Posts

What Is the Limiting Factor?

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn yesteryear’s empty world capital was the limiting factor in economic growth. But we now live in a full world.

Consider: What limits the annual fish catch — fishing boats (capital) or remaining fish in the sea (natural resources)? Clearly the latter. What limits barrels of crude oil extracted — drilling rigs and pumps (capital), or remaining accessible deposits of petroleum — or capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the CO2 from burning petroleum (both natural resources)? What limits production of cut timber — number of chain saws and lumber mills, or standing forests and their rate of growth? What limits irrigated agriculture — pumps and sprinklers, or aquifer recharge rates and river flow volumes? That should be enough to at least suggest that we live in a natural resource-constrained world, not a capital-constrained world.

Economic logic says to invest in and economize on the limiting factor. Economic logic has not changed; what has changed is the limiting factor. It is now natural resources, not capital, that we must economize on and invest in. Economists have not recognized this fundamental shift in the pattern of scarcity. Nobel Laureate in chemistry and underground economist, Frederick Soddy, predicted the shift eighty years ago. He argued that mankind ultimately lives on current sunshine, captured with the aid of plants, soil, and water. This fundamental permanent basis for life is temporarily supplemented by the release of trapped sunshine of Paleozoic summers that is being rapidly depleted to fuel what he called “the flamboyant age.” So addicted are we to this short-run subsidy that our technocrats advocate shutting out some of the incoming solar energy to make more thermal room for burning fossil fuels! These educated cretins are also busy chemically degrading the topsoil and polluting the water, while tinkering with the genetic basis of plants, all toward the purpose of maximizing short-run growth. As Wes Jackson says, agricultural plants now have genes selected by the Chicago Board of Trade, not by fitness to the ecosystem of surrounding organisms and geography.

What has kept economists from recognizing Soddy’s insight? An animus against dependence on nature, and a devotion to dominance. This basic attitude has been served by a theoretical commitment to factor substitutability and a neglect of complementarity by today’s neoclassical economists. In the absence of complementarity there can be no limiting factor — if capital and natural resources are substitutes in production then neither can be limiting — if one is in short supply you just substitute the other and continue producing. If they are complements both are necessary and the one in short supply is limiting.

Economists used to believe that capital was the limiting factor. Therefore they implicitly must have believed in complementarity between capital and natural resources back in the empty-world economy. But when resources became limiting in the new full-world economy, rather than recognizing the shift in the pattern of scarcity and the new limiting factor, they abandoned the whole idea of limiting factor by emphasizing substitutability to the exclusion of complementarity. The new reason for emphasizing capital over natural resources is the claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for resources.

William Nordhaus and James Tobin were quite explicit (“Is Growth Obsolete?,” 1972, NBER, Economic Growth, New York: Columbia University Press):

The prevailing standard model of growth assumes that there are no limits on the feasibility of expanding the supplies of nonhuman agents of production. It is basically a two-factor model in which production depends only on labor and reproducible capital. Land and resources, the third member of the classical triad, have generally been dropped… the tacit justification has been that reproducible capital is a near perfect substitute for land and other exhaustible resources.

The claim that capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources is absurd. For one thing substitution is reversible. If capital is a near perfect substitute for resources, then resources are a near perfect substitute for capital — so why then did we ever bother to accumulate capital in the first place if nature already endowed us with a near perfect substitute?

It is not for nothing that our system is called “capitalism” rather than “natural resource-ism.” It is ideologically inconvenient for capitalism if capital is no longer the limiting factor. But that inconvenience has been met by claiming that capital is a good substitute for natural resources. Ever true to its basic animus of denying any fundamental dependence on nature, neoclassical economics saw only two alternatives — either nature is not scarce and capital is limiting, or nature’s scarcity doesn’t matter because manmade capital is a near perfect substitute for natural resources. In either case man is in control of nature, thanks to capital, and that is the main thing. Never mind that manmade capital is itself made from natural resources.

The absurdity of the claim that capital and natural resources are good substitutes has been further demonstrated by Georgescu-Roegen in his fund-flow theory of production. It recognizes that factors of production are of two qualitatively different kinds: (1) resource flows that are physically transformed into flows of product and waste; and (2) capital and labor funds, the agents or instruments of transformation that are not themselves physically embodied in the product. If one finds a machine screw or a piece of a worker’s finger in one’s can of soup, that is reason for a lawsuit, not confirmation of the metaphysical notion that capital and labor are somehow “embodied” in the product!

There are varying degrees of substitution between different natural resource flows, and between the funds of labor and capital. But the basic relation between resource flow on the one hand, and capital (or labor) fund on the other, is complementarity. Efficient cause (capital) does not substitute for material cause (resources). You can’t bake the same cake with half the ingredients no matter if you double or triple the number of cooks and ovens. Funds and flows are complements.

