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The Future History of Political Economy – Part 2

Thermodynamics in Economics: Revolutionary portent, future history

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics represents the extension into economics of the thermodynamic revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In physics, that revolution dethroned Newton and brought relativity. In biology, it was midwife to the birth of ecology, the study of ecosystems as wholes in which energy networks—food webs—are a defining structure. In chemistry the laws of thermodynamics brought clarity and rigor to a science that struggled to bring theoretical unity to diverse phenomena. So far, though, most economists are perfectly willing to treat their subject matter as if the laws of thermodynamics simply don’t apply to it.

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But the thermodynamic revolution in economics can’t be permanently forestalled. For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder for the neoclassical model to reassure us that its system of Newtonian abstractions is a good fit to the real world. The Great Collapse of 2008 demonstrated that whatever else it is, the discipline of economics isn’t very good at predicting major economic phenomena. Climate change and the Sixth Extinction make it hard for economics to maintain its pretense that economic activity takes place in abstractia, on the clean white pages of textbooks or on whiteboards holding formulae, with no roots in or consequences for anything outside of itself. Truths derived on the model of Newtonian mechanism are supposed to be abstract and ahistorical, but our planet and our economy are most assuredly evolving concretely and over time.

The driving dynamic of this economic and planetary change—the driver of history for the past three centuries—has been human use of high-EROI fossil fuel. The driving dynamic of the history yet to come will be the declining EROI of our civilization’s energy sources.

Oil Well 3.Texas State Archives

Oil used to gush out of the ground under pressure, making for a very high Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). In the 1920s, wells like this gave the industry an average EROI of 100 to 1 or more. Today’s petroleum industry has a much lower EROI. Photo Credit: Texas State Archives

You can see some of the consequences of declining EROI already:

  • Despite a rising real per capita GDP, for a significant percentage of workers in OECD nations personal income has flatlined or is declining. An increasing concentration of income helps explain this but another dynamic is at work as well. As EROI falls, it takes more economic effort to get the energy that’s needed to support economic effort. Even as gross economic activity (GDP) grows, production of net benefit is shrinking.
  • Other sectors of the economy have been affected by this ongoing increase in the economy’s matter-and-energy overhead. “Austerity” has become the watchword for governmental budgets, even in the wealthiest nations in the world. Developed countries find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to pay maintenance and upgrade costs on infrastructure investments made in the heyday of 100-to-1 oil.
  • In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion over seven years to restore and maintain existing infrastructure.
  • Worldwide, many of the ecosystems that support human civilization are degraded and close to collapse. Forced by both ideology and declining EROI into austerity budgeting, governments are reducing their scope and energy at the exact moment that sustainability would have them take strong action to rein in the rational, free-market tendency of corporations to maximize profits by degrading the commons and externalizing other costs.
  • Pension-fund wipeouts are becoming common as one way to fulfill the economy’s structural need for debt repudiation—a need that lies in our system’s willingness to let debt grow faster than a declining EROI economy can pay back, even after growth has been stimulated by lifting or reducing regulations that limit the environmental damage done by economic activity.
  • The planetary carbon sink is full, producing climatic effects that even an abstraction-inhabiting, arithmo-morphizing economist has to acknowledge as a troubling reality.

Centuries from now economic historians are likely to understand the relationship between EROI and wealth creation much better than does the average economist of today. I think it likely that future political economists will express wonder not at the 20th century’s enormous economic success, but at how little we actually added to our stock of wealth for all the high-EROI coal and oil it was our pleasure to burn. They are almost certain to shake their heads in wonder that we, enjoying an energy supply and an EROI never seen on the planet before or since, could ever have experienced an economic downturn, could ever have let a human starve from want, could ever have been so programmatically blind to the physical origins of our fortunes.

The Future History of Political Economy – Part 1

Economics Ignores Thermodynamics

by Eric Zencey

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as a comment in the Great Transition Network Forum, which will appear on the Great Transition Initiative website next week along with a new essay by Herman Daly, “Economics for a Full World.”

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics and its corollary, Steady State Economic thinking, represent a step forward for the discipline of economics and also a return to how it was practiced in the past. In the nineteenth century, economics was a part of a larger enterprise: political economy, the integrated treatment of morals and economics, ultimate ends and efficient means. Late in that century economics calved off from political economy, leaving behind political science and political philosophy as the residuum. It did this in service to the ideal of becoming rigorously scientific.

It’s odd, then, that alone among disciplines with any pretense to analytic rigor, economics has steadfastly resisted the thermodynamic revolution that swept physical and life sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Physics, biology, chemistry, geology, even the study of history were transformed, but not economics.

I think we can blame this on bad timing, willful ignorance, and oil.

Bad timing

In the late nineteenth century the archetypal science was physics and physics was Newtonian mechanism. Ignorant of what a young thermodynamic theorist named Albert Einstein would soon do to the Newtonian paradigm they emulated, Stanley Jevons and other economic “scientists” set about mathematically modeling the economy as sets and subsets of self-contained, equal-and-opposite actions and reactions, happily (and explicitly) assuming that all economic activity consists of ahistorical, which is to say completely reversible, processes. No one who has a nodding acquaintance with the law of entropy could have countenanced this. Entropy is Time’s Arrow, the law of irreversibility; it describes the one-way flow of energy use. A purely mechanical process can be run forward or backwards, but we’ll never invent a machine that can suck in exhaust gases, heat and motion and transform them into gasoline. The entropy law can tell you why. Newton couldn’t.

Just as a consumer might choose to keep a recently purchased appliance even though a newer, better model has been brought onto the market, neoclassical economists weren’t about to re-tool their brand-new thinking to reflect changes in the underlying metaphysics they had been so keen to adopt. It didn’t seem to them that there was any reason to.

“Seem” is the operative word here. Because the entropy process is time’s arrow, and because Ecological Economics places the entropy process at the center of its analysis, it’s entirely appropriate for Ecological Economics to understand its subject matter and itself as a discipline in historical terms. Like other paradigm-defining insights, this one seems obvious once it has been stated: elements of the neoclassical model that could pass for true on a large and forgiving planet a hundred years ago are obviously not true today, when the planet’s source-and-sink services are severely taxed, when natural capital is the limiting factor in production, when there are seven billion of us and our economic wants, capacities and expectations have been amplified by our access to the ancient sunshine of fossil fuels.

Willful ignorance

By modeling the economy as a closed and circular system, neoclassical economists have encouraged themselves to operate in a methodologically enforced state of denial about the physical roots and ecological consequences of our wealth-creating activities. And yet economics has experienced no paradigm-shaking crisis as a result. Neither climate change nor any of the other source-and-sink catastrophes facing civilization have been laid at the feet of bad economic theory. One reason: Neoclassical economists succeed in treating environmental costs as “externalities.” How could environmental degradation be the result of economic activity if it’s external to the economy?

