The scourge of productivity and the promise of regenerative culture

By Jonathan Eldridge

Joining Tiny House Community earlier this year encouraged me to think more about regenerative culture and its antithesis, productive culture. As much as anyone else, I used to take for granted the value of productivity and its correlative, efficiency. It seemed to be a self-evident truth that productivity should be sought after, that we should be aiming to get the most out of minimal resources, ensuring the greatest good for the least effort – a logical extension of utilitarianism.

However, the more I thought about productivity as a measure for economic strength – encapsulated by measures like Gross Domestic Product – the more I felt it was defined by an abandonment of meaningful relationships with the world, an abandonment that puts great pressure on the biological, psychological, and social systems we live within.

The scourge of productivity

In 2020 an article in The Guardian claimed the UK’s productivity slowdown was its worst since the Industrial Revolution. Things haven’t improved, with the war in Ukraine adding pressure to an already crumbling system. Whilst the productivity line has gone up and down, the model that underpins it as a measurement of economic strength has continued to bite into the ecosystems on which human societies rely for food, water, and energy – the bedrock of all flourishing cultures. Productivity articulates how efficiently things (products, services) are produced. On the face of it, improving productivity, resulting in greater efficiency, appears to be a worthwhile pursuit, especially when it is also linked to improved living standards. However, the drive to be productive arguably places unsustainable pressure on the land and water, our minds, and society.

The land, the water

During the industrial revolution advances in technology, such as the scaling of steam power, vastly improved the efficiency with which coal was used. However, rather than this resulting in a reduction of coal-use, its production boomed. This phenomenon is an example of something known as the Jevons paradox, whereby the improved efficiency of a resource and the accompanying fall in its cost of use increases demand and extraction.

This is only part of the story of productivity, one that is punctuated by the erosion of fertile soil and marine ecosystems blighted by destructive fishing practices. As resource depletion has sped up, so have our engineering solutions to manage stocks and waste, but these solutions have not been able to hold-back the industrial and agricultural run-off polluting our rivers, the leeching of toxic waste into the soil, the spread of micro-plastic particles in the ocean, or reverse species extinction.

A distorted world: pressure on the mind

The distortion of the world the drive towards productivity creates is not purely physical, but psychological, in nature. On an individual level, the pressure the narrative frame of productivity induces can create periods of lucidity and focus that seem to harness the best of our energy when properly directed, but then comes burnout, exhaustion, disaffection.

To counter this, apps, devices, and techniques have been designed to improve efficiency – ‘life hacks’ are abundant on social media. And yet, people often continue to perceive time slipping away from them. This can become so pervasive it colours attitudes towards out-of-work hours, leading to judgements about how productive we are being with our “free time”.

Psychology is a complex subject, and it is difficult to decipher the impacts that different frames and narratives have on individuals and groups. Productivity as measured by outputs geared towards goals is an attractive way of conceiving reality – simple and accountable. However, its prominence as a feature of modern, industrial strategies and its creeping influence on our personal lives cannot be entirely healthy, especially if it is not kept in check by other values.

An unstable social sphere

Exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the narrative of productivity has, if not collapsed the social sphere, at least changed its structure. We are one of many social creatures, and whatever the character of our interactions, most of us will seek out chances to share with others. This aspect of the productivity narrative is perhaps the hardest to unpick, as the philosophy behind the proliferation of social media – the most disruptive change in this context – is bound up with notions of connectivity and truth, rather than efficiency of interaction.

However, the spectre of productivity hovers over these interactions, and there has arguably been an erosion of social time free from market influences, which are inevitably linked to productivity. What’s more, enforced separation because of lockdown has brought into focus how siloed our lives are, and how beneficial social contact is in softening the harder, more brittle edges of our identities.

The promise of regenerativity

Regenerative culture, as I see it, seeks to tackle the influence of productivity at these most basic levels – biological, psychological, social. Applying regenerative techniques to the land involves understanding how different species and beings relate to each-other as well as ourselves, and working out how we fit into this picture, instead of focusing on inputs and outputs, yields and profit.

It takes a cyclical approach to time (no longer lines on a graph), which, in my eyes, is more accepting of the permeability of physical systems. Whereas our management of land and waste has often been about containment and invisibility – enclosing land for the benefit of property owners, squashing waste into landfill, burning it, burying toxic waste deep underground - regenerative practice appears more aware of the fallibility of these approaches, instead seeking to work with the land, making natural processes transparent, and fostering the health and resilience of the soil and water.

Switching frames, from one of productivity to regenerativity, also reforms our relationship with the earth and our conception of our role on it. Instead of seeking to transform what the world gives us into something productive, we can refocus our attention and try to better understand how we are situated in relation to and with others, shifting from self-judgement into acceptance of our position in the world.

Tiny House Community Bristol is a definitive step into a different future, one in which we are less beholden to measurements and targets that seem to have only arbitrary relevance to our lives. Whilst measurements can given indication of where we are and be used as the basis for projections about where we might end up, the actions required to get there involve a genuine and deep relationship with the world, reducing the distance constructed by abstraction, creating spaces that allow us to form meaningful, reciprocal relationships.

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