, the return on capital declines to a more average historical level. Then, typically toward the end of that investment cycle, there is way too much capital being invested. The late stage investors find that they don’t make any return on capital at all, they make losses. They would have been better doing nothing at all. The same sort of thought process that drives this typical investment cycle is present, on a larger scale, for the themes of Heroic Materialism.

November 8, 2009: The Future Stinks

This is why I say that the age of Heroic Materialism is coming to an end. Our returns on Heroic Materialist behavior today are mostly negative. We have invested too much of our time and effort (literally our capital) in these themes today, while other themes have been neglected. If we put just a little time, energy and attention toward these neglected themes, we can get a huge return. Immense improvements with very little effort or input. This is why I write about Really Narrow Streets so much. The amount of effort and attention needed to make streets narrower (for new construction) is almost zero. Just make them narrower. I’m really talking about making places for people (“pedestrians”) rather than cars. The advantages that we can get from this new way of thinking, this placing of our attention on something neglected, are huge. The costs are negligible.

The age of Heroic Materialism coincides with the Industrial Revolution. The character of Heroic Materialism is basically one of technology, machine-making, and concrete-pouring. We’ve gotten a lot out of this basic idea. However, our returns today have gone negative. Let’s take a look at a few things Heroic Materialism has brought us, how they created huge improvements in the past, but today are making things worse:

Paved roads: Streets in cities have always been paved, usually with some sort of cobblestone. However, this was very laborious, so roads outside of cities were generally dirt. Occasionally, such as some of the Roman roads, there would be paved roads between cities and villages. We take asphalt pavement for granted today, but imagine what a huge step forward this was when it first had widespread introduction in the 1920s. For centuries, travel meant walking, horseback or a horse-drawn wagon on dirt roads that were often muddy and rutted. With the introduction of asphalt pavement, we not only had a nice clean surface, but, unlike cobblestones, it was smooth! And, unlike cobblestones, it was cheap and easy to do.

Pretty soon, we started making roads everywhere. More and more roads. And bigger too. Highways. Superhighways. Mostly, this was an improvement. I’m not sure I would say that we shouldn’t have the Eisenhower-era superhighways today. Like that was a mistake. However, I can say that we don’t need any more superhighways, or even more local paved roads. We’re done. We’ve gone as far as we can go with that. We’ve probably gone a little too far.

When something works, like paving roads, what we find is that there is a sort of aesthetic atraction to the new advancement. Paving existing roads was a big step up. Making some new paved roads was maybe an improvement. Pavement becomes sexy, a representation for the newest advancements of our society. Thus, we start to see pavement appear in places where it really doesn’t need to be. For example, the typical U.S. shopping center has some storefronts surrounding a big parking lot. While it is logical that a shopping center should have parking, especially in the automobile-dependent U.S., it strikes me as odd that the parking would be put right in the middle, like a centerpiece on display. You could put it in the back, or off to the side somewhere. I think this reflects an aesthetic of pavement. There’s little utilitarian purpose for it. It’s as if we’re saying: “look at all this pavement. Wow!” You can see something similar in the somewhat fetishistic attachment to pavement in most city design in the U.S. For decades, people would emphasize the big strip of pavement in the middle, the giant automobile-dedicated roadway, making it bigger and bigger. They had some utilitarian justification for this, but I think that if you pressed them a little bit, saying perhaps that we don’t really need this, that we could accomplish what we want by some other way, you would find that they were adamant. No, they really wanted that big strip of asphalt! The big strip of asphalt was non-negotiable. Asphalt became fashionable. Or, you could see it as a repetitive thinking process. More asphalt is good. This was true for paving over existing dirt roads, but it was applied everywhere, in places where it was completely inappropriate.

Today, we have too much pavement. The “more pavement” idea is killing us. We need the stuff that isn’t pavement, what I call Places:

October 10, 2009: Place and Non-Place

Modern Medicine: Think of all the advancements of medicine over the last two hundred years. Wow! Mostly, this has been in the form of two things: surgery and drugs. Surgery, and all the related techniques, are most effective in response to physical trauma. Your broken bones, cuts, and so forth. You are much better off having a motorcycle accident today than a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago. Drugs have made huge advancements, mostly against infectious disease. This can range from the simplest, such as basic antiseptics to prevent infection, to the amazing advancements of the antibiotics. Infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, polio, and so forth used to be a basic fact of human life. When was the last time you heard of someone who died of tuberculosis?

These surgery and drug advancements were mostly cheap. Penicillin, by the time it reached mass production, was cheap. A pill and two weeks and you were cured! The basic surgery techniques to deal with the results of accidents, such as setting bones and applying sutures, were cheap.

