I’ve spent a lot of time in the last week strolling around Paris, eating long meals at cafes, stopping in little shops, wandering through cathedrals, sitting on park benches, and generally enjoying the aesthetic pleasures of the world’s most beautiful day-to-day culture.

So it was a shock to the system to enter the cavernous Palais des Congress, with its blank-faced modernity, and sit in conference rooms listening to functionaries from government and business recite PowerPoint presentations on their five-phase action plans, three-part performance contracts, and seven-stage technology development strategies. It’s great, mind you, to see this kind of work, but the proceedings are so divorced from the city and culture around them, so devoid of poetry or vision or joy. So bloodless.

This, it seems to me, is the great shortcoming in the push for efficiency. The word itself reeks of sterile technocracy. It envisions communal life as a business process, purely a practical matter, to be stripped of ornamentation, trimmed and tucked, standardized and expedited. It’s no wonder advocates have such a hard time getting it the prominence it deserves on the public agenda, no wonder it hasn’t captured the public imagination.

Several speakers noted the fact in different ways, lamenting that efficiency is “boring,” pleading with the attendees to be “passionate.” One, EU parliamentarian Claude Turmes, spoke plaintively of the need to make energy efficiency “sexy.”

But efficiency and sex are antithetical. Sex is voluptuous and beautiful, virile and messy — anything but efficient. If sexiness is not efficient, why should the converse be true?

What’s needed is not just a new term (please lord, not another “climate change” vs. “global warming”). What’s needed is a new vision, a new way of thinking about what efficiency advocates are really after.

Architect William McDonough, who frequently makes a similar point, has suggested “energy effectiveness.” Unless you have 10 minutes for McDonough to explain what that means, though, I doubt it’s going to do much for you; the connotations aren’t much better.

In passing, Turmes himself suggested what struck me as a promising alternative: “resource intelligence.”

I’ll have to think about it more, but at first blush I like it — at least it has a spark of humanity. “Intelligence” carries connotations not only of adeptness but of sophistication and even elegance. After all, there’s something marvelous about how a mind like, say, Einstein’s took what seemed like a jumble of parts and derived compact, holistic explanations out of them. Intelligence doesn’t imply less, like efficiency, but better. And that’s what people want — not less, but better.

sexy tree
Trees are sexy.
Photo: minds-eye via Flickr

Consider McDonough’s frequent example: is a tree “efficient”? No, it grows far more leaves/acorns/branches than it needs and scatters them everywhere. But the tree itself is an intelligent integration of a system into a larger system. There is no waste. When you understand the elegance and intelligence behind the beauty, there’s real resonance, even, dare I say, a kind of passion.

Now, imagine you live in a house that gathers rainwater and captures, cleans, and recycles 100% of the water used in it. In that house, you do not need to use less water; the house’s design provides you with an abundance! The water is not used in a miserly way, but in an intelligent way.

Efficiency implies scrimping and trimming and subjecting every move to a cold cost-benefit analysis. Intelligence, like nature, leaves room for beauty and abundance and progress.

I realize the ship has sailed. I won’t be able to single-handedly engineer a change in usage. But for my part, I’m going to try to talk less about efficiency and more about intelligence, because that’s what this evolution is really about: substituting intelligence for brute force.

Only an economist could wish for Paris to be more efficient. But a Paris that uses its resources more wisely, that allows for guilt-free abundance, is something even a wine-guzzling aesthete like me can support.