Further, capital is current surplus production exchanged for a lien against future production — physically it is made from natural resources. It is not easy to substitute away from natural resources when the presumed substitute is itself made from natural resources.

It is now generally recognized, even by economists, that there is far too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about the efficacy of capital to produce the real growth needed to redeem the debt that is “capital” by another name. In other words the debt that piled up in failed attempts to make wealth grow as fast as debt is evidence of the reality of limits to growth. But instead of being seen as such, it is taken as the main reason to attempt still more growth by issuing more debt, and by shifting bad debts from the balance sheet of private banks to that of the public treasury, in effect monetizing them.

The wishful thought leading to such unfounded growth expectations was the belief that by growth we would cure poverty without the need to share. As the poor got richer, the rich could get still richer! Few expected that aggregate growth itself would become uneconomic, would begin to cost us more than it was worth at the margin, making us collectively poorer, not richer. But it did. In spite of that, our economists, bankers, and politicians still have unrealistic expectations about growth. Like the losing gambler they try to get even by betting double or nothing on more growth.

Could we not take a short time-out from growth roulette to reconsider the steady-state economy? After all, the idea is deeply rooted in classical economics, as well as in physics and biology. Perpetual motion and infinite growth are not reasonable premises on which to base economic policy.

At some level many people surely know this. Why then do we keep growth as the top national priority? First, we are misled because our measure of growth, GDP, counts all “economic activity” thereby conflating costs and benefits, rather than comparing them at the margin. Second, the cumulative net benefit of past growth is a maximum at precisely the point where further growth becomes uneconomic (where declining marginal benefit equals increasing marginal cost), and past experience ceases to be a good guide to the future in this respect. Third, because even though the benefits of further growth are now less than the costs, our decision-making elites have figured out how to keep the dwindling extra benefits for themselves, while “sharing” the exploding extra costs with the poor, the future, and other species. The elite-owned media, the corporate-funded think tanks, the kept economists of high academia, and the World Bank — not to mention Gold Sacks and Wall Street — all sing hymns to growth in perfect unison, and bamboozle average citizens.

What is going to happen?

Not Production, Not Consumption, but Transformation

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyWell-established words can be misleading. In economics “production and consumption” are such common terms that it is easy to forget that they do not really mean what they literally say. Physically we do not produce anything; we just use energy to rearrange matter into a more useful form. Production really means transformation of what is already here. Likewise, consumption merely reflects the disarrangement of carefully structured materials by the wear and tear of use into a less useful form — another transformation, this time from useful product into worn out product and waste. Of course one might say that we are producing and consuming “value” or “utility”, not really physical things. However, value is always added to something physical, namely resources, by labor and capital, which are also physical things ultimately made from the same low-entropy energy and materials that go into products. Nor does the service sector escape physical dimensions — services are always rendered by something or somebody. To abstract from physical dimensions and focus only on utility is to throw out the baby and pour bathwater on the diaper.

If we were to speak of a “transformation function” rather than a production function then we would naturally have to specify what is being transformed, into what, by the agency of what? Natural resource flows are transformed into flows of goods (and wastes), by the fund agents of labor and capital. A transformation function must show both the agents of transformation (funds of labor and capital that are not themselves transformed into the product but are needed to effect the transformation), and the flow of resources that are indeed physically embodied in the flow of products, or waste. This distinction between fund and flow factors immediately reveals their complementary roles as efficient cause and material cause — any substitution between them is very limited. You cannot bake the same cake with half the flour, eggs, etc. by doubling the number of cooks and the size of the oven. One natural resource can often substitute for another, and capital can often substitute for labor or vice versa, but more labor and capital can hardly substitute for a smaller resource flow, beyond the very limited extent of sweeping up and re-using process waste such as scraps, sawdust, etc. which ought to have already been accounted for in specifying a technically efficient production function. In most textbooks the production function depicts output as a function of inputs, undifferentiated as to their fund or flow nature, and all considered fundamentally substitutable.

But if the usual production function does not distinguish fund agents of transformation from the flow of natural resources being transformed, then how does it envisage the process of converting factor inputs into product outputs? Usually by multiplying them together, as in the Cobb-Douglas and other multiplicative functions. What could be more natural linguistically than multiplying “factors” to get a “product”? But this is mathematics, not economics. There is absolutely nothing analogous to multiplication going on in what we customarily call production — there is only transformation. Try to multiply the resource flow by labor or capital to get product outflow and your “production function” will have immediately run afoul of the law of conservation of mass. Perhaps to escape such incongruities most production functions contain only labor and capital, omitting resources entirely. We can now bake our cake with only the cook and her oven, no ingredients to be transformed at all! You can multiply cooks times ovens all you want and you still won’t get a meal.

