I was watching leaves fall from a sugar maple tree. Dry, a little curled at the tips, mottled yellow, they fell one at a time from the tip of a twig where they spent the whole summer. They turned a few times in the air as they came down, past larger limbs and branches, past the bulwark trunk that held them high, and then finally resting on the ground. By next summer, most of these leaves won’t be recognizable as such — as beautifully green, incredibly efficient solar collectors and food producers; they’ll be soil again, turned into nutrients that other plants and trees will take up to make new leaves.
It got me to thinking about scale and efficiency, words which, these days, we most often associate with economics.
What I was thinking about was the reality that a tree, and other creatures in the so-called “natural world,” can really only operate on a fixed efficiency and scale. What I mean is that the life processes of a tree, say, or a deer or a mosquito — that is, the quantity and quality of stuff which these creatures must consume in order to live — can only happen at the speed in which our earth and the sun provide them.
If the sun would shine brighter or longer during the year or more intensely, then maybe a tree and its leaves could ratchet up its efficiency and productivity, and be a more — what, fulfilled? — tree or something. But of course, there is no dimmer switch for the sun (although we may discover that climate change has something of that effect). So a tree has to make do with solar and earthly resources as they are.
Lately, we humans have figured out how to play with rates of scale and efficiency, largely through ingenious uses of oil and electricity. We have learned how to do things at unimaginable speeds, and at scales that are both larger and smaller than most of us can truly appreciate.
Computers are the obvious example: incredibly efficient in their performance, built on nano-technologies so tiny that most of us have to accept them by faith, and when linked through the Internet become a system so large and omnipresent that we are surprised when it’s unavailable. We move faster and faster, and expand into larger and smaller arenas, always looking for a more efficient edge.
I was listening to a report about Google and Amazon distribution warehouses. So many of us, especially this time of year, take great advantage of the low prices these companies offer on nearly every commodity under the sun through their ultra-calculating of efficiency and scale.
The report was focusing on the fact that these companies operate on razor-thin profit margins despite the mind-boggling quantity of business they conduct. The report was also making the point that consumer inducements, such as free shipping and next-day delivery, come at a cost to someone — even if its not the buyer — and typically this cost is borne by warehouse workers. Low wages, tough work conditions, high turn-over rates.
It makes me wonder about the human scale. What is the right speed, the right size for us? Is it possible for us to slow down, become less efficient and still feel fulfilled? At what point does the “pursuit of efficiency” reveal itself as an oxymoron: How can something actually be efficient if you have to spend time and energy to chase it down?
Efficiency and scale. To be sure, a tree — and a deer and a mosquito — also operate on razor-thin margins. The efficiency with which they must operate is very finely balanced. This balance is what ecologists call carrying capacity.
What I see in trees is that this balance is struck in a state of plenty, not scarcity. Presumably this is true for all living creatures, around the world. There is enough — in each place — for everything, if we pay attention to the needs around us. This is the living scale of earth: enough, even plenty, is provided for all living things.
At the end of November we traditionally celebrate the bounty of this earth’s efficiency and scale. We often also try to pay attention to those among us who don’t seem to get as much of this bounty. There really is plenty for us all, human and non-human. Our economic systems can change to bear this reality out.
The leaves come down. Sun and earth will put new ones back up. Plenty has been provided.