Tyranny of Convenience

Convenience: “(T)he state of being able to proceed with something with little effort or difficulty; a thing that contributes to an easy and effortless way of life.” A concept or phenomenon of deep consequence.

As I read the thoughtful concerns of my fellow humans, concerns about the world situation, political and economic events impacting the people around me and the arguments for what we need to do to make the world and its immediate contacts with individual lives deliver a “better product,” I am amazed and cruelly amused (only in the way an old human can be amused) that there is so little interest in the substrate upon which these events and processes are played out.

There is a biological principle of great importance: “The easiest way is the best way.” The thoughtful will immediately recognize that two important ideas are left undefined in this formulation (and this is ultimately of considerable importance), but the essential concept comes through loud and clear.1 If given the choice to ride or walk humans typically pick riding. If given the choice of having ample high quality food delivered or going into the jungle and hunting a widely distributed meal, orangutans hang out at the feeding station. Almost all living things function on a simple imperative: get as many calories as possible with as little effort as possible. There are of course rules; there are always rules!

One of the rules is that calories are the natural stand-in for a nutritionally complete diet. In the native world of evolved relationships it is virtually impossible to consume adequate calories without also consuming abundant vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids. This fact is the reason that vitamins and essential amino acids are “required” in the first place – because they were ubiquitous in the native diet and did not ever have to be made by the organism’s physiology.2 Not only do organisms adapt to use what they need from the environment, the physiology adapts to what is coming into the organism from the environment. This is a vital principle and an important basis of my argument.

Living things evolve to maximize convenience. We don’t normally see it this way since, by our standards, living in the “wild” is a very inconvenient – all hunting and gathering the little bits of food, water and material that just make life possible at all. Convenience is, of course, a human concept – evolutionary physiology is simply measuring efficiency against possibility – but it is useful to frame the ideas this way. Convenience is a narrow idea that we easily understand as short-term ease; and that is exactly the issue.

To make sense of these distinctions it necessary to present a theoretical construct of my invention: that the world can be seen as three systems of order based on the designs of information collection, storage and implementation. These are the Physical System of Order (foundational fundamental order), Living System of Order (DNA/protein information nexus) and the Consciousness System of Order (Complex informational nexus based on the various adapting forms of Story). The manifestation of a system of order is in the probabilities that it generates. A star has a high probability in the Physical Order, but a bacterium has a positive, but vanishingly small, probability. A mouse has a high probability in the Living Order, but a car has a vanishingly small probability. A spear or a rocket ship have high probabilities in the Consciousness order; we are so new at this system of order that its limits aren’t clear.

What makes this construction important is that statements about one system of order may or may not have the same meaning or value in another, e.g., convenience in the Living Order is not at all the same as convenience in the Consciousness Order (and has no meaning at all in the Physical Order). For example, an orangutan is adapted to a widely dispersed food supply; its whole physiology, structure, social order, and, dare I say it, its happiness. Only the CSO or traumatic accident can deliver convenience in the form of a concentrated food supply as an immediate (and non-evolutionary) change and then make it disappear just as quickly. What is convenient in the LSO is rates of change to which the organism can respond both genetically and behaviorally – this evolves the greatest degree of “ease.” Convenience in the CSO is often measured in a single instance without regard to longer term efficiencies. In the orangutan example, the animals act as though evolutionary process were still functioning, but they have been brought into the design order of the CSO for a time when co-existing with humans. All this can do is disrupt the LSO design order.

In the simplest terms, the meaning that I take from this thinking is that we have acted on ourselves consistently over many thousands of years replacing Living Order convenience with Consciousness Order convenience driven by the principle of “the easiest way.” This is a clash of primary systems of order and not just a mess that humans are making.

Our answer for orangutans, when we understood that we were making a dependent class of great apes unsuited to live the life to which they were evolved was to, as reasonably as possible, “inconvenience” them back into the jungle to the natural life of native foods and evolved habits.3

The tyranny of convenience in our lives is the orang problem multiplied a billion times. There is almost no one left to teach us who we are. There is almost no convenience that we have not so thoroughly incorporate into our daily lives that doing without is incomprehensible – and for which we will rationalize the greatest suffering by other humans and other species in the history of life on the earth.

This is the context within which Gaza is occurring, and Iraq, and the squabbles in Ukraine, and China’s ascendance and the incarceration of Leonard Peltier, and a million other major and minor consequences of Consciousness Order manifesting without the forming basis of the Living Order.

