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
Section Four: The End of Economic Growth
[Note: Growth in ecosystems and in organisms is not synonymous with growth as humans normally experience it. Humans have “grown” in numbers exponentially; our economies must expand and confiscate to remain viable. Businesses must “grow”; nations must expand in influence. None of these notions of growth are modeled in the living world. The living world replaces, redistributes, maximizes with fixed inputs, cycles through levels of complexity in evolutionary time. The ever-increasing use of energy and material that has come to seem normal for humans is an aberration unsustainable in a living world. We do not get to violate physical laws and biological principles just because it appears to us that we can and that we have come to believe we have the right.]
You don’t have to be a biologist or medical doctor to know what happens if you run out of food or a Mercedes factory trained mechanic to know what happens when your car runs out of gas. And you don’t need to be an MIT or Chicago trained economist to grasp the personal implications of a slowing and reversal of economic growth – it means just what it sounds like; there will be less: less electricity, less gasoline, less natural gas, less food, less heat in winter, less cooling in summer, less water, less certainty that the water is safe to drink and that the food is safe to eat. And everything that there is less of will cost more.
None of this means that there will be less need to do work or that people will need to know less. Less of everything means that greater effort will be required to obtain what is needed; this would be especially true in the period of adaptation. More effort to sustain ourselves with essentially less of almost everything is a frightening prospect, but there is no alternative; growth cannot continue forever in a finite space with finite resources. That such a time is coming is not in question; only its imminence is debatable.
Here are comments from several of the people who have been intensely invested in discovering the truth of our situation. Be clear, none of them are happy about what they have to say; these words are forced from them by the undeniable truths of their studies:
“In the absence of enormous and ever-increasing NNR supplies (Nonrenewable Natural Resources), the 1.2 billion people who currently enjoy an industrialized way of life will cease to do so; and the billions of people aspiring to an industrialized way of life will fail to realize their goal.” (Christopher Clugston)
“Over the course of your lifetime society will need to solve some basic problems: How to reorganize our financial system so that it can continue to perform its essential functions—reinvesting savings into socially beneficial projects—in the context of an economy that is stable or maybe even shrinking due to declining energy supplies, rather than continually growing.” (Richard Heinberg)
“Many who have looked at the combined challenge of energy and climate change have concluded that our civilization, having completed its exuberant, flamboyant phase, is headed toward a dramatic simplification and re-localization of life and the end of economic growth as we have known it.” (James Gustave Speth)
“If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand.” (Lester R Brown)
“The global challenges in the offing, (…), are further complicated by our failure to communicate effectively about the potentially pernicious results that could be derived from having recklessly grown a soon to become patently unsustainable, colossal global economy, the one which we have artificially designed, conveniently constructed, and relentlessly expanded without enough conscious, intelligent regard for the biophysical requirements of practical reality.” (Steve Salmony)
‘Can the economy grow fast enough in real terms to redeem the massive increase in debt? In a word, no. As Frederick Soddy (1926 Nobel Laureate chemist and underground economist) pointed out long ago, “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]”.’ (Herman Daly)
“Any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed, into which life on Earth is adapted. Getting back to 350 parts per million will be very, very tough -- the toughest thing human beings have ever done -- but there is no use complaining about it. It's just physics and chemistry. That's what we have to do.” (Bill McKibben) 
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Not only is continued growth not possible, even if it were possible, it is not beneficial. The incentive structure of a growth economy moves relentlessly toward pressures for end-users to use as much as possible, even as there might be moderating influences on production processes for efficiency. Only in the using up, replacing and adding new to “consumables” does the economy grow in size. The simplest image of this is the correct one; that is, raw material being turned more and more rapidly into trash as it passes through the stages of production, possession, use and spoilage. Either the amount used must increase per capita or the numbers of users must increase or both.
Economies that last are not based on this principle, but rather by being incentivized to use as little as possible – to get as much utility from raw material as possible and to replenish raw stocks as a condition of using them. Such an economy does not grow in the sense that present human economies demand increasing amounts of raw stock in every iteration.
All of evolution has taken place on this second model, yet there have been increases (growth) in complexity to the point that a creature evolved the capacity of realization. At the physiological level sea urchins are essential equivalent to mammals. At the broader biological level, chimps and humans are almost indistinguishable. But, at the functional level in the environment each level of complexity has vastly greater powers. These differences were all come to in a no-growth natural economy.
This means that a human no-growth economy is possible, structured on incentives more like those of natural economies. Artistic achievement, scientific understanding, personal spiritual relationship with the universe and more would continue, would become the measures of “growth”. The pace would be slower, more inline with the replenishment rates of natural systems. There would be less ‘stuff’, much less stuff. Dwellings would be constructed for utility. Life would be much more physically localized even as communication could be global and remarkably interactive; if we don’t so completely trash our present world that little opportunity is left.
There are more and more complex arguments that can be and must be made, but it is a fairly simple thing that must actually happen. We must begin to use less energy and material, dramatically less. We must understand that material economic growth, even if it continues, is no longer growth at all but the final and fatal parasitism of the living space by our species. The uncertainties and failures of our economic system are the direct consequence of overgrowth and will not be repaired with “new and innovative financial instruments”; we should have seen that clearly by now.
The militarism of one nation against another and, soon enough, against a hungry and demanding Great Many, is the direct consequence of overgrowth, as is environmental destruction and bio-devastation. Yet, with these realities immediately in front of us, the madness that we can “grow our way” out of a growth created result is still the official “wisdom” or better ‘wise doom.’
The State and corporate powers will not lead us out of this dilemma; there is no profit and less power in it. A critical mass of people must begin to understand and act. There is no other way.
 Chris Clugston is the author of Scarcity—Humanity’s Final Chapter? The realities, choices, and likely outcomes associated with ever-increasing nonrenewable natural resource scarcity. Since 2006, He has conducted extensive independent research into the area of “sustainability”, with a focus on nonrenewable natural resource scarcity. He received an AB/Political Science, Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Penn State University, and an MBA/Finance with High Distinction from Temple University.
