Wasteful Signals

One of the great things about competitive markets (in an economic sense) is that they reduce waste. If multiple firms are competing against each other to sell a good, each firm has an incentive to find a new way to produce their good that makes the process cheaper and quicker. This allows each firm to eliminate waste, and over time the efficiency of the market improves, costs come down, and we are able to produce a given thing using less energy and resources.

 

But when we look at living creatures and consider evolution, we don’t always see the same thing happening. “The problem with competitive struggles, however,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “is that they’re enormously wasteful.”

 

The simple view of evolution that I always held was that animal species evolve over time to become better. Survival of the fittest meant that smaller, slower, weaker animals in a population would die out, and we would be left with the best individuals and the best genes reproducing into the future. The resulting population would be smarter, faster, sleeker, and in some ways more efficient. But evolution, it turns out, is more complicated than this simple model, and survival of the fittest is not always the best way to describe how evolution works. There is still a lot of random chance, random accidents, and waste that can occur in evolution.

 

In an earlier post I shared Hanson and Simler’s story about redwood trees competing against themselves to become taller. The trees did not compete to live in as diverse an ecosystem as possible, and if they had, Simler and Hanson suggest the trees could have been much shorter and could have occupied more space. The trees are wasteful, driving toward new heights in a confined area rather than efficiently spreading out and remaining at a smaller size.

 

In many ways we do the same thing. Creating a beautiful painting is wonderful, but it is also a bit wasteful. One reason we may want to create art is to demonstrate that we can do something relatively difficult to impress other people. We deliberately create something that uses resources for no practical value as a way to demonstrate that we have extra resources to burn and extra time to spend practicing and creating art. It is an indirect way to say, look how impressive I am and look how many resources I have that I don’t have to spend my time accumulating more resources and can instead use them in any way I choose.

 

We create art and buy fancy sports cars to be wasteful with resources to show off and signal something about our suitability and desirability as a mate. There are other things happening here of course, but this is a key component. Animals develop expensive plumage to signal to mates. Some birds will build fancy nests with shiny objects in them to catch the eye of a potential mate, and others will battle among each other to show which animal is the most physically dominant. Shows of skill, strength, and suitability as a mate can be very expensive using energy, time, and resources that could otherwise go toward finding more food. Evolution has lead animals to be very wasteful in a way that we would not expect if evolution worked like an ideally functioning market. Evolution is not simply survival of the fittest, sometimes there are other elements that get us to waste a lot of resources in our signaling competitions to pass our genes along. Sometimes evolution is selecting for things that really don’t seem to demonstrate a lot of great fit in a direct sense for a species.

Keep What’s Meaningful

The last few weeks I have been wasting time with thing that are not meaningful. My time and attention have been eaten away by things that don’t add value to my life and leave me feeling slightly guilty.

 

This morning I recognized, when I took advantage of an extra 30 minutes in my schedule, of how important it is to keep valuable things in our lives by cutting out the wasteful things. The easy path through life is filled with distracting, quick, and ultimately meaningless parts and pieces. We stay up too late watching pointless tv. We oversleep and eat low nutrition and thoughtless breakfast foods. We purchase large houses and put up with long and wasteful commutes. We make decisions all along the way that we don’t realize sacrifice our time, attention, and ability to meaningfully contribute to the world.

 

These observations on how society pushes our lives lead me to reflect on our daily decisions. I believe we all need to think critically about what are the most important factors in our lives. From there, we can begin to consider the large overarching decisions that we make to shape our lives. Once those decisions have aligned with our core values, we can start to think about the million small decisions that we make each day. This will bring our lives into alignment with our core values and help us cut out things that do not bring us value. It will help us think about what is meaningful and what decisions will help us  build a meaningful, thoughtful, and fulfilling life. Without this approach we won’t be able to think about how we live and our life choices, and we will fill ourselves with meaningless distractions and wastes of time.

 

Looking back at quotes I have written about, a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be seems particularly fitting with these thoughts. He writes, “Pursuing what’s meaningful is important, but just as important is understanding why we’re pursuing what we’re pursuing and how we’re undertaking that pursuit. Pay attention to the why behind your actions, and the how and what become a lot easier to define and control.” Understanding that why helps us see what we need to do to get to a place where we can have a valuable impact on the world. Each of the daily actions that we can take become more clear when we understand our motivations and what we truly want to work toward. Thinking deeply about purpose and meaning gives us a sense of how to make the most out of the short time we have on this planet.

Carelessness

“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness,” Seneca wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius almost 2,000 years ago. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is a collection of short passages written from Seneca to Lucilius full of interesting reflections on life. His quick quote about carelessness seems to be as fitting as can be for our times today.

 

We live in a time where great possibilities are open to most of us. On a given weekend we can volunteer our time for a meaningful cause, go snowboarding, go to the beach, visit family, or work on an art project, or try to finally get the garage cleaned. Often, however, we might find ourselves in a position where our time slips past us, and our weekends are lost to Netflix and squandered on meaningless activities. I often look forward to the promises of the weekend on Friday with excitement, but end up looking around my place on Sunday night reflecting on everything I planned to do but never managed to get to. We don’t need to pack every minute of our free time with interesting, fun, and engaging activities, but what I feel on some Sunday nights, is the pain of a loss due to carelessness.

 

Much more seriously, our world faces very extreme consequences from global warming as we continue to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We face dangerous consequences from the  bioaccumulation of plastics in fish and wildlife species that eat our garbage. Millions of people in the deserts of the United States rely on water sources that are becoming depleted, yet water waste from leaks and unwise water usage persist. Our world faces various ecological crises that result more or less from our own carelessness. Just as I feel terrible some Sunday nights about the way I wasted my time during the weekend, we will look back at where we are today and feel extreme regret for the carelessness with which we wasted resources and allowed our planet to degrade.

 

Solving my problem on Sunday nights is not impossible. It just requires that I be more considerate about my time. It requires that I think about what I am doing and why I am doing it to ask myself if there are other things I should be doing and if I am going to look back and be glad that I spent my time engaging with any given activity. With some planning going into the weekend, I can be successful in engaging with the world in a meaningful way on my days away from the office. The same is true for our climate crisis. If we ask ourselves what we are doing and how our actions contribute to the overall sustainability of our planet, we can start to make small changes to live better on our planet. We won’t individually make much of a difference, but collectively we will start to make changes and we can all contribute to a consciousness about the importance of using our resources wisely. That mindset will eventually translate into smart decisions globally to help us mitigate our impact on the way things are going and prevent us from a disgraceful loss of a habitable planet due to our own carelessness.