Thursday, April 4, 2013

The fitness of credit

Adrian Kuzminski put a comment on the end of “Is God on our side?” wondering about central banking, usury, and other practices that seem “highly problematic, to say the least.” I started to respond, but it got long for a comment, so I turned it into a post.

In the talk that the blog posts are drawn from, there is an implication that was more explicit in an earlier version. When you have an excessively virulent organism that's doing damage to an ecosystem, there are two possible outcomes: The ecosystem evolves some defenses and the organism tones down its virulence, so that the ecosystem can live with the disease; or the ecosystem crashes.

There's not necessarily a preference for one outcome or the other. The ecosystems we see around us, the ones that are still functioning, are the ones that didn't crash. That's part of evolution having God on its side: Try lots of different things; some will work, some won't; the ones that work will go on.

Humanity as a whole succeeded using the same strategy, at least as far as the early modern age. Societies in some places collapsed (sometimes through being too "virulent"), but societies elsewhere had relationships with their environment that had greater long-term functionality, so they persisted.

In that framework, two things worry me about our current situation. The first is the way that fossil fuels empower “overshoot.” Every wild animal species is exclusively dependent on sunlight captured its plant neighbors, and (for carnivores) processed by its animal neighbors. Every wild plant is exclusively dependent on the sun, and on the services of neighboring plants and animals that help maintain viable growing conditions. A “virulent” member of such a community gets pretty quick feedback: as it damages its environment, it limits its own ability to prosper, and so it adapts or dies.

Fossil fuels allow us to escape from what elsewhere I called the “solar constraint.” 300 years ago, we could only draw on solar energy, concentrated in human or animal muscles, or in trees we could burn, or in wind or water we could use to drive a mill. Except for the wind (and partially the water), we ourselves were dependent on the biological health of the creatures around us.

Today, we’re not fully independent of ecosystem function—it seems unlikely we ever could be—but we can compensate for a lot of damage. Our fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation allow us (for now) to produce larger crops than our ancestors could, even as we impoverish the ecosystems of which our farms are a part. And in the economy as a whole, it’s not ecosystems supplying our motive power and our heat to do whatever it is we want to do—it’s oil, coal, and natural gas (and some nukes, and a little wind and solar …). With fossil fuels at our disposal, we can go pretty far in damaging our ecosystems without feeling a limitation in our ability to eat, or drive, or have cool gadgets.

The Easter Islanders arguably did themselves in via overshoot. Fossil fuels allow us to practice overshoot on a global scale.

My second worry is exactly this issue of the global scale—specifically, the global monoculture we’ve been creating. Societies crashed and burned in the past, and other societies kept on keeping on, and eventually picked up the pieces. But if our society becomes a global social monoculture, then who is there to keep on keeping on?

Evolution always “works” in the sense that some form of life is more successful than its neighbors and thus persists, while the neighbors die off. But evolution doesn’t guarantee any particular species a glorious future for its descendants. Or any future at all. Just because evolution works doesn't mean it will work for us.

So to bring this back to Adrian’s point. Credit systems themselves can be an adaptive social technology; they allow to coordinate actions not just across an economy, but across time. But like anything, they can become virulent. Or they can be adaptive in one environment (when there’s easy access to more energy), and destructive in another. If they’re “highly problematic,” that doesn’t mean they didn’t evolve, nor does it invalidate an evolutionary-ecological understanding of what an economy is, how it works, and the path it took to become what it is.

It’s worth noting that Adrian has a book coming out next month, The Ecology of Money. I had the opportunity to preview it, and it’s well worth a read. Though of course I didn't agree with everything in it (I rarely do).

In particular, I’m less down on central banking than Adrian is—it seems to me an extension of fractional-reserve banking, a phenomenon with its own issues, but one which it would be “problematic” to try to get rid of.

Anyway, that’s more of the routine good cheer that you can always find around here.

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