Richard Heinberg is the author of eleven books. He is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. He has authored scores of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature, The American Prospect, Public Policy Research, Quarterly Review, The Ecologist, Resurgence, The Futurist, European Business Review, Earth Island Journal, Yes!, and The Sun.
James Gustave Speth joined the faculty at Vermont Law School in 2010 following his decade-long tenure as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. From 1993 to 1999, he was administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the U.N. Development Group. Prior to his service at the U.N., he was founder and president of the World Resources Institute; professor of law at Georgetown University; chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration; and senior attorney and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Lester R Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. He is founder and President of Earth Policy Institute and has been described as "one of the world's most influential thinkers" by the Washington Post. Before starting Earth Policy Institute, he founded Worldwatch Institute and was its President for 26 years, and in 1986, the Library of Congress requested his personal papers noting that his writings "have already strongly affected thinking about problems of world population and resources."
Steve Salmony is psychological consultant for the North Carolina Disability Determination Service(DDS) of the Social Security Administration(SSA). In 2001 Steve founded the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population which focuses upon the best available science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation of the Earth.
Herman Daly is one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of ecological economics. Formerly a senior economist for the World Bank, he moved to the University of Maryland, College Park in 1994. He received the Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel Prize”) in 1996 for his work in developing ecological economics, incorporating “the key elements of ethics, quality of life, environment and community.”
Bill McKibben is an author, environmentalist, and activist. In 1988, he wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a common audience about global warming. He is the co-founder and Chairman of the Board at 350.org, an international climate campaign that works in 188 countries around the world.
Economic Growth Must End, Not Be Reinvigorated
There is only one way up a ladder, but there are two ways down. I have always preferred to climb down carefully – actually more carefully than climbing up – because of the bruising associated with the alternative method for descending. This is also true for economic societies. Economic growth is the way up, but thus far we have really only tried economic collapse as the way to get down. We have not yet learned how to or the need for climbing down with care.
In fact, human economic systems are not designed to climb down, and so, new sections of ladder must be added at the top forever. The Mesopotamians got into trouble with Yahweh (or a brother) for a form of this absurdity by building the tower of Babel; we (meaning We) are getting into trouble, with the infinitely more potent Biophysical Reality, for our absurdity.
It should be clear to even the casual observer (but is not) that economic growth cannot continue either forever or even very much longer. It should also be clear (but is not) that, like any good physical system, actions have their opposing forces: one must push down to climb up and economic growth of the developed world has been made possible by pushing down on the backs of the undeveloped world.
Humanity is facing, or rather is hiding its face from, the reality that it must begin to climb down the ladder of economic growth or fall from it. What is completely unclear is how to do that. Have you ever seen a dog climb a ladder? It can go up, but when reaching some height it cannot come down. The dog begins to shake with fear, some will bite those who try to help and they will fall unless rescued. It is not a pretty sight: a friendly family pet turned shaking, whining and vicious; suddenly just striking out as though it could walk on the air and tumbling, bone-breakingly, down the useless rungs of the ladder .
Humans are not dogs. We have mastered ladders; our climbing limbs and prehensile thumbs let us ‘thumb our noses’ at gravity’s best work. But can our brains and cultures perform as well? With them we have climbed to great heights of energy use, material manipulation and real wealth extraction and sequestration. The consequences are becoming unavoidable and we must begin to climb down.
Human beings must begin to slow the rate of the increasing consequences of our presence on the earth, stop increasing altogether and then begin to reduce human impact on every measure. Ultimately the other things – revolution in Egypt, the legal structure of social security, the proliferation of lies we are told – don’t really matter, they are acne on a terminal cancer patient. Economic growth must end; we must begin to climb down.
But, of course, these other things do matter because they prevent us from being able to see the real source of our danger. These things are the unavoidable product of growth and our coming to the end of growth, of having climbed as high as we are going to go and facing the immediate and multiple prospects of falling; but they are also smoke screen to hide these very same facts.
But like a dog at the top of a ladder, we have absolutely no way down; every official option for “correcting” our present troubles is some form of ‘returning to economic growth.’ Demand must be increased. Production must be increased. New products must be developed. This or that industry saved. Wealth must be created. Mines must be dug. Ground must be cleared, tilled and planted. Water must be pumped. Salaries must be raised. Inflation must be adjusted to incentivize growth, not too much, not too little. There is no plan to climb down and there has never been one.
First we need the ideas, the imaginings, and then the search for how to manifest the imaginings. There can be no change in policy from the very top of the ladder where all that glitters is gold. What will be required is a change in understanding, a change in how certain concepts organize our actions and experiences; changes that glimmer for a moment in ten thousand different places until enough can happen all at once to bring the light to see.
Property, wealth, community, social responsibility, excess, these and other concepts have been formed around a process of conquest and domination, first to the immediately surrounding regions, then geographical domains and now the whole biosphere and all that inhabits it.
Property must be seen, not as possession, but as responsibility. Wealth seen as the capacity to meet the needs of community, and as sourced in the environment not in individual human beings. The goal of life must become the finding and expressing of the full measure of our biological and Consciousness Order natures. Trivializing the remarkable living and consciousness states by equating them with buying personally useless and environmentally damaging objects is ignoble beyond comprehension.
The metaphor of climbing down gives some guidance; there is the changing direction of all motions, the feelings are all different, the focus is different. There is so much that we do not need. There is so much that we waste. There are so many things that we each personally need to be able to do, competencies that we have lost, capacities unexplored and unfulfilled.
A ladder gives only one direction to go in; two, if you count climbing down. Once you make it back to the ground you can go anywhere.
 Some dogs have been trained to climb down ladders without falling just as some humans have personally discovered how to ‘climb down’ the economy without catastrophe, but these are far from the common examples. It is even unclear what we can learn from them. It is perhaps best that dogs not climb ladders in the first place! In fact most dogs cannot be made to climb a ladder, showing a wisdom that should make a sapiens blush.
Economic Growth Must End, More!
