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“Economics”, our master narrative manufacturing our demise

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From Richard Parker and RWER issue 106 “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competentpeople on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.” — John Maynard Keynes I cite The Master because I don’t think economists, working within “economics” in its present form can really address the crisis of limits we’re facing—but I do think men and women who work as economists can.  But only if they behave like dentists.  Let me explain. To review the last few years’ weather reports, read public polls about fears of “global warming”, or listen to scientists yet again explain the effects of carbon-loading on the Earth’s atmosphere—and ultimately the ability to sustain life—is, to say the least, quite unironically, chilling. The UN lists five major consequences that

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from Richard Parker and RWER issue 106

“If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent
people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.” — John Maynard Keynes

I cite The Master because I don’t think economists, working within “economics” in its present form can really address the crisis of limits we’re facing—but I do think men and women who work as economists can.  But only if they behave like dentists.  Let me explain.

To review the last few years’ weather reports, read public polls about fears of “global warming”, or listen to scientists yet again explain the effects of carbon-loading on the Earth’s atmosphere—and ultimately the ability to sustain life—is, to say the least, quite unironically, chilling.

The UN lists five major consequences that are flowing from global warming: hotter temperatures; more severe storms; increased drought; warming, rising oceans; massive loss of species; major food shortages, especially for the poor; more pandemic health risks; poverty and forced displacement (and hence migration).  And global warming is only one aspect of the crisis of biophysical limits we are apparently facing.

So when asked to suggest how “economics” might be reconfigured to reflect, operate and theorize within the limits of the biophysical world, to be honest, I paused and almost said “no”—because too many conflicted ideas and feelings enveloped me.

The question, as I see it, presumes—without saying so—what is widely (though not universally) held as true these days: that the earth environmentally is rushing toward human uninhabitability, and that the millions of co-resident species of all kinds with whom we share the earth, will suffer enormously as well, perhaps extinguished themselves.

There are certainly scientific analyses that don’t embrace this sort of full apocolypticism—but nonetheless affirm varying degrees of it: some regions of the earth will become uninhabitable, they forecast; others will be left habitable only under radically-altered-and-insulated conditions; human life will thus likely survive but in radically reduced forms, in variety, condition and numbers.  How many homo sapiens—and which homo sapiens, from which nations, races, genders, and classes—will be those survivors is at best gingerly addressed.

The cause for this bleak assault on “life”—a biological form of existence that to date has been discovered nowhere else in the universe—is, we now understand, us.  We human beings seem to be literally manufacturing our own demise.

But that’s not quite right: it’s human beings through their organized use and misuse of the planet in just the last 200-300 years that bear the accusation.   And, lest we forget, in those last 200-300 years it in truth has only really been some human beings in some societies who’ve been leading, organizing, and enforcing this use and misuse—and hence what’s likely to happen next.  Before the 18th century, evidence for devastating human impact–at least on the planetary scale–was limited (though that’s hotly debated.)[

Those last 200-300 years are coincident of course with the rapid development of “capitalism”, a quite particular form and stage of human social development that appeared first in northwestern Europe, then metastasized globally as Europeans expanded their control over ever-greater regions quite distant from Europe.

But with “capitalism” as the term for this period came something else, something I want to reflect on.  With capitalism came an ever-proliferating literature, one that sought to identify and explain the “capitalist” system’s key processes, and with it a class of thinkers/writers who by the early 20th c. were increasingly employed by the modern university, itself another noteworthy aspect of the capitalist era.

This architectural-conceptual apparatus—in the 18th and early 19th c. it was called “political economy”, then in the late 19th and early 20th c. “scientific economics”, and finally in our own era simply “economics”– grew like the amoebic creature called “capitalism” it sought to theorize.  “Economics” as an ideational system and its progenitors, like capitalism, grew up in stages and particular locales—and in each stage, arguing about the great crises of the era, it sought to generate a “master narrative” of ideational solutions that, however original in form, always ended up largely defending the underlying property system, wealth and income distribution and the class relations attached.[2]  Of course, these would-be master narratives—like the socio-political-economic world they struggled to describe–met with counter-narratives and quite often vivid, and often violent conflict and resistance.  That history is too well-known to merit recapitulation here.

[1] Robock and Graf, “Effects of Pre-industrial Human Activities on Climate”, Chemosphere Sept, 1994      https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7953464/

[2] For succinct treatment of this process of economic theory as crisis-response, see Heilbroner and Milberg, The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought.

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