Publishing History: This paper originated as
"Holes in the Cornucopia" (The Business of
Consumption: Environmental Ethics and the Global Economy, eds., Werhane and
Westra, Rowman and Littlefield, 1998). A subsequent version was published in German as
"Gefahrlicher Optimismus," Natur und Kultur, 2:1 (2001) (Austria).
Also as "The Perils of Panglossism" in Global Dialogue (Winter,
This version incorporates "How Much is Too
Much?" (Business Ethics
Quarterly, October, 1999) along with numerous additions and revisions.
References and documentation have also been expanded.
Because of continuing scholarly interest in the essay, I
frequently revisit it at this site and make minor updates
and alterations. Accordingly, this post-publication
version is definitive. (EP, October, 2007)
Human beings thrive on hope. Without some sense that our individual
deliberate effort brings us closer to a fulfillment of our personal goals, we
simply cannot function from one day to the next.
And yet, hope often betrays us, as it blinds us to clear and evident danger
and leads us to courses of action and inaction that will eventually result in
the loss of our property, our livelihood, our liberty, and even our very lives.
Pangloss is admired, and Cassandra is despised and ignored. But as the
Trojans were to learn to their sorrow, Cassandra was right, and had she been
heeded, the toil of appropriate preparation for the coming invasion would have
been insignificant measured against the devastation that followed a brief season
of blissful and ignorant optimism.
Throughout history, and most recently in the mid-Twentieth century, millions
have perished due to stubborn and ill-advised optimism. For example,
Hitler made his intentions brutally clear in Mein Kampf, yet neither the
British nor American governments took heed until the Wehrmacht crossed the
Today, Cassandra holds advanced degrees in biology, ecology, climatology, and
other theoretical and applied environmental sciences. In a vast library of
published book and papers, these scientists warn us that if civilization
continues on its present course, unspeakable devastation awaits us or our near
descendants. Turning away from that "present course" toward
"sustainability," will be difficult, costly and uncertain, but far
preferable to a continuation of "business (and policy) as usual."
As a discomforted public, and their chosen political leaders, cry out
"say it isn't so!," there is no shortage of reassuring optimists to
tell us, "don't worry, be happy."
I sincerely wish that I could believe them. But brute scientific facts, and
the weakness of the Panglosian arguments, forbid. And so, in this paper we will
confront some of the arguments of the optimists, and sadly conclude that their
reassurances can not stand up against scientific evidence, fundamental natural
laws, logical scrutiny, or even plain common sense. While the optimists are
numerous and their reassurances familiar, we will focus our attention primarily
on two individuals: the late economist, Julian Simon, and the philosopher, Mark
First of all, Julian Simon makes the following hopeful, yet highly
"The supply of natural resources [is] really infinite!"
"There is no reason to believe that at any given moment in the future
the available quantity of any natural resource or service at present prices
will be much smaller than it is now, or non-existent." (Simon, 1981,
"We now have in our hands, in our libraries really, the technology to
feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7
billion years... We [are] able to go on increasing forever." (Myers and
Simon, 1994, 65).
"Even the total weight of the earth is not a theoretical limit to the
amount of copper that might be available to earthlings in the future. Only
the total weight of the universe..." (Simon, 1980a, 1435). [After all,
alchemy is said to be] "preposterous because it is impractical now. But
... so was electricity considered impractical a century ago." (Simon,
1980b, 1306). "In the end, copper and oil come out of our minds. That's
really where they are." (Myers and Simon, 1994, 100).
"Population density does not damage health or psychological and
social well-being." 2
"There is no statistical evidence for rapid loss of species in next
two decades." (Simon, 1984, 14).
"The climate does not show signs of unusual and threatening
changes." (Simon, 1984, 14).
"For most relevant matters, aggregate global and U.S. [environmental]
trends are improving." (Simon, 1984, p. 15).
In short: There is only one scarcity: Human brain power
Ultimate Resource." Simon writes: "The main fuel to
speed the world's progress is the stock of human knowledge. And the
ultimate resource is skilled, spirited, hopeful people, exerting their wills
and imaginations to provide for themselves and their families, thereby
inevitably contributing to the benefit of every one." (Myers and
Simon, 1994, 33) It then follows that population growth rates are
not a problem, except possibly in the sense of being too slow.
Similarly, Mark Sagoff believes that human ingenuity, what Simon calls
"The Ultimate Resource," combined with accumulated information and
technological advancement, will overcome any and all resource and consumption
limits in the near or distant future.
"The idea that increasing consumption will inevitably lead to
depletion and scarcity, however, plausible, is mistaken, both in principle and
in fact. From a global point of view, raw materials have grown more abundant
and prices for them have fallen, in spite of an expanding economy and growing
world population. Food is more plentiful and less expensive on international
markets today than at any time in history. Similarly, proven reserves of
non-renewable resources, such as metals and petroleum, have generally
increased, not decreased, with consumption, and [recently] real prices for
these commodities have declined. Shortages of raw materials tend to be local
and temporary and [do not result] from physical limits nature sets."
3 (Sagoff, 1997, 2).
In sum, Sagoff assures us that "... technology can deliver greater and
greater abundance...." and that "the endless expansion of the global
economy is physically possible..." (Sagoff, 1997, 29). In addition: "if there is a limiting factor in economic production, it
is knowledge, and ... as long as knowledge advances, the economy can
expand." 4 (Sagoff, 1995, 610) In brief, both Sagoff and Simon are confident
that knowledge and human ingenuity, combined with market incentives, will
suffice to meet any upcoming environmental emergencies.
"Endless expansion?" And yet, on an average day at the turn of this new century, 63 million tons of
CO2 are added to the atmosphere (UNEP, p.24), 95 square kilometers of agricultural land are lost to desertification (Hauchler
& Messner, 1999), and 410 square kilometers of forests are razed – an annual loss (at 150,000 sq. km.) almost twice the area of
Austria (83,000 sq. km.). (Myers and Simon, 1994, 74). On this average day, an estimated 74 species will become extinct (Wilson, 1992, p. 280). And on this ordinary day, human population will score a net gain of 210,000 (World Watch, 2000b, p. 99),
which adds up to more than seventy million a year – about 90% of the population of Germany.
Add to this, the fact that since 1950, the world's population has more than
doubled, while at the same time, twelve million square kilometers of land (the
combined area of China and India) have been seriously degraded (World Resources
Institute, 1992, Ch 8), and since 1960 twenty percent of the world's tropical
forests have been lost (Bryant, 1992, 14) Since the onset of the
industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide (the major "greenhouse
gas") has increased by more than thirty percent. (IPCC, 2001,
4) E. O. Wilson expresses the conventional wisdom among environmental scholars and
activists: "Because Earth is finite in many resources that determine the
quality of life including arable soil, nutrients, fresh water and space for
natural ecosystems doubling of consumption ... can bring disaster with shocking
suddenness." (Wilson, 1993)
If the optimistic view of Simon and Sagoff is overwhelmingly rejected by
informed scientific opinion, why should anyone take