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Traditional economics vs. laws of scale

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From Andri Stahel and RWER issue 106 Imagine some interstellar anthropologists trying to understand our tribe, the earthlings. On the one hand, they would see a part of the tribe devoted to understanding the functioning of all our Earth systems. Called ‘scientists’, these tribe members command great respect and funds. This function was once held by the shamans and sorcerers who claimed to speak to the spirits who inhabited it; then, it was taken by the priests and theologians claiming to know the will of God who created it. Now, the earthlings have decided to look to the scientists as their guide, believing that they are the best suited to unveil the laws governing their world and, thus, guide their actions.  One common trait these anthropologists would detect in all scientific

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from Andri Stahel and RWER issue 106

Imagine some interstellar anthropologists trying to understand our tribe, the earthlings. On the one hand, they would see a part of the tribe devoted to understanding the functioning of all our Earth systems. Called ‘scientists’, these tribe members command great respect and funds. This function was once held by the shamans and sorcerers who claimed to speak to the spirits who inhabited it; then, it was taken by the priests and theologians claiming to know the will of God who created it. Now, the earthlings have decided to look to the scientists as their guide, believing that they are the best suited to unveil the laws governing their world and, thus, guide their actions. 

One common trait these anthropologists would detect in all scientific narratives is that everything in the universe follows clear laws of scale, existing within definable boundaries. Everything is seen and believed to live in a dynamic balance, neither too small to exist, neither growing indefinitely without eventually collapsing under its weight or exploding from its inner growing pressure. This perception of the importance of scale balance and limits was already present in the previous mythological and religious narratives by the shamans, sorcerers, priests and theologians. Indeed, although expressing it differently, earthlings always knew there was hubris, sin or chaos and system malfunctions beyond these boundaries. From Pachamama, Gaia and the Gods asking humans to respect the limits they set under penalty of Godly punishment, to Daedalus warning his son Icarus to fly neither too low to be caught nor too high to get too close to the sun, up to Jehovah punishing the earthlings for not following the commandments he had given them: everywhere, humans were told to behave respecting the laws and limits seen to govern the universe. 

Similarly, scientists worried that climate was changing because of greenhouse gases surpassing certain limits or ecosystems were on the brink of collapse once critical limits for their stability and resilience were reached. Others warned about peak oil scenarios and the economic challenges they represented. Even looking at atoms, seen as the building blocks of matter, these scientists saw an unavoidable law of scale: no atom lighter than hydrogen was seen to exist, and no heavier element than uranium occurred naturally on Earth. Some scientists devoted sophisticated resources and much time to creating artificially heavier elements. They even succeeded in doing so, although all proved unstable and doomed to disintegrate as soon as they were made. In medicine, scientists discovered that subtle balances govern body health and how the unchecked reproduction of cancer cells eventually leads to the organism’s death. Even historians and later environmental historians realized that human history results from social power balances and balanced relations of humans with their environment. Empires and civilizations grow to a certain point before becoming unstable and eventually collapsing (Pointing 1993, Diamond 2005).

Notwithstanding, and this may have puzzled these interstellar anthropologists, the economists were a notable exception: they claimed to have discovered the only known system in the universe not subjected to the laws of scale and doomed to grow on forever, namely the economic system. Unless all the others, they devoted their thoughts and energy not to understanding and defining the lower and upper limits in which stability, balance and health could be observed but to devising ways to promote ongoing growth. What may have puzzled our interstellar scientists even more, is that the voices of this small group calling for infinite growth found friendlier ears from all other earthlings, becoming the dominant narrative instead of all others. Thus, the earthlings devoted their efforts to promoting further economic growth, despite all warnings and even their millenary cultural tradition and wisdom, all built on the need to respect balance and harmony. More strikingly, these modern growth-obsessed earthlings did not realize how odd this idea of unhinged and infinite growth is. Thereby, these interstellar anthropologists may have discovered that Earthlings suffered from cognitive dissonance, holding conflicting beliefs, values, and attitudes without being aware of it.

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