Sunday, December 03, 2006

Copernicus, Darwin and the cure for autistic economics

Autistic children can spend much of their time in a world of elaborate fantasy, emotionally detached from real people and objects. Unfortunately, it is not much of a leap to substitute the words "most economists" for "autistic children" in the previous sentence. So apparent has this become that there is a burgeoning movement to establish what is now called a "post-autistic economics" to meet the challenges of describing the real social and physical world we live in.

This wouldn't matter much were it not for the inordinate say that economists have in shaping public policy of all kinds and at all levels. Those of the post-autistic persuasion say that establishment economists have become a priestly class of sorts that enforces its neoclassical view on any and all who would dissent. It does this by keeping them off college faculties and out of key policy positions.

But as the biosphere presses its limits upon us in the areas of energy, climate, water, soil and pollution, the neoclassical economic view that human ingenuity will allow the species to ignore every other species on the planet and grow the world economy indefinitely has become life threatening, even civilization threatening.

The cure for this view was suggested by a dear friend. It is a surprisingly simple move, and one with an impressive pedigree. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to work out how the Earth revolved around the Sun. He thus began a journey for humankind that removed it from the center of the universe and placed it, to borrow the words of environmental education giant David Orr, "on a small planet attached to an insignificant star in a backwater galaxy."


What Copernicus had done for astronomy, Charles Darwin did for biology. After Darwin humans would no longer be set apart from the animal kingdom. Henceforth, they would be only one of its many inhabitants, buffeted by the same laws of mutation and natural selection as the ape and every other living creature. Anthropocentrism in biology was finished.

It is now time--long past time--for a Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics in which humans cease to be seen as the privileged species, homo economicus--at the center of everything and exempt from the limits of the biosphere. Instead, humans need to be placed within the same systems that nourish every plant and animal on Earth. In this case, however, there is a twist. Far from having to realize how insignificant and unexceptional we are, we must come to understand that we have evolved into a different species which William Catton Jr. has dubbed "homo colossus," a man-tool hybrid capable of destroying the very habitat that sustains us and so many other creatures.

The simple fact is that the economy cannot become bigger than the biosphere. (There are, of course, some believers in Star Trek-style fantasies who envision us exploiting and living on other planets. To such people may I suggest that they get started on this project right away since we are running out of time to turn things around here on Earth.) Humans already consume at least 40 percent of the photosynthetic product of the Earth each year and, that's an estimate from 1986 when the population was 5.5 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion. And it's projected to be close to 9 billion by 2050. Could we increase our share of the world's photosynthetic product to 60 percent as the 2050 projection implies and still survive? Would we wipe out species upon whom we depend, but of which we currently know nothing? Even if we could transition away from finite fossil fuels, would finding a theoretical, but as yet unknown, unlimited and pollutionless energy source really solve our problems? Or would it simply cause us to bump up against other limits?

When you undergo the Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics, you cannot avoid such questions. The physical world and its limits must be accounted for. To that end some researchers are proposing a comprehensive biophysical economics. One outline of an approach to such a problem can be found in an article entitled "The Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics."

The field of study now known as ecological economics has been working on the problem in a piecemeal fashion for a long time. But even though a comprehensive biophysical economics may never be possible--since it would require understanding everything about the natural world--we must attempt the feat for two reasons: 1) to expose the dire peril in which neoclassical economics has placed us and 2) to suggest ways to build an economy that can operate indefinitely on the Earth and not one that only functions until it destroys the Earth's capacity to sustain us.

The French writer François-René de Chateaubriand is reputed to have said, "Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them." It is to this problem that economists must now turn themselves.

7 comments:

odograph said...

I think we should be up-front with the "physicality" of various economies (or economic futures).

At a minimum, "energy intensity" (units of energy per unit of GDP) varies greatly. Similar calculations for "metal intensity" or etc. might also be possible.

Really, I think environmental thinkers fall into a trap when they talk about economics as if there was a single binding between "economy" or "growth" and environmental footprint. Those who oppose environmental action often reply that we must accept "less" to achieve it.

In my opinion the opportunity is to define forms of "growth" and "economy" that work with much lower energy and resource intensities.