Midas.Giovanni Caselli from the Age of Fable

The power to create wealth gave Midas an unsustainable life as a complete solipsist. Oil’s power to create wealth has had a similar effect on Neoclassical economics. Illustration by Giovanni Caselli from The Age of Fable.

In its self-confirming isolation of the economy from nature and theory from reality, neoclassical economics amounts to a highly principled practice of solipsism. When this pathology is manifest in an individual it produces unpleasant consequences that might eventually prompt some reflection and personal growth. Not so with the collective delusion of mainstream economists. Evidence of our ongoing ecological catastrophe falls far from their purview—not just disciplinarily but geographically, as the wealthier nations (wherein the vast majority of economists reside) export their ecological footprint to the impoverished nations of the world. And for several generations (at least since Reagan defeated Carter, removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House and ushered in an era of GDP growth through de-regulation of the social and ecological consequences of economic activity), there has been a strong self-selection among students of economics. Undergraduates with any kind of deep personal connection to natural systems tend to find the study of standard economics unattractive, displeasing, even soul-deadening. This leaves the field to those most willing to bracket off as irrelevant to their professional purpose any question about the moral and ethical consequences of economic activity, any question about the health and maintenance of nature, any question about the economy’s relation to the larger social and natural systems within which it operates.

Oil

Even so, you might expect that a discipline with such a demonstrably deficient view of its subject matter would fail of its object—would fail to offer wise counsel about the collective project of augmenting the stock of wealth that humans can enjoy. But economics has had much apparent success. Despite regular downturns and financial crises, the wealth produced by our economies has grown and grown and grown. I think there’s a ready explanation that becomes visible through the conceptual lens of Ecological Economics, which tells us that energy isn’t a commodity like any other but a fundamental factor of production (part of a trio: matter, energy and human design intelligence). When your economy operates on an energy source that cranks out wealth-making value in a ratio of 100 to 1 or better—the estimated Energy Return on Energy Invested that petroleum offered us in the early 20th Century—you can believe any damn thing you want about how economies operate and your economy will still generate a great deal of wealth.

Which is to say, high-EROI oil granted the new science of economics immunity from being proven false by events. But falsifiability of principles and propositions is one solid measure of a science. (Non-falsifiable beliefs are called faiths.)

In effect the discipline of economics has a free rider problem—it’s been given a free pass by the enormous power of oil to misunderstand itself and its subject matter. You could also call it a Midas Problem, after the legendary king whose touch turned everything he touched into gold, including his dinner and his daughter. The power of wealth-generation that oil granted to our economy made it impossible for the discipline of economics to connect in any fundamental way with otherness, including the otherness of the planet and its role in the very processes that economics presumes to model.

 

An Economics Fit for Purpose in a Finite World

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyCausation is both bottom-up and top-down: material cause from the bottom, and final cause from the top, as Aristotle might say. Economics, or as I prefer, “political economy,” is in between, and serves to balance desirability (the lure of right purpose) with possibility (the constraints of finitude). We need an economics fit for purpose in a finite and entropic world.

As a way to envision such an inclusive economics, consider the “ends-means pyramid” shown below. At the base of the pyramid are our ultimate means, low entropy matter-energy–that which we require to satisfy our purposes–which we cannot make, but only use up. We use these ultimate means, guided by technology, to produce intermediate means (artifacts, commodities, services, etc.) that directly satisfy our needs. These intermediate means are allocated by political economy to serve our intermediate ends (health, comfort, education, etc.), which are ranked ethically in a hierarchy by how strongly they contribute to our best perception of the Ultimate End. We can see the Ultimate End only dimly and vaguely, but in order to ethically rank our intermediate ends we must compare them to some ultimate criterion. We cannot avoid philosophical and theological inquiry into the Ultimate End just because it is difficult. To prioritize logically requires that something must go in first place.

Ultimate Political Economy

The ends-means pyramid or spectrum relates the basic physical precondition for usefulness (low entropy matter-energy) through technology, political economy, and ethics, to the service of the Ultimate End, dimly perceived but logically necessary. The goal is to unite the material of this world with our best vision of the good. Neoclassical economics, in neglecting the Ultimate End and ethics, has been too materialistic; in also neglecting ultimate means and technology, it has not been materialistic enough.

The middle position of economics is significant. Economics in its modern form deals with the allocation of given means to satisfy given ends. It takes the technological problem of converting ultimate means into intermediate means as solved. Likewise it takes the ethical problem of ranking intermediate ends with reference to a vision of the Ultimate End as also solved. So all economics has to do is efficiently allocate given means among a given hierarchy of ends. That is important, but not the whole problem. Scarcity dictates that not all intermediate ends can be attained, so a ranking is necessary for efficiency–to avoid wasting resources by satisfying lower ranked ends while leaving the higher ranked unsatisfied.

Ultimate political economy (stewardship) is the total problem of using ultimate means to best serve the Ultimate End, no longer taking technology and ethics as given, but as steps in the total problem to be solved. The total problem is too big to be tackled without breaking it down into its pieces. But without a vision of the total problem, the pieces do not add up or fit together.

The dark base of the pyramid is meant to represent the fact that we have relatively solid knowledge of our ultimate means, various sources of low entropy matter-energy. The light apex of the pyramid represents the fact that our knowledge of the Ultimate End is much less clear. The single apex will annoy pluralists who think that there are many “ultimate ends.” Grammatically and logically, however, “ultimate” requires the singular. Yet there is certainly room for plural perceptions of the nature of the singular Ultimate End, and much need for tolerance and patience in reasoning together about it. However, such reasoning together is short-circuited by a facile pluralism that avoids ethical ranking of ends by declaring them to be “equally ultimate.”

It is often the concrete bottom-up struggle to rank particular ends that gives us a clue or insight into what the Ultimate End must be to justify our proposed ranking.

As a starting point in that reasoning together, I suggest the proposition that the Ultimate End, whatever else it may be, cannot be growth in GDP! A better starting point for reasoning together is John Ruskin’s aphorism that “there is no wealth but life.” How might that insight be restated as an economic policy goal? For initiating discussion, I suggest: “maximizing the cumulative number of lives ever to be lived over time at a level of per capita wealth sufficient for a good life.” This leaves open the traditional ethical question of what is a good life, while conditioning its answer to the realities of economics and ecology. At a minimum, it seems a more convincing approximation to the Ultimate End than today’s impossible goal of “ever more things for ever more people forever.”

Integrating Ecology and Economics

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyAttempts to integrate economics and ecology have been based on one of three strategies: (1) economic imperialism; (2) ecological reductionism; (3) steady-state subsystem. Each strategy begins with the picture of the economy as a subsystem of the finite ecosystem. Thus all three recognize limits to growth. The differences concern the way they each treat the boundary between the economy and the rest of the ecosystem, and that has large policy consequences for how we accommodate to limits.

