Saturday, June 18, 2011

The (Worldwide?) Peak of Human Resources

In my last post, I discussed the fallen tendency of some of us humans to conduct ourselves as predators and to regard all the rest of humanity as prey. I also briefly described how this tendency has shaped the evolution of industrial society. Another way of framing this predator-prey relationship is that to the wealthiest members of society, the global official economy over which they preside exists for one purpose, namely their own personal enrichment. Just as that economy requires an ever-expanding supply of material resources in order to generate ever-increasing wealth, so it requires an ever-expanding supply of human capital in order to generate ever-increasing wealth for its elites. The Hubbert Peak of the rate of extraction of various non-human resources is now appearing as a threat to the survival of the economy. I'd like to suggest the existence of a Hubbert Peak of the rate of exploitation of “human resources” as well, and that this poses a further threat to the owners of our present economy, in addition to the Hubbert Peaks of use of other resources. I will present evidence that suggests that we (at least in the First World) are already “past Peak” with regard to human resources. As one version of a favorite song of mine says,

Well, there's a change in the wind, you know the signs don't lie,

Such a strange feelin' and I don't know why it's takin'

such a long time;

Backyard people and they work all day,

Day gets wasted, it's safe to say that they're tastin'

to make the words rhyme...

First, it should be mentioned that Hubbert depletion analysis has been applied not only to inanimate resources, but to biological resources that are exploited at rates beyond their natural rates of regeneration and renewal. One such analysis is “Price Trends Over A Complete Hubbert Cycle: The Case of the American Whaling Industry in 19th Century” by Ugo Bardi, a professor at the University of Firenze in Italy and author of the blog, Cassandra's Legacy. Those who study the history of whaling in the 19th century will find an interesting perspective among whalers and those who depended on the whaling industry, namely, a failure to recognize or acknowledge the effects of overfishing and exploitation of whales at a nonrenewable rate. The closest anyone seems to have come to an acknowledgement of this reality is found in a book published in 1878 by Alexander Starbuck who acknowledged that declining production of whale fisheries was due to “an increase of consumption beyond the power of the fishery to supply.” However, like apologists for our present oil industry who blame “aboveground factors” for production constraints, Mr. Starbuck cited “the scarcity and shyness of whales” as a contributing factor in fishery production decline.

Since there are limits to the maximal sustainable rate of exploitation of non-human biological resources, it stands to reason that there is a limit to the maximal sustainable rate of exploitation of human beings as well. Breaching this limit would cause the breakdown of an industrial society even if that society was well-supplied with all other production inputs. Moreover, there would be increasingly severe signs and symptoms of breakdown as the society was driven further and further beyond sustainable rates of exploitation of its members. Finally, it would not be surprising to see the elites at the head of such a society rationalize and refuse to acknowledge the true meaning of these signs and symptoms.

Are there modern societies in which we can see this breakdown taking place? (Is the Pope Catholic?) A better question might be, “Which modern country might best serve as a poster child for the effects of unsustainable exploitation of its human capital?” There are many contenders for this doubtful honor, but today I'd like to focus on Japan – not because I believe that country is worse than, say, the United States, but because the capitalists of that country have created trends which most of the industrial world has been obliged to follow. First, we need to look briefly at the history of Japan from the end of World War Two onward.

The end of the war left Japan both shattered and occupied. The United States provided approximately $18.6 billion in aid, both under the Marshall Plan and other outlays, for the rebuilding of nations whose infrastructure and economy had been damaged by the war. Japan received $2.44 billion. (Total U.S. expenditures from 1945 to 1953 amounted to $44.3 billion.) (Source: Wikipedia, Marshall Plan.) Yet even with American aid, life was very hard for the majority of Japanese citizens just after the war. Their suffering and privation motivated them to quickly fashion an economy which would guarantee robust prosperity for the nation.

Many growth strategies were employed both by the Japanese government and the leaders of its most powerful financial and industrial sectors. While some of these strategies focused on protecting Japanese domestic markets from foreign competition, others focused on building Japan into an industrial powerhouse. One aspect of the building of that powerhouse is of particular interest – namely, the fostering of a certain kind of relationship between the managers of large corporations and the majority of their employees. This relationship was the outgrowth of the Japanese Production Management system (JPM) which has given the world such concepts as TQM (Total Quality Management), JIT (Just-In-Time Manufacturing). SCM (Supply Chain Management), Kaizen, (embodying, among other things, “lean manufacturing”), Zero Defects and Quality Circles. (One other thing to note: although these ideas came to full implementation in Japan, many of these ideas were introduced to Japan by American business and economic teachers such as W. Edwards Deming . This is rather like communism, which was not invented by Russians, yet was wholeheartedly adopted by Russia for several nauseating decades.)