I dislike repeating myself, and yet, the several years I spent teaching taught me that repetition, constructed in many different designs, is essential for both acquisition and comprehension, to wit:
It is the best considered opinion of the world’s biologists, chemists and physicists (and those specialties arising out of these in ecology, climate science, oceanography, etc.) that the earth’s solar energy distributing systems, as well as life support systems, are being changed extremely rapidly, primarily by human activity. Increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing the amount of solar energy being stored up in especially the oceans, but also in the atmosphere and the land.
Chemical changes are taking place in surface waters and the atmosphere at rates to which most living things cannot adapt, and so, complexity in ecosystems will be reduced (this is a ‘polite’ way of saying that many of the earth’s most interesting species will go extinct leaving simplified ecosystems of smaller, fewer, more generalized species).
There is but one way to avoid these effects; it is for human activity to both reduce and change in response to ecological principles. This is so simple that one wonders at the difficulty accompanying its understanding: if the sink is overflowing, turn off the water; if the car is becoming dangerously unstable as you speed up, then slow down.
If economic growth exacerbates all of the human activities that are driving the individual details of environmental abuse, then it must be turned off. Where is the ambiguity? If increasing human numbers and increasing per capita demand on the earth’s productive capacity are the culprits in climate change, extinctions and biodiversity loss, environmental contamination and disruption of geochemical cycles, then they must cease increasing and begin to slow down. Where is the confusion?
And yet all I read is that we must return to “healthy economic growth.” China has “experienced nearly 10% economic growth over the last several years” – and this is a good thing that we should desire. The middle class is being destroyed by the “economic downturn.”
People, whom I otherwise respect, compartmentalize on this issue: yes, we must slow the rate of climate change; yes, the loss of habitat and biodiversity will ruin the quality of life, now and in future; no, we can’t tolerate low economic growth. How crazy is that? And then there are those who say, “How can you talk about the middle class having less when the rich capitalists are the culprits? Aren’t you making the austerity argument for the economic elite? We need to return to the American Dream of economic growth for the common man, not just for the wealthy.”
But, I compartmentalize on this issue in my own life. I have arranged to live my remaining years on social security (a wealth storage system partially based in the commons into which I have been paying since the late 1950s). This is about $40 a day in a world where half the world’s people (3.5 billion) are living on $2 a day or less – even though the very construction of the Social Security System is growth based.
I live rather grandly with ample to eat. I am warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer. I have a rather good selection of tools (and what I don’t have my children do – either mine “borrowed” or their own) to repair my old car – that I would rather do without, but the distances and alternatives in the western U.S., almost, require a car. I have a wonderful old motorcycle that I can take apart and put back together on a park picnic table; and so can go anywhere that a filthy gasoline engine will take me.
My wealth also includes, but is not limited to, two computers, several cameras, many many feet of books with the appropriate shelving, a good guitar, two bicycles, a variety of secondhand furniture, camping and other recreational gear and a concession or two to media entertainment. By my own choice I do not have heated water, cable or other connection to the media universe and have almost no association with the insurance or medical systems. My children require that I have a cell phone with data link for my hiking, biking and motorcycle travels.
I am never bored or at a loss for how to spend my time; there has never been enough time in a day for me do, go, try, read, construct, repair, think, learn about, etc., all that I would like. I would like to think that my accumulations of stuff only support my non-material interests, but that would be fooling myself; no, I am still part of the problem.
If most of the world’s people were to live at my level of “American” simplicity, it would require that either those wealthier than me give up some, much or most of that wealth to those poorer than me or the world’s economies would have to more than double while devoting the vast proportion of that growth to the world’s poor; something that also has never happened before… and the world couldn’t stand in any case.
Which points out a seeming paradox of economic growth: even as the world’s total wealth has grown, the number of people deeply impoverished, to the level of being developmentally diminished, has grown faster. So, not only has economic growth resulted in the abuse of the environment from which that growth comes, but it has produced and amplified the greatest tragedy of human suffering in human history.
These things are true. There is no alternative data showing that people are actually healthy on low protein, vitamin free, low calorie diets. Starvation in childhood is not an inconvenience that the highly motivated overcome. It is time that we both realize and admit that it is the wealthy world’s pathological attachment to economic growth that is killing the planet and sustaining a measure of suffering that, if summed up as an audible anguished cry, would pierce the souls of all but the most dedicated psychopaths.
Now comes the hard part; so let us ease our way into it. The abuses being suffered by the world’s ecosystems and the abuses being suffered by essentially half the world’s human population are not natural occurrences like the weather, but result from the large and growing size of the human population and the technologically amplified uses of the earth’s productive capacity. If ‘too many’ is the cause, then ‘fewer’ becomes an obvious solution.
But in a monumental and mad disconnection, agreement that ‘too many and too much’ is the cause is not followed by ‘less and less must be our goal’, rather the face goes blank, the eyes spin and pops from the mouth the recording, “We must grow our way out of this.”
Let it become an article of faith: we will not grow our way out of the economic and ecological dilemmas our incredible expansion has created. The ultimate simplicity must become clear: the answer to too much is less, not more.
The only questions are how to do with less and how to equitably distribute the reductions. The tiny disturbance of our present economic systems is a clue to our dilemma; a system that has no way of dealing with slowing and reversing while continuing to perform its function is certain to fail with catastrophic consequences. Just think of any physiological system: run and the heart goes faster, sit down and the heart goes faster, sleep and the heart goes faster, die and the heart tries to go faster!
If every human being who could do with less, essential 2 billion people who have ‘a little more’, were to consciously decide to use less; what would be the consequences? If the great “Middle Classes” were to decide to redevelop the skills that being personally in charge of remaining alive required; what would be the consequences? 
The present tiny economic “downturn”, engineered by the economic elite for their own benefit, is a timely warning with these messages: The first is that most human beings are, by either acceptance or fact, at the (nonexistent) mercy of the present economic system; as long as people in general have no skills appropriate to meeting their actual biological needs, then they are at the mercy of who or whatever will supply them. The second is that the present economic system has no capacity for adjusting down, only up, and is designed to serve the interests of the most insane and inhumane among us. The third is that most people actually understand this at some level and live in socially modulated states of terror (known as consumerism) as a consequence .