How did this nonsense come into economics? I suspect it represents a confusion between the production function as a theoretical analytical description of the physical process of transformation (a recipe), and production function as a mere statistical correlation between outputs and inputs. The latter is common in macroeconomics, the former in microeconomics, although that is not a hard and fast rule because the distinction between a theoretical description and a statistical correlation is often ignored in both areas. The statistical approach usually includes only labor and capital as factor inputs, and then discovers that these two factors “explain” only 60% of the historical change in output, leaving a 40% residual to be explained by “something else”. No problem, say the growth economists, that large residual is “obviously” a measure of technological progress. However, the statistical residual is in fact a measure of everything that is not capital and labor — including specifically the quantity and quality of resources transformed. Increased resource use gets counted in the residual and attributed to technological progress. Then that same measure of technical progress is appealed to in order to demonstrate the unimportance of resources! If we thought in terms of a transformation function, rather than production ex nihilo it would be hard to make such an error.

The basic points just made were developed more rigorously forty years ago by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in his fund-flow critique of the neoclassical production function. Neoclassical growth economists have never answered his critique. Why bring it up again, and what is the relevance to steady-state economics? It is worth raising the issue again precisely because it has never been answered. What kind of a science is it that can get away with ignoring a fundamental critique for forty years? It is relevant to steady-state economics because it views production as physical transformation subject to biophysical limits and the laws of thermodynamics. Also it shows that the force of resource scarcity is in the nature of a limiting factor, and not so easy to escape by substitution of capital for resources, as often claimed by neoclassical growth economists.

Fitting the Name to the Named

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThere may well be a be a better name than “steady-state economy”, (SSE) but both the classical economists (especially John Stuart Mill) and the past few decades of discussion, not to mention CASSE’s good work, have given considerable currency to “steady-state economy” both as concept and name. Also both the name and concept of  a “steady state” are independently familiar to demographers, population biologists, and physicists. The classical economists used the term “stationary state” but meant by it exactly what we mean by steady-state economy—briefly, a constant population and stock of physical wealth. We have added the condition that these stocks should be maintained constant by a low rate entropic throughput, one that is well within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Any new name for this idea should be sufficiently better to compensate for losing the advantages of historical continuity and interdisciplinary familiarity. Also, SSE conveys the recognition of biophysical constraints and the intention to live within them economically—which is exactly why it can’t help evoking some initial negative reaction in a growth-dominated world. There is an honesty and forthright clarity about the term “steady-state economy” that should not be sacrificed to the short-term political appeal of vagueness.

A confusion arises with neoclassical growth economists’ use of the term “steady-state growth” to refer to the case where labor and capital grow at the same rate, thus maintaining a constant labor to capital ratio, even though both absolute magnitudes are growing. This should have been called “proportional growth”, or perhaps “steady growth”. The term “steady-state growth” is inept because growth is a process, not a state, not even a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Having made my terminological preference clear, I should add that there is nothing wrong with other people using various preferred synonyms, as long as we all mean basically the same thing. Steady state, stationary state, dynamic equilibrium, microdynamic-macrostatic economy, development without growth, degrowth, post-growth economy, economy of permanence, “new” economy, “mature” economy. These are all in use already, including by me at times. I have learned that English usage evolves quite independently of me, although like others I keep trying to “improve” it for both clarity and rhetorical advantage. If some other term catches on and becomes dominant then so be it, as long as it denotes the reality we agree on. Let a thousand synonyms bloom and linguistic natural selection will go to work. Also it is good to remind sister organizations that their favorite term, when actually defined, is usually a close synonym to SSE. If it is not then we have a difference of substance rather than of terminology.

Out of France now comes the “degrowth” (decroissance) movement. This arises from the recognition that the present scale of the economy is too large to be maintained in a steady state—its required throughput exceeds the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem of which it is a part. This is almost certainly true. Nevertheless “degrowth”, just like growth, is a temporary process for reaching an optimal or at least sustainable scale that we then should strive to maintain in a steady state.

Some say it is senseless to advocate a steady state unless we first have attained, or can at least specify, the optimal level at which to remain stationary. On the contrary, it is useless to know the optimum unless we first know how to live in a steady state. Otherwise knowing the optimum level will just allow us to wave goodbye to it as we grow beyond it—or as we “degrow” below it.  Optimal level is one thing; optimal growth rate is something else. Once we have reached the optimal level then the optimal growth rate is zero; if we are below that level the temporary optimal growth rate is at least known to be positive; if we are above the optimal level we at least know that the temporary growth rate should be negative. But the first order of business is to recognize the long run necessity of the steady state, and to stop positive growth. Once we have done that, then we can worry about how to “degrow” to a more sustainable level, and how fast.

