Absurd Behavior? Look for Systemic Causes

If there is one thing we have learned from ecology it is that nothing exists in isolation. There is always an environment of woven connections and mutual dependencies in the world of the living. We breathe in oxygen and out carbon dioxide. Trees do the same thing in reverse – building themselves up with the carbon we expel. This is the way of things in the world.

And yet our brains, having evolved for the preservation of their host organisms, do not readily acknowledge this web. All around us we are prone to see "objects", that interact directly with each other, as if they are isolated. This often inhibits ecological understanding.

Consider this: In a world where millions starve every day, there are thousands who fly circles around the country for no other reason than to secure enough frequent flyer miles for special recognition. Sometimes, it seems, the most bizarre tales of fantastical absurdity are found in the non-fiction section.

Yup, a whole day of traveling… just to earn miles. It's called a "mileage run".

Zelle won't even leave the airports she visits. She won't see any of Denver or Des Moines and she doesn't mind that at all.

"Yeah, that's fine. It gets me home in time for dinner."

And that was only one of several mileage runs Zelle has made this year. Including one that took her from Chicago to San Diego to Los Angeles and back all in one day.

Doane also spoke to Randy Peterson who is something of a frequent flier guru who literally wrote the book - well, at least a popular magazine and website - about mileage runs.

"A mileage run is for a frequent flyer who doesn't quite make it at the end of the year", Peterson explained. "They might be a flight short or 3000 miles short and they're just so close and they say you know what, I don't have any more business travel the rest of the year, I'm going to go out and do a mileage run. So what they do is they simply go to the local airport and fly anywhere - they don't really care." -- CBS News

These "frequent flyer fanatics," as CBS News calls them, are intuitive "objects" of moral debate. It is all too easy to claim that each of them is spoiled, selfish, blind to their impacts on society, and more. But this perspective misses out on the broader systemic context that created this ridiculous phenomenon in the first place.

As always, where ecology is concerned, it is the interconnections that matter most.

How is it that airline companies make money through marketing schemes that reward frequent flyers with bonus miles? Every drop of fuel reduces the reserves left over from the days of dinosaurs, drawing us nearer to the end of oil. This waste of nature's bounty is terribly inefficient. It will take thousands of years for another batch of petroleum to brew. And yet our economic theories are currently contrived in a manner that calls this "market efficiency" at work.

This loss of irreplaceable resources goes well beyond petroleum. We are rapidly running out of many precious metals essential in our high-tech modern world. The best estimates are rather disturbing:

The calculations are crude - they don't take into account any increase in demand due to new technologies, and also assume that current production equals consumption. Yet even based on these assumptions, they point to some alarming conclusions. Without more recycling, antimony, which is used to make flame retardant materials, will run out in 15 years, silver in 10 and indium in under five. In a more sophisticated analysis, Reller has included the effects of new technologies, and projects how many years we have left for some key metals. He estimates that zinc could be used up by 2037, both indium and hafnium - which is increasingly important in computer chips - could be gone by 2017, and terbium - used to make the green phosphors in fluorescent light bulbs - could run out before 2012. It all puts our present rate of consumption into frightening perspective. -- New Scientist
No individual is to blame for this. It is a problem of the economic systems that shape our roles and influence our collective behaviors. When considering absurd behaviors like the flying fanatics, we must ask ourselves how it is even possible for "bonus miles" to be an incentive to fly when it is the opposite of necessary. Only then can we start to envision an alternative system that recognizes real costs – especially those not currently accounted for.

Of course, the lack of inherent value attributed to clean skies, lush forests, and the growing scarcity of oil is a very important factor. Markets streamlined to maximize profits by dumping costs onto an unwary public often do facilitate absurdities. Planned obsolescence – the intentional design of products so that they fail and need to be replaced – is a case in point.

Each of these factors is indicative of systemic causes that come together to promote the absurd outcome. Unfortunately, the discussion is about much more than irresponsible individuals. Behaviors like this are driven by markets as they are currently conceived. Instead of pointing fingers at consumption hogs, which doesn't address the root causes, we need a serious debate about the way we construct our markets.

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  • Posted on Jan. 16, 2008. Listed in:

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