Ecology & Economy

 

Economic Imperialism

Economic imperialism seeks to expand the boundary of the economic subsystem until it encompasses the entire ecosphere. The goal is one system, the macro-economy as the whole. This is to be accomplished by complete internalization of all external costs and benefits into prices. Those myriad aspects of the biosphere not customarily traded in markets are treated as if they were by imputation of “shadow prices”–the economist’s best estimate of what the price of the function or thing would be if it were traded in a competitive market. Everything in the ecosphere is theoretically rendered comparable in terms of its priced ability to help or hinder individuals in satisfying their wants. Implicitly, the end pursued is ever-greater levels of consumption, and the way to effectively achieve this end is growth in marketed goods and services.

Economic imperialism is basically the neoclassical approach. Subjective individual preferences, however whimsical, uninstructed, or ill-considered, are taken as the ultimate source of value. Since subjective wants are thought to be infinite in the aggregate, as well as sovereign, there is a tendency for the scale of activities devoted to satisfying them to expand. The expansion is considered legitimate as long as “all costs are internalized.”

But many of the costs of growth we have experienced have come as surprises. We cannot internalize them if we cannot first imagine and foresee them. Furthermore, even after some external costs have become visible to all (e.g., climate change), internalization has been very slow and partial. Profit maximizing firms have an incentive to externalize costs. As long as the evolutionary fitness of the environment to support life is not perceived by economists as a value, it is likely to be destroyed in the imperialistic quest to make every molecule in creation pay its way according to the pecuniary rules of present value maximization.

Ironically, this imperialism sacrifices the main virtue of free market economists, namely their antipathy to the arrogance of central planners. Putting a price tag on everything in the ecosphere requires information and calculating abilities vastly beyond any imagined capacity.

There is no doubt that once the scale of the economy has grown to the point that formerly free environmental goods and services become scarce, it is better that they should have a positive price reflecting their scarcity than to continue to be priced at zero. But there remains the prior question: Are we better off at the new larger scale with formerly free goods correctly priced, or at the old smaller scale with free goods also correctly priced (at zero)? In both cases, the prices are right. This is the suppressed question of optimal scale, not answered, indeed not even asked, by neoclassical economics.

Ecological Reductionism

Ecological reductionism begins with the true insight that humans and markets are not exempt from the laws of nature. It then proceeds to the false inference that human action is totally explainable by, reducible to, the laws of nature. It seeks to explain whatever happens within the economic subsystem by exactly the same natural laws that it applies to the rest of the ecosystem. It subsumes the economic subsystem indifferently into the natural system, erasing its boundary. Taken to the extreme, in this view all is explained by a materialist deterministic system that has no room for purpose or will. This is a sensible vision from which to study the ecology of a coral reef. But if one adopts it for studying the human economy, one is stuck from the beginning with the important policy implication that policy makes no difference.

The reductionist vision frequently appeals to the Maximum Entropy Production Principle (often capitalized to elevate it to the same level as the Second Law of Thermodynamics). It says that whatever competing system maximizes entropy production will be competitively selected. Indeed one can appreciate the logic of this principle. The system that can monopolize and most rapidly degrade available sources of low entropy will displace competing systems by depriving them of their energy source. This insight should be taken seriously as a natural tendency. But when we apply it to the human economy it gives us an absurd policy implication. Namely, that the economy maximizes entropy production. Since maximizing entropy is the same as maximizing waste, that hardly offers a sensible rule for either understanding or directing the human economy!

The maximum entropy principle is more like the tragedy of open access commons than like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That is, it is a trap–a competitive race to the bottom in the absence of collective action. The Second Law by contrast is an inevitability that we must recognize and adapt to; it has no known exceptions. The maximum entropy production principle is not a physical law. No action, collective or individual, can avoid the Second Law. Like the tragedy of the commons, the tragedy of entropy maximization is a detrimental competitive tendency that we must overcome by collective action. But if we mistakenly consider it a physical law on the level of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then there is nothing to do but give up.

Economic imperialism and ecological reductionism have in common that they are monistic visions, albeit rather opposite monisms. It is the monistic quest for a single substance or principle by which to explain everything that leads to excessive reductionism on both sides. Certainly one should strive for the most reduced or parsimonious explanation possible without ignoring the facts. But respect for the basic empirical facts of natural laws on the one hand, and self-conscious purpose and will on the other hand, should lead us to a kind of practical dualism. After all, that our world should consist of two fundamental elements offers no greater inherent improbability than that it should rest on one only. How these two fundamental elements of our world (material cause and final cause) interact is a venerable mystery–precisely the mystery that the monists of both kinds are seeking to avoid. But economists are too much in the middle of things to adopt either extreme. Economists are better off denying the tidy-mindedness of either monism than denying the facts that point to an untidy dualism.

The Steady-State Subsystem

We must pay attention to the optimal scale of the human economy to protect the ecosystem we depend on. Photo Credit: Elisa Bracco

We must pay attention to the optimal scale of the human economy to protect the natural ecosystem we depend on. Photo Credit: Elisa Bracco

The remaining strategy is the steady-state subsystem. It does not attempt to eliminate the subsystem boundary, either by expanding it to coincide with the whole system or by reducing it to nothing. Rather, it affirms both the interdependence and the qualitative difference between the human economy and the natural ecosystem. The boundary must be recognized and drawn in the right place. The scale of the human subsystem defined by the boundary has an optimum, and the throughput by which the ecosphere physically maintains and replenishes the economic subsystem must be ecologically sustainable. That throughput is indeed entropic, but rather than maximizing entropy the goal of the economy is to minimize low entropy use needed for a sufficient standard of living–by sifting low entropy slowly and carefully through efficient technologies aimed at important purposes. The economy should not be viewed as an idiot machine dedicated to maximizing waste. Its final cause is not the maximization of waste but the maintenance and enjoyment of life.

The idea of a steady-state economy comes from classical economics, and was most developed by John Stuart Mill (1857), who referred to it as the “stationary state.” The main idea was that population and the capital stock were not growing, even though the art of living continued to improve. The constancy of these two physical stocks defined the scale of the economic subsystem. Birth rates would be equal to death rates and production rates equal to depreciation rates. Today we add that both rates should be equal at low levels rather than high levels because we value longevity of people and durability of artifacts, and wish to minimize throughput, subject to maintenance of sufficient stocks for a good life.

Ecological economics should seek to develop the steady-state vision, and get beyond the dead ends of both economic imperialism and ecological reductionism.

