St. Jude’s Tavern is meant to be a watering hole where various ideas are discussed. The barroom conversation has been dominated by the theological and aesthetic of late, so I am going to shift emphasis here and post on some other important global issues. In discussing Ecology, Energy, and the Economy I will make a some assertions based on my general take on these issues after years of following this stuff. For now I will simply state my assertions, and I will revisit the issue with some more supporting evidence later on in the series.
My fundamental diagnosis is that developed nations in an increasingly interconnected global society have failed to grasp the deep connection between the environment and the economy and continue to engage in economic activities that are leading to ecological collapse. This is coupled with a deep misunderstanding that energy is the economy, not a segment that is measured in the price of fossil fuels, hydroelectric power, and other energy sources renewable and non-renewable. The net effect is a collective refusal to reorient the ways in which we interact with the environment, seek solutions to energy consumption, and pursue economic activity; all of which portend a tumultuous and potentially dangerous global scene that is primed for conflict. The main question is why do I take this cynical view? I’ll share my initial thoughts on the connection between Ecology and Economy.
Ecology and Economy
Broadly speaking, economics describes the way in which humans interact socially, politically, and vocationally with the environment. Ecology and economics, based on my view, are inseparable. Economic activity is predicated on physical constraints such as the laws of conservation (both of matter and energy), and since all human economic activity takes place on (and in some highly limited cases near) earth, economic activity is constrained by planetary resource – both in material and energy. Perhaps this will change in the future as there are plans to capitalize on resources off-planet, but for now all economic activity is based on the ecological resources limited to Earth. Even abstracted economic activity in the technology and information sectors are still derived from the physical resources that produce the hardware and software platforms that enable the flow of information and financial assets.
What does this mean? Fundamentally all resources are inelastic, scarce, and constrained by the limitations of the environment. For now most economic activity is based on resource extraction, not reuse. The net effect is dwindling supplies and increasing entropy with respect to resource quality. For example, while the doomers in the Peak Oil movement might have been wrong with their apocalyptic prognoses, or at least premature, they have rightly noted that the quality of oil reserves are diminishing, which leads to lower net returns on energy. This is coupled with the terminal decline of new oil field discoveries. While supply remains high, price volatility has become a permanent feature as global demand for energy continues to increase, and key regional considerations such as conflicts in and around oil and natural gas producing and transporting countries continues to be a key factor in the volatility in the energy markets.
But, the problems are more fundamental. While climate change is a political football that gets kicked around by competing political factions, the degradation of global environments due to human economic activities is an incontrovertible fact. Fisheries are collapsing, mass extinctions are rising, and the balance between interconnected environments are increasingly fragile if not in downright peril. This is happening in Amazonian rain forests, the Appalachian mountains, and the watersheds in the generally arid Western reaches of North America to name just a few. While policy makers try with varying success and failure to deal with these critical problems, the net effect is that the setting in which all economic activity takes place, namely this planet hangs in the balance, and is imperiled by the constant extraction and misallocation of these scarce resources.
In the absence of meaningful solutions, ecological collapse will inevitably result in economic collapse. Failure to manage responsible resource use has created overshoot of human activity within the environment. Generally speaking, the darkest episodes human history can be seen in the conflict over key resources and who has say over how they are used and allocated. Cycles of famine, war, and poverty are the natural outworking of ecological and economic malfeasance. The problem is that these issues are not generally addressed by the global economic elite through conspiratorial motivations, instead they are managed by general incompetence and greed. This is exacerbated by malaise in the general population that trickles down from economic and political incompetence and incoherence in such a way that global populations have no consensus on how these problems can be addressed, especially in democracies. They might feel the effects of diminished economic prospects in the real economy while the richest elites benefit from inflationary trends in the financial sector that have replaced real economic growth. Instead of demanding solutions in a meaningful way from their leaders, political discourse is dominated by confusion and imprecation that is exacerbated by a politically polarized media that generally fails to diagnose these problems properly and opt to score political points while the situation deteriorates.
Late stage Capitalism has failed, as did Marxism, along with the hybrid Capitalist-Socialist economic models to grasp the fundamental nature of the crisis that already exists and continues to snowball. Economic self-interest, whether individually, or on the part of powerful multi-national corporations and financial institutions only feeds a vicious cycle of ignorance and greed. Broadly speaking, I don’t see solutions on the horizon, at least at a global level, and I don’t hold out much hope that things are improving anytime soon. Perhaps there is room for improvement in local and regional economies if communities can decide to live in better economic balance with their local environment, and communities and build resilient systems that attain a better ecological and economic symbiosis. However, the primary obstacle remains a human problem at a moral and spiritual level – what kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of communities do we want to build? These aren’t matters that can be resolved by the constant right-left divide and constant bickering and accusation. Can we come together and work on these issues? I have serious doubts, but I’d love to be proved wrong.