We developed a pattern. Surgery and drugs. Today, we have pounded this surgery-and-drugs theme into the dirt. We are getting no new improvements from these, even at extreme prices. We have applied this surgery-and-drugs pattern, which originally was in response to physical trauma and infectious disease, to things that are neither. We now have surgery for heart disease. This is completely stupid. As we all know, the way to avoid and cure heart disease is some combination of diet and exercise. Even in advanced cases, we have techniques like EDTA chelation, which can be used to avoid surgery. Instead, we have heart surgery. Surgery was originally in response to physical trauma, your motorcycle accident type situation. But we are applying it to heart disease. Needless to say, it is hugely expensive, and, statistically, not very effective.

Likewise, drugs, which had enormous effectiveness against infectious disease, are now being applied to non-infectious conditions. Like heart disease. We already know that the cause and cure for heart disease is some sort of diet and exercise. We know this. Nevertheless, we are applying this worn-out pattern of drugs to the problem. Does taking a pill change your diet or your exercise patterns? Of course not. There is absolutely nothing a pill — any pill — can do about diet and exercise. From this alone, we can conclude that it wouldn’t be very effective. Statistically, they are not. Compare the effectiveness of penicillin vs. tuberculosis (low effort and cost, huge effect) with statin drugs vs. heart disease (huge cost, statistically no effect). Most chronic health issues, like heart disease, diabetes and so forth, are related to diet and exercise, and other health habits like smoking. Maybe, in the case of cancer, some environmental issues.

We know that the biotech people are always talking about the great new advances that are going to happen in the next twenty years. Oh really? Let me ask you a question: what were the great drug advances of the last twenty years? From 1990 to today, what new drug advancements have affected our daily lives, in the way that the first antibiotics affected people’s lives in the 1950s and 1960s? I can name only one: Viagra. We’ve been looking for boner medicine for centuries. Besides that, I see nothing of great importance.

Think of all the money invested in drug research, biotech and so forth over the past twenty years. Think of all the money spent on prescription drugs over the past twenty years. What has been the return on all this capital? Virtually zero. It was nearly a total waste. All of the hugely effective drugs, like antibiotics, are almost free today.

I want to emphasize this repetitive thought pattern — surgery and drugs — which, like paved roads, has gone about as far as it can go. We are done with it. Yes, we can have some small additional advances, but mostly we’ve squeezed all the juice from that lemon. And yet, we are still stuck in these mental ruts, going round and round even though it is obvious that they don’t work. We’re desperate to squeeze one last drop of juice from that lemon, at any expense, while all around us apples and oranges are falling off the trees and rotting on the ground for neglect.

On the other hand, look at diet and exercise. We already know this is the root cause of many common maladies today, and also the fundamental solution. We know that we have huge problems in this area, for our society as a whole. Our diet and exercise situation today is like the dirt road and infectious disease situation in 1770. Very primitive. The potential “return on capital” on advancements in diet and exercise is immense. The cost is basically nil. Individuals who have experimented with these things have reported giant results. We have huge potential gains to be made in diet and exercise, and environment, for our society as a whole.

One overarching theme of the age of Heroic Materialism is Progress Through Technology. We are very comfortable with the idea of Progress Through Technology. We tend to dismiss any sort of Progress that doesn’t involve technology. However, many of our future advancements, as a society, will be in things that require no technology. How much technology is involved in diet and exercise? Not much. Do you need a PhD? Nope. We already know most everything we need to know. Chinese people knew most everything we need to know two thousand years ago. We just have to implement it.

We have huge potential gains ahead of us, with virtually no effort. Just stop drinking soda. No MSG. Get some exercise three days a week. I was talking with a friend who was trying to get me excited about “all the great drug advancements that are going to come in the next twenty years.” I was not getting very excited. I told him: “Think about all the drug advancements of the last twenty years. Now let me ask you this: in your mind, put all the drug advancements of the last twenty years on a scale. On the other side of the scale, put: less salt. Which do you think would have more of a beneficial effect on our overall health?” The answer is obvious, right? Less salt.