The forth is that there are no, zero, nada, efforts being made institutionally to understand or act on this most serious problem in the history of humanity. Individuals, families, communities are on their own. The economic system, and increasingly the political system, is designed so that your own needs enslave you to it. The first steps to emancipation are to use less – beyond tokenism. And then take less from the economic world, less money, fewer products from the most economically and environmentally destructive sources. Fill in the gaps with your own efforts and skills. Use and support the commons; parks, forests, libraries, public transportation. Learn the skills to repair your house, your car and other things. Grow a garden and learn to safely store its produce; use community gardens, or help create one if you have no access to land.
The goal is to free yourself from the economic system so that you are no longer a slave. Even nations with more or less humane welfare systems still are growth dependent and require such a response. If enough people try this with some small, consistent success, the economic system will adapt by either discovering ways to slow down without collapsing, or by criminalizing attempts to be free of the economic system. Either way the next step will begin to come clear.
 There are, of course, the 1% users, the 0.1% users, who are taking the earth’s productive capacity at rates hundreds, even thousands, of times greater than the rest of us; these people are generally not right in the head and will never get with the program – the program will have to get to them. As part of this understanding it should be clear that what we call the middle classes in the developed countries are in no way median or modal in the world.
 You say this doesn’t make sense? Just think about the massive anxiety created by consumer-holidays like Christmas, birthdays, etc. Think about the consumer-riots at reduced price sales.
The Coming Economic Contraction
Economic contraction, expressed as the lowering of material wealth standards especially for the middle classes, is more complex than the simple redistribution of tiny increments of wealth from the multitude to the aggressively rich. There is a more serious process in play. It is that those peoples and nations using more than an average of about 2.5 hectares per capita of the earth’s productive capacity must bring down their use (1 hectare = 100 meters by 100 meters = 2.47 acres): this can be done with some equity and social justice or it can be done in dynamic struggle to keep present levels, increase use on the old pattern and to push want and despair off onto others. (search “Ecological Footprint Atlas” and NFA data tables for most resent data)
Put another way, this can be done with some serious efforts at fairness or it can be done catastrophically. Our opening efforts, while not irrevocable, seem pointed toward catastrophe. At present, the need to reduce average consumption is occurring at the same time as the world’s wealthiest people, increasingly, are using their power advantage to gather up (steal from other humans and the rest of the living world) and control as much real wealth as possible.
Much of the analysis, in the developed countries, of our changing life styles, living standards and material well-being has been done with the unstated, underlying assumption that any reduction in personal wealth is an unnecessary, dreadful and unacceptable loss – this is a very dangerous foundational belief, and suffers from a variety of errors of thinking and living.
The belief that the value of one’s life is dependent on material measures is at once too easy and too deeply incorrect to be satisfactory, but the ease has trumped the inaccuracy. The great distance that our human lives have moved from the forming and effective experiences of our origins have left a vacuum of meaning and purpose to be filled. The shame is that we have filled that need with garbage – if not true garbage to begin with… all the ‘stuff’ ends up as discarded in the end.
This cycle of filling, inappropriately, the needs of meaning and purpose with disposable material objects, discarding and replacing them as they are superseded by other material objects and claiming this to be a fundamental and obligatory way of life is about to come to an end; and we are completely unprepared. We are unprepared for having less stuff, for being required to do more for ourselves and for facing material uncertainties. Even more dangerously, we are not prepared to replace these losses with the human contacts, supports and communities that have eased humans through material hardships for the many tens of thousands of years that the species has been on the earth.
About half of the world’s people will have their material standard of living reduced over the coming years. It will either be the half that uses more than “their share” of the earth’s capacity – they will have less excess, their status systems will have to be reformed and a number of social dislocations adapted to – or it will be the half that are using “their share” or less than their share. These people would die off in great numbers since there would be nothing left for them to adapt to.
At the moment, the developed nation’s “middle” classes, those who use between 3 to 15 or so hectares of productive capacity, are being squeezed by the wealthy, people using many 10s of hectares to support their consuming behavior; though neither group is looking at events in these terms.
The middle classes, for the most part, see wealth in only money terms and all the convoluted machinations constructed around it; they see money wealth being carved away from them in a theft of a thousand appropriations; complex stratagems to use tax collection, transaction charges, debt and interest, political power, social pressure and the emptiness of modern life to capture the labor and tiny bits of wealth of the masses, and transfer it to the massive piles of the wealthy. And more: the blatant blackmail and robbery of national treasuries, accumulated retirement and pension funds and the wealth of the national commons represented by public lands, health services, education and Social Security systems.
The natural tendency is to fight back on the established model, to try to regain the ground lost. Those who are cheated of their 10 hectare life style demand its return and would rather gain a little in the bargain. Those who have lost their 4 hectare consumption, who are pushed into the socially unacceptable ‘poverty’ of 3 hectare consumption look for someone to blame rather than trying to find life’s meaning, value and opportunity beyond the material loss.
Clearly two different, but related, processes are conflated. First, the Great Many are being stolen from by the psychopathic and situationally sociopathic rich. That theft needs to be stopped and economic equity restored. But secondly, the productive capacity of the earth has been exceeded by at least 50 percent, actually a good deal more if ecological stability and biodiversity are considered, requiring a reduction in consumption. This reduction looks and feels the same whether it comes from the theft of labor product by the economic elite or from the adaptations required by the overuse of earth’s resources.
At the present time most of the earth’s people use about 1 to 3 hectares of productive capacity per year with hundreds of millions using less than one hectare . The most gluttonous use hundreds of times that number; such use should be a crime against humanity. Canada and the USA use as much as 8 hectares per capita per year depending on how the calculations are done. The ‘TV life style’ presented in media as ‘normal’ and desirable represents about 10 to 15 or more per capita hectares per year of productive capacity.
