Sunday, December 5, 2010

Horns of a Dilemna

Finally finished Nature - An Economic History, thanks to my mare who fell over backwards onto my right calf thereby creating some downtime. Nature is a unique book - densely argued but not impenetrable or academic, in the pejorative sense. You learn a LOT about marine molluscs along the way (Vermeij is a paleontologist specializing in fossil molluscs). More to the point, it has given me a much more powerful way to think about the interplay of natural systems and human social systems, including our economy. That we share an economy with nature is as at once obvious and forgotten. For farmers and especially for ranchers it is the stuff of everyday life: mediating the transformation of sunlight into dollars. Most of us would rather just stay in the sunlight part and forget about the dollars, but we have families, mortgages, and automobiles just like everyone else. But that's not the dilemna that I'm talking about.

It has become increasingly obvious that human civilization faces a troubling dilemna. Our success (or over-sucess) as a species, expressed by ou exponential population growth, has been largely due to certain social and cultural traits that encourage innovation. Among these traits have been competitive freedom at the individual level (free-market), and diffusion of power (democracy). Conditions of growth and prosperity breed innovation, which has led to further growth and prosperity. We have been able to innovate out of all previous limitations on growth by finding new resources to exploit or increasing the efficiency of our exploitation. Now we face global resource depletion and environmental degradation.

We will again need to innovate - socially, culturally, and mechanically -our way to a solution. Innovation requires freedom. Freedom requires growth/prosperity. Continued growth may well be fatal to our species and many, many others. Such is the dilemna.

Vermeij does not have A Solution. He does pose the question extremely well, and he does offer some interesting ideas to begin to address the dilemna . One such idea is to adapt the system of checks and balances that has, for the most part, been successful in diffusing power in Western democracies in order to limit corporate concentrations of power, and thereby increase the resilience of our economic ecosystem. Another idea is to require that corporate decision-making take into account true costs rather than simply profitability.

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