Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Conclusion: Is He?

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This post is the fourth part of longer lecture, "Is God on our side? Economics at the borders of nature." Parts I, II, and III.

Conclusion: Is God on our side?

Earlier I discussed species that die out relatively quickly because, by their own insatiability, they destroy the very ecosystem which had been providing them with the gradients they needed. In contrast to them, by our use of fossil fuels we've gained enough independence from ecosystems that we’re capable of causing a great deal more harm before natural processes get in our way.

We find ourselves in the position that in the interests of our own success we may have to renounce the most powerful gradient that any species on this planet has ever found.

But such renunciation goes against the mighty 2nd Law, through whose grace we are surrounded by all the wonders of the world, whether natural or created by human effort.

And a further example from nature doesn’t do much to help the mood. We can picture two basic life strategies. The first is restrained, it gives priority to not using, and it can be seen in cold-blooded animals. They can generally get by on a more modest diet, since they don't need to generate heat.

The second strategy is more prodigal—it’s not that it wastes energy on pointless things, but it is willing to consume more energy in order to maintain a useful inner temperature.

The restrained strategy dominates only under conditions where there are relatively few gradients in forms that are useful to animals.

But where gradients are abundant, prodigal behavior dominates.


This makes regulation of the environment an essentially unstable undertaking, and it casts doubt on the outlook of our civilization, or even of our species.

But perhaps we have a kind of trump card, which is our reason, our foresight, even though it is clearly imperfect. We tried central planning, and it didn’t make a great name for itself, it turned out to be a dead end. But maybe we’ll stumble our way into something more promising.

There was an era when photosynthesis didn’t exist, and in time it evolved. And then came fish, and land animals, and warm-blooded animals, and people, and agriculture, and more complex societies, and markets, and money, and fossil fuels, and computer technology, … That 2nd Law leads ever on. Perhaps it will think up something that will manage to stand up to the 2nd Law itself.

Though our economies are merely the latest thing in the three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life on Earth, we ourselves are something new under the sun. Perhaps we’re on the threshold of something unimaginable that will pull us from our current trap.

Let’s hope so.


  1. Replies
    1. Skeptical, thoughtful -- your mileage may vary.

      Of course it's treacherous to read human mental states into other animals.

      So I'll just assume that he's starting to work on the problem, "OK, how do we get out of this?"

  2. Adrian KuzminskiApril 4, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    This conflation of evolution theory and economic and monetary theory is very interesting. I think it works -- as far as it goes. I agree completely that money is essentially a promise. That presupposes something which perhaps is unique to human beings -- the power of the imagination. A debt is what the philosophers call a performative act -- a social sanction or contractual agreement to do something in the future, something which one must be able to imagine. Clearly human beings were able to imagine this at the dawn of history.

    What I find missing here is the downside of the financial system as we know it. Central banking and other institutions and practices, e.g., usury, are highly problematic, to say the least, yet there is no discussion here of any of that. Perhaps they constitute some kind of mal-adaptation worth further investigation.

    1. Hi Adrian,

      Thank you for your comment. I started to reply, but then it got long, so I made it into a new post: http://thedanceofthehippo.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-fitness-of-credit.html.