Towards a Post-cynical Economics:
(Economy as Ecology)
The initial question asked was: Could
an economy could increase wealth -or only redistribute
As a result of the resulting discussion the question became
slightly more complex (in the hope that a broader approach
might help point towards a possible solution).
The rephrased question then became: "What might
possibly form a non-monetary foundation for economics
-how might it be increased (or possibly decreased) -and
what might be its relation with culture?"
The main stumbling block (which unfortunately appeared right
at the beginning) was the problem of defining (or even
imagining) an "economy" which was free from (subjective)
monetary values (and all the complications that
So what might we mean by "economy" in a world without
prices (or equivalent exchange values)?
Human values are created by humans -so the solution to the
above conundrum (in my view) is to try and imagine a
world (or an area of world) without humans. This
should not be too difficult if we imagine some form of
The question then arises: Is there anything which
looks like (or functions like) an "economy"?
-Admittedly, a bit of a tricky question -because we
haven't yet defined what an "economy" might be.
Sophia gave us a definition (which I rejected) "Economics
is the study of how people produce, consume and
distribute what they want".
I objected to this because of the automatic
involvement of "people" (which gets us stuck in
"human value systems")
-but the concepts of production, consumption and
distribution are indeed useful (and possibly
So can we find in a natural environment
anything involving production, consumption and
distribution -without the participation of
I guess we do -and the answer is an "ecology"!
This is perhaps a little bizarre, because from inside our
traditional "economic" value system we tend to see "economy"
as being opposed to "ecology" -even though they
apparently have the same roots.
However, given the common root, it would seem reasonable to
expect similarities -that ecologies function on economic
lines and economies (in practice) function on
II. Basic Principles and Metrics:
So, if an ecology does not run on the "production,
consumption and distribution" of "money" -then
what does it run on?
Presumably the answer is "energy'
-which we can define as "the capacity to do useful
Indeed, if we look closely at an ecology we see a
few basic principles:
a. That every organism
modifies the environment in which it lives
(often in destructive ways which are potentially
life-threatening to the organism itself).
b. That the waste
products of an organism (or that organism
self) form essential foodstuffs for other organisms.
c. That if this all fits
together nicely, then the system keeps going -but if
some essential link in the (closed?) system breaks
down -then the whole system is liable to collapse
(possibly starting again, in a new composition -if some
new form of equilibrium can be established in time).
d. Diversity (specialization)
is essential to the maintenance of equilibrium -because
otherwise, the needs would be similar and the recycling
of waste products by other organisms with different
needs would break down.
e. It would be unwise to interpret
the complexity of eco-systems as simply
reflecting survival of the strongest in a lifelong
struggle for survival under the "law of the jungle".
In practice, eco-systems involve cooperation and
synergy as much as competition.
Survival is dependent not on strength but on suitability
of the individual (species) for each specific
environment. As the organisms within any
environment are constantly modifying that environment,
they also need to adapt to the new circumstances which
they themselves have created.
III. Energy and Physics:
If energy is the central principle around
which our ecology revolves (and evolves) then
we would appear to have a problem if we would like to
imagine that "wealth" is synonymous with "energy"
and that "wealth" can be created -because
physics claims that energy can only change form and not be
created or destroyed.
It would seem that this is a good point to introduce a
fascinating "magic" trick:
"Energy" is "The ability to do (useful)
work" so let us define "wealth" not as energy
-but as the ability to do work.
It's the same -cries any logical person, and so it is,
-except........... what happens if we discover some way
to improve the efficiency of the system -i.e. to
get more work out the system -for the same amount of
If we define "wealth" as "energy" then the wealth
probably remains constant (conform the second law of
thermodynamics) -but if we define "wealth" as "the
ability to do work" -then we can increase our
wealth merely by doing our work more efficiently!
IV. Wealth and Culture:
The above example, shows that if we accept the
definition of wealth as being the ability to do
useful work then "wealth" cannot be defined
in purely material terms -there is also clearly an
element of human skill involved.
Logically, one might claim that the ability to increase
wealth by improving the efficiency of our use of
energy requires the use of scientific intelligence.
Indeed "scientific" (or technological) improvements
are one possible way of doing more work with less
resources. However -if we include the concept "useful"
as a part of our definition of wealth -then surely if (for
whatever reason) we decide that some tasks (such
a making beds -or vacuum cleaning) do not need to
be done -then we are increasing the amount of "useful"
work that can be done with any given amount of energy -and
so we are also increasing our wealth.
Communal agreement over the relative importance of various
aspects of our lives surely comes under the definition of "culture"
-so it would seem that "wealth" also has a
cultural component. Possibly, just as we require physical
diversity among the organisms that create a
-we may also require conceptual diversity (within
a conceptual ecology) in order to provide
different ways of dealing with problems and situations
-presumably, expanding the chances of useful discoveries
somewhere, which can be adapted or adopted as needed
V. Wealth and Synergy:
The political doctrine of the law of the
jungle places the emphasis on competition
between rivals -however in real life we see that sometimes
cooperation can be more effective.