There is really no conflict between the SSE and “degrowth” since no one advocates negative growth as a permanent process; and no one advocates trying to maintain a steady state at the unsustainable present scale of population and consumption. But many people do advocate continuing positive growth beyond the present excessive scale, and they are the ones in control, and who need to be confronted by a united opposition!

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, adopted by the “degrowth” movement as its posthumous founder, indeed recognized that the very long run growth rate must be negative given the entropy law and the final dissolution of the universe. But he did not advocate speeding up that cosmic result by negative growth as an economic policy, nor for that matter did he in the least advocate a steady-state economy! In fact he speculated that the destiny of mankind might be to have a short, fiery, and exciting life rather than a long and uneventful one. He did, however, tentatively suggest a “minimal bio-economic program”[1] that would surely reduce growth. In general he was interested in what is possible more than in what is desirable. The question—given the limits of the possible, what is the most desirable policy for mankind?—was not his main focus, although he did not entirely ignore it. The closest he came to explicitly dealing with that question was in the following footnote[2]:

Is it not true that mankind’s problem is to economize S (a stock) for as large an amount of life as possible, which implies to minimize sj (a flow) for some “good life?

In other words, should we not strive to maximize cumulative lives ever to be lived over time by depleting S (terrestrial low-entropy stocks) at an annual rate sj that is low, but sufficient for a “good life”? There is no point in maximizing years lived in misery, so the qualification “for a good life” is important. I have always thought that Georgescu-Roegen should have put that question in bold in the text, rather than hiding it in a footnote. True enough, eventually S will be gone and mankind will revert to what he called “a berry-picking economy” until the sun burns out, if not driven to extinction sooner by some other event. But in the meantime, striving for a steady state at a resource use rate sufficient for a good (but not luxurious) life, seems to me a worthy goal, a goal of maximizing the cumulative life satisfaction possible under limited total resource constraints. This puts at the very center of economics the questions:

Needless to say these questions have not been central to modern economics—indeed, not even peripheral!

Georgescu-Roegen did not like the idea of “sustainability” any more than that of a steady-state economy because he interpreted both to mean “ecological salvation” or perpetual life for our species on earth—which of course flies in the teeth of the entropy law. And he was right about that. So sustainability should be understood as longevity, not eternal species-life in the sense of perpetuity. Clear scientific thinking about “forever” seems, interestingly, to lead to the religious model of death and resurrection, new creation, not perpetual continuation of this creation. Perpetuity in this world is just a glorified perpetual motion machine! To think about forever we must cross from science into theology. But longevity (a long and good life for both individual and species), even if it falls short of forever, or “ecological salvation”, is still a worthy goal both for scientists and theologians, not to mention economists. A steady-state economy is arguably the best strategy for achieving longevity—regardless of what we call it.


[1] N. Georgescu-Roegen, “Energy and Economic Myths”, reprinted in H. Daly and K. Townsend, Valuing the Earth, MIT Press, 1993, p. 103-4.

[2] Ibid. p. 107, fn 11.

A Liberating (but Damned Uncomfortable) Conversion

by Herman Daly

Foreword to Wendell Berry’s What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth

Herman DalyAs a poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and thinker on matters agrarian, Wendell Berry needs no introduction. But he is not a professional economist, not a guild member with a Ph.D. union card. Nor does he claim to be such. In a world where knowledge is organized by discipline and professionalized in tight circles, it is often hard to be heard outside the circumference of one’s own silo. Therefore I fear that the very people for whom reading these essays would be most beneficial, and through whom they could have the most salutary impact on our ailing world, will simply not read them. I can imagine some of my university colleagues and students in economics departments asking: Why should I read a book by a noneconomist on “economics for a renewed commonwealth”? There likely won’t be a single equation in the book, and use of the archaic word “commonwealth” betrays a probable lack of understanding of the individualistic basis of neoclassical economic theory. Economists don’t write poetry or fiction (well, maybe a bit of the latter, but not on purpose), so let not poets or agrarian-environmentalist- localists write about the sophisticated technical science of economics in a globalized industrial growth economy. Leave it to the experts to continue to grow the economy and thereby provide the only possible solution to the problems of poverty, energy, and climate change. I can hear it now, complete with aggrieved intonation.

My purpose in this foreword is therefore to preemptively reply to this imagined but not unlikely invitation for Wendell to shut up. I want to explain why it is critically important for all citizens, especially professional economists, to read and reflect deeply on the essays in this book. Yet I understand the reluctance of someone with the commitments sketched above to give these essays a fair reading. To do so is to run a serious risk of conversion away from the dominant idolatry of our culture—a liberating conversion to be sure, but damned uncomfortable.

What do we economists have to learn from Wendell Berry? Many things, but here I will mention only two. First is a definitional correction regarding the basic nature of our subject matter—exactly what reality matters most to our economic life and why? Second, what mode of thinking does this reality require of us in order to understand it as well as possible, without seducing us into spurious substitutes for honest ignorance?

