In Praise of Inconvenience

For Michael Raupach, 1950 – 2015. Climate scientist, inventor, humanitarian and musician. A true friend of the future.

The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness.


When a friend of mine took a new job in a CBD office tower, I thought she would soon be telling me how many seconds she was shaving off the time it took her to climb the stairs to her floor. A fitness fanatic, she had the body of marathon runner.

Instead she told me how fast the lift was, and how much it cost to park her car in the multistorey facility adjacent to her office tower. I had expected her to park on the city fringe for free, and enjoy the brisk twenty-minute walk through the parklands morning and evening. She explained that the lift and car park saved the time she needed to get to the gym after work.

I could see some sense in her choices. She knew the importance of exercise to her health and happiness, and she was disciplined in making sure she kept to her fitness routine. But fundamentally she was doing something very strange: she was spending a good deal of her income avoiding the exercise she could have got performing the tasks of her daily life, in order to have the time to spend a good deal more of her income on consuming exercise services at the gym. She explained this was convenient for her, though the expense was something of a strain.

Most of us do likewise. We fill our houses, workplaces and cities with all kinds of devices which reduce physical effort, and increase the result of the little effort we do expend. So a one finger press of a lift button replaces the effort of climbing four or five –even one! – floors at work.

At home, we think of these labour saving devices as increasing the time we have for leisure. In the wage economy, we celebrate this as increasing labour productivity.

Of course we should celebrate technological developments which do away with the effort involved in boring, dirty, dangerous, physically damaging and excessive work. In the home, it is good that we can turn on a tap and get water, rather than have to walk a long way to a well; and similarly for washing machines and other such devices which have freed (mainly) women from (much) household drudgery. Similarly too, in the workplace, where various kinds of automation have liberated humans from harmful, dull and repetitive tasks.

And of course we should celebrate technological developments which extend (rather than displace) human capacities – such as the ability to fly, to communicate over long distances, to perform complex calculations on a mountain of data, and to access the wealth of human learning via the internet.

But what should we think of technological developments which do away with the effort involved in interesting, safe and physically beneficial work? There are two reasons why we might conclude that the employment of such technologies is regressive rather than progressive.

First, expending effort is good for our mental and physical health.

As Professor John Dixon from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute put it,

Physical activity has a wonderful array of benefits beyond weight management. It improves cognitive function; helps reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease; preserves muscle and therefore function with weight loss, especially in older folk; helps prevent the physical disability associated with obesity; and preserves quality of life. In summary, physical activity promotes a healthier, longer, more functional life independent of weight achieved.

On the basis of that kind of expert advice, the Australian government has set national guidelines for exercise, which say that adults should

Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week. – apaadult

But we are not following the guidelines. Rather, the National Health Survey found that

In 2014-15, 47.7% of Australians aged 18-64 years participated in sufficient physical activity in the last week… Over one in three (37.4%) were insufficiently active (less than 150 minutes or less than 5 sessions in the last week) while 14.8% were inactive (no physical activity in the last week).

And also that

In 2014-15, 63.4% of Australians aged 18 years and over were overweight or obese.

So just over half of all adults are not meeting the national exercise guideline, and a substantial majority are showing the effects of this in their weight. Although this is what we might have expected, it should still surprise us.

The message that ‘if you exercise that will reduce your weight’ has been so consistently communicated by all kinds of health and education professionals for so long, it must surely now be nearly universally accepted. So if we realise we are overweight, we know we should be exercising a bit more. And ‘a bit more’ is what many of us need. The moderate physical activity recommended to us is just that – doing things which get the heart rate and breathing up a bit, but would still allow us to hold a conversation at the same time, though singing would be a struggle – for not much more than 20 minutes a day.

A 2007-8 survey of physical activity in Australia made just this point, noting that exercise includes

Physical activity not intentionally undertaken for the purpose of fitness, sport or recreation, such as walking for transport, also contributes to the health of an individual.

and that

In the week prior to interview, more than half (57%) of people aged 18 years and over walked continuously for transport for at least 10 minutes.

So for a minority – the 14.8% already mentioned – daily life does not involve any (at least moderate) exercise at all, but for most of us, our daily routines provide some worthwhile exercise, but not as much as our bodies require for good health. Too much of the healthy exercise which our daily activities might provide, has been replaced by various ‘labour saving’ technologies of convenience.