The essence of many of these elements of JPM was to eliminate as much “waste” as possible from the manufacturing process. As JPM spread to other sectors of the Japanese economy, this same focus on “eliminating waste” spread too. The aim of kaizen was continuous improvement of a business process. The measure of “continuous improvement” was continuous growth of profits and continuous reduction of operating expenses. Industry leaders fostered a culture in which workers supported cost cutting and continuous process improvement, identifying fully with the goals of management. This led to situations in which workers on a line assembling car engine parts might have only two minutes allotted per car and no spare time allowed, thus forcing a typical worker to assemble engine parts for 250 cars every five hundred minutes. In such a factory, the production method would involve synchronized production (JIT, no pool of parts and no waste), value organization (to identify the spare time each worker had after one assembly operation in order to identify “waste time”), and supplement production (obtaining the minimum necessary parts from suppliers and subcontractors in order to reduce stock). (Source: “Karoshi – Death From Overwork: Occupational Health Consequences of the Japanese Production Management,” Katsuo Nishiyama and Jeffrey V. Johnson.)

This frenzied work environment was not confined to blue collar occupations, but spread through the ranks of lower and mid-level management as well, giving rise to the salaryman as a cultural icon. It has also given rise to Karoshi (death from overwork), a medical phenomenon of epidemic proportions, along with the related phenomenon of Karo-jisatu (suicide from overwork). Yet this work environment has been reinforced through many means, including identification with traditional Japanese religious and cultural values; unions that have been thoroughly co-opted by management; rigorous standardized schooling with heavy emphasis on conformity, rote memorization and high-stakes, standardized tests, and mass media which promotes the idea of the salaryman as a modern-day samurai contending on behalf of his employer. (As one television commercial put it, “Can you fight 24 hours for your corporation?”)

(To those of you who are not Japanese and who have no knowledge of Japanese culture, I ask: does any of this look familiar? Can you see these things happening in your own societies? Karoshi may soon be coming to a town near you.)

Though this culture has taken a heavy toll on Japan, the government, along with leaders of business and industry, have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge that toll. (What? You're telling me that stress kills people? Aw, come on! “Not all scientists would agree with you.”) But now there are signs that the society which has been built on this culture is starting to break down. The origin of the breakdown is among the Japanese youth, who see their parents being dehumanized and worked to death and who are saying to themselves that they refuse to become like their parents. They are angered by their parents' unrequited sacrifices and they are choosing to opt out of the system.

The opting-out takes a number of different forms. There are the freeters, young people who deliberately choose low-paying part-time jobs so that they can have control over their lives instead of running in an ever-accelerating corporate hamster wheel. There are also the hikikomori, youth who have been damaged by a high-stakes schooling system and who are unable to face the thought of going out into a predatory world without any social support system. There is the larger movement of the datsusara, people who quit work as salarymen or office women in order to launch careers that are more in line with their values.

These people are a threat to the dominant economy, in large part because they represent lost profits (or, to put it differently, they are escaped prey). They have caught the attention of the leadership of Japan, one of whose members suggested not too long ago that all freeters should be forced to join the Japanese Self-Defense Force and go to Iraq. Yet they are part of a phenomenon which is arising in many different countries. As globalization and uber-capitalism have swept the globe, youth who are now coming of age (along with not a few older people) are also coming to realize that the society created by their masters holds nothing for them, and they increasingly feel no obligation to that society. They are dropping out of their respective societies – much as air leaks slowly out of even perfectly good tires on a hot day. The trick is to escape without losing one's mind in the process.


  1. Karoshi – Death From Overwork: Occupational Health Consequences of the Japanese Production Management,” 4 February 1997, Katsuo Nishiyama and Jeffrey V. Johnson.

  2. The Japanese 'Death by Overwork' Phenomenon,” 25 July 2007, Josefine Cole.

  3. Karoshi (Work to Death) in Japan,” 2008, Atsuko Kanai.

  4. Workplace Stress: A Collective Bargaining Issue,” 2002, Anne-Marie Mureau.

  5. The Impact of Globalization on Post World War II Japan,” 2 April 2010, Phillip Luu.

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