Today we can eat 10 thousand calories a day and not get sufficient vitamins; we can travel hundreds of miles and get a mere moment of exercise; we can tell ourselves (or be told) any lie and have no living or physical reality challenge it. Our pursuit of biological convenience spread into the use of the Consciousness Order’s powers to seek and create capacities of ease and effortlessness that deny us our basic humanity, even hiding from us any options for their rediscovery.

At least for now it may be time to reject convenience with as much thoughtlessness as we have accepted it in the past until some can find a reasonable balance and be available to help others as they recognize the hopelessness of an effortless life. The changes that we desire for the world can only begin with what we are willing to do in our own lives.

  1. I first heard this formulation from the lips of an old (to me at the time) black man who had decided I was to be his student in the planting of orange trees when I was working as a farmhand in central Florida in the central last century. We walked all morning stooped to the ground where, inconveniently, the little trees were to reside. After lunch we repeated the morning with the exception that the sun seemed to grow in power every few minutes until the mind, oppressed by the heat, lost clarity beyond the task immediately before it – and then sometimes even the task began to fade into a hot yellow haze. The old man would in the afternoon begin a sing-song as he moved down the long rows: “Da easiest way, da bess way. Da easiest way, da bess way.” He explained that the ‘best way’ was premised on the little trees growing successfully; as many as possible. His meaning was that every movement was to count, that the most trees were to be planted successfully with the least effort. []
  2. Humans have all the precursor chemicals to make the simple organic molecule, vitamin C, but we don’t have one of the four enzymes that are required. The primate/hominid diet (and that of a few other animals) had abundant ascorbic acid so that metabolic pathway was lost. The typical simian diet has more than 10 times the MDR for ‘C’ and so a monkey can starve to death and never get too little ascorbic acid. Plants have metabolic pathways to make every vitamin, amino acid, fat, complex carbohydrate, nucleic acid and other complex organic molecules, all from simple sugar that they make from “air,” water and sunlight. []
  3. This sort of situation as led and allowed the highly over convenienced elites to argue that the most challenged poor should not be shown any mercy. Its most true meaning is, however, that anyone who would sit on a fortune of food and not use it to reduce suffering is a criminal. It was in the human habit to distribute largesse among the group. It was the human habit to compensate the environment for its services. This is what has been lost. []

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Pete V said on January 23rd, 2009 at 10:12am #

    “There is almost no one left to teach us who we are.”

    It is the human capacity for understanding that creates a tension: who we are versus who we should be. In our limited understanding we have pursued destruction in the name of convenience, self-destruction being an inextricably human trait.

    Who we are is easy: This is us…

    Who should we be? What is our agency in these realms of Order?

  2. James Keye said on January 23rd, 2009 at 6:19pm #

    What I mean by “There is almost no one left to teach us who we are.” is that humans have a biological nature, certainly among the very most complex; that our nature requires certain environmental relations to manifest and that it is very difficult to rediscover how to re-form those relations.

    I disagree that “this is us.” I believe that we are no more “us” than a gorilla gone insane in a cage is a gorilla.

  3. Don Hawkins said on January 24th, 2009 at 6:36am #

    David Vaughan from the British Antarctic Survey is on the peninsula right now, keeping a worried eye on the Wilkins Ice Sheet. It was once larger than Connecticut but soon could be gone entirely.

    “We landed on the ice shelf just two days ago — flimsy looking piece of ice — and that appears to be hanging on by the skin of its teeth,” Vaughan says.

    It could collapse any time in the next few weeks, he says.

    “Not all of Wilkins will disappear overnight but a large part of it could,” Vaughan says.

    This ice sheet is already floating on the ocean, so when it melts it won’t raise sea level. But it’s a powerful reminder that change can come quickly — and dramatically — in this land of ice. NPR

  4. Don Hawkins said on January 24th, 2009 at 3:43pm #

    Analyzing atmospheric CO2 levels for the past 610,000 years

    “The researchers found that over hundreds of thousands of years the equilibrium between carbon dioxide input and removal was never more than one to two percent out of balance, a strong indication of a natural feedback system,” wrote Alan Cutler, a science writer for Carnegie. “This natural feedback acts as a thermostat which is critical for the long-term stability of climate. During Earth’s history it has probably helped to prevent runaway greenhouse and icehouse conditions over time scales of millions to billions of years — a prerequisite for sustaining liquid water on Earth’s surface.”

    “The system is finely in tune,” Caldeira told Cutler. “That one or two percent imbalance works out to an average imbalance in natural carbon dioxide emissions that is thousands of times smaller than our current emissions from industry and the destruction of forests.”

    The researchers note that carbon dioxide is presently being added at about 100 times its historic rate of 0.1 billion tons of carbon each year, or approximately 10 billion tons. Most of these emissions result from human industrial activity and conversion of forests.