We, in the high consumption regions of the world, must find new ways of being satisfied in life. Of course, we should not be stolen from and taken advantage of by the wealthy oligarchs of the corporate and political elites. The elites are almost a separate species of madmen and madwomen, humans who have lost their association with humanity – and who would accept, even engineer, the suffering and deaths of millions of their fellows to maintain high levels of consumption. They, like any dangerously diseased animal , must be appropriately responded to, first with attempts at a cure and then with segregation unless they can adapt to living with the rest of us without being a danger. This has always been the way of human communities; however, first there must be a community!
The fact is that whether the misbehavior of the rich is dealt with or not, whether humanity actually develops ‘humanity’ and approaches our future with some equity – or not – we are at the end of economic growth. The full force of economic contraction will come in its own time, driven by the various peak supplies of resources and ecological free services. It should be obvious that we have passed the peak of atmospheric absorption of greenhouse gasses, that peak oil is immediately upon us, peak water may have been passed, approaching peak food, well passed peak biodiversity (with dangerous implications for ecosystem integrity) and several other peaks are being approached, achieved or passed. In other words, the earth’s productive capacity is beginning to force economic contraction.
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While these matters have general importance, it is the personal response to them that ultimately counts. Human action is never more than the summation of the actions of the many individuals; and activity of the most vital importance is no action at all unless actually preformed in numbers sufficient to produce the necessary effect.
Individuals may move others to take actions, but acting only by themselves accomplishes only the smallest part. And so it is in the movements of the many that some change occurs. Margaret Mead was not wrong though: change does rise from the small and committed group, but by that group’s influence on the many, by engaging them in the imagination created, formalized and spread from a concentrated and incipient source.
This is where you come in; and me. We must begin to make adjustments. Fight the crimes of economic and power elites to be sure, but realize that we are not fighting to restore an unsustainable and profligate consumption: we cannot be about taking from the rich so that we can be rich; that is how we got into trouble in the first place. Our struggle must be for equity in our social lives and the humanity of specieshood in our personal lives. We can rediscover what is just barely hidden from us, ready on a moment’s notice to reappear. We can rediscover the capacity to help others and to receive help, the pleasures of making do in the company of others making do. We can rediscover meaning and purpose in life more fulfilling of our biology, history and human capacities.
There is much to learn that we already know, but have been made too frightened to approach. Some of you must become leaders in that risking, learning and doing.
 These people are not uniquely disordered, their direct removal would only leave the niches in the economic and political structure to be filled by others. Stable material possession requires a level of equity that I define as ‘mutual comprehensibility.’ Those with the least material possession and those with the most must not be separated by a distance greater than allows for their ability to fully understand and empathize with the other. The earth’s capacity and our large human population prescribe that the center point of such equity be at a place presently called poverty in the ‘developed’ world. Assuming that humanity successfully navigates the coming troubles, “growth” and “progress” will be redefined as increasing material wellbeing through population and impact reduction rather than increase. Our present habits will be seen, in the future, as incomprehensible – just as they are actually incomprehensible now.
What Would a No-growth Economy Look Like?
The earth’s living space has been a no-growth economy for most of its existence – or very very slow growth  (by which I mean increase in total energy and material 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 sugar . 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 the many other organic molecules essential for life. Movement and the replacement-growth of bodies uses up the stored energy. 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 fully and completely 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/species fails to effectively compensate, then the ecological order progressively destabilizes, changing the composition of organisms and behaviors until a compensating regime is reestablished.
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, such as Homo sapiens (sic), that finds a way to defeat the Living System of Order, and its information nexus, will only do so for a short bit of evolutionary 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 exist for any length of time, would have to set limits for total energy and material use, as well as create effective forms of compensation. I would hope that we could do this by judicious application 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.
The body and ecosystems are primarily communistic in the most essential way: from each according to ability (evolved productions), to each according to need (evolved biological requirements). 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 the Story that we tell ourselves can’t be adapted to improve our functioning in such a design. The biological nature of human motivation can become more informing of the social, economic and political adaptations that must form to reintegrate our activities into the basic communism of the Living Order.
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 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.”
 Growth 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 existence a fully populated earth – the last 350 million years – there has not been a full order of magnitude change (up or down) in the earth’s biomass as a result of ‘growth’ and adaptation.
 There 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.
No-growth Economy, Part Two
There are two ideas that are directly opposed to our current Story of ourselves (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, billions and trillions 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. These new stabilities 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 rapid, large scale and disrupting consequences . 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 of the Living Order, it only allows them to be violated in large ways, and more quickly, than has been possible before 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.
We have added to the energy mix fossil chemical energy and radiological energy as a way to increase 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 fustian 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 solar energy flux enough to replace these extra inputs – and the environmental damage being done is forcing a nascent consideration of 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 greatly reduced “capita.” This leads to the 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.
The distribution of benefits and the costs of excess energy use – and the consequences of the eventual disruption in the delivery of energy – will be determined by systems of belief and systems of power; these are based in Consciousness Order processes. The equities associated with ecosystems may be evocative, but are ultimately meaningless when we believe them to be irrelevant. This is a place where the CSO is clearly dominating in our actions.
It may be that CSO as manifest in the human species is proving itself a failed form of this new way of handling information. 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 existing and potential substrates. We are approaching a seminal moment in this process.
Equity, altruism, love, empathy, anger, vengeance and other such qualities are primarily of Living System origin; academic economics is a CSO product like pickup trucks, jet aircraft 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 – Living System of Order qualities need to take precedence for the distribution of energy, population levels and consumption patterns. In other words, the Consciousness System of Order must adapt from being a device in opposition to the natural order back to its original 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, on the other hand, must sustain, reproduce and repair its living units based entirely on biophysical principles; living vs. dying is always the final measure. In the origin of the CSO, the Living Order supplied 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 frames of reference limited to material having vs. not having rather than broadening to the whole structure of our living system. We would not, could not, consider only the design of the second and third floors of a house ignoring 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 absolutely exclusive property. This Story is naturally ascendant since it justifies and uninhibits the taking and 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 severely strained. The confluence of Greek thought, Christianity, and European tribalism produced such a freebooting 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.
 About 3 billion years ago a bacterium began to directly extract energy from light by combining CO2 and H20 to form a 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 its concentration increased, more and more organisms adapted to the potential that this poison had for releasing the energy in certain molecular bonds; it became a life changer all over the earth’s surface. The CSO is an adaptation with such a potential.