Slumlord Nation

by Eric Zencey

Eric_ZenceyAccording to architectural critic Charles Jencks, modern architecture died forty one years ago, on March 16, 1972. That’s the day that dynamite charges brought down the first of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis, Missouri. You’ve probably seen the pictures: a cloud of dust swirls out into the street while the tops of the buildings, still square, sag and tilt crazily. The photo captures rectilinear form giving way to dust and rubble: an iconic moment, an image that reminds us that entropy — the law of increasing disorder — haunts all our acts and works. In the distance you can make out another St. Louis icon, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, that gleaming stainless steel monument to the city’s role as mustering yard for the nation’s western expansion.

Jencks was wrong about modern architecture. So are those who blamed the residents of Pruitt-Igoe for the buildings’ decay and destruction. What brought those buildings down is a dynamic that’s very familiar in our modern economies — a dynamic that the conceptual lens of ecological economics lets us understand very clearly.

Pruitt-Igoe was a federally funded urban renewal project comprised of thirty-three high-rise apartment buildings, eleven stories each, on a 57-acre plot. It represented the best design practices for high-density urban development when it was built. It had green space (a benefit of building up instead of out). It had community function rooms on the ground floors and every third floor (which is where the novel, skip-stop elevators went, encouraging residents to think of every three floors as a neighborhood, since they’d pass and meet in stairwells). Within the limits of Missouri law, it was desegregated. The Pruitt towers, named for a black WWII aviator from Missouri, were for blacks, and the Igoe towers, named for a white Congressman, were for whites. The whole complex was designed for mixed incomes. Some apartments were rented at market rates to middle class families; others were subsidized, with rent limited to a percentage of household income. (Under welfare rules, these apartments could not have telephones or televisions and were available only to families that did not have an able-bodied wage-earner in the household.)

New and ultra-modern when they were built in the early 1950s, after less than two decades’ use the buildings had become a filthy, crime-infested, broken-windowed, high-rise slum, as bad as (and in many ways worse) than the housing they had been built to replace. In desperation the St. Louis Housing Authority consolidated the remaining tenants into a few buildings and demolished the others. The attempt at retrenchment failed. By 1976 the last remaining tenants had been relocated, the buildings razed, the site bulldozed. Today the acreage holds a couple of schools and the country’s largest accidental urban forest.

What brought the towers down, says one conventional (and racist) narrative, was the behavior of its residents. Despite the plan for a mix of income groups and separate-but-close mingling of races, the towers soon held just low-income African Americans, and they were responsible for trashing the buildings. The architect, Minoru Yamasaki (who went on to design the World Trade Center Towers, which came down under very different circumstances) gave credence to this interpretation when he allowed, “I never thought people were that destructive.” A slightly less racist version of this narrative notes that adolescent boys are always the prime perpetrators of vandalism, and that welfare regulations had the unintended effect of breaking up families, ensuring that quite a few adolescent males in the complex had no father figure at home. Vandalism and crime were the predictable result.

A different conventional narrative is told by some architectural critics, like Jencks, who find that the building themselves were at fault. The projects were too massive, too anonymous, too soulless to be successful in fostering neighborliness and a shared sense of pride in place. The public spaces of the complex, this theory says, became no-man’s-lands that residents avoided and hurried through. With no one caring for them, they fell into disrepair and bred crime, vandalism, trash, brutality.

Neither of those narratives comes anywhere close to capturing the complex truth, which is that the Pruitt-Igoe towers were brought down by an unfortunate collision of factors. Federal funding paid for construction, but operating costs were the responsibility of the city. The intended occupancy rate would have enabled rental income to cover these. But the population of St. Louis was undergoing an historic change; it fell from 857,000 to 622,000 between 1950 and 1970. Some of this was a general postwar exodus to the suburbs, fuelled by cheap gas, Veterans Administration mortgages, and the assembly-line methods of suburban construction pioneered in Levittown. Some — a great part of it — was white flight. In 1954 the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision mandated the desegregation of public schools, and two years later a Missouri court ordered desegregation of public housing in the city. Middle-class whites left St. Louis for the suburbs, where housing costs and racial discrimination in sales and rentals — “redlining” — would preserve segregated schools for decades to come. With its middle-income apartments emptying and being re-let to impoverished black families, the Housing Authority could no longer support Pruitt-Igoe’s maintenance expenses.

The slum housing that Pruitt-Igoe replaced had become degraded and unhealthy for sound economic reasons. A slumlord maximizes his income stream by zeroing out maintenance costs, consuming the stored integrity of a building as income, and letting the building depreciate down to nothing. Tax law, which allows deductions for depreciation, makes this an even more lucrative strategy. Faced with an inadequate income stream, the public housing authority of St. Louis did what slumlords do: they reduced their budget gap by zeroing out maintenance expenses and sucking the integrity and usefulness out of their property.

The Pruitt-Igoe demolition offers a clear warning about resorting to the slumlord model (credit: St. Louis Post Dispatch).

The Pruitt-Igoe demolition offers a clear warning about resorting to the slumlord model (credit: St. Louis Post Dispatch).

As any businessman can tell you, if your operation can’t afford routine maintenance of its productive assets, your operation is in deep trouble. What you’ve got then isn’t a business plan but a plan to be a parasite.

Nature knows three kinds of parasites. One lives in a symbiotic relationship with its host, never diverting so much of the host’s life-energy as to constitute a threat to its continued well-being. (You don’t even notice the mites that live on your dead skin cells.) Another kind of parasite flourishes by consuming its host to death; like smallpox or the plague, it destroys what it feeds on and then jumps to another host. A third kind of parasite falls in between. It sucks a considerable amount of life from the host but doesn’t actually kill it; it achieves a kind of equilibrium, imposing a degraded and diminished life on its host. Tapeworms fall into this category, along with some chronic diseases, such as leprosy, malaria, and tuberculosis. Call it the slumlord model: sustainable, under certain conditions.

Unlike the things humans build, ecosystems (and, by and large, individual organisms within them) are capable of a high degree of self-repair. Any act of maintenance involves resisting entropic decline in a system by importing matter, energy, and design intelligence into a system to restore a valued and orderly arrangement. Broken windows don’t fix themselves. For that you need new glass and a glazier to install it. But damaged ecosystems do repair themselves, if they haven’t been degraded beyond recovery: they use physical nutrients, solar throughput, and the design intelligence of evolution to maintain and deepen their systems of orderly relations.

In his 1952 classic Soil and Civilization, Edward Hyams pointed out that humans have always been parasites on their host ecosystems. We divert some of the resource-energy of those systems and channel it through our bodies and societies before exhausting it, degraded, back into the host. Many, even most hunter-gatherer tribes lived in symbiotic relationship with ecosystems, colonizing part of nature’s food-energy flow but rarely threatening the integrity and continued life of the system as a whole. As agriculturalists, humans sometimes lived in balance with the soil community, never extracting more of its energy-fertility than the system could rebuild from annual solar inflow. But some agricultural societies mined their soil fertility, drawing it down faster than it could be replenished. They consumed the maintenance-energy of their host soils, and either jumped to another host or disappeared as their once-fertile land became sterile sand and gravel.

