A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Would a No-growth Economy Look Like -2

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

There are two ideas that are directly opposed to our current Story (the controlling agency through which our information flows): one is that, just as every other species, humans must use a homeostatic range of energy extracted from the environment in a way that compensates the ecosystem for the extraction, and second, that the extracted energy and its consequences must be spread through out the population by some designs of equity. 

 The first arises from basic environmental biology and physics.  On a world where the physical order and the living order conspire in complex algorithms to maintain stable conditions allowing the living order, where hundreds or thousands of individual species composed, often, of millions or billions of individual units are integrated through their actions to produce complex biophysical outcomes, no one organism is or can be separate from these processes.  Every action has a consequence on the whole.  The systems allow and even depend on there being many small destabilizing events that move the eco-homeostatic averages slightly as the individual species change and shift their relationships in the whole, but these are slow changes that occur within the capacity of the DNA/protein information system to respond.  The effect is that the use of available energy gets maximized over evolutionarily effective numbers of generations.  Every stable ecosystem is approaching maximum effective energy use, and all relationships among species support this outcome in a dynamic balance of numbers, behaviors and metabolic products. 

Large disruptions to stability call off all arrangements and it is every bacterium for itself for a time as the stability is resumed in new designs.  But these will also follow the rules.  Before long, in evolutionary time, the new stable systems will be approaching energy use maxima. 

Humans have brought a perturbation to the biosphere in the form of a new system of order that creates whole new systems of probabilities for behaviors and products (“metabolic” and otherwise).  At no other time in the history of the planet has a biological adaptation had such large scale and disrupting consequences[1].  It is vital that a significant proportion of us recognize this basically simple reality.  It is vital because this new adaptation, the Consciousness System of Order, is very powerful and because it doesn’t change the rules, it only allows them to be violated in large ways, and more quickly, than has been possible in the history of life.  The biophysical principles that allow life to exist on the earth are not changed at all by the human adaptation; our adaptation only allows us to imagine that the rules have been changed. 

What has not been established is the amount of energy humans can reasonably take from the available supply.  But, there is no question that our consciousness adaptation has allowed us to very rapidly (outside of evolutionary time) take vast amounts without any regard for the natural compensations that stability requires.  We are not defeating nature, only perturbing necessary stabilities (I always think of margarine when I say this).

We have added to the energy mix fossil chemical energy and radiological energy as a way to add to our total take.  These have fueled a great expansion of numbers, behaviors and products – and fueled the huge perturbation that is about to crest against the shores of our cultures (if you can stand such a literary metaphor!)  We cannot live with and we cannot live without the additional energy that we get from fossil fuels and uranium, and we cannot take from the yearly energy solar flux enough to replace these extra inputs – and we must begin to consider (seriously consider) the compensations to the ecosystems from which we take energy and materials. 

There is only one response for all these intractable concerns: greatly reduced per capita energy consumption and a greatly reduced “capita.”  This leads to the much more complex and difficult second issue: The distribution of energy and material in the population. 

Here we are not supplied with the clear living order and physical order guidance as we are with the first issue.  In the first case, the human species has to fit into the biophysical order; it doesn’t now; it will have to.  Plain and simple!  But how the species will ultimately be organized and the role of the consciousness order in that organization is not clear at all. 

It may be that CSO as manifest in the human species is proving itself a failed form of this system of order.  I believe, however, that it is a little like life itself: once a foothold is established in an environment of sufficient stability this new system of order will continue to change and adapt in its own forms and to modify its substrate organisms.  We are approaching a seminal moment in this process. 

Equity, altruism, love, empathy, anger, vengeance and other qualities are primarily of Living System origin; academic economics is a CSO product like toasters, 767s and hydrogen bombs.  We commingle living order process and consciousness order process since we have no natural way to separate them, but they operate on entirely different principles and we had better get a handle on those differences very soon. 

