The Entitlement of Wealth and the Ecological Consequences

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.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. 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.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 21st, 2008 at 8:45am #

    yes, as s’mone had already said “to be is to be related”. a worm, beetle, snake cannot exist unless it is affected by and related to everything else.
    gas burning vehicles r related to enviroment and we know the exhaust is damaging people/biota.
    who controls/mainatains such a damaging system of travel? oil men, politicians, other rich people!? thnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on November 21st, 2008 at 9:00am #

    Walls Come Tumbling Down

    You don’t have to take this crap
    You don’t have to sit back and relax
    You can actually try to change it
    I know we’ve always been taught to rely
    Upon those in authority
    But you never know until you try
    How things just might be
    If we come together so strongly
    Are you gonna make this work
    Or spend your days down in the dirt
    You see things can change
    YES an’ walls can come tumbling down!
    Government’s crack and systems fall
    ‘Cause unity is powerful
    Lights go out- walls come tumbling down!
    Yes they do yes they do
    Yes they do yes they do
    The competition is a colour TV
    We’re on still pause on the video machine
    They keep you slaves to the H.P.
    Until the unity is threatened by
    Those who have and who have not
    Those who are with and those who are without
    And dangle jobs like the donkey’s carrot
    Until you don’t know where you are
    Are you gonna get to realise
    The class war’s real and not mythologised
    And like Jericho- Yes walls can come tumbling down!
    Government’s crack and systems fall
    ‘Cause unity is powerful
    Lights go out- walls come tumbling
    Down we’re be to weak to fight it
    Down not if we’re united
    Down when you’re united
    Are you gonna be threatened by
    The public enemy No. 10
    Those who play the power game
    They take the profits -you take the blame
    When they tell you there’s no rise in pay
    Are you gonna try an’ make this work
    Or spend your days down in the dirt
    You see things CAN change
    Walls can come tumbling down!
    Government’s crack and systems fall
    ‘Cause unity is powerful
    Lights go out- walls come tumbling down!

  3. Don Hawkins said on November 21st, 2008 at 9:06am #

    Isn’t this a sad travesty of the truth? If you rob a bank of a few thousand dollars, you are inevitably arrested and sent to prison. If you rob the entire international banking system, you not only receive a pat on the back but also a handsome retirement package. If you are personally unable to pay your debts to the banks, you are hauled before the courts and have both your movable and immovable property confiscated. But if the bank is unable to pay its debts, it is bailed out with catastrophic urgency. If you fail to pay your insurance premium, your policy is terminated. But if the insurance company falters, it is nationalized by the government while the CEO is relieved of his job with a multi-million dollar severance package. Devinder Sharma

  4. Lijandra said on November 21st, 2008 at 2:56pm #

    Thank you for great article.

  5. Don Hawkins said on November 21st, 2008 at 4:33pm #

    That is Def Leppard lyric’s. Walls Come Tumbling Down. There is a new way of thinking coming ,oh yes there is.

  6. Don Hawkins said on November 21st, 2008 at 6:09pm #

    El Nino has been kind to us for a few years. You can go to NOAA to get forecasts and upon it’s return this next time could be a real eye opener. Could get that new way of thinking moving a bit faster.

  7. Anthony said on November 21st, 2008 at 10:00pm #

    By advice we can not change a system. If man is powerful than other species, so what governs humans? the society which they live in. the base of a society is economy. In imperialist stage of capitalism, the engine of economic system is Finance-Capital. That is why with the failure of Finance-Capital the whole system will crumble. Before this crisis nobody had the courage to talk about the demise of capitalism especially in US, but now here and there people are talking about the alternative. Care about the environment as a whole is possible only in a system which is based on fulfilling the human needs, not his greeds. This article which I liked talks about the alternative:

  8. Don Hawkins said on November 22nd, 2008 at 6:56am #

    Anthony I am very very sure that is the main part of that new way of thinking. The problem is when should we get started?