    “The imbalance in the carbon cycle that we are creating with our emissions is huge compared to the kinds of imbalances seen over the time of the glacial ice core records,” Caldeira said. “We are emitting CO2 far too fast to expect mother nature to mop up our mess anytime soon. Continued burning of coal, oil and gas will result in long-term changes to our climate and to ocean chemistry, lasting many thousands of years.”

    Oh I almost forgot something:
    The sun is at a low point in it’s 11-year cycle of activity now. But over the next few years, sunspots will become more common and flares more frequent. The peak will likely occur in 2012 and El Nino will return this summer or next. Believe it or not still time that is if we try.

  5. Don Hawkins said on January 24th, 2009 at 4:58pm #

    Here is James Hansen who did the math.

    This yields an empirical climate sensitivity. It is ¾ C per W/m2 or 3 C for doubled CO2.
    This climate sensitivity includes all fast feedback processes: water vapor, clouds, sea ice, snow, and aerosols.
    The physics is exact, it is not modeled. All of the feedbacks operate correctly.

    Two conclusions should be emphasized. First the natural imbalance between geologic sources and sinks of CO2 is of the order of one ten-thousands of a ppm per year. In a million years that can cause a change of 100 ppm.
    But the human-made rate of change is today about 2 ppm per year, about ten thousand times greater than the natural rate.
    So the assertion that we should not be concerned about human-made climate change, because there have been much larger natural climate changes is nonsense. There have been larger changes, but on very long time scales. On any time scale of interest to humanity, humans will be in charge of the climate change. James Hansen

  6. Don Hawkins said on January 25th, 2009 at 9:41am #

    We human’s are out of time to start solving problems climate change, over population and the system we use to keep the economy going will not work anymore. After Obama was elected I have watched the network news and many people’s witting get bazaar and the more bazaar. The fascinating part is so far what this new administration wants to do isn’t even close to what needs to be done. The media has not yet seen the reality of what is to come but they will no choice in the matter. If we are going to try think of this as kind of a war. In World war two we changed over very quickly same thing needs to be done now and years of very hard choices and work and hopefully that new way of thinking will happen along the way. Granted the decision by some has been made to not do what is needed and go out in style sort of and that is where we see the bazaar part with many. I have to admit it is amazing to watch and sad at the same time.

  7. James Keye said on January 25th, 2009 at 11:33am #

    Mr. Hawkins,

    The issues that you present are of utmost importance, however, short of an immediate focus in a form of a clear and present danger recognizable to the multitude and the association of that danger with the desires of an economic and political elite, there will be no WWII type of unified response to the terrible dangers that face not only the human species, but also the present ecological balance of the biosphere.

    As individuals understand the issues they must act on their own in the ways that others must eventually act for the present ecological relations to be sustained. There is at least in this method the possibility that a critical mass of action will form and be available as the shit begins to hit the fan, when it cannot be ignored or denied. This is, I believe, our best hope. Everyone who begins to understand needs to speak out: to those in earshot, to the local community, to a regional or national audience by whatever means available. In this way people will be encouraged and supported in their comprehension.

  8. Don Hawkins said on January 25th, 2009 at 8:02pm #

    The shit has already hit the fan and is being ignored and denied and for only three easy payments of $29.95 plus shipping and handling I will tell you why this is happening just kidding sort of. Reality is about to over take Bazaar World and perception will have nothing to do with it.

  9. James Keye said on January 26th, 2009 at 6:07am #

    I certainly agree that the hour is late, and that our relationship with reality is bizarre at the very least, but we don’t know the point of irrevocable ecological collapse. It may be that the momentum of human action will carry us across that threshold do matter what we do, but then again maybe not. There will come a moment when only the deepest insanity will deny our reality – such a moment is rapidly approaching – and that is a possible turning point. If there is a realistic alternative with some possibility of reattaching humanity to the biophysical order ready to be used, then we (and the rest of the extant ecological order) have some chance. I don’t see that we have another option. Otherwise, economic and ecological collapses, one exacerbating the other, will redesign the earth’s surface in the way of a major extinction event and can in no way be predicted.

  10. Pito said on January 27th, 2009 at 9:46pm #

    Major extinction and redesigning of the earth’s surface has already taken place. It is called “progress”. Mother Nature will have the last word as to what the progress was.

  11. James Keye said on January 28th, 2009 at 6:22am #


    check out: http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/08/invention-and-progress/ on this site.

    While I agree that humans have done much to change the biosphere, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. If humans can begin to control themselves — control their adaptive powers as does every other organism — there is some chance that the amount of disruption of present ecologies will be small enough that the “normal” processes of change can reinstate.