When Nature Supports Economic Growth

by Axel Sturmann, December 16, 2007

 "Infinite economic growth is not possible on a finite planet". WRONG!

It is a statement which I had supported for many years as an environmentalist, but one which Nature had quietly proven wrong long before the notion had even occurred to any human. Nature, the complete environmental system of this planet (with a little help from the sun), has been sustainably increasing her "economic output" in leaps and bounds since long before the first single cell amoeba started "making out" in Earth’s prehistoric primal goo; had been doing this with a perfectly developed "free market economic system" since millennia before Adam Smith, Karl Marx or Gordon Gecko had even been a blip (or blot) on the evolutionary/creationary radar. In fact, it appears that the greater her economic output – the greater the variety and number of species created and the greater the flow of energy between these species – the more stable the system is; hunt the only primary predator in an ecosystem to extinction and you have a catastrophe, but in a more complex system other primary predators can take its place.

By comparison, our world economic system, which has been developed by humans over the last few hundred years in a process of only semi-controlled creative evolution, has a great deal to learn from Nature’s. Economists trying to develop the perfect economic system – one that sustainably offers ongoing increases in living standards and security – need only humble themselves enough to copy what Nature has long since developed.

After all, our economic system is not separate from Nature’s economic system; it may be a unique part within it, like the Great Barrier Reef, but it is not separate. If you doubt this then think what will happen if just one part of the ecological system, say oil, is removed from our economic one. The ecological system can survive without our economic system, even prosper, but in no way can our economic system survive without the ecological one. No oil, no food, no shelter, no Playstation. The end.

This interconnection becomes even more obvious when we look at the nature of Nature as a perfect free-market economic system of supply and demand. A quick look at the circle of life will demonstrate this or a glance at a weather map – with its blobs and arrows representing areas of high pressure (supply), low pressure (demand) and the wind flowing between them as the trade that evens them out. Likewise the migration of antelope in search of food; the movement of the ocean currents; the rising, shifting and eroding down of the continental shelves; the entire rise and fall of species’ population numbers to match their food supply; all are dancing the economic – sorry, natural – dance of responding to supply and demand. A perfect system. A natural system which can, human foolishness and giant cosmic meteorites notwithstanding, continue to create new species and fill the Earth with an abundance that still manages to boggle even our greed-obsessed human minds.

Unlike our economic system Nature’s is perfect because (humans excluded) there is no greed; because the only species which have learned how to act on impulses of greed have been humans – if other species even have these impulses at all. And this because humans alone have learned how to store and thereby control energy almost indefinitely; with the invention of money and the ensuing creation of financial markets being the pinnacle of this development of stored and tradable energy. By growing grain a farmer transforms his labour, fertilizer, water and solar energy into food energy that can be stored for times of shortage (times of low supply and high demand), or transported and traded in areas experiencing low supply and high demand like to a city or a drought-stricken country. However, the farmer can also trade his created food energy for money energy, which is just a form of stored energy that he can keep until he needs it at another time or place. Squirrels, by comparison, having not yet figured out the concepts of vacuum sealing or refrigeration, can store nuts for one winter, but "know" that storing more than they can reasonably consume or need will only be a waste of valuable energy, as they see their unconsumed nuts turn into either trees or compost in the spring rains.

The reason why capitalism (as it is currently practiced) does not work, why it is unsustainable, why any half-smart economic test of long-term economic viability should rate the current capitalist system as a lousy investment, is not because today’s capitalism contains elements of free market economics – that part is good – but because it has been tainted by greed. And, contrary to what Gordon Gecko would have you believe, greed is bad. Because greed limits and even stops the flow of energy within a system. Because greed corners markets. Because greed moves as much energy as it can from anywhere that it can find it into the control of as few people as possible and then holds it there with a vehemence boarding on psychosis. Greed, in those few that suffer the psychosis, is what causes them to spend those few extra hours funnelling available energy, in whatever form, into their exclusive control for the sole purpose of using that stored/cornered energy as leverage over nature (including other humans) to gain yet more energy into their exclusive control. Because greed is a sin against that which creates and sustains life (a sin not in the conventional sense – I am not religious – but in the sense that it works against Nature). Because, based on the second law of thermodynamics, as any physicist can tell you, if you remove energy from a system you will be left with a state of entropy, of nothingness, with a pile of inert matter with no potential for creation or work, with perfect death. And that is where we are heading if we continue as we are – just read the headlines on global warming. Greed can also be seen as "bad", "wrong" or "evil" on a metaphysical level, because it goes utterly against one of the very cornerstone ideals shared by almost all of the world religious, spiritualist, humanist and philosophical schools of thought, namely, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". A concept discovered, shared and quoted hundreds of years before it found itself into even the Christian teachings[1]. Furthermore, it is an argument that can even be used against those who desire economic stagnation for the sake of environmental protecting. Although economic stagnation is still better than the current environmentally destructive system of greed based "growth".

If you answer that technology will save us, that it is this very economic system that has hugely increased our standard of living, dropped our infant death rate and provided us with i-Pods, and which will now provide us with the financial means and technical know-how to solve the very problems it has created, then you have missed my point. I am not arguing against free market economics or the ability of freethinking and free trading humans to create the most amazing of solutions, I am arguing against the use of greed to control that process for the benefit of only a tiny minority of only one of Nature’s millions of species.

If you want to regulate an economy, do not regulate the flow of energy or creation, regulate the greed.

[1] The earliest written version known being The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant from ancient Egypt, c. 1800 BCE.

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