The Monterey List:
Growing toward a sustainable future
for ourselves and for the planet

* Now available in paperback!*
To purchase either the paperback or the Kindle edition, click the cover image at left.


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The Monterey List originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustainable living on this planet, couched as aphorisms, mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. Over the next few years I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), expanded them into essays, and collected them into a book. I am currently releasing the book on this web page - one essay at a time, once per week. This will take approximately two years. If you are impatient, you may purchase the whole thing from Amazon as either a paperback or a Kindle e-book by clicking the image at left. Then you will be able to read all of the essays without waiting. Otherwise....well, patience is a virtue, and anticipation can be sweet.

Enjoy! And please let me know what you think. You can enter your comments at the bottom of this page.

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54. Things you want add up to things you don't want.

All improvements come with baggage attached, and as the improvements mount up, the baggage mounts up as well. At some point, the baggage may begin to outweigh the improvements. At this point, further "improvements" will always make you worse off instead of better.

Economists and other social scientists know this principle as the Fallacy of Composition. "Composition," in this context, means a whole that is composed out of numerous parts. The fallacy lies in the belief that, if all the parts are good, the whole must necessarily be good as well. Sometimes this is true. At least as often, though, it is false; and in these cases, each individual's honest effort to make things better for himself (or herself) will inevitably make things worse for everybody.

A common textbook example is crowd behavior at football games. Begin with the assumption that everyone, including you, is seated on the bleachers. You decide to stand up in order to see better. That is an individual improvement: standing up is good. But if other people also stand up - a series of individually good acts - parts of your view begin once more to be blocked; and if everybody stands up, you will be worse off than you were when you were seated. You will not be able to see any better, and your legs will be getting tired. A series of rational and beneficial individual acts has created a common whole which is neither rational nor beneficial to any of the individuals who have acted.

The Fallacy of Composition is the chief flaw in the reasoning of the property rights movement: even if every property owner does only what makes perfect sense for his or her own property, the overall result is likely to be one that none of them wants to live with. What's good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the country - including General Motors. But the environmental-movement side of this coin is also true: though each individual act of wilderness preservation may make perfectly good sense on its own, it is entirely possible to preserve too much collectively. The idea that no timber should be cut on the National Forests is as fallacious as the idea that all of it should be cut. We need balance - not between preserves and clearcuts, but between the good and bad attributes of each. We need to preserve until more preserves become detrimental; we need to harvest until more harvest becomes detrimental. Only where those two points overlap is there genuine conflict, and then only within the area of overlap.

If you are too close to one side or the other of this debate to see it clearly, here is a subject that may make the point easier to spot: drag queens in Bellingham, Washington.*

Thirty years or so ago, a bar in this quiet little waterside city on Puget Sound held a drag-queen beauty contest, and the Chamber of Commerce went ballistic. The Chamber pointed accusing fingers at local gay activists, but the gay community actually had nothing to do with it; the bar’s owner had done it for the money involved. The money was there because the town had grown large enough so that even the tiny percentage of the population that would be attracted to drag-queen contests was large enough, in actual numbers, to crowd a bar. And the town’s growth had come because growth had been actively sought and promoted. By the Chamber of Commerce. The accusing fingers were pointed in the wrong direction. Though each individual growth-promotion activity might have made perfectly good sense, the collective result included a few little things the Chamber hadn't planned on at all. The Fallacy of Composition was alive and well.

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*I am indebted to my brother Robert for this example, and for its interpretation. A "drag queen," for those unfamiliar with the term, is a man dressed up as a glamorous woman.

This begins the release of Chapter XI, "On Unintended Consequences." Next week: Section 55, "Unplanned effects may be more important than planned ones."

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(Please note the change in the description of the downloadable portion of The Monterey List. With the release of last week's section, "Previously Released Sections" has stopped growing. Half of the book is now available as a free download: additional sections will continue to be released on this website on a weekly basis, but they will no longer be accumulated here. To obtain a complete copy of the book for a modest price, please click on the image at upper left.)


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(Older Comments)

I think you mentioned 3 or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I forget what the 4th is. (Yes, I know, "Google it.")

This may be my favorite section. Death has a bad name that it doesn't deserve. While it is human to want what we like to go on forever, what we like wouldn't even be here if death weren't an integral component of the incredible miracle of life.

My dad was warning about overpopulation back in the 60's and 70's. I remember seeing 'The Population Bomb' in his small library and he, my mom and myself having conversations at the dinner table on the topic. He was adamant about the profound effect it would have on the planet if there was no intervention, either through individuals choosing to limit the number of children in their families or through governmental attempts to control the situation. Of course, the latter is severely problematic due to individual rights and freedom. However, education does not seem to have made any difference whatsoever. It's a topic that has been a struggle for me. I chose to not have children, although I did miscarry in my early 20's. I find one of my less appealing traits about myself is to judge those who have more than about 2 or 3 children. I wonder if they are blind to the condition of the world and what kind of a world those children and their children are going to inherit. I find myself haunted by these and related questions even in my life today. My wish, which has remained secret until now, is that people will choose to have one child of their own and adopt as many more children as they can support and allow to thrive.

Diane, you will see my views on that question developed in this space over the next few weeks - William Ashworth

Dave Forman, in his book, Take Back Conservation, (I have an autographed free copy thanking me for all of my work), says that we need to retain the idea that we value natural places and preserve them for their own sake, not for human-related reasons. I agree with that, while still recognizing that we need to maintain sustainability.We need both views.
Diane Newell Meyer

Looking forward to the next installment.