The definitional correction goes back to Aristotle and, while somewhat retained by the classical economists, seems to have been dropped from the current neoclassical canon. Aristotle distinguished “oikonomia” from “chrematistics.” Oikonomia is the science or art of efficiently producing, distributing, and maintaining concrete use values for the household and community over the long run. Chrematistics is the art of maximizing the accumulation by individuals of abstract exchange value in the form of money in the short run. Although our word “economics” is derived from oikonomia, its present meaning is much closer to chrematistics. The word chrematistics is currently relegated to unabridged dictionaries, but the reality to which it refers is everywhere present and is frequently and incorrectly called economics. Wendell Berry is, I believe, urging us to correct our definition of economics by restoring to it the meaning of oikonomia and freeing it from confusion with, and excessive devotion to, chrematistics. In replacing chrematistics by oikonomia we not only refocus on a different reality but also embrace the purposes served within that different reality—community, frugality, efficiency, and long-term stewardship of particular places.

Where today do we find chrematistics masquerading as economics? Certainly in the recent Wall Street fiasco—“selling a bet on a debt [as] an asset” as Wendell succinctly put it. It is amazing that people who have recently engaged in this disastrous stupidity on such a massive scale still have any credibility at all! Yet belief in “free markets” as the philosopher’s stone that alchemically transmutes the dross of chrematistics into the gold of oikonomia remains strong.

Other examples of chrematistics at work include monopoly pricing, tax evasion, subsidies, rent seeking, forced mobility of labor, cheap labor from union busting and illegal immigration, off-shoring, mergers, hostile takeovers, usury, and bullying litigation—not to mention the airlines’ successful shifting on to their customers the labor previously done by former travel agents, check-in clerks, and baggage handlers. Externalizing environmental costs—shifting the cost of depletion and pollution from the producer to the general public, the future, and other species—is probably the most common and most disastrous chrematistic maneuver. The unaccounted costs range from irksome noise, to mountaintop removal and filling up of valleys with toxic tailings, to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to global climate change and species extinction. Confusing oikonomia and chrematistics, misdefining the proper subject matter of economics, has deadly consequences. In the face of all this it is hard to remember that there are still some people doing useful work and creating wealth to really benefit the community. Chrematistics has not entirely displaced oikonomia, but it is trying to. In Wendell’s terms the little economy is trying to impose its puny logic on the mysteries and complexities of the Great Economy.

Professional economists should thank Wendell for his sharp reminder about what matters. However, if we are too proud to accept correction from a poet and agrarian, we can claim to have rediscovered Aristotle’s forgotten definitions all by ourselves. But then we will still be obliged to apply those definitions to the modern world and be brought face to face with the collective fantasy, idiocy, and horror that Wendell has identified and discussed.

The other thing economists can learn from Wendell Berry, as much from his example as from explicit discussion, has to do with the proper matching of our mode of thinking to the particular reality we are thinking about, and inevitably shaping. Blaise Pascal spoke of two modes of thinking: the “spirit of geometry” and the “spirit of finesse.” Similarly, economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen recently distinguished thinking with precisely defined analytic concepts that do not overlap with their other, from thinking with dialectical concepts that do overlap with their other at the boundaries. The best example of an analytic concept is a number. It is only itself and does not overlap with any other number. Land and sea would be dialectical concepts because, although for the most part distinct, they must overlap in tidal marshlands, estuaries, beaches, river deltas, or even the continental shelf, if they are to reflect reality. Each of these border areas in some reasonable sense is both land and sea—a logical contradiction but true to reality. Money is a notoriously dialectical concept, overlapping with nonmonetary assets of varying degrees of liquidity. When economists try to impose an analytical definition on money they end up multiplying categories (M1, M2, M3 . . .) or failing to capture the shaded subtleties of the borderlands. Analytical concepts employ mathematics to weed out contradictions where “yes-and-no” answers are not allowed. The virtue demanded by analytic thought is rigor; its defect is its inability to deal with qualitative change and evolution. If we do not allow something to overlap with its other then how could it ever evolve into anything different from what it is? The virtue of dialectical thinking is that it can accommodate qualitative change—what used to be dry land can gradually become sea or vice versa. Its defect is that it has to tolerate at least a range of contradiction. The virtue demanded by dialectical thought is good judgment, or as Pascal preferred, “finesse”—finesse in handling contradiction.

Today analytic thought is very much in vogue, and in economics quite dominant. It has the aura of science. Analytic thinking requires a reality that is like a number, and since chrematistics is about the maximization of exchange value numerically measured by money, it tends to attract those with a strong prior commitment to analytical thinking. Dialectical thinking is required by a reality that changes qualitatively through overlapping categories. Oikonomia deals with use values that are embodied in products that evolve over the long run to serve changing wants, and with changing technical efficiency in an evolving community that coheres around values that also change. A preference for dialectical thinking leads to a focus on oikonomia, and vice versa.

