Economies are, quite obviously, just another kind of ecosystem. Now it amused me this morning to see that when I did an “Images” search on Google using the search-word ecosystem, a large number of the images I got were circular. What goes around, comes around, you might say. The image that is usually placed outside the circle is that of the sun, signaling that it is the fundamental driver of the circulation.
In that circulation, growth is not the be-all and the end-all. It is one stage in a process. In that process inorganic resources are first produced into life with solar heat—and this is where growth takes place. Next the life produced is consumed, either by other life or by the sheer passage of time. That which has been consumed is decomposed back into minerals and gases, and the circulation thus continues.
Therefore the pop-business belief in growth—at all costs—is short-sighted. Growth is a natural aspect of economies. So is decline. The only more or less sustainable reality is the economy as a whole—but all ecologies, economies included, have limits. Energy is one. Population is the other. The optimum economies will be adaptive—limiting growth to population growth. Anything above that is to endanger the entire economy, sooner or later. Yet that, over-consumption, appears to be the suicidal aim of all modern free-market economies.
We are today approaching one of the limits—that of energy based on fossil fuels. But even suppose that we’ll come up with something to replace them. Then we shall have conquered Peak Oil but we shall be facing Peak People next.
I detected early signs of “irrational exuberance” yesterday—the punditry hoping that soon we shall be back to the free-for-all of growth, growth, growth. Coincidentally, I saw previews of a documentary that shows the overwhelming decline of our infrastructure. Replacing all of that, the glory of the twentieth century’s publicly-led infrastructure building, is not in the cards, however. The coming growth, if it does revive, will be focused on ephemera.
In ordinary ecosystems—where humanity has not as yet invaded—the “free market” works effectively because consciousness is excluded. But in the economies of the world, consciousness must take the lead—both in the building up of things and in checking maladaptive behavior. We need a Guided Market, not a free one. Even when it’s guided, it will only take us so far. Overpopulation will sooner or later loom, signaled by water shortages. I won’t be here to see that, having declined and fallen into the possession of the decomposers. The bacteria and fungi will get my body in the end—but the core of me will leave the circle that, in this life, holds us all.
My image is an overhead used by Knox College in Galesburg, IL (link).