We tend to take things that don’t require any science or technology, and to try to make them fit that mold. Michael Pollen has written about “nutritionism.” This started off with the vitamins and so forth, but has advanced now to the Omega-3 fatty acids and all this sort of thing. We’ve tried to fit something simple, food, into our “chemical engineering” and “progress through technology” templates. People have been eating for a long time. People have had healthy diets without ever knowing what a “calorie” or a “protein” was. Look at the wild animals. Have you ever seen a wild animal with a diet problem? An obese deer? A diabetic wolf? A fish with heart disease? All this nutritionism is unnecessary. Can you see the repetitive thought processes? How we try to make everything fit our Heroic Materialist “progress through technology” template? How we tend to ignore things that don’t fit this template, even if they can bring huge improvements with very little cost or effort? We have to drop the “progress through technology” template, where it is not appropriate.

Wikipedia on “Nutritionism.”

After spending years sifting through all the “nutritionist” baloney, and all the other quasi-scientific things people write about food, Pollan concluded that the way forward was:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

See what I mean? Simple. Not technological. But, in its own way, sophisticated. Think of the sophistication involved in reducing a whole program of healthy eating into seven words. Think of the improvements we could enjoy if we could implement this!

Progress Through Technology: I think I’ll give Progress Through Technology its own space here. You see this come up again and again. For example, it pops up in finance!

“Finance” means getting the money to fund a business plan. That’s all it is. Getting the money. The basic features of finance are very old. Debt and equity. Maybe a few tweaks like preferred equity or convertible bonds. But, mostly, it is just debt and equity, not really any different than in Florence in the 15th century.

As I was saying last week, this is basically a simple process. It is helped along a bit by telephones and computers, but fundamentally it is not much different than it might have been a hundred years ago. All the telephones and computers have accomplished, really, is allowing people to do it in Sun Valley rather than Lower Manhattan. You could day-trade stocks in the 1870s. People did. But, if you wanted to be a daytrader in the 1870s, you had to go to the physical exchange on Wall Street. Most of the other wheels of finance, such as issuing corporate bonds or IPO-ing companies, are actually quite slow processes, and you could do them by mail if you wanted to. During the 19th century, a lot of development in the United States was financed with capital from Europe. The only means of communication was by sailing ship across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, it worked. Finance is, inherently, not very technological. It is mostly about signing contracts.

However, the financial industry has also become infected with the “Progress Through Technology” meme. As a society, this “Progress Through Technology” in the world of finance has created no benefits. It has created nothing but problems. For individual companies, you could say that there have been benefits. They basically use “financial innovation” to scam their customers. However, I would say that a big reason why this works — why the customers fall for this scam over and over — is because their customers too are bedazzled by this “Progress Through Technology” meme. It is a repetitive thought process throughout their lives. Just as they want to participate in the newest technological gizmo, waiting in line to buy their iPads, they also want to participate in the latest “financial technology.” It is a theme of our society. “I participate in the newest technological advance. I am on the Leading Edge, not a technological laggard.” When the bankers come out with some new acronymic product, like ABCP, everyone is anxious to take part in the Next Big Thing. They want to appear “sophisticated.” The bankers have managed to use these Heroic Materialist themes to fleece their buyers.

October 23, 2011: Are TBTF Banks Unnecessary?

Who wants to invest in a bank CD? That is so 19th century. Clipping coupons! And yet, like Michael Pollan’s food recommendation, within its simplicity lies a sort of sophistication. Let the bankers take the risk. With their own skin in the game, they will make every effort to loan money the way it should be loaned, i.e. with careful attention to the borrower’s ability to repay the loan.

So, we now have a problem. Just as with diet and exercise, the solution is not technological. It is about implementing, society-wide, what we already know. Finance is simple, and it should be kept simple. Like in the 1960s. We would get great societal benefits from this, with very little cost. No cost at all, really.

You see this everywhere in these decrepit final days of Heroic Materialism. People know that the solution to their problems is not technological, but they ignore the cheap, highly effective non-technological solution and instead go with the expensive, ineffective technological solution. They are still stuck in the repetitive thought patterns of Heroic Materialism, even when, rationally, following these repetitive thought patterns makes no sense. You probably know someone with heart issues, but who makes no meaningful improvements in their diet and exercise, and spends tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on drugs and heart bypass surgery. Of course they make some very minor lifestyle changes, with very minor results. But, overall, the pattern of their behavior is reliance upon technological solutions that are very expensive and don’t work.

As we move from Heroic Materialism to our new age, we don’t have to give up any of our Heroic Materialist advances. We don’t have to go back to dirt roads. We don’t have to go back to 18th century medicine. Those advances have now become cheap and easy for us. We can do them in our sleep, leaving lots of time and energy to focus on our new goals and aspirations. We can keep the best parts of the Heroic Materialist age, and add to that the new advances of our new age, which will be mostly non-technological in nature.

We will talk more about the diminishing returns of Heroic Materialism.