to Editorial index ... to Science and Insight index

Alien Concept: Growing the Resource Pie

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright August 2012


Human instinctive thinking develops to deal with realities that are recurring from day-to-day and generation-to-generation for thousands of generations. Instinctive thinking develops when it can deal with a reality faster, better and more comfortably than analytic thinking (learning thinking) can.

One of the long-standing realities of the human experience is that resources run out -- the good times never last -- so our thinking is well adapted to that harsh reality.

But modern technology has changed that reality, which means this is another place where instinctive thinking is not providing the best solutions to solving civilized problems.

Alien Concept: "Growing the Pie"

Neolithic Village mankind lives in a world of limited resources. The limits come quickly and they are harsh: food to gather gets all gathered, a season changes, mysterious calamity such as fire, flood or plague strikes, less mysteriously, neighbors can strike to steal or get vengeance.

So human thinking expects limits. This means that the concept of "growing the resource pie" through increasing productivity that goes on over decades is alien. In Neolithic Village you may discover a new pie, but to actually create one, a big one, is something for the heavenly afterlife, not real-world reality. Agriculture changes this a bit, with hard work you can clear a field and farm it, and store the excess, but you can only make one new field on a particular plot of land -- the pie still has harsh limits.

The game changer is Industrial Age technology. Increasing productivity increases the resource pie (as I will call it in this essay). The hope for a bigger and better pie was expressed indirectly as early as the late 1700's by William Godwin, the Marquis de Condorcet and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (and scoffed at in the next generation by Thomas Malthus). In their time these people were talking about possibilities. But all through the 1800's more and more pieces of that pie-growing possibility showed up -- railroads and mechanized textiles being two icons of the period. This was the time in which the "Protestant Work Ethic" started to match real world possibilities.

In the 1920's the first big real world game changer came into existence. It was mass production, effectively developed first in the US and then exploited around the world. Its icon was Henry Ford and the Model T automobile. (Interestingly, in his promotion style Ford played the fairness card prominently. He famously paid his assembly line workers above average wage and stated that Model T buyers, "Could have any color they wanted, as long as it was black.")

This miracle of mass production was marveled at by writers and thinkers of the first half of the 20th century. It was the miracle that the size of the pie could change! They wrote a lot about what this change would mean to human living. (As an ironic example of the power of adaptation in human thinking, in the early 21st century we take this miracle completely for granted.)

But instinct thinking is not based on humans' 20th and 21st century experiences, so it hasn't caught up, and it is still pretty sure there are harsh limits. This instinct that there must be limits puts a lot of oomph into the 21st century environmental movements, in particular movements such as resource conservation, Peak Oil, and the Club of Rome reports, "We must beware! In spite of how good things look now, things will run out!"

In sum, this growing of the resource pie that Industrial and Information Age technologies makes possible is alien to human instinct thinking.

Now let's look at some ramifications of how this mix of instinctive thinking and new alien reality interact.

Fairness versus Growth

The main social tool for growing productivity in human communities has been entrepreneurship -- the building of new organizations that make things and service things in new more efficient ways. Entrepreneurship produces exciting results, but in the process it steps on the toes of powerful instinctive thinking. In particular the harsh limits instinct and the fairness instinct. (and its tight buddy, prescriptive thinking, "There's one right way to do this.")

As a result entrepreneurship makes a lot of people uncomfortable -- only a few people can get around their instinctive thinking in this regard. Those few people are mostly those who also have a good adaptability to commerce -- because of that the thinking needed for commerce and entrepreneurship are closely tied.

And the instinctive thinking surrounding this activity is strong. In the 18-1900's anti-pie growing instinct flowered as the feeling that entrepreneurial-based growth wasn't fair. In one form this shows up as periodic anti-change movements such as the Luddites who were violently opposed to mechanized looms replacing human weavers in 19th century England. But being pro-fair has proved a much more enduring concept than anti-change. Socialist, Communist and Unionist movements have at their heart being more fair about how goods are distributed.

And average community thinking has been caught in the middle.

o On the one hand, the benefits of growing the pie are immense and obvious. It was pie growing that let Western European nations become the colonialists of the rest of the world during the 1800's.

o On the other is the outrage of continued poverty mixed with this growing wealth. An example being the Charles Dickens-style stories which inspired visions of seeing wealthy commerce makers having to step over sick and starving children as they walked down their newly-built avenues lined with smoke-belching factories.

This is an issue that see-saws communities and the governments that run them. We have yet to find a happy medium.


Steadily increasing productivity is something incredibly powerful in making our world today better than yesterday's and our world of tomorrow even better still. But it's new and it crosses against both the harsh limits and fairness instincts in human thinking.

As a result making it happens takes "outside the box" thinking, and a community that is willing to tolerate such strangeness even though it can be gut-level scary and not prescriptively fair. History has shown this kind of toleration is difficult to achieve. Any community experiencing dramatic changes in how things are done is also going to experience dramatic calls for that changing to be "fair" and "respect Mother Nature". These calls can be effective wet blankets on progress.

If we as a community want to keep enjoying the benefits of growing the resource pie, we must be diligent in taming our community instincts which say, "Yes, growth and change are nice, but..."

This means we must be diligent about promoting analytic thinking over instinctive thinking. This means we need to be watching carefully what our kids are being taught. The more kids learn "Let your heart be your guide." (instinctive thinking) the harder it will be to keep growing the resource pie.


-- The End --


Note: This essay was inspired by a 28 Jul 12 Economist article, Les misérables: Europe not only has a euro crisis, it also has a growth crisis. That is because of its chronic failure to encourage ambitious entrepreneurs. This article compares the environment for startup business entrepreneurs in Europe with other parts of the world.

to Editorial index ... to Science and Insight index