  9. Don Hawkins said on November 22nd, 2008 at 7:42am #

    Beware of alternative approaches, such as ‘percent emission reduction goals’ and ‘cap
    and trade’. These are subterfuges designed to allow business-as-usual to continue, under a
    pretense of action, a greenwashing. Hordes of lobbyists will argue for these approaches,
    which assure their continued employment. The ineffectiveness of ‘goals’ and ‘caps’ is made
    blatantly obvious by the fact that the countries promoting them are planning to build more
    coal-fired power plants.

    Implications. All of the slack in the schedule for averting climate disasters has been
    used up. The time has past for ‘goals’, half-measures, greenwashing, and compromises with
    special interests.
    We have already overshot the safe level of greenhouse gases. Things are just beginning
    to crumble – Arctic ice is melting, methane is bubbling from permafrost, mountain glaciers
    are disappearing. We must move onto a different course within the next year or two to avoid
    committing the planet to accelerating climate changes out of our control.
    Geophysical boundary constraints are crystal clear: coal emissions must be phased out
    and emissions from unconventional fossil fuels (tar shale, tar sands, e.g.) must be prohibited.
    Priorities for solving the climate and energy problems, while stimulating the economy
    are steps to: (1) improve energy efficiency, (2) develop and deploy renewable energies, (3)
    modernize and expand a ‘smart’ electric grid, (4) develop 4th generation nuclear power, (5)
    develop carbon capture and sequestration capability.

    Transition to the post-fossil-fuel era with clean atmosphere and ocean, requires a carbon
    tax. That tax will cause unconventional fossil fuels to be left in the ground, as well as much
    coal and some oil and gas that resides in remote regions. The public will accept such a tax if
    the funds are returned entirely to the public, no funds going to Washington and other capitols
    for politicians and lobbyists to determine its fate. Tax and 100 percent dividend is not
    sufficient by itself – many other actions are needed – but it is necessary. No time remains for
    a transition via ineffectual half measures.

    Frank communication with the public is essential. At present, all around the world,
    governments are guilty of greenwash, an implausible approach of goals and half-measures
    that will barely slow the growth of CO2. The world, not just the United States, needs an open
    honest discussion of what is needed. It is a tremendous burden to place on the Presidentelect,
    who seems to be the only potential candidate. The only chance seems to be if he
    understands the truth – the whole truth.

    Young people realize that they, their children, and the unborn will bear the consequences
    of our actions or inactions. They do not blame their parents, who legitimately ‘did not know’
    what they were starting. Young people have recently worked hard to influence the
    democratic process. Now they expect the system to take appropriate actions. If that does not
    happen, surely they will begin to raise their voices louder. James Hansen Read all of it.

  10. James Keye said on November 22nd, 2008 at 8:00am #


    It is my view and my argument that we must get past the details of the present economic models. If we argue the details of capitalism vs. socialism/communism, we are not really touching the most important concern: that the production and distribution of primary biological needs are dependent on an economic growth model, a model that is violently opposed to the homeostatic designs of living things. The underlying biophysical reality is coming closer and closer to the massive effects of an extinction event – we are actually in such an event. We are faced with 3 alternative futures: 1) a very broad based, knowledge driven set of actions to reduce human impact on the biosphere while minimizing the destructive consequences to human existence, 2) the assertion of privilege by elites to take charge and intentionally radically reduce population as a way to reduce human impact or 3) deny our precarious position and be washed over by the environment and economic collapses lined up like waves from a coming storm. All offer great pain and suffering; none are futures we would design for ourselves, but that is beside the point.

  11. Don Hawkins said on November 22nd, 2008 at 8:04am #

    Sorry I forgot something kind of important. President Obama do you read DV? Because the people who write on DV or read DV will be watching with great interest if you are the man you say you are. Then there is all those other minds out there the smartest minds on this planet who will be kind of keeping on eye on the way you move forward. I know one thing for sure if I see Greenwash I will try my best to see a few million people out front of your office to wake you up. The truth the whole truth. We know this will not be easy but we will work with you.