Today, the bulk of humanity functions as hydrocarbon-fueled industrial parasites — life-suckers whose ambitions include not just food security and reproduction but the accumulation of great material wealth. To gratify those ambitions we’ve used the stored capital of the planet (a finite stock of fossil fuels) to increase the rate at which we suck the maintenance out of planetary ecosystems. We’ve become a slumlord species: we cash out nature’s maintenance flows and spend our gains as income.

Symbiotic parasitism, which allows the host to flourish, is the only one of these roles that will give us an ecologically sustainable economy with a relatively high standard of living. The find-another-host strategy is clearly out: we’ve only got one planet, and we’ve built out to the edge of its capacity to hold us. The slumlord strategy won’t work, either. The typical slumlord doesn’t have to live in the slum that his self-interested behavior creates; his home is somewhere else. On a fully developed, fully occupied planet, there is no “somewhere else.”

Once upon a time, when the world held fewer humans, it seemed that there was room in it for slumlord parasitism. Saarinen’s Gateway Arch memorializes an epic transit, the opening of the American West, and it’s fitting that you can see it on the distant horizon in those iconic pictures of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition. Whatever else it memorializes, the Arch also marks the transit of a parasitic species looking for a new host, migrating in search of fresh ecosystems whose stocks of capital and maintenance energy could be sucked down, cashed out and spent as current income.

Eventually some humans learned that we ought not to turn our own environmental neighborhood into a slum. Many developed nations passed laws — in the U.S. there was the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Water Pollution Control Act — to ensure that we didn’t completely zero out the maintenance of the ecosystems that support us. But like slumlords comfortably housed in the suburbs, those in the industrialized countries continued to benefit from the draw-down of maintenance elsewhere in the system. Mostly we who live in the United States exported our damage to the undeveloped and less developed nations of the world, places willing to sacrifice natural capital and ecosystem integrity to the promise — not always fulfilled — of economic gain.

In St. Louis, slumlording depended on the existence of a class of renters who had no other choices: poverty and racism held African Americans in place, in housing that no one should have to endure. In the world at large, our slumlord practice is maintained by the dogmas of infinite-planet economics. We rely on the ideology of free trade, and the spurious argument that environmental quality is a luxury good, to tell the impoverished citizens of the world that if they’re patient enough and smart enough, they will someday live as we do — as if a political economy in which 5% of the world’s population uses 25% of the world’s resource flow could be expanded to include everyone. But there is just enough material progress to make the dogmas seem accurate: thanks to frantic expansion of the matter-and-energy stream that humans suck out of the planet, and to a decline in the U.S. share of that stream as its middle class disappears, once-poor countries like China and India are developing their own middle class consumerist economies. Meanwhile, our planetary habitation is being damaged and degraded even more rapidly. To most of us, in most places it looks okay, but that’s because we haven’t been schooled in the understanding we need in order to see the damage. Our ecological ignorance allows us to ignore the fact that we’re sucking the life-maintenance out of the planet.

The fate of the Pruitt-Igoe towers shows us the likely outcome of continuing to do that.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and also teaches in the Graduate Architecture and Urban Planning programs at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author most recently of Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State and The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy.

The Populations Problem

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThe population problem should be considered from the point of view of all populations — populations of both humans and their artifacts (cars, houses, livestock, cell phones, etc.) — in short, populations of all “dissipative structures” engendered, bred, or built by humans. In other words, the populations of human bodies and of their extensions. Or in yet other words, the populations of all organs that support human life and the enjoyment thereof, both endosomatic (within the skin) and exosomatic (outside the skin) organs.

All of these organs are capital equipment that support our lives. The endosomatic equipment — heart, lungs, kidneys — support our lives quite directly. The exosomatic organs — farms, factories, electric grids, transportation networks — support our lives indirectly. One should also add “natural capital” (e.g., the hydrologic cycle, carbon cycle, etc.) which is exosomatic capital comprised of structures complementary to endosomatic organs, but not made by humans (forests, rivers, soil, atmosphere).

The reason for pluralizing the “population problem” to the populations of all dissipative structures is two-fold. First, all these populations require a metabolic throughput from low-entropy resources extracted from the environment and eventually returned to the environment as high-entropy wastes, encountering both depletion and pollution limits. In a physical sense the final product of the economic activity of converting nature into ourselves and our stuff, and then using up or wearing out what we have made, is waste. Second, what keeps this from being an idiotic activity, grinding up the world into waste, is the fact that all these populations of dissipative structures have the common purpose of supporting the maintenance and enjoyment of life.

What good are endosomatic organs without the support of exosomatic natural capital?

As A. J. Lotka pointed out, ownership of endosomatic organs is equally distributed, while the exosomatic organs are not. Ownership of the latter may be collective or individual, equally or unequally distributed. Control of these external organs may be democratic or dictatorial. Owning one’s own kidneys is not enough to support one’s life if one does not have access to water from rivers, lakes, or rain, either because of scarcity or monopoly ownership of the complementary exosomatic organ. Likewise our lungs are of little value without the complementary natural capital of green plants and atmospheric stocks of oxygen. Therefore all life-supporting organs, including natural capital, form a unity. They have a common function, regardless of whether they are located within the boundary of human skin or outside that boundary. In addition to being united by common purpose, they are also united by their role as dissipative structures. They are all physical structures whose default tendency is to dissipate or fall apart, in accordance with the entropy law.

Our standard of living is roughly measured by the ratio of outside-skin to inside-skin capital — that is, the ratio of human-made artifacts to human bodies, the ratio of one kind of dissipative structure to another kind. Within-skin capital is made and maintained overwhelmingly from renewable resources, while outside-skin capital relies heavily on nonrenewable resources. The rate of evolutionary change of endosomatic organs is exceedingly slow; the rate of change of exosomatic organs has become very rapid. In fact the evolution of human beings is now overwhelmingly centered on exosomatic organs. This evolution is goal-directed, not random, and its driving purpose has become “economic growth,” and that growth has been achieved largely by the depletion of non renewable resources.

Although human evolution is now decidedly purpose-driven we continue to be enthralled by neo-Darwinist aversion to teleology and devotion to random. Economic growth, by promising “more for everyone eventually,” becomes the de facto purpose, the social glue that keeps things from falling apart. What happens when growth becomes uneconomic, increasing costs faster than benefits? How do we know that this is not already the case? If one asks such questions one is told to talk about something else, like space colonies on Mars, or unlimited energy from cold fusion, or geo-engineering, or the wonders of globalization, and to remember that all these glorious purposes require growth now in order to provide still more growth in the future. Growth is good, end of discussion, now shut up!