No-growth Economy, part three
How would humans have to live to again become part of the biospheric ecology? It is sophistry to argue that since we live on the earth, we are part of the ecology and thus whatever we do is “natural.” The Consciousness System of Order always puts us in the paradoxical position of being of nature, but not a part of it since we can, with consciousness, violate the biophysical principles under which all other species labor. And yet, we have no choice but to use the CSO to reintegrate with biospheric order.
As Jared Diamond and others have understood, we planted the seeds of our present economic and social systems with the beginning of agriculture. To shift metaphors: the die was cast. It was not genetic change that allowed and formed the agricultural habit, but a new application of the Consciousness Order, and ultimately the complete reliance of the human individual living state on the machinations of consciousness derived designs. These are designs of processes and events that would never occur (have a vanishingly small probability) without the action of a new system of collecting, storing and implementing information.
But in only one sense was the die cast. What happened had to happen, but, especially because the source was Consciousness Order, unlike a genetic change, it does not have to continue to happen. The essence of the functioning of the Consciousness System of Order is that imagined objects, processes and conditions can be made to exist in reality.
The “impossible” can become a certainty. A human might, given the biological design of the forelimb, throw a rock with some accuracy and hit a small animal. The existence of such abilities would be the basis for the structure of the economic and social order. The human rock-thrower might have a maximum proficiency and effectiveness of 30% over 15 meters; But WHAT IF those efficiencies could be improved to, say, 90% over distances of 30 meters and 50% over distances of 50 meters with a specialized ‘throwing tool?’ Today that ‘what if’ has produced the ‘impossible’ ability to hit with certainty a target the size of a human city on another planet or pinpoint a target moving at twice the speed of sound from 40 kilometers or more. These abilities also structure the economic and social order.
While there is great value in examining the process of transferring our primary economic and social designs from Living Order origins to Consciousness Order formulations, there is little chance, and it would not be desirable, to return completely to pre-consciousness designed conditions – the option of being forced there by total economic and environmental collapse is the least desirable of the possibilities that confront us.
Indulge me a metaphor: Imagine a train on a track. The riders and crew of the train are not so happy with where they find themselves at the end of each day’s travel and so they get together to find a solution to their problems. They study the maps of all the tracks they can find and, from these, design a plan of travel to what they assume, from the best evidence available, will be a better place. This is using the consciousness order, but not to its fullest. Consider removing the existing track and rebuilding it ahead in a new direction. Consider finding a system of track that is not connected to the one you are on, taking the train apart and reconstructing it on the other system. Consider leaving the train altogether.
The actions that an individual needs to take to be healthy and happy are relatively simple in basic design, but often extremely difficult to actualize in the present situation: (1) a sufficient amount of high quality food, (2) a sufficient amount of clean water, (3) some protective structure to store goods and that allows for the modification of ‘local climate’ to human comfort levels, (4) protective structures and behaviors that mitigate the more dramatic physical and medical dangers, (5) opportunities for personal expression, (6) opportunities for relationships with other humans at a wide variety of levels, (7) time for reflection on and (8) contact with the forces of the Real biophysical reality as a means of keeping the powers of the Consciousness Order organized in reality and (9) inhibiting its tendency to self-reference into madness.
We are “buying” the first four by giving up the second five. This is totally unacceptable; especially so since the loss of the second five is allowing us, without serious thought, to deny the first four needs to billions of humans with just as much biological ‘right’ to exist as we have. What those billions do not have, according to our present madness, is the economic right to exist.
How we move to the next position in our changes will be of incalculable significance. It is my view, and the view of others such as Dee Brown, that the genocidal origin of the USA has tainted the national psyche. It is a simple fact that Europeans acquired unfettered access to the American continents by killing off the people who lived here. Millions of people and hundreds of cultures were killed in a process that ranged from accidental to the most tortured and bloodthirsty plans. This fact has, I believe, helped lead us to be a nation without history – or rather a nation with a cartoon history that prevents honest historical reflection and thus denies us any chance of living in even the pale reality that might be accessed by “knowing our history.”
How the human species will proceed if a select segment designs the extermination of billions of humans as a way of saving itself is unknowable, but it might not be worth doing. If the Stories that arise as the designs of the CSO are to be the “societal DNA” for future generations, it would be best for humanity and the earth in general that we find our way out of this cul-de-sac in some way that begins the process of reintegrating Story with the Living System of Order. This would also have the consequence of slowly (very slowly) reducing the total suffering created by human excess, experienced by those living things that can suffer.
* * *
For humans to live in a no-growth economy the ‘profit motive’  will have to be replaced with other incentive designs. The most obvious are to be found in meeting the 9 needs listed above with personal action. If humans had to feed themselves, had to clean their own water, had to build their own shelters, if these behaviors were the expected social standard, then a variety of issues would be resolved. If the expected rates of “technological progress” were far slower, at least generational in length rather than monthly, yearly or decadal, then the focus of life could be on living it and less on the addiction to newness with no regard to consequences. There is no advantage to there being great changes in transportation, communication, entertainment, medicine, construction, etc., if life is rendered into madness as the trade off. These legs were made for walking. There is sanity in walking.
Milton Friedman  was right about what happens to expected designs of order during a serious economic shock; people go with the ideas that are in place to be used. It doesn’t matter very much that an idea would have no chance of being listened to or implemented prior to such a shock, what does matter is that a plan appears comprehensive and less scary than no idea at all.
And so it cannot matter that there is not a chance in hell that most people can even hear such ideas as these right now. The few tens of people with a national audience, supported by a few hundreds of others, thinking and writing about our most likely future must keep trying. As the shininess of the madness tarnishes and the social order is more and more obviously frightening and insane, people will be looking for something that sounds possible. And while many will go to the even greater madness of present “religions,” many will not.
I am confident that reassociating the Consciousness System of Order with the Living System of Order is essential and that daily practice in the details of the Living Order is a requirement. I am also certain that there are several forms that this can take, though only a tiny few, and all related, compared to the unlimited possibilities of madness.
