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The Point of Diminishing Returns

— November 26, 2018

It’s not getting better, is it? Science, technology, agriculture, and even the capitalist system itself are reaching the point of diminishing returns.

It’s not your imagination. Things aren’t getting better as fast as they used to, and may, in fact, be headed the other way. Not so long ago, parents could expect their children to grow up in a safer, more prosperous world than they had themselves, but we can no longer take an ever-increasing standard of living for granted. Why is that? Opinions vary, of course, but a compelling case can be made that several drivers which once formed the basis of our material progress have reached the point of diminishing returns and are now in a state of terminal decline.

How can something once so good go so bad, especially when we’re still making sizable investments in the vehicles that got us here? Cultural observer and author John Michael Greer explained the law of diminishing returns in his (sadly, now retired) blog The Archdruid Report. First, the more you have of something, the fewer benefits you derive from having even more of it. That’s why, when you’re hungry, getting a sandwich is really meaningful. The second sandwich is nice, but if you keep getting more sandwiches, they don’t help as much. You could give them away to friends and strangers, but eventually you reach a point where further sandwiches do you no good, and even impose costs for disposal. By then, you’re probably spending resources on dealing with the sandwich situation that would be more profitably used elsewhere, and it becomes a real problem.

One reason we’ve come so far so fast is through the scientific advancements that greatly improved so many areas of life in the last century. However, despite massive investments in science, groundbreaking discoveries are rolling in at a slower pace and taking much more work. For example, finding the Higgs boson particle was an exciting development in physics, but the effect of its discovery on your everyday life was minimal when compared to the discovery of the electron and the way it made electricity possible. The low-hanging fruit in many scientific fields was picked decades ago, and diminishing returns (for greater cost) from scientific research are a big reason for our current stagnation.

A black and white portrait of a bald, bespectacled man in a suit.
Chemist Fritz Haber in 1919. This photo by the Nobel Foundation, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, is in the Public Domain in the United States.

Diminishing returns are also becoming evident in agriculture. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Green Revolution, sparked by the Haber process of manufacturing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer which could be applied to high-yielding crop varieties, drove an intensification of agricultural production (and related population increase) worldwide. However, adding more nitrogen than plants can absorb doesn’t result in more food production. Instead, it adds costs for the farmers who spend money on more fertilizer than they need, and then the runoff imposes more costs in terms of oceanic dead zones, algal blooms that foul drinking water, and “red tides” that kill fish and drive away tourists.

It’s increasingly likely that the industrial capitalist system itself is reaching the point of diminishing returns. The profit motive is a great incentive to spur production if the alternative is a system, like communism in China, where any gainful effort was rewarded by having it taken away. Here in the United States, the capitalist system long ago produced enough goods to satisfy our basic needs, especially if the means of distribution were to be particularly equitable. Having more stuff on top of what we really need, though, doesn’t make us any happier, waste from manufacturing and disposing of all that stuff is transforming our country (and everybody else’s) into one that’s less hospitable to life, and the richest among us are amassing so much money that it’s poisoning our political process like nitrogen runoff poisons lakes. The cost of maintaining the status quo is piling up higher and faster than the benefits.

So what can we do? It’s hard, but we can turn our back on that which no longer serves us. Instead, we can spend our time, effort, and resources on the things that do. With a scientific eye, we can look at ways to strengthen our communities instead of eroding them. We can research ways to grow food, like agroforestry and permaculture, which build soil without wasting nitrogen. Figuring out how to educate, entertain, house, feed, and transport ourselves using minimal net energy will certainly be a growth industry in a time of diminishing returns. There is still low-hanging fruit on trees that our culture has forgotten for a while. Let’s grab some!

Related: Driverless Cars are Coming, They Say


Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck
Can the World Find Solutions to the Nitrogen Pollution Crisis?
Climate Change Is Already Hurting U.S. Communities, Federal Report Says
Consumed: why more stuff does not mean more happiness
Pathological Consumption Has Become So Normalised That We Scarcely Notice It
Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise
We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim (Video)
The Secret Document That Transformed China
Technological Superstitions
Three Limits to Growth

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