A trivial example can be given in agriculture. A culture
based on the growing of wheat (or some other single crop)
is likely to fail -as the crops continue to
deplete the natural nutrients in the soil. Similarly,
a culture based on cattle
might well have problems in finding a continuous supply
of suitable grass. However, for example, by combining
cattle and grain -the yields of both systems can be
increased. The cattle help to fertilize
the grain and the stalks can be used to feed the
Apparently, the introduction of mixed farming in
medieval Europe was a technological (and
wealth increasing) revolution as great
as the introduction of the computer in the twentieth
VI. Physics and Energy:
Physics claims that energy cannot be increased
or decreased -but how do we know that physics has
the last word?
During the European reign of religious terror known as the "Inquisition",
those in Europe who were involved in what we would now
call "scientific experiment" were extremely careful not to
be accused of witchcraft. This probably explains why "Physics"
was so careful to distance itself from any suggestion of
"animism" in the inorganic objects and processes
which it studied. The fear of being burned alive
if accused of sorcery might well account for the strict
division between the spiritual and the scientific, the
material and the immaterial -and why "material",
in western terms, generally means "dead material"!
It might also explain the rise of the secular state in
the west -and why we have so much trouble relating
to other cultures. The aggressiveness of the
church in pursuing disbelievers may well have been an
important factor in promoting disbelief.
Nevertheless, physics is based on the
study of the interactions of inorganic materials.
However, there may be other rules for organic systems.
Interestingly, the cosmos seems to be a
complex machine for the recycling of matter -a
process that often involves the construction of higher
elements from simple helium.
One wonders if the amount of
total energy does remain the same under all
conditions. If diferent elements combine in
synergetic ways within organic systems, then it may well
be possible that energy does increse in totolity within
the system. We have already shown that "efficiency"
can improve the amount of work done -and this was
our original definition of energy, so if we
maintain our original definition, we surely must
conclude that there has been an increase in energy if
there has been an increase in output in terms of work.
Rumor has it that science is having difficulty
matching the amount of matter believed present in the
universe with the gravitational behaviour of the universe
itself -so perhaps some form of "organic" process is
In any case organic systems tend to increase
in "complexity" and "diversity"
-characteristics which in "information theory" have
traditionally been considered analogical to "entropy"
in physics. Perhaps we could
even define "organic" as being synonymous with "anti-entropic"
(certainly in terms of information theory -and perhaps
also in the sense physics uses the term within the context
of the second law of thermodynamics).
The question of energy conservation may (or may
not) be a disputable point -but it does
seem that if we define "wealth" in terms of the
ability to do work -then it is possible to increase our
total wealth by saving energy (either by
increased efficiency or by not doing the work in the first
place). This implies that health, psychological
and cultural factors (including the skills
available within society) should be factored into
the concept of "wealth".
Although we have described our system in terms of a
system without money -there no principle reason
why a monitory system should be excluded. However,
we need to reverse our normal assumptions and consider money
as a form of energy (storage) and
not energy as a form of (invested) money.
we c0ncider "economy" -which expresses
the rules which we believe are operative, to be closely
related to "ecology" -this implies a
more open discussion as to the nature of the system
Perhaps then it is possible that human economic
systems could behave in similar ways to a
(if we explore the matter sensibly and modify
our rules to bring more consistency between the -logy
and the -nomy).
Interestingly, as we have known since Thomas Malthus
invented his pernicious theory of poverty -organic
systems (in his case people) have a tendency to multiply.
However, for some strange reason, economists have
preferred to apply Malthus' ideas on population growth
exclusively to the "demand" side (so that it is
assumed to create poverty) -but not to
the "supply" side (where it would presumably
A cake, once divided (and eaten) cannot
be divided again
-but a grain of corn, if planted and not eaten, can
produce an ear of corn that can be both partly eaten
and partly reinvested. Interestingly, in the
dark days before consumerist capitalism dulled our senses -traditional
economists used to talk about "capital
investments" (which yielded new capital) and
"consumer investments" which only brought (temporary)
pleasure and therefore essentially destroyed wealth.
In traditional terms -capitalism is opposed to
consumerism, but it seems that modern theorists
have squared the circle and made capitalism and
One wonders if in practice they have been as successful
as they claim in theory.
Nowadays, it seems that we only have consumer investment
-and we can only imagine society and the rich scalar of
human imagination in terms of customers and products
Thanks to our blind insistence on defining wealth only
in material terms -it seems we have only brought
ourselves conceptual and spiritual poverty.
-We still have our bonus question: "How
might answers to these questions affect the discussion
on nuclear fuel cells? " (but this is
for advanced students).......
However, now that all our readers are
advanced students -I'll leave it to them!
Dictionary com -nomy:
Dictionary com -logy:
Dictionary com -eco:
Originally posted on the Yahoo group "Quiet
Poly", Monday, 21 Apr 2003
(edited) Baclayon, 1 September 2019
<trevor at tebatt dot net