Friday, April 20, 2012

Discussions with an economist...

Nice blog posts by UCSD physicist, Tom Murphy, taking on the dogma of growth economics, on the blog "Do the Math":

Thor´s comments: 
As an ecologist I think we face ecological limits much sooner than we face physical limits. Some of those limits are evident every day. Yet of course we have spent so little effort trying to be efficient with anything other than labor and capital inputs that there is great room for improvement—if we would only focus on efficient use of the things that really matter. So we can still do a lot with technical fixes, if we only concentrate in the right arenas (something we have not done in the past). But of course it depends on what is really the limiting factor (water? land? soil? nutrients? recycling capacity? ecological resilience/robustness? absorption of GHGs? primary productivity? energy? low entropy?... clearly the entropy limit is a long way off yet...)

Two points:

1) I do not care only for what is important to Homo sapiens, but also to other species with which we "share" the planet--many of which are going extinct every day on account of the status quo in human society. There must be room for others as well. Furthermore, we have evolved in a world with other species around us, this is what we are used to and we have been evolutionarily adapted to it over millions of years and they are part of what we like and love about this planet (even if H. sapiens has only been around for a little over 100,000 years). That would have to be a mind-numbingly good virtual reality machine... Be that as it may, many of the good things in life already don't cost any money—unfortunately they are being destroyed by other people´s pursuit of money, experiences, family, etc. In the immortal words of Paul Simon, "one man's ceiling is another man's floor".

2) Even if the economy shifts into the non-material world and focus of the economy shifts to quality of life ("insubstantial" aspects such as art, virtual reality, decorative desserts, etc.) that do not require a lot of material inputs, there must be a limit to how much people will or can pay for the massive house of cards that is built on top of the real inputs in the economy (food, nutrients, etc.)...  If food production is the ultimate "real input" into the economy, how big a house of cards can we build on top of that before people are saturated with that immaterial part and will not be interested in paying more and/or the necessary part of the economy is not able to bear any increase in the weight of the "superstructure"? 

Cessation of growth seems inevitable also in the economic sense.

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
           —Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World