The essential change is that human global society must not continue to be a separate economic structure in competition with the natural ecological economy. For that is what we have become. The Consciousness System of Order has organized ‘species’ of behaviors, environments of structures and processes, economies of relationships, all of which can seem quite independent of the Biophysical Reality – but, of course, are all completely dependent on every action and process of that Reality. The failure to be integrated into the actual forces and processes that sustain life on the earth is a madness from which there can be no recovery.
There is no reason not to maintain many, though not all, of our technological wonders. There is no reason not to continue with scientific study and philosophical investigations. In fact, there are very good reasons to do both. But the social, political and economic design that separates individuals from the daily activities that sustain the individual life must be replaced. And population levels would have to be reduced appropriately to such a design. Everyone would feed themselves (produce some significant proportion of their own food) as a social expectation as powerful as the expectation now that people are responsible to work for money. I assume this could be done in small collectives where minimal economies of scale could function, but the large “economies” of scale that are destructive of the living order would be socially and scientifically rejected .
Travel would be restricted by the amount of energy that we could devote to it – an amount arrived at by study and political compromise (and this would be true of many other activities). If we are to avoid giving complete control back to the not so tender mercies of the LSO, then we will have to reengage one of the early functions of the Consciousness Order: the sensitive (intuitive) social constructions of Story that inhibited the intemperate expression of our capacities for acting on and changing the world immediately around us. These processes functioned adaptively in a time frame much faster than biological evolution, but much more slowly than the change rates that we currently experience. Therefore, we must discover the means to bring inhibiting processes into our deliberations and actions. The “native” conservatism of looking before leaping has become a principle lost.
The sciences and their philosophical underpinnings are just about our only reliable knowledge base from which to accomplish these things. And the key to the use of the sciences as a social foundation is a well-informed population. This is not as misguided as it might sound at first blush. Science is universal; there is no Indonesian science separate from French science. Science, in combination with philosophy, can offer well-founded cautions: if you do this, then there is about an 80% chance that that will happen. The basics of science literacy and probability thinking is no more difficult that baseball statistics or auto mechanics.
Institutional religions recognize this challenge to their power base and ancient role as human guide; religion’s practitioners will fight back, but even here I see movement to accept certain inevitabilities: the reality of the biophysical cannot be denied even by a madman when it begins to consume him.
Using science and scientific epistemology as a universal knowledge base would only enhance the development of a broad and fecund human spiritual connection with the universe and its immediate representative, the earth’s living space. A deep knowledge base supporting actual self-sufficiency in the direct meeting of our human needs is fulfilling and is the basis of purpose. I do not think of this as religion (although I see only semantic reasons not to), but as the cognitive/emotional designs that attach the person to the universe in which our improbability exists. The difference, however, is largely irrelevant except to those few people who depend on having their robes bought for them by the misguided masses.
The key to all of this is the grounding of life in the actions of life; the reintegration of the CSO with the LSO. The suggestions above are only random thoughts. A rededication of daily life to the Biophysical Reality is the model in whatever form it might take.
 This is not to say that motive is not necessary, only that the profit motive is a disembodied motive for abstract gain and as such tends to function as a positive feedback rather than as a homeostatic feedback design. A motive that cannot be satisfied, and worse that gets stronger as it is met, is a very dangerous one indeed. It is vital that the general motive structure for human action be of a homeostatic design, if it is not we will remain in a cycle of exponential growth and catastrophic collapse.
 Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” A problem with this idea is, however, that most ‘solutions’ are for conditions that either once existed and do not exist now or for conditions that have never existed except as some ideology. The best we can do is to have tried in practice, supported by some consensus, a variety of options. And there is always the danger of a narrow ideological self-interested group taking advantage of troubles as presented by Naomi Klein.
 The lack of self-sufficiency is the great political and economic sword hung over our heads. If it were the social expectation that everyone were 30%, 50% or 70% self-sufficient, the “money economy” could run on the remaining percentage, and we could always be in the position to reject it when its productions were destructive of life.
Invention and progress
Nothing is more descriptive of the human linage than invention. In fact, in the history of the earth, almost 4 billion years of which includes the history of life, there was no invention (either object or process) before the hominids began doing it roughly 2 to 4 million years ago. The changes associated with evolution are not invention, but are the consequence of the “selecting”, storing and re-implementing arrangements of nucleotide bases of DNA. The Living System of Order captures selected information from Reality (what remains in the moment continues) and allows the variations in structure and function that occur as a result of the DNA/protein storage and implementation designs to feedback into the system. New things? Yes. Inventions? No. There have been some truly incredible new things like photosynthetic free oxygen, perhaps the most dramatic and significant development in the history of life, but it came from random variation in the arrangement of nucleotides captured by the genetic process.
Invention begins when an information storage tool like a nervous system has the capacity to combine stored experiences that are weakly related by type and that have occurred widely separated in time. This design of function I have called the Consciousness System of Order. When you start to think about it (with it!), the CSO may compete with free oxygen production as a profound new thing.
Progress is the more problematic. First of all, we (hominids) invented ‘progress’ using our new toy, Consciousness Order. The dictionary says that progress is: “forward or onward movement toward a destination; advance or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition.” We, of course, invented this definition; it most likely describes an illusion; a useful one, but, like all illusions, dangerous when misused.
What makes this more interesting and important than playing shuffleboard with words is that we have made certain notions of invention and progress central to our social, economic and political values. The utter horror that can attach to the exclamation, “WHAT! You are opposed to progress?”, is a clue to how deep and unquestioned is both our dedication to and misunderstanding of this idea.
‘Invention’ is a consequence of a new system of order that presently resides in the human species, and ‘progress’ is an invention of the process of invention (we now are trying to invent a way to put this new system of order into our machine inventions. Thoughtful people are rightly concerned since we have not even begun to understand this revolutionary capacity in its biological form.) Neither one is an inherently positive value that can justify the uses of our other inventions to subjugate other humans, remove other species or damage the biosphere. We do these things only because we have not yet invented a way not to.