Let us reconsider in the light of these facts, the idea of demographic transition. By definition this is the transition from a human population maintained by high birth rates equal to high death rates, to one maintained by low birth rates equal to low death rates, and consequently from a population with low life expectancy to one with high life expectancy. Statistically such transitions have been observed as standard of living (ratio of exosomatic to endosomatic capital) increases. Many studies have attempted to explain this fact, and much hope has been invested in it as an automatic cure for overpopulation. “Development is the best contraceptive” is a related slogan, partly based in fact, and partly in wishful thinking.

There are a couple of thoughts I’d like to add to the discussion of demographic transition. The first and most obvious one is that populations of artifacts can undergo an analogous transition from high rates of production and depreciation to low ones. The lower rates will maintain a constant population of longer-lived, more durable artifacts.

Our economy has a growth-oriented focus on maximizing production flows (birth rates of artifacts) that keeps us in the pre-transition mode, giving rise to growing artifact populations, low product lifetimes, high GDP, and high throughput, with consequent environmental destruction. The transition from a high-maintenance throughput to a low one applies to both human and artifact populations independently. From an environmental perspective, lower throughput is desirable in both cases, at least up to some distant limit.

The second thought I would like to add to the discussion of demographic transition is a question: does the human transition, when induced by rising standard of living, as usually assumed, increase or decrease the total load of all dissipative structures on the environment? Specifically, if Indian fertility is to fall to the Swedish level, must Indian per capita possession of artifacts (standard of living) rise to the Swedish level? If so, would this not likely increase the total load of all dissipative structures on the Indian environment, perhaps beyond capacity to sustain the required throughput?

The point of this speculation is to suggest that “solving” the population problem by relying on the demographic transition to lower birth rates could impose a larger burden on the environment rather than the smaller burden that would be the case with direct reduction in fertility. Of course reduction in fertility by automatic correlation with rising standard of living is politically easy, while direct fertility reduction is politically difficult. But what is politically easy may be environmentally destructive.

To put it another way, consider the I = PAT formula. P, population of human bodies, is one set of dissipative structures. A, affluence, or GDP per capita, reflects another set of dissipative structures — cars, buildings, ships, toasters, iPads, cell phones, etc. (not to mention populations of livestock and agricultural plants). In a finite world some populations grow at the expense of others. Cars and humans are now competing for land, water, and sunlight to grow either food or fuel. More nonhuman dissipative structures will at some point force a reduction in other dissipative structures, namely human bodies. This forced demographic transition is less optimistic than the voluntary one induced by chasing a higher standard of living more effectively with fewer dependents. In an empty world we saw the trade-off between artifacts and people as induced by desire for a higher standard of living. In the full world that trade-off seems forced by competition for limited resources.

The usual counter to such thoughts is that we can improve the efficiency by which throughput maintains dissipative structures — technology, T in the formula, measured as throughput per unit of GDP. For example a car that lasts longer and gets better mileage is still a dissipative structure, but with a more efficient metabolism that allows it to live on a lower rate of throughput.

Likewise, human organisms might be genetically redesigned to require less food, air, and water. Indeed smaller people would be the simplest way of increasing metabolic efficiency (measured as number of people maintained by a given resource throughput). To my knowledge no one has yet suggested breeding smaller people as a way to avoid limiting births, but that probably just reflects my ignorance. We have, however, been busy breeding and genetically engineering larger and faster-growing plants and livestock. So far, the latter dissipative structures have been complementary with populations of human bodies, but in a finite and full world, the relationship will soon become competitive.

Indeed, if we think of population as the cumulative number of people ever to live over time, then many artifact populations are already competitive with the human population. That is, more consumption today of terrestrial low entropy in non-vital uses (Cadillacs, rockets, weapons) means less terrestrial low entropy available for capturing solar energy tomorrow (plows, solar collectors, ecosystem regeneration). The solar energy that will still fall on the earth for millions of years after the material structures needed to capture it are dissipated, will be wasted, just like the solar energy that shines on the moon.

There is a limit to how many dissipative structures the ecosphere can sustain — more endosomatic capital must ultimately displace some exosomatic capital and vice versa. Some of our exosomatic capital is critical — for example, that part which can photosynthesize, the green plants. Our endosomatic capital cannot long endure without the critical exosomatic capital of green plants (along with soil and water, and of course sunlight). In sum, demographers’ interest should extend to the populations of all dissipative structures, their metabolic throughputs, and the relations of complementarity and substitutability among them. Economists should analyze the supply, demand, production, and consumption of all these populations within an ecosphere that is finite, non-growing, entropic, and open only to a fixed flow of solar energy. This reflects a paradigm shift from the empty-world vision to the full-world vision — a world full of human-made dissipative structures that both depend upon and displace natural structures. Growth looks very different depending on from which paradigm it is viewed.

Carrying capacity of the ecosystem depends on how many dissipative structures of all kinds have to be carried. Some will say to others, “You can’t have a glass of wine and piece of meat for dinner because I need the grain required by your fine diet to feed my three hungry children.” The answer will be, “You can’t have three children at the expense of my and my one child’s already modest standard of living.” Both have a good point. That conflict will be difficult to resolve, but we are not yet there.

Rather, now some are saying, “You can’t have three houses and fly all over the world twice a year, because I need the resources to feed my eight children.” And the current reply is, “You can’t have eight children at the expense of my small family’s luxurious standard of living.” In the second case neither side elicits much sympathy, and there is great room for compromise to limit both excessive population and per capita consumption. Better to face limits to both human and artifact populations before the terms of the trade-off get too harsh.

Economics as if the Laws of Thermodynamics Mattered

by David Jones

There is no wealth but life. –John Ruskin

Have you ever considered the question: what is life? If we are aiming for a new economic system that will preserve and enhance life, rather than the current system, which more often than not seems to destroy and degrade life, perhaps we should consider what life is and how it is made possible. I recall learning about “living things” in high school biology classes, but always found the definitions of these “living things” to be somewhat vague. Let me try a physicist’s definition then, which might feel unfamiliar at first. A living thing is a kind of low-entropy-maintenance machine: a configuration of differentiated parts that succeeds in performing complex, interdependent functions for a prolonged period of time.

Having used the word “entropy” in the previous sentence, I should try to explain what it is. All living and non-living things (and hence all human economies, whether or not economists pay attention to the fact!) obey the laws of thermodynamics. The second law, in particular, introduces the concept of entropy and the idea that the entropy of a closed system must either remain constant or increase, but never fall. Entropy is a measure of how “special” a particular arrangement of parts is — the lower the entropy, the more “special” the arrangement. Life is “special.”

