Wealth always confers a sense of entitlement; that is what wealth is. There is the implicit and explicit assumption that one is entitled to what one holds in a protected state and to any future goods and services that one’s holdings can be traded for. Wealth creates a demand for future goods and services. If the wealth of a nation is estimated at 12 trillion dollars, then it is assumed that the world can and will produce 12 trillion dollars worth of things and tradable behaviors. To use a simpler model, if I have a thousand dollars, it is not wealth unless I can get a thousand dollars worth of stuff or tradable behavior for it (this needs, of course, to be based against some standard). The notion that wealth creation is not bounded by any natural restraint is belied by this simple fact.
The productive capacity of the planet, available for human use, is the limit of wealth. And this is dependent on a variety of factors that give practical limits well below theoretical limits. First and foremost, the productive capacity available to humans must consider in its calculation the capacity required to maintain environmental stability and to sustainably provide ecological “free services.” This does not mean that humans can pick and choose among the world’s ecosystems those that we really need and trash the rest. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding of biophysical reality; and the way we have been doing business for more than 5 thousand years. We are at present, by the most conservative estimates, using the earth’s productive capacity at about 50% above a sustainable level, i.e., to maintain our present use rate would require about 1.5 earths. To remove the most dramatic poverty, experienced by almost 1/2 the earth’s people, would require at least 2 earths if there was no major wealth redistribution and using present economic models. The average life style in the USA requires about 5 earths, in Europe about 3 earths.
A more realistic accounting would suggest that we are using the earth well beyond these levels. The Ecological Footprint model developed by Mathis Wackernagel et al. had to be very conservative to be listened to and respected at all. We are in an economic and political frame that trivializes environmental science and especially “tree hugging” ecologists. Partly as a result of this the Footprint model does not calculate nearly enough capacity for maintaining biospheric integrity. Further more, the Ecological Footprint calculations are not considering the future demand of arbitrary wealth creation and the effect of expectation on human actions in the environment. If “we” have accumulated 100 trillion dollars worth of abstract value, “we” will be dissatisfied with a planet that can only return 10 trillion in goods and services. A likely result would be an “every man for themselves” scramble to get as much as possible as fast as possible: actually what we are doing now. (Pricing “mechanisms” and inflation would ‘adjust’ the values, but if a consistent standard is applied the difficulty remains clear rather than obscured.)
Economists have wanted to be physicists of ‘value mechanics’ when they should be aspiring to be ecologists of human/environment energy exchange. Everything is connected to everything else; if you tweak here, there can be a ripple or an explosion there. The “law of unintended consequences” is misnamed. It is really the Law of Consequences: actions beget a spreading web of consequences only one (or a few) of which we perform the action to attain in the first place. Organic systems modify their relationships to bring all elements into dynamic balance or the system disappears and is replaced in its region or function by other systems that meet that goal.
Biological systems are homeostatic.1 Human systems are biological systems. When human systems were primarily mediated by genetic and protein based action, the homeostatic regulatory mechanisms were already in place through the arbitration of the living state. As Consciousness Order designs began to replace Living Order structures the direct connections to the homeostatic designs weakened. This should not be taken to mean that the regulatory homeostatic systems were no longer important, just that the Consciousness Order found ways to defeat them for short-term advantage. A simple example: naked humans would have patterns of movement in the environment that support maintaining body temperature. The whole ecosystem will have accommodated the human pattern. When humans are able, using the tools of the consciousness adaptation, to kill a bear and wear its fur, new patterns begin to occur in such rapid succession that the ecosystem can ‘never’ catch up and humans are “free” of the immediate consequences, until the ecology reacts with massive effects.
As long as humans were not especially abundant the disruptions to ecosystems were local, but now that we are global all of our activities must be calculated into our relationship with the biosphere. And the accumulation of arbitrary wealth and the expectation that the earth will deliver on that “promise” has become the greatest danger that we face as a species since we will apparently use all of our technological tools to attempt to enforce that promise.
Homeostasis delayed is not homeostasis denied: ecological systems will come into balance. Humans have defeated these Living Order and Physical Order based systems with our rapid footwork up to now — at terrible cost to the many local ecologies and increasingly to the biosphere — but ultimately homeostatic mechanisms of the interrelating species will have to harmonize. The final “adaptive” response is to go extinct and thus deny service to the ecology resulting in a cascade of extinctions that produce a much simpler, balanced ecology, but one that very likely will not provide the same “free services” to humans.
Our financial world seems almost completely disconnected from the biophysical world. We almost never put the two in the same news report. We don’t speak of them with the same language. The digestion of a wood rat has no clear connection to the job loss at a General Motors plant; an upside down mortgage doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the migration of monarch butterflies. But that is not because they aren’t related. It is just that it is not in our habit to understand and recognize the relationships. More is the pity.
The production of greenhouse gases is a contributing factor to climate change. The American southwest is warming and drying. A wood bore beetle is encouraged by the warm and the dry and whole forests of piñon trees have been killed. Piñon nuts in the millions of tons are missing from the food web of the woodlands. Wood rats are starving as GM fails because of overproduction of low MPG cars and trucks. Even if you don’t care about this, it is none-the-less a real relationship among millions of others, all of which will eventually find their way into our digestion.
The human Consciousness System of Order adaptation allowed the accumulation of excess in our dealings with environmental energy exchange. That excess has been stored as wealth. Wealth creates entitlement. Stored wealth appears to grow without limit, and thus entitlement becomes apparently unlimited in a limited world. This is the absolute opposite of the homeostatic limiting that is the very basis of living things.
What is completely clear is that humans are but one of 10 million or so species integrated into the biospheric order, one species that is acting out a new and powerful adaptation, and with not a clue as to that adaptation’s power, properties and dangers. It is completely clear that the adaptive interactive structures of the Living Order will absorb the human growth bubble into a re-integrated biophysical order. What is not clear is whether the consciousness order will remain or what form it will take if it does remain. It is not clear whether the consciousness order can be marshaled by our species and made to apply its great powers realistically to our dilemmas and not just offer the ancient palliatives of mysticism. And it is not clear just when the cascade of massive ecological events will begin in earnest, but they have certainly begun.
The present troubles in the financial system are ultimately sourced in these larger troubles. They will only be delayed and exacerbated by restoring the growth habits to which we have become accustom. The sooner our academic elites understand the ecological realities of our economics, the sooner that political decisions are made about which we value more, life or abstract accumulations of wealth, then the sooner we can get on with taking the actions we will need to take to adapt back into the biophysical order that we have been fighting to dominate and exceed beyond for much too long.
- Homeostasis: We all know this word. But the concept is deep to the very center of life and life’s functioning in the biosphere. Living things require constancy in literally thousands of reactions and chemical concentrations, but chemical reactions tend to begin and go to completion, like setting a sheet of paper on fire. Homeostasis is a way of remaining “constant” by regulating reactions: when going too slow a secondary reaction is triggered that speeds things up, when going too fast a different secondary reaction is triggered that slows things down. The result is that vital physiological processes function within the ranges that allow life to continue. This is a model that we might attempt to more generally apply to our relationships, including especially our financial behavior, in the living space of the biosphere. The model of a fire, finally, has a quite draconian result. [↩]