A more difficult, but more accurate, way of looking at these changes is– the changes are certainly real – that our consciousness tool of invention is combining all manner of experiences in novel ways with occasional combinations produced, tested and spread to other humans. These new things can then contribute to new experiences and ultimately to more new inventions. The design of this process in the Consciousness System of Order is inherently exponential and uninhibited. And thus, inherently self-terminating: unless we invent ways to inhibit and govern the process. The first step is to recognize that “progress” is not a natural good; our understanding of progress is a distortion that has taken on political and social value.
The down and dirty political, economic and social consequences are that invention and progress are ultimately not processes for the “improvement of life-styles”; they are routes to power. The powerful do not control the process of invention and idea, but they try to control what we call progress by controlling the spread of ideas.
However, the details of our political reality must not distract us away from the actual functioning of our human process; our actions are a result of those processes. The better we understand how our world functions in biophysical and social-biological terms the less we can be misled and confused. Progress is only change that someone sees as more or less immediately useful. Invention is the combination of experiences and imaginings measured against possibility. We, humans, of this planet have become servant to these behaviors and, especially under the influence of spin-offs like growth economics, are pressing our biological luck.
We need social dialog, we need regulation, and ultimately we need a social/political mechanism to reject inventions (physical and behavioral) that, while immediately useful, are destructive in the longer term. If we understand that the Consciousness System of Order is not evolution in action, but a new system with its own rules, that invention is a new and powerful process and that Darwinian and, especially, Spencerian thinking don’t apply, then it might be possible to find a way to live with this incredible power. Up to now we have only been riding it.
We must use the only tools we have to begin reconstructing our relationship, first personally and then societally, with the Biophysical Reality (the one and only!). That these tools are the very ones that drove us into this cul-de-sac, in the first place, cannot be a damning concern; they are all we have, and when brought more under our wise control, are all we have that can carry us out.
There Just Isn’t Enough Productive Capacity
Where do we begin to understand the cacophony of events occurring in the world around us? Be assured (or terrified) there is a grand theme, not just millions of unrelated accidents. Most major events have to do with land space, energy, material, food and water resources; who has access to them, who can claim them and who can control them. Those events that don’t seem to be related to resource issues are very often smoke-screens to hide actions that involve resources . Ultimately there just isn’t enough productive capacity left on the earth for everyone, including the totality of living things in the biosphere. That is the key.
Ecologists and other environmental scientists know this. A few of the brighter, better informed politicians know this. Analysts working for the world’s intelligence agencies know this. Military planners know this. A sprinkling of thoughtful and/or educated “laymen” know this. And who else would know this better than smart economic forecasters working for major corporations? And who would feel a greater need to act on that knowledge than corporate managers and others in the economic elite? The list of those who are actively or passively unaware is nearly endless.
There are primarily three responses to the understanding that the earth has limited productive capacity. One is academic; the scientific study of resource availability and use; secondly, the activist attempt to increase pubic understanding of ecological limits and to reduce the destructive consequences of human activity; and, thirdly, the propaganda efforts of those who rely on a confused, uninformed public to continue to exploit dwindling resources and dangerous technologies for economic gain.
The sorts of people drawn to, and the business values required of, this last group are supported by the vast wealth that can be created and concentrated by exploitive activities.
It becomes the ethic of the corporate world to have little concern for other human beings or long-term ecological conditions; the primary interest is for increasing institutional and personal wealth and power in the moment.
The economic elites understand that are only two routes to such control: knowledge and wealth; both can be translated into power. Real wealth and accurate knowledge of reality must both be concentrated and restricted to those who share exploitive business values; the people who are most in danger of being harmed by the limitations of the earth’s productive and restorative capacities must be kept ignorant of the truths upon which appropriate life decisions would otherwise be made. An honest distribution of wealth and the spread of accurate knowledge of the world’s processes, and the effect of human action on them, must be prevented at all costs. Lord Acton was right about absolute power, though it not only corrupts behavior, it also corrupts and twists the mind into insanity. Presently promoted values and beliefs about how the world works distort our living relationship with life almost beyond recognition or remediation.
The competition to create and retain the wealth needed for power, for the ability to control information and to defeat the efforts of people in general as they try to bring the world’s activities to some understandable level requires the decisions that corporations make everyday: use up pollution-sink capacity of rivers, lakes, oceans and atmosphere to stay in the game. Destroy human lives to stay in the game. Court a new population of consumers, discarding the old, to stay in the game. Reduce overhead, increase profits at any cost to the living world; since if you don’t, someone will and you will come out a dollar short and a day late. Cut the throat and move on; if you don’t, someone else will.
If these kinds of decisions were rarely made, they could be integrated into a more general adaptive process that comported with the larger realities of a sustaining biosphere. But, if decisions of desperation are daily fare, the “normal” form of business, then failure is a certainty. All margins of error, all capacity, will be soon exhausted – unless new sources of capacity are constantly discovered and added; clearly an impossibility on a finite planet.
This is where our business and political behaviors have brought us. These are the values of the economic and political elite; these are the “values” of madmen.
The first step out of this predicament is to recognize and name the madness. The initial response to insanity doesn’t require that it be explained or repaired, but it is required to see its actions and influences with clarity if one is to avoid being trapped in its excesses. But be prepared; this is a lonely pursuit.
The great movements of history have all been driven by madness, to be caught up in them is to be a part of the madness. All great movements have violated conditions of reality. But, a whisper, an inkling, teases my thought that there is another way, that I am, and others are, the measures of possibility. I am an ordinary man, country raised, tossed by the fates into the full range of human experience. There are millions like me; if I can see the world with some clarity, if I am willing, even desirous, to discover how to live within the limitations of Biophysical Reality, then why not a movement driven by sanity. It is just a thought, an imagining. But this too, even if apparently embedded in Biophysical Reality, requires a hubris beyond reality. Well so be it; on with the show, to find a way to live in this world with nature’s consent.
 Abortion, homosexuality, guns, covert racism and drug issues are used to reduce social-services spending, to distract from power grabs and other actions that reduce the financial and organizational power of the Great Many in favor of the economic elite.