To illustrate this concept of “specialness,” imagine first a set of red and blue gas molecules, fifty of each say, bouncing around in a room. Which is more likely: (A) that all 50 red molecules will be in one half of the room and all 50 blue in the other half, or (B) that some roughly even mixture of red and blues will be present in both halves? Scenario B, is the less “special” and more likely one, but why? The answer is that there are many ways of arranging the molecules to have “some roughly even mixture” of red and blue — a great many pairs of molecules can be swapped between the halves without making a difference. However, with the perfect red and blue split, if any molecule is swapped with a partner in the other half of the room, then each half gets “contaminated” with one molecule of the “wrong” color — such a swap does make a difference. Hence what we see tends to be an equal mixture of each color, just because there are vastly many more ways of seeing an equal mixture.

Now I can state the notion of entropy precisely — the entropy of such a set of molecules is a number that is large when there are many ways of swapping pairs of molecules and getting the same overall state, and small when there are few ways of swapping them and getting the same overall state. Explicitly, an entropy S is given by Boltzmann’s entropy law:

S = k log W

Here k = 1.38 x 10−23 joule/kelvin (Boltzmann’s constant), W is the number of ways of swapping the components of a state (say red and blue molecules) without making an overall difference to that state and log W means “the natural logarithm of W” — the power you have to raise Euler’s number (e = 2.718) to in order to get W (for example if W is equal to e then log W is equal to 1, because e to the power 1 is e).

Boltzmann's tomb, with his famous entropy law above the bust

That little equation of Boltzmann’s explains a huge number of phenomena. For example, why do hot things tend to get colder and cold things hotter? Easy — bring a hot thing and a cold thing into contact and it’s like the red and blue molecules all over again — there are many, many more ways for hot molecules and cold ones to get mixed together equally than for them to stay separated into a hot part and a cold part. So the temperature equalizes.

Another example: why do balls bounce lower and lower, but never start bouncing higher and higher? Easy — after they’re done falling, ball molecules are moving more, on average, than floor ones. During each bounce, there are more ways of sharing out this motion randomly amongst the ball and floor than there are of keeping all the faster molecules in the ball and all the slower molecules in the floor. So this sharing out is what happens, and the ball eventually stops bouncing. The opposite case — a ball spontaneously bouncing higher and higher — never happens in practice because it is so unlikely. That’s how you can tell a film is being played backwards; everything that happens is so unlikely that it is never seen to happen in practice. These examples demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics: the total entropy always increases and never decreases because of how incredibly unlikely a decrease is.

What about life and entropy? A living thing has a very low entropy compared to its surroundings, because there are not many ways of swapping its constituent parts and leaving it in an invariant state. For example, swapping molecules between your heart and brain wouldn’t leave you in “an invariant state” — it would kill you! In fact, coming into thermodynamic equilibrium with your surroundings is also known as being dead!

Next question: how is life able to maintain this low-entropy state, in apparent defiance of the second law? Well, life is part of the Earth-sun system. We can regard this as “a closed system” to a very good approximation — a vast ocean of space separates it from other systems. But the Earth alone (plus moon, of course!) is not “a closed system.” The sun — a nuclear fusion reactor — provides the Earth with a constant input of low-entropy “organized” energy in the form of high-intensity photons (particles of light). Plants use this energy to make food which animals (including humans) eat, keeping the low-entropy-maintenance machinery of life running.

The Earth-sun (plus moon) system, of which the human economy is a sub-system

Save for a few ocean vent ecosystems, this low-entropy input from the sun makes all life on Earth possible, and hence all human economies (again, whether or not economists pay attention to the fact!). When we humans burn reserves of oil and coal laid down over millennia in a geological eye-blink, we are liberating the low-entropy energy captured from ancient sunlight and buried deep underground.

The second law of thermodynamics has profound implications for our economic systems. A constant stream of low-entropy energy from the sun is required to maintain life’s organized state. Without this “entropy gradient” the machinery of life would soon wind down, like the bouncing balls or mixing molecules did. So in order to prolong life on Earth, we should try to use this vital low-entropy input as efficiently as possible, to recycle it through all sectors of the economy. We should certainly not waste it and assume that we will be able to increase our use of it more and more and more, forever.

Unfortunately, most mainstream economists don’t seem to have heard of the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this isn’t really their fault, since it’s not in their textbooks. But it should be. It governs all life and all systems on Earth, including the economy. As our leaders in business and government race to implement misguided economic models that are not founded upon the laws of thermodynamics, and as nation after nation refuses to question the pursuit of never-ending economic growth, we draw closer to a fate that will end in tears for the human race. I worry that the tears have already begun falling.

David A. Jones is a PhD student in theoretical physics at Southampton University in the UK. He writes frequently for the Positive Money blog.

Capital, Debt, and Alchemy

by Herman Daly

Herman Daly“Capital,” said Nobel chemist and pioneer ecological economist Frederick Soddy,”merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100.” (Cartesian Economics, p. 27).

He further explained that, “Although it may comfort the lender to think that his wealth still exists somewhere in the form of “capital,” it has been or is being used up by the borrower either in consumption or investment, and no more than food or fuel can it be used again later. Rather it has become debt, an indent on future revenues…”

In other words capital in the financial sense is the perennial net revenue stream expected from the project financed, divided by the assumed rate of interest and multiplied by 100. Rather than magic growth-producing real stuff, it is a hypothetical calculation of the present value of a permanent lien on the future real production of the economy. The fact that the lien can be traded among individuals for real wealth in the present does not change the fact that it is still a lien against the future revenue of society — in a word it is a debt that the future must pay, no matter who owns it or how often it is traded as an asset in the present.

Soddy believed that the ruling passion of our age is to convert wealth into debt in order to derive a permanent future income from it — to convert wealth that perishes into debt that endures, debt that does not rot or rust, costs nothing to maintain, and brings in perennial “unearned income,” as both IRS accountants and Marxists accurately call it. No individual could amass the physical requirements sufficient for maintenance during old age, for like manna it would spoil if accumulated much beyond current need. Therefore one must convert one’s non-storable current surplus into a lien on future revenue by letting others consume and invest one’s surplus now in exchange for the right to share in the expected future revenue. But future real physical revenue simply cannot grow as fast as symbolic monetary debt! In Soddy’s words:

You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]. (Cartesian Economics, p. 30).

In case that is a too abstract statement of a too general principle, Soddy gave a simple example. Minus two pigs (debt) is a mathematical quantity having no physical existence, and the population of negative pigs can grow without limit. Plus two pigs (wealth) is a physical quantity, and their population growth is limited by the need to feed the pigs, dispose of their waste, find space for them, etc. Both may grow at a given x% for a while, but before long the population of negative pigs will greatly outnumber that of the positive pigs, because the population of positive pigs is limited by the physical constraints of a finite and entropic world. The value of a negative pig will fall to a small fraction of the value of a positive pig. Owners of negative pigs will be greatly disappointed and angered when they try to exchange them for positive pigs. In today’s terms, instead of negative pigs, think “unfunded pension liabilities” or “sub-prime mortgages.”