My point is not to say that one mode of thought is good and the other bad. Both are clearly necessary. There is a limit to what we can do with numbers, just as there is a limit to what we can do without them. But I do suggest that there is currently a bias toward the analytical and a corresponding prejudice against the dialectical. This quantitative bias is certainly not the only reason for the excessive importance given to chrematistics over oikonomia—greed, avarice, and intellectual sloth play a bigger role—but I think it is a contributing factor. In sum, the second thing that economists can learn from Wendell Berry’s essays is that clear-headed reasoning with dialectical concepts about what matters is possible, necessary, and enlightening. Here Wendell persuades by example.

When a problem yields neither to the spirit of geometry nor to the spirit of finesse, Wendell advises us to be more at home with ignorance and mystery. They are much better companions than either phony equations or empty verbiage, and more congenial to a creature trying to understand the overall workings of Creation and intuit the will of the Creator whose broken image he still bears.

In my eagerness to convince my fellow economists to read this book, I am afraid that I have failed to specifically address the general reader. So, dear general reader, for whom Wendell Berry wrote these essays, let me assure you that if you have read this far, you have gotten through the most obscure and convoluted part of the book. The rest is smooth sailing with a clear-headed and trustworthy navigator, albeit through deep waters. The essays require wakeful attention and focused thought, but priestly intermediation by professional experts is surely not needed.

The Financial Crisis Is the Environmental Crisis

by Eric Zencey

In May of 2009, U.S. federal legislation created the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, charged with investigating the causes of the financial crisis that led to the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Commission’s report is due in January. But don’t get your hopes up; they’re more than likely to get it wrong.

The Commission has held hearings with and gathered testimony from quite a few experts, all of them entrenched within the mainstream of neoclassical economic theory. The experts have named the usual suspects: cyclical swings between greed and fear; feedback effects that “disequilibrate” markets; cheap and “poorly documented” mortgage financing; bank accounting that kept some liabilities “off balance sheet;” the international sale of debt that guaranteed that a collapse in one market in one country would ripple out to affect the world; foreign demand for American debt, which created demand-pull for riskier and riskier American investments; and unworkable hedge funds that appeared to transform sure-to-fail loans into sure-to-pay investments.

It’s likely that all of these played a role. Fixes for most of them ought to be undertaken on their own merits. (Who could be in favor of “poorly documented mortgages” or “off-balance-sheet” investments?) But none of the testimony makes this point: the financial crisis is also the environmental crisis. We won’t solve the former until we start solving the latter.

Two facts about this crisis stand out: the world came to the brink of global economic collapse, and the world is and remains on the brink of ecosystem collapse. The economy is humanity’s primary instrument for interacting with its environment; this suggests that these two facts are somehow related. And yet none of the standard diagnoses come anywhere close to acknowledging that there might be a connection, let alone start to illuminate it. In the standard view, the financial crisis beset an economy that consists solely of humans acting within formalized systems of their own creation —systems that have no connection to a larger world.

And that’s why the standard view won’t succeed in fixing the problem. The spasm of debt repudiation with which the crisis began — the collapse of the sub-prime lending market — is what happens when an infinite-growth economy runs into the limits of a finite world.

That insight comes from the reference frame suggested by Frederick Soddy, as elaborated by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, and others. Soddy offered a vision of economics as rooted in physics — the laws of thermodynamics, in particular. An economy is often likened to a machine, though few economists follow the parallel to its logical conclusion: like any machine the economy must draw energy from outside itself. The first and second laws of thermodynamics forbid perpetual motion, schemes in which machines create energy out of nothing or recycle it forever. Soddy criticized the prevailing belief in the economy as a perpetual motion machine, capable of generating infinite wealth. That belief is nowhere more clearly manifest than in how we treat money. Soddy distinguished between wealth, virtual wealth, and debt. Real wealth, even the provision of services, is irreducibly rooted in physical reality. The money we use to represent this wealth isn’t real wealth, but virtual wealth — a symbol representing the bearer’s claim on an economy’s ability to generate real wealth. Debt, for its part, is a claim on the economy’s ability to generate wealth in the future. “The ruling passion of the age,” Soddy said, “is to convert wealth into debt” — to exchange a thing with present day real value (a thing that could be stolen, or broken, or rust or rot before you can manage to use it) for something immutable and unchanging, a claim on wealth that has yet to be made. Money facilitates the exchange; it is, Soddy said, “the nothing you get for something before you can get anything.”