Anonymous said...

To my mind, dividing a more or less objective measure of reality (energy) by a more or less subjective measure of reality (money) is somewhat akin to dividing 1 by zero... and this is the fantasy that some economic "thinking" can lead us towards.

We can have all the monetarily measured "growth" we like so long as we keep parting with ever more subjective, socially constructed, legally protected, culturally ingrained partial "value" tokens - but only if we are trading for imaterial (ie social) goods.

Can we all be Economists and Lawyers buying and selling advice from each other at increasing prices ad infinitum?!
SP

Anonymous said...

Also the link provided by odograph leads to this graph.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Gdp-energy-efficiency.jpg
GDP is in both axis! Ie they are not independant.

Essentially, graphs of this type are a munged/scaled version of energy per person... with an overlay of subjective value tokens for those so inclined to accept that subjective measure of value. This leads to the conclusion here that Bangladesh and the Phillipines are "efficient"... whereas an alternate view is they are energy short. Or that US and Canada are "productive" but all the factories are in China now aren't they? What "production" is this? Is it production of dollars... like the issuance of a fiat debt based currency?
SP

odograph said...

I'm saying GDP is of limited use, and you are saying it is of no use?

I guess that's the distinction.

For what it's worth, I'm open to lots of "measures" and am interested in applying them cautiously, appropriately.

I don't mind GDP as a measure of year to year change, or relative to energy use, for the simple reason that getting more GDP with less pollution or using less energy is not a bad thing.

On the other hand, many will use GDP as a measure of human progress and I think that is completely wrong.

Kevembuangga said...

Never mind odograph he is a (likely sponsored) collapse denier and troll in residence at the oildrum.

See him just caught spouting again his deceitful claptrap.

head lem said...

The one word, "Economics" is a pre-Copirnican mind trap.

It causes certain neurons in the brain to fire up and constrain thought process into a very neat and invisible cognitive cage. The Sun revolves yet again around the Golden Calf (money) instead of the other way around.

Try this simple experiment on yourself:

1. Clear your mind of rational thought by going to your "happy place" (whatever that might be, the beach, the park, the mountain top sitting next to your favorite yogi, etc.)

2. Now focus on these four words:

Peak-Oil plus Economics

2a. What came to mind?
2b. Was there a "learned professor" lurking back there in the fog of your educational memorance; waving his arms in front of supply-demand curves drawn on the white board? Was he extoling the virtues of markets, free trade, progress, "money", fiscal responsibility and all that? Did you feel the power of the Invisible Hand reaching out towards you to make everything in the world OK?
2c. All that was back there even if you are consciously unawre of it. When a resource issue like "peak-Oil" is cast into the framework of "Economic" thought, it takes on an entrapping set of nuances.

3. Now go back again to your "happy place". Clean the white board. Breathe in and out with your yogi friend.

4. This time focus on only these four words:

Peak-Oil plus Thermodynamics

5a. What came to mind now?
5b. Something very different, no?
5c. Did you start thinking about conservation of energy, conservation of mass, the three Laws of Thermodaynamics? Did you think about EROI? Did the Sun revolve around the Golden Calf for you this time?

Instead of "Economics", I prefer to keep my mind trained on the concept of: "Inter-sapien Valuation and Exchanges". What do we "value"? What do we trade with each other? (I.e. Money=labor in exchange for a gallon of gasoline?) Why do we "value" these things? What enters our mind as we going about "minding our business"? How autistically disconnected from physical science are we as we do these things?

RBlaber said...

I know this entry was written over 3 years ago, but I must comment on the phrase 'autistic economics' - largely because I am fed up (to the back teeth, actually) with people using the words 'autism' and 'autistic' as cheap terms of abuse.
Autists are said, by some experts, to lack imagination, so how they can live in their own little fantasy worlds is beyond me. Perhaps the experts (which would include Lorna Wing) have got it wrong.
As someone with Asperger Syndrome, and who has enough to contend with, in the general prejudice of society against people with disabilities of all kinds, I would be grateful if you would be so kind as to refrain from using (or rather, abusing) these words in future.