The Monterey List:
Growing toward a sustainable future for ourselves and for the planet
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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.
97. Elegance consists of using precisely what you need.
Using less than you need leads to insufficiency; using more leads to waste. Exactness in the use of resources is both good conservation and good management.
Elegance, simplicity and efficiency are closely related virtues and will usually converge to the same solution. Both efficiency and simplicity, however, imply a paring down. This may not be what is needed. As a goal, paring down is no better than building up. Paring down and building up should be seen as tools: the goal is to do things well.
Artists speak of an elegant line; musicians and writers speak of an elegant phrase; scientists speak of an elegant proof or an elegant postulate. All mean the same thing: the use of exactly the right amount of resources to get the job done. The elegant line is neither too wide nor too narrow, and curves neither too little nor too much. The elegant musical phrase goes neither too high nor too low, peaks neither too early nor too late, and uses neither too few nor too many notes. The elegant proof consists of the fewest possible steps to show the truth of a theorem; the elegant postulate ties up all the loose ends of a hypothesis in the simplest possible manner. The composer Arnold Schoenberg often held up a pencil in front of his students; pointing first to the eraser and then to the point, he would state firmly, "This end is as important as this end."* Artists and scientists would undoubtedly agree. Schoenberg was really simply restating Occam's Razor, the scientific principle which holds that, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation of a phenomenon is generally the best.
Occam's Razor holds for resource management, too. The simplest way to get a job done is generally the best. Schoenberg's pencil must be balanced in the middle. Preservation fails, as a goal, because it doesn't get the job done; development fails, as a goal, because it doesn't know where to stop. If they are seen as tools, not goals, each may find its place. Fred Astaire was considered an elegant dancer because he never made a move that was unnecessary, or jerky, or too long. But if he had not moved at all, there would have been no dance.
Donella Meadows, one of the authors of the 1972 report The Limits to Growth - the book that first brought the concept of a limited Earth to a wide audience - understood the elegance problem very well. Here's what she wrote in an article for the Los Angeles Times in 1992:
Growth is a stupid goal. So, by the way, is no-growth. Growth is beside the point. The point is caring for people and resources and meeting real needs with the highest possible quality. When that is done, the growth will fall where it may and where it should.**
*Personal reminiscence of my composition teacher, William H. Bailey at Whitman College, who was one of Schoenberg's students.
**Meadows, Donella. "A Company Decides Not To Grow." Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1992.
This completes Chapter XVIII, "On Sustainable Goals." Next week: Chapter XIX, beginning with Section 98, "Grow things (including food) in cities."
CLICK ON THE LINK ABOVE to obtain a free copy of the first ten chapters of this book. The 57 sections comprising the remaining ten chapters will continue to be released on this website at the rate of one section per week, but they will no longer be accumulated here; each will be available for only one week. To obtain a complete copy of the book for a modest price, please click on the image at upper left.