Problems arise when wealth and debt are not kept in proper relation. The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy materials and energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment and by the amount of high-entropy effluent that natural systems can sustainably absorb. (We can in practice exceed those sustainable limits, but only temporarily; that is the definition of “unsustainable.”)

There are only two ways that an economy can increase the rate at which it creates wealth: it can process a larger and larger flow of matter and energy, increasing its ecological footprint on both the uptake and the effluent side; or it can achieve efficiencies in its use of a constant flow of matter and energy. Both means of growth have limits. Increasing an economy’s ecological footprint decreases the ability of healthy ecosystems to provide us with a civilization-sustaining flow of ecosystem services (like climate stability, a service currently in critically short supply). Efficiency gains in the use of a constant flow offer large returns today and will probably do so into the future, but those gains will become harder and harder to achieve as we run into diminishing returns. Technological advances and efficiencies will allow us to make more with less, especially in places where we’ve been profligate in our use of low-entropy inputs; but no technical advance will get us around the first law of thermodynamics, which tells us “you can’t make something from nothing, nor can you make nothing from something.” Creation of wealth is irreducibly physical, and all physical phenomena obey the laws of thermodynamics.

Thus, the creation of wealth has physical constraints, set by ecosystem limits, physical law, and the limits of the technology we currently employ. But debt, being imaginary, has no such limit. It can grow infinitely, compounding at any rate we choose to let it.

These considerations led Soddy to this incontrovertible truth: whenever an economy allows debt — a claim on wealth — to grow faster than wealth can be created, that economy has a structural need for debt to be repudiated.

Inflation can do the job, decreasing debt gradually by eroding the purchasing power of the monetary units in which debt is denominated. And debt repudiation can be exported — some of the pressure to reconcile wealth and debt is released when other nations in the system inflate their currencies or default on obligations.

But when there is no inflation, and when the economy becomes one integrated global system in which export to outside the system is no longer possible, overgrown claims on future wealth will produce regular crises of debt repudiation — stock market crashes, waves of bankruptcies and foreclosures, defaults on bonds or loans or pension promises, the disappearance of paper assets in any shape or form. As Lawrence Summers noted in a speech last year at the Brookings Institute, “In little more than two decades, we have seen the stock market crash of 1987, the savings and loan scandals, the decline of the real estate market, the Mexican crisis, the Asian crisis, LTCM, Enron and long-term capital. That works out to one big crisis every two and a half years.” He went on to add: “We can and must do better.” Each and every one of the crises he listed was, at bottom, a crisis of debt repudiation. We are unlikely to avoid their recurrence until we stop allowing claims on real wealth to grow faster than real wealth can grow.

The cause of the financial crisis, Soddy would certainly say, isn’t simply opportunistic financiers exploiting the lag between innovation and regulation, isn’t simply ignorance, isn’t a failure of regulatory diligence, isn’t a cascading lack of confidence that could be solved with some new and different version of the F.D.I.C. The problem is a systemic flaw in our treatment of money. Whenever and wherever growth in claims on wealth outstrips growth in wealth, our system creates a niche for entrepreneurs who are all too willing to invent instruments of debt that will someday be repudiated. There will always be a Bernie Madoff or a subprime mortgage repackager or a hedge fund innovator willing to play their part in setting us up for a spasm of debt repudiation. Regulation will always be retrospective.

The best solution is to eliminate that niche. To do that, we must balance claims on future production of wealth with the economy’s power to produce that wealth.

Soddy distilled his vision into five policy prescriptions, each of which was taken at the time as evidence that his theories were unworkable. One: abandon the gold standard. Two: let international exchange rates float against one another. Three: use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools, countering cyclical trends. Four: establish bureaus of economic analysis to produce statistics (including a consumer price index) that will facilitate this effort. These proposals are now firmly grounded in conventional practice. Only Soddy’s fifth proposal remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom: stop banks from creating money, and debt, out of nothing.

Soddy’s work helped to inspire the short-lived “100% Money” movement that emerged during the Depression, which offered a diagnosis that went beyond treatment of symptoms (the cascading collapse of confidence that led to bank failures, which was addressed through creation of the F.D.I.C.) to reach the underlying cause: the leveraging of debt through the practice of fractional reserve banking. Irving Fisher at Yale and Frank Knight, the prominent Chicago School economist, also supported the elimination of fractional reserve banking. For a time the movement counted no less an economic eminence than Milton Friedman as a sympathizer. (Perhaps because he saw that the tide of history was against him, Friedman eventually dropped his call for elimination of fractional reserve banking from his policy recommendations.) The 100% money movement finds a contemporary advocate in ecological economist Herman Daly, who has called for the gradual institution of a 100 percent reserve requirement on demand deposits. This would begin to shrink what he has called “the enormous pyramid of debt that is precariously balanced atop the real economy, threatening to crash.”

