Tuesday, 13 November 2012

More, or enough? -- by Bert Horwood

Once upon a time there was a girl who made beautiful pictures. One day she made a picture which showed a better way to grow corn. Her village elders saw the picture and tried the new method of planting corn. The corn crop was the best they had ever had. So they came to the girl and demanded that she make more pictures showing ways to grow more beans and squash. “But we have enough beans and squash,” she said, The elders yelled at her “We don’t want enough. We want MORE. (More is never enough.)

            Watt's governor
In the mid-1700s James Watt and others invented steam engines. The early models had a big problem. Once the engine started, it went faster and faster until it broke. They needed something that would control the speed. One of them invented a gadget which whirled around and changed its position as the engine went faster. They attached this to the steam valve to reduce steam when the engine went a little too fast. When the engine slowed, the whirling was slower and more steam was allowed into the engine. This made the engine go faster again. They called it a governor and it kept the engine running only a little faster and a little slower than the perfect constant speed. (It is possible to limit “more.”)

The Boy was crazy for nuts. The Boy’s mother kept them in a jar on a high shelf to keep him from getting at them. But the Boy discovered that he could climb onto the kitchen counter and just grasp the jar. He reached in for a nut. It was so good! He reached for another but knew that he could not stay there eating them one at a time. He would have to take a handful, replace the jar and climb down to avoid being caught. The Boy reached deep into the mass of nuts and grabbed a big handful. But his hand was now too big to pull out. He kept on trying until his mother came home and found him. (Greed always gets caught. Thank you, Aesop.)

The financial history of recent times shows cycles of growth and collapse. Continual growth is not possible. The more fervently growth is grasped the more certain is failure. The financial system is so committed to growth as an ideal that even a slower rate of growth causes financiers to twitch.

This deep commitment to perpetual growth as the only measure of success is doomed to failure because it is contrary to a much more powerful system, that of nature. Financial systems tend to be illusionary to the extent that they are based on imaginary assets, mostly debt. The only real assets are on the land. There is a limit to the growth of these assets, even though financial systems pretend that there is not. This pretense is found out just as surely as the Boy gets caught with his hand in the nut jar.

Small wonder that the economy has collapsed like a card castle. The fall of one great institution after another should have encouraged people to explore other ways of mutually providing for each other’s needs. (Mike Nickerson, whose ideas I have found helpful, calls an economy “mutual provision.” Thank you, Mike: Life,Money, and Illusion.)

But little has changed. Business leaders, ironically ones who most loudly object to Government interference. have their hands out begging for publicly borrowed money to re-establish the very illusion whose impossibility brought them down. Political leaders, quaintly pretending to be reluctant, fall over themselves to oblige. All parties seek to recreate the very same conditions which have been shown not to be viable. They yell, as it were, “We don’t want enough. We want MORE.” And more is never enough.

We have priceless opportunities (now being lost) to put heads together to construct other, more naturally tuned ways of managing “mutual provision.” What might go into such considerations? For one, an economy should have some stability, a kind of homeostasis much like living things. The jargon for this, now corrupted beyond honest use, is “sustainability.”

Life has evolved two ways with growth: An individual grows quickly at first, often in bursts of rapid growth alternating with slower periods. As maturity is reached the growth rate drops to zero but there is a continual replacement which repairs and maintains the living system in what looks like a steady state. This state is only steady within limits. Each component rises and falls, grows and contracts, continually. (Our bodies are like the axe owned by an old Ottawa Valley farmer. He bragged that his family owned the same axe for 80 years. It had four new handles and two new heads!)

The other natural growth process is found in populations of living things occupying a new territory. The numbers of individuals grows rapidly at the highest possible rate until environmental factors intervene to stabilize the numbers or cause collapse. The human population is in this rapid growth phase, as though we were strangers on the earth. Human population is a critical element in thinking about a steady state means of mutual provision. Populations can achieve steady states where they are part of ecosystems (notice the similarity to the word “economy”) which automatically cut down excess numbers.

Unlimited growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.”

Steady states in biology are achieved by negative feed-back loops. It is these loops which are lacking in financial systems dedicated to growth; they are driven by positive feed-back loops which are destructive rather than sustaining. In theory, markets should experience sustaining negative feed-back loops; an overpriced product won’t sell. And markets do have frequent fluctuations which look much like a self regulating, self sustaining system. But the fluctuations tend to rise higher than they fall giving a more or less steadily rising trend over time. The economic engine just goes faster and faster. This is caused by the belief in the necessity and rightness of growth, which in turn is driven by greed.

At a time of general financial collapse the people, through their governments, have a rare occasion to shape business practices along much more stable lines. Individuals have the opportunity to create and support businesses which adopt steady-state methods. This is the time to invent the economic equivalent of the steam engine governor. Along with such technical fixes must go a widespread moral change which values “enough” over “more.”

We now have opportunity to let go of the nuts, recognize when we have enough and embrace the discipline of feedback loops which mimic those in nature.

Never does Nature say one thing and Wisdom another”. Juvenal.

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