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Monday, December 29, 2008

What Would a No-growth Economy Look Like - 1

and when would we need to function in one? – Essay One

The earth’s living space has been a no-growth economy for most of its existence – or very very slow growth1 (by which I mean increase in total energy use).  By economy I mean the essence of eco-nomics: the acquisition, distribution/transfer and use of energy.  The absence of growth does not mean the absence of change, but it does mean that change is a function of other forces than growth.  The earth’s living economy stores the energy that it acquires from the sun in animated packages. This process begins with a kind of animation that directly captures radiant energy as chemical energy contained in molecular bonds. The energy is transferred by the behaviors of other animated packages: one consuming another. 

The total mass of living things is dependent on the amount of sunlight converted into the chemical bonds of glucose sugar and the stability of conditions that allow these processes.  And everything else can only exist in amounts and with behaviors supportable by that amount of sugar2.  This is, in essence, the commons within which biological evolution takes place.  A tenth of a percentage point advantage in acquiring and converting energy into efficient behavior means that in a thousand years, ten thousand years or a million years one species, one animated package type, will spread in domain and increase in number as others, approaching life in a very similar way, retreat and reduce.  

A day’s production of sugar is converted at an energy cost into protein, fats, DNA/RNA, complex carbohydrates and many other molecules essential for life.  Movement uses up the stored energy as well as the growth of bodies.  But what is vital to understand is that the same amount of energy production is needed for the next day and next; not less, but also not more.  It is absolutely essential to the integrity of the Living Order that life is pay as you go. 

Every organism stores up energy and material in the form of their own bodies, a highly decentralized design.  Bears store fat, bees store honey, some animals cache food, but they do this short term and get back only what they put in, minus small transaction costs. It is easy to see the problem for those that store up “too much.”  Honey bees, for example, create nodes with high concentrations of energy and can lose it all in one moment to some other organism.  

An essential key to the no-growth ecological economy is compensation.  Every organism compensates for its every taking and it compensates the whole ecology.  The ways that this works are manifold and ultimately determined by the design of the DNA/protein information nexus – the common evolutionary “device.”  If an organism fails to effectively compensate, then the ecological order would destabilize only to reestablish a compensating regime with a different arrangement of organisms and behaviors, and would thus continue on.  

An ecosystem functions on the same essential principle as a complex organism: all the thousands of functions have to be integrated within certain tolerances maintained by a myriad of homeostatic designs.  The heart moves the blood to carry materials to remote sites; the remote sites produce materials and actions required by other organs that ultimately maintain the health and functioning of the heart. Challenge the Islet cells of the pancreas with an unmetabolized substance normally dealt with by the liver and watch the cascade of consequences and the death of the system.  Cells that act on their own may increase in number for a short time, but finally kill the very body in which they live. 

An organism that finds a way to defeat the Living System of Order and its information nexus will only do so for a short time.  It will destabilize its ecosystem, damaging the designs that allowed the organism in the first place.  Ecological stability will either be reestablished with the organism and everything else having developed mutual compensations or with new arrangements of ecological actors. 

A human no-growth economy, the only kind that can be for any length of time, would set a limit for total energy use.  I would hope that we could do this with judicious use of our Consciousness System of Order capacities, otherwise the LSO could supply us with our proper allotment through the tried and true method of killing off the appropriate numbers with disease, starvation and whatever else we humans might throw in for good luck.  We could try letting the amounts of energy vary widely by classes and societies, but an organismic model would suggest designs that come to a “native” stability.  The nervous system uses more energy than fat cells, but one doesn’t steal from the other except in conditions in extremis. 

The body and ecosystems are primarily communistic in the most essential way: from each according to ability, to each according to need.  The cells of a body and the organisms in an ecosystem are adapted to this design; humans not so much, but this is not to say that Story can’t be adapted to improve our functioning in such a design and adaptations to the biological nature of human motivation included that meet the substantive objections to simple minded political and economic communism. 

The argument that humans are not animals, but the children of God, and therefore are not subject to the physical and living orders is a madness akin to believing that one is Abraham Lincoln or that the tree in your yard was put there by ‘aliens’ to spy on you and communicate with the mother ship.  That we have made a world of “things” and that pompous people wear cloth coverings that required a lot of energy to produce are only measures of how much trouble we are in, not how much “progress” we have made. 

If we are to survive, and the question is still open, it will be by limiting the amount of energy that we take from the global pie, and limiting it in a way that compensates the existence of everything else.  I am afraid it is a number orders of magnitude less than our current use.  

An organismic model suggests that each cell and organism be self-sustaining in primary ways, but functionally interdependent in larger relationships.  Just as individuals don’t overtly control 99.9% of metabolic functioning, but depend on the evolved homeostatic mechanisms, Humans must adjust their ecological relationships to depend on the biophysical mechanisms that maintain the living space of the biosphere.  The essential mantra: “leave it alone.”  The next essay will further consider these matters.

1Growth in this circumstance occurs when energy efficiencies evolve in species and species expand into families, etc., increasing the biomass practicing the adaptation.  Energy conversion and exchange efficiencies have only marginally increased the capacity of living things to use the available resources.  It is likely that in the whole of existence a fully populated earth – the last 350 million years – there has not been a order of magnitude change in the earth’s biomass as a result of ‘growth’ and adaptation.

2There is at least one other energy source of importance that fuels living chemistry on the earth.  Other chemical bonds have been exploited for their energy, especially at undersea vents.  But, as important as these systems probably are in the evolution of life, they are extremely tiny contributions to the biomass.  

1 comment:

Michael Dawson said...

Marvelous, helpful stuff.

It's interesting to me that monotheism preaches the Promethean attitude to nature. We know the priests arose along with the first ruling classes, and we know that all ruling classes push for economic growth, since they take the prime cut of economic activity.

I tend to think of monotheism as exclusively ancient and benighted, and hence silly, but its message is even more modern/"civilized" and rotten than that, isn't it?

No wonder it's still the favored "ethical" framework for the plebes.