In such a system, banks would support themselves by charging fees for safekeeping, check clearing, loan intermediation, and all the other legitimate financial services they provide. They would not generate income by lending out, at interest, the money entrusted to them for safekeeping — money that does not belong to them. Banks would still make loans and still be able to lend at interest “the real money of real depositors,” people who forego consumption today in order to take money out of their checking account and put it in time deposits (e.g., CDs, passbook savings, and 401Ks). In return these savers would still receive interest payments — a slightly larger claim on the real wealth of the community in the future.

In a 100% money system, every increase in spending by borrowers would have to be matched by an act of saving — abstinence — on the part of a depositor. This would re-establish a one-to-one correspondence between the real wealth of the community and the claims on that real wealth. To achieve 100% money, the creation of monetarized debt through other mechanisms — repackaged mortgages and securitized derivatives and the like — would also have to be brought under control.

An added benefit: establishing 100% money would have an enormous and positive effect on the public treasury. Seigniorage, the profit that comes from the creation of money, is currently given away free to banks (which collect it as the payment of interest and the repayment of principle on loans made with money that is not actually theirs). Under a 100% money regime, money would be created — spent into existence — by a public authority. (This is what Friedman advocated.) The capture of seigniorage would have obvious benefits for governmental budgeting: the seigniorage on a modest 3% growth in M1 (one of the chief measures of the money supply) amounts to $40 billion a year. And, when you come right down to it, to whom does seigniorage, by rights, belong? Despite long-standing custom to the contrary, the profit that comes from the issuance of money belongs to the sovereign power that guarantees that money. In the U.S., that’s us: We, the People.

This change in our banking system would eliminate the structural cause of spasms of debt repudiation. It would also eliminate one strong driver of uneconomic growth —growth that costs more in lost ecosystem services and other disamenities than it brings in the form of increased wealth. The change is thus economically and ecologically sound. It is, obviously, politically difficult — so difficult that advocacy for it sounds hopelessly unrealistic. But consider: in the 1920s, the abolition of the gold standard and the implementation of floating exchange rates sounded absurd. If the laws of thermodynamics are sturdy, and if Soddy’s analysis of their relevance to economic life is correct, we’d better expand the realm of what we think is realistic.

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.”

What Is a “Green Economy?”

Herman DalyA green economy is an economy that imitates green plants as far as possible. Plants use scarce terrestrial materials to capture abundant solar energy, and are careful to recycle the materials for reuse. Although humans are not able to photosynthesize, we can imitate the strategy of maximizing use of the sun while economizing on terrestrial minerals, fossil fuels, and ecological services. Ever since the industrial revolution our strategy has been the opposite. Fortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen noted, we have not yet learned how to mine the sun and use up tomorrow’s solar energy for today’s growth. But we can mine the earth and use up tomorrow’s fossil fuels, minerals, and waste absorption capacities today. We have eagerly done this to grow the economy, but have neglected the fact that the costs of doing so have surpassed the benefits – that is to say, growth has actually become uneconomic.

In spite of the fact that green plants have no brains, they have managed to avoid the error of becoming dependent on the less abundant source of available energy. A green economy must do likewise – seek to maximize use of the abundant flow of solar low entropy and economize on the scarce stock of terrestrial low entropy. Specifically, a green economy would invest scarce terrestrial minerals in things like windmills, photovoltaic cells, and plows (or seed drills) – not squander them on armaments, Cadillacs, and manned space stunts. A green economy can be sufficient, sustainable, and even wealthy, but it cannot be a growth-based economy. A green economy must seek to develop qualitatively without growing quantitatively – to get better without getting bigger.

There is another kind of green economy that seeks to be green after the manner of greenback dollars, rather than green plants. Green dollars, unlike green plants, cannot photosynthesize. But dollars can miraculously be created out of nothing and grow exponentially at compound interest in banks. However, Aristotle noted that this kind of growth is very suspect, because money has no reproductive organs. Unlike green plants, green money seeks to grow forever in the realm of abstract exchange value, even as we encounter limits to growth in the realm of the concrete use values for which money is supposed to be an honest token and symbol.

Recently we have grown, or rather “swollen”, by expanding the symbolic realm of finance. Debt is a mere number (like negative pigs) and can easily grow faster than the real wealth (positive pigs), by which it is expected to be redeemed. Wall Street has bought and sold an astronomical number of negative pigs-in-a-poke – they have “sold bets on debts and called them assets”, as Wendell Berry succinctly put it. We have recently experienced the failure of this fraudulent attempt to force expansion. Yet we have so far been unable to imagine any policy other than restarting the old growth economy for another round. After the next crisis we should try to avoid the Ponzi scheme of growth and build a steady state economy – a green economy that is sustainable, just, and sufficient for a good life.