The Power of Lying Fallow

Everything needs time to regenerate if it is to thrive, from nature to business to people. It is also very inefficient according to short term metrics. We have a problem of our own making and for which the resolution, with resolve, is in our own hands.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” Addictions are profitable for the pushers, and each of these addictions has pushers – for heroin is it crime syndicates, for carbohydrates the corporate / advertising complex. For monthly salaries, it is debt. 

In my lifetime, household debt in the UK, as a percentage of GDP, has tripled to 90%. Behind that is a complex mix of privatising the commons of education, healthcare and a raft of other services that used to be free, financed by second incomes and debt. If that’s not pushing, I’m not sure what is. It makes the drugs cartels look like amateurs.

Over the same period, we have done the same to the way we grow our food as we have to manufacturing industry. Extensive use of artificial fertilisers, re-engineering and consolidating farms to make them more efficient. The farming workforce has more than halved over the period, whilst output has nearly doubled. 

All this short term “performance” comes, of course, at a price. On the land, our soil is exhausted. Our range of skills is decimated in manufacturing, and our education system depleted by years of saddling students with debt to learn increasingly obsolescent skills. When we need creativity, originality and independent thought, we have produced salary-dependent compliance.

In farming, we are re-learning the wisdom of generations ago when rotational systems alternated land use and left fields to lie fallow for the soil to recover. We are learning similar lessons in the way we manage our natural ecosystems. It is way past time we recognised the same with people. 

It may be that the pandemic has done some of the job for us. As those who want a “return to normal” cajole us back to offices, there are many who aren’t turning up. Job vacancies are high, and sectors like hospitality have to raise wages by double-digit amounts and are still not recovering capacity. The Economist is carrying articles on the challenges faced by employers and landlords as they face what is difficult to shrug off as a blip. TechRepublic has a report suggesting that over 30% of staff are likely to resign as the pandemic eases in tech.

The straws in the wind are increasing. We cannot sustainably sacrifice people’s welfare to pursue efficiency, and it needs more than comfort packs and mindfulness apps to address the problem.

The optimist in me hopes that the pandemic, amongst all the damage it has caused, has at least woken us up to the addictions we have and that enough people are coming off the hard stuff of efficiency to start a movement.

It does us all good to lie fallow for a period.

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