Soddy went on to speculate about how historically we came to confuse wealth with debt:

Because formerly ownership of land — which, with the sunshine that falls on it, provides a revenue of wealth — secured, in the form of rent, a share in the annual harvest without labor or service, upon which a cultured and leisured class could permanently establish itself, the age seems to have conceived the preposterous notion that money, which can buy land, must therefore itself have the same revenue-producing power.

The ancient alchemists wanted to transmute corrosion-prone base metals into permanent, non-corruptible, time-resistant gold. Modern economic alchemists want to convert spoiling, rusting, and depleting wealth into a magic substance better than gold — not only does it resist corrosion, but it grows — by some mysterious principle the alchemists referred to as the “vegetative property of metals.” The modern alchemical philosopher’s stone, known as “capital” or “debt,” is not only free from the ravages of time and entropy, but embodies the alchemists’ long-sought-for principle of vegetative growth of metals. But once we replace alchemy with chemistry we find that the idea that future people can live off the interest of their mutual indebtedness is just another perpetual motion delusion.

The exponentially growing indent of debt on future real revenue will, in a finite and entropic world, become greater than future producers are either willing or able to transfer to owners of the debt. Debt will be repudiated either by inflation, bankruptcy, or confiscation, likely leading to serious violence. This prospect of violence especially bothered Soddy because, as the discoverer of the existence of isotopes, he had contributed substantially to the theory of atomic structure that made atomic energy feasible. He predicted in 1926 that the first fruit of this discovery would be a bomb of unprecedented power. He lived to see his prediction come true. Removing the economic causes of conflict therefore became for him a kind of redeeming priority.

Economists have ignored Soddy for eighty years — after all, he only got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, not the more alchemical “Swedish Riksbank Memorial Prize for Economics in Honor of Alfred Nobel.”

Geo-engineering or Cosmic Protectionism?

by Herman Daly

“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard Keynes, 1933

Herman DalyFrederic Bastiat’s classic satire, “Petition of the Candlemakers Against the Sun“, has been given new relevance. Written in 1845 in defense of free trade and against national protectionism in France, it can now be applied quite literally to the cosmic protectionists who want to protect the global fossil fuel-based growth economy against “unfair” competition from sunlight — a free good. The free flow of solar radiation that powers life on earth should be diminished, suggest some, including American Enterprise Institute’s S. Thernstrom (Washington Post 6/13/09, p. A15), because it threatens the growth of our candle-making economy that requires filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses. The protectionist “solution” of partially turning off the sun (by albedo-increasing particulate pollution of the atmosphere) will indeed make thermal room for more carbon-burning candles. Although this will likely increase GDP and employment, it is attended by the inconvenient fact that all life is pre-adapted by millions of years of evolution to the existing flow of solar energy. Reducing that flow cancels these adaptations wholesale — just as global warming cancels myriad existing adaptations to temperature. Artificially reducing our most basic and abundant source of low entropy (the solar flux) in order to more rapidly burn up our scarcer terrestrial source (fossil fuels), is contrary to the interests both of our species and of life in general. Add to that the fact that “candles”, and many other components of GDP, are at the margin increasingly unneeded and expensive, requiring aggressive advertising and Ponzi-style debt financing in order to be sold, and one must conclude that “geo-engineering” the world for more candles and less sunlight is an even worse idea than credit default swaps.

Why then do some important and intelligent people advocate geo-engineering? As the lesser evil compared to absolutely catastrophic and imminent climate disaster, they say. If the American Enterprise Institute has now stopped offering scientists money to write papers disputing global warming, and in fact has come around to the view that climate change is bad, then why have they not advocated carbon taxes or cap-auction-trade limits? Because they think the technical geo-fix is cheap and will allow us to buy time and growth to better solve the problem in the future. One more double whiskey to help us get our courage up enough to really face our growth addiction! Probably we are irrevocably committed to serious climate change and will have to bear the costs, adapt, and hasten our transition to a steady state economy at a sustainable (smaller) scale. Panicky protectionist interventions by arrogant geo-engineers to save growth for one more round will just make things worse.

At the earthly level I am no free trader, and neither was Keynes, but “shutting off the sun and the stars” to protect the fossil fuel economy is carrying protectionism to cosmic extremes. Reality has overtaken satire.

Thermodynamic Roots of Economics

by Herman Daly

The first and second laws of thermodynamics should also be called the first and second laws of economics. Why? Because without them there would be no scarcity, and without scarcity, no economics. Consider the first law: if we could create useful energy and matter as we needed it, as well as destroy waste matter and energy as it got in our way, we would have superabundant sources and sinks, no depletion, no pollution, more of everything we want without having to find a place for stuff we don’t want. The first law rules out this direct abolition of scarcity. But consider the second law: even without creation and destruction of matter-energy, we might indirectly abolish scarcity if only we could use the same matter-energy over and over again for the same purposes — perfect recycling. But the second law rules that out. And if one thinks that time is the ultimate scarce resource, well, the entropy law is time’s irreversible arrow in the physical world. So it is that scarcity and economics have deep roots in the physical world, as well as deep psychic roots in our wants and desires.

Economists have paid much attention to the psychic roots of value (e.g., diminishing marginal utility), but not so much to the physical roots. Generally they have assumed that the biophysical world is so large relative to its economic subsystem that the physical constraints (the laws of thermodynamics and ecological interdependence) are not binding. But they are always binding to some degree and become very limiting as the scale of the economy becomes large relative to the containing biophysical system. Therefore attention to thermodynamic constraints on the economy, indeed to the entropic nature of the economic process, is now critical — as emphasized by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in his magisterial The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971).

Why has his profound contribution been so roundly ignored for forty years? Because as limits to economic growth become more binding, the economists who made their reputations by pushing economic growth as panacea become uncomfortable. Indeed, were basic growth limits recognized, very many very prestigious economists would be seen to have been very wrong about some very basic issues for a very long time. Important economists, like most people, resist being proved wrong. They even bolster their threatened prestige with such pretension as “the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel” — which by journalistic contraction becomes, “the Nobel Prize in Economics,” infringing on the prestige of a real science, like physics. Yet it is only by ignoring the most basic laws of physics that growth economics has endured. Honoring the worthy contributions of economists should not require such flummery.

I once asked Georgescu-Roegen why the “MIT-Harvard mafia” (his term) never cited his book. He replied with a Romanian proverb to the effect that, “in the house of the condemned one does not mention the prosecutor.”