For humans to live in a no-growth economic system, a formal economic system that is integrated into the natural eco-nomics of the biosphere, the Living System of Order qualities need to take precedence (not to the total exclusion of CSO qualities, but be the forming basis) for the distribution of energy, the population levels, consumption patterns and amounts that must conform to ecologically sustaining designs.  In other words, the Consciousness System of Order must adapt from being a device in opposition to the natural order back to its origin function of being a supporting element of the natural order. 

At this point in the development of the CSO there is no inhibiting basis or ordering principle that allows or requires a veridical relationship with The Real.  The living order must reproduce its units on a regular basis.  Each unit carries its own description and thus living vs. dying measures the efficacy of that DNA/protein information.  In the origin of the CSO the living order contained the primary ordering principles, and the appeals to reality were all handled in the living order design.  But we now live in CSO created cognitive structures.  These are structures only weakly inhibited by reality since we have largely removed the testing of them from direct life and death confrontations.  I believe that we might be able to find other ways to reinstate a reality basis for our cultural life, but if we cannot there is always life and death; and we would need to be more closely associated with the living order’s judgments in any case. 

We have come to this point because most considerations of wealth depend on keeping the frame of reference limited to having vs. not having rather than broadening it to the whole structure of the relevant system.  We would not, could not, consider only the design of the second and third floors of a house and only assume the first floor and foundation.  And yet, that is what we have been doing.  The biophysical/ecological base for our energy and material supplies have been considered, by especially western culture/religions, both unlimited and our own property.  This Story is naturally ascendant since it justifies and uninhibits the use of biophysical resources.  A Story that conserves resources may sustain a society, but will fall to a Story that allows or even requires that resources be used up as fast as possible – this when the resource base is large and the society is willing and capable of rapid change.  It would be inevitable that out of the many cultural forms and Stories associated with human variety that such a Story would form and dominate for a time, until the apparently unlimited resource base (and not just arable lands, fossil fuels, etc., but the whole plethora of environmental “free services”) was strained. The confluence of Greek thought, Christianity, and European tribalism produced such a Story and the rest is, as they say, history. 

Our present Story will result in great damage to the living earth.  It is also producing the greatest suffering that the world has ever seen measured by any utilitarian calculus.  It is this Story that must be changed in the face of an incredible momentum to sustain it.  Stay tuned for the next essay.

[1] About 2-3 billion years ago a bacterium began to directly extract energy from light by combining CO2 and H20 forming simple sugar.  A by-product of this process was a powerful metabolic poison called free molecular oxygen.  For many millions of years this free oxygen was rapidly taken out of the water and atmosphere by chemical reaction, but as more and more organisms used this device, free oxygen would have been a life changer all over the earth’s surface.  The CSO is an adaptation with such a potential.


Michael Dawson said...

Marvelous, again. Keep it coming.

I would add "sheer inexperience" to your list of factors that gave us the presently dominant CSO. All hunter-gatherers are understandably attracted to and even enchanted by new forms of wealth. And all empires of power and privilege have followed a very similar basic logic, despite the variety of ornaments they've created. The lies and promises and aims of Aztec Emperors weren't all that different from present "Western" leadership.

James Keye said...

Thank you for your comments, Mr. Dawson. As I am sure you know these can be lonely precincts.

Hunter-gathers are embedded in the Living Order, for the most part applying the CSO as an adaptive tool; a distinction expanded on in the next essay. When the CSO becomes primary and fully self-referencing the resulting madness can take many forms, but is still madness, as you point out.

Michael Dawson said...

Well, it's pretty damned lonely in this society to think, let alone think outside the box!

I believe it's important to include the inexperience element because it is not only accurate, but it helps ordinary, non-powerful citizens see that true intentionality and democracy on behalf of the species has actually never been tried.

I think good old Marx had this aspect quite right -- we are still living in pre-history. True modernism and science, aka the beginnings of real human history, lie on the path you are advocating, and, as you've said, most people can or already do know this at some level.

Rev. T. Monkey said...

Thanks for your insightful comments, Mr. Keye. I look forward to reading future essays on this topic, especially your thoughts on what we can do to influence Story and the CSO.