January 19, 2014

Seminar at the End of the World

"Among other things, this whole discussion has ushered in, um, a golden age for economic history: I can’t think of a time when history has been as useful as a guide to current events (and current action, if only policymakers would listen) as it has since 2008."  Paul Krugman, "Conscience of a Liberal" Blog, New York Times, January 17, 2014.

What an utterly weird thing to say at a time like this. 

I can't think of a time when history has been more completely irrelevant to current circumstances as it is right now.  The observation that we live in unprecedented times, while always true in some sense, is especially poignant now.  We can't even use the weather of six years ago as a guide for present conduct; that's how much, and how fast, things have changed.

Such thoughts occupied my mind while visiting the Humanist House in Oakland on Monday night, to listen to a talk by Craig Dilworth, author of Too Smart For Our Own Good.  (Craig is pictured above, center; this writer's own photo.)  The central premise of Professor Dilworth's book is the vicious circle principle (VCP); in essence, and in very abbreviated form, the VCP maintains that Homo sapiens has always overshot the natural carrying capacity of the Earth for this species.  When we were hunter-gatherers, we killed all the large game using spears or javelins.  When the mammoths and other large protein sources became rare or extinct, we invented the bow and arrow so we could hunt smaller, quicker animals.  When these prey began to deplete, we were at last forced to become sedentary (about 10,000 years ago), and to take up agriculture and animal husbandry.  We became shorter, unhealthier, and disease-ridden from the ailments picked up from our domesticated food sources.

But our great trick for overcoming population constraints, which the natural world was always trying to force upon us, was technology.  Through invention we could beat the system.  Rather than succumb, as other animals do, to a loss of habitat or food source, we could come up with something to keep the game going, seemingly indefinitely.  Through it all, the world population could continue to grow.  When jeremiahs like Paul Erlich warned of future catastrophe if population was not brought under control, the opposition was loud (much of it emanating ex cathedra, from the Vatican).  The Green Revolution was spawned, with heavy use of petrochemicals to fertilize crops and to provide pesticides.  Genetic engineering gave us mutant (and patented) new strains of everyday staples, with high yields and their own disease shields, such as the capacity to produce tetracycline in their DNA.

First wood, then coal, then fossil fuels provided cheap energy which could maintain the vital heat of Homo sapiens in inhospitable climates so that latitudes where humans were obviously never meant to live at all could become densely populated.  Food could be moved around so that the majority of humanity could escape the serfdom of agrarian life.  Finally, the economy could be globalized, so that everything could always be available in every season.

It all took vast quantities of natural resources to establish and maintain.  And now the great wheel of the Vicious Circle Principle is beginning to seize up.  Technology can take us only so far.  Providing for human needs depends ultimately on extractive processes from the land, sea and air, and the very act of obtaining and using these resources, such as oil, coal and natural gas, is pushing the ecosystem farther and farther out of equilibrium.

Thus, we turn to our old mainstay, the invention of new technology to get us through this rough patch where there are 7 billion people on Earth, where a hunter-gatherer lifestyle might provide for 100 million.  We're straining against all the limits, and the demands of capitalist democracy add the further caveat that any "Green" technology must first prove itself in the marketplace before it can be widely adopted by civilization at large.  This is the system which Mr. Krugman, whether he realizes it or not, is committed to defend, so he looks at capitalist political economies of the past as a guide to tell us how we can pump up "demand" for goods and services to get the economy humming again.

More comprehensive and deeper thinkers, such as Craig Dilworth (whom it was a pleasure to meet and talk to; he is as personable and humble as he is brilliant), realize that there is no necessary or inevitable congruence between the arbitrary timelines of capitalist market processes and natural ecology.  We have to figure these things out in time, and that doesn't mean when electric cars become economically competitive with internal combustion engines.  It requires an entirely different way of  organizing human society.

Such insights occurred to Craig Dilworth during the 15 years he spent writing his book, much of it done in a cabin by a Swedish lake, sometimes with only his cat for company.  Well, as I know myself - cats make good writing company, especially for big and difficult subjects.  They have a very realistic way of looking at the world.  We should probably begin to behave a lot more like them.