My Java Journal

On Progress: The Law Of Diminishing Returns


“The law of diminishing returns means that even the most beneficial principle will become harmful if carried far enough.” – Thomas Sowell

I am reading, amongst several other books, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. First published in 1949, it is a collection of essays described as “a stunning tribute to our land and a bold challenge to protect the world we love.

I got turned onto this book from another book I was reading. This happens, a lot. That book was Neil Peart’s – the drummer of Canada’s power trio, Rush – biographical account of his motorcycle journey, Ghost Rider; a journey he undertook after his daughter was killed in a car accident followed by the loss of his wife shortly thereafter.

Neil was an avid bird-watcher and nature lover. He only briefly makes reference to Aldo Leopold, but does so in expressing his concern about the state of the world – smog, industrial contamination, damming, clear-cutting, etc. He witnesses the damage being done during his ride.

A Sand County Almanac

In A Sand County Almanac Leopold reflects in his forward on the concept of the Law of Diminishing Returns as it relates to progress and technology. He wrote this in 1948. Let me share an excerpt before we get into the raison d’etre of this post:

         There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.

Aldo Leopold, 4 March 1948

Here then is the focus of this week’s post; a look at the law of diminishing returns and their impact on our lives.

Law Of Diminishing Returns

The Law of Diminishing Returns is attributed as an economic concept. It considers the point where positive returns plateau before those same factors begin to create negative returns. For example, hiring more staff to meet the demands of a business can bring efficiencies, but hiring too many staff eventually drives the cost of labour up and those same staff now have less to do becoming less efficient, and therefore diminishing the gains of the investment – and eventually generating negative returns. As a quantitative consideration (labour costs and efficiencies) this is easy to calculate; however, consider too the qualitative factors such as the need to manage more staff, and to deal with the personal issues and the inevitable frictions, and the diminishing returns can quickly tip to negative defeating the value of the investment.

In researching this concept I found a more succinct example. The ice cream paradox.

The ice cream paradox is thus: the first ice cream cone is delicious. The second still delicious, but not as impactful as the first. With each ice cream thereafter, not only does the joy the ice cream brings diminish, but after, say, six ice creams, the result is no longer the positive result of a delicious treat, but rather a negative one with an upset stomach and the woes that one should expect from too much sugary dairy.

The positive returns of the ice cream diminish with each cone, until the point it actually presents negative returns. Voila! The Law of Diminishing Returns.

Diminishing Returns And You

The same concept can play out in our personal growth, and really every part of our lives:

  • Salary: I’ve read that a salary of $70-75,000 brings the greatest returns; earning $750,000 by comparison should offer much more, but those first $75,000 are so critical in meeting our basic needs that their value is greater than the rest.
  • Work: Ah, the 5-day, 8-hour work week. Shouldn’t a 6-day, 12-hour work week produce more output? Not likely. Without that elusive work-life balance – enough sleep, family time, recreation, etc – we become less productive, not more with those longer hours.
  • Learning: The first books you read on a subject offer much new information; with each subsequent book your access to new information becomes less until such a point where the effort of reading can become greater than the knowledge gained.
  • Social Media: Great tools for staying connected. Increasingly though, we are having trouble limiting our time on our devices, distracting ourselves from staying connected in-person, and validating ourselves via arbitrary and anonymous feedback.
A Caution On Progress

Ronald Wright writes, in A Short History of Progress, about the inherent dangers of progress, and more specifically the exponential progress we are experiencing in the twenty-first century. We are destroying our planet, our social connectivity, our economy, and more generally, and no doubt debatable, our futures with our current trajectory of progress.

He concludes in his book that we do have the tools and resources to correct our harmful ways. But do we have the will?

So What Am I Hoping To Gain From Sharing This?

The problems inherent in progress are not new; Aldo Leopold was on it in 1948.

I liked this  video on the Law of Diminishing Returns for its recommendations for the future. It suggests that, generally, we need to think slower, smaller and less with respect to progress, population, and consumption. Instead, he offers that we focus on more local, more renewable and DIY. I realize that is not easy and perhaps over-simplified, but Ronald Wright I think articulates a simpler and more palatable, even palpable way forward:

“The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking.” – Ronald Wright

In Conclusion

Whether it is losing the weight needed to feel good, creating the habits to live longer and better, or to just do the things you want to do, or those more global considerations like the health of our planet, the economy or humanity, I like the idea of thinking longer-term and keeping the short-term gains (of progress) in perspective.

Are we able to recognize the tipping points and diminishing returns, and understand the cost to nature (and ourselves) of our pursuit of a higher standard of living?

Is progress seeing us lose the simple and wonderful opportunities to view the geese and the pasque-flower, the ‘wild things’?

I’ll leave you with this quote that I think both Leopold and Peart might endorse:

“If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature.” – Ronald Wright

For what it’s worth.