Which brings me to the second reason why we should be sceptical about the value of technological developments which make it possible for us to live without the inconvenience of expending effort. The laws of physics tell us that nothing comes for free: if we have avoided some effort but still achieved its goal, our avoided effort has got to have been replaced by effort from something else.

It’s come from the planet. In choosing convenience over effort, we are making Earth work harder, depleting its resources and causing damage to its ecosystems, to save us the effort we need to keep healthy. The hard working planet gives us a second and very strong reason to rethink inconvenience as something to be avoided.

We tend to think that convenience costs us resources or money, while inconvenience costs us effort and time. But if inconvenience could fill just a half of one of our waking hours each day with purposeful and healthy effort, which would pay off in improved physical and mental health, and lighten our tread on the earth, we should add this into the equation. Then surely we would count inconvenience a benefit rather than a cost.

And a particularly desirable benefit, since it typically comes with a negative price tag. Which sounds too good to be true. Perhaps the catch is that inconvenience is in scarce supply?

But here too the news is good. Inconvenience is ubiquitously available – be it climbing the stairs rather than taking the lift a floor or two, walking an extra stop before jumping on the bus, parking a little further away from our destination, or even seeking out the space in the far corner of the supermarket car park and carrying our shopping at least part of the way. In reusable bags inconveniently cluttering up the back seat of the car rather than the mountain of the convenient and ‘free’ disposable plastic bags that clog our waterways and kill our ocean life, of course.

The ideas I am expressing here are not new. There are already well established organizations seeking out the inconvenient but more rewarding path. For example, the now world wide slow food organization – though ‘apostles for inconvenience’ is not the way the organization describes itself. And there are now many progeny of this initial idea – a whole slow movement, where slowing down allows time to create and appreciate quality, be it of a humble spud, a beautiful wine, or the finely crafted table they rest on.

These organizations are well described as movements, with the implication of a mass of people shifting, albeit slowly, together. For another aspect of the technologies of convenience is that they do not just replace my labour, but yours as well, and thus eliminate our healthy communication and collaboration. Technologies, by allowing us to do things by ourselves that formerly required a team – think of the production of a magazine, for example, or all that solitary entertainment provided by our screens – individualize us.

Inconvenience, by contrast, brings us together in our stubborn refusal to reject the help of machines when fellow human beings could do the job almost as well, if not quite so ‘cheaply’ (ignoring the effort the earth is putting in) and quickly.

Which is not to say that technology need be the enemy of inconvenience. Technology can help make inconvenience accessible – like the use of a timer to allow us to do the washing, run the dishwasher, or heat water at the time of the day when solar power is at its peak, rather than only when it would be convenient to us to do that task if it required our immediate attention.

The essence of inconvenience therefore is not avoiding technology, but using technologies that allow us to put the needs of the earth, and our real needs for healthy exercise and community, before the imagined need for speed and immediacy.

We can easily turn the pursuit of inconvenience into a game which maximizes our incidental exercise and allows the earth to relax a little. The fun part of this is that it is a battle of wits against those clever people beavering away to find new ways to take exercise out of our lives with labour saving devices which we never knew we needed and now find it hard to imagine how we did without – like doors that slide away as we approach so we no longer need to push them open, or have the helpful stranger next to us hold the door while we smile a thankyou and struggle through with our shopping.

To be thoroughly modern perhaps we might think of inconvenience as a Pokémon character we can hunt out as we move through our days, trying to outwit the clever convenience creators by finding the inconvenient option whenever we can.

And to take a final inspiration from Bertrand Russell, we might think of seeking inconvenience as orienting ourselves to the pleasure of the slightly more taxing journey rather than the ever faster rush to the goal – and happily idle along, in praise of inconvenience.

One thought on “In Praise of Inconvenience

  1. There seems to be a rising level of public fear around climate change with a corresponding amount of denial/repression. As individuals we bear responsibility to live lightly on the planet while encouraging and informing others of the ways and means towards a decent life for future generations of all (not just sapiens).
    The technologies are available, so is the knowledge backed by good science.
    For starters swear off uneccessary flights, stop eating animal products, solarise your roof and (here’s the hard one I haven’t yet achieved) ditch the car. Then bore everyone you know with the news of how you do it. Ps I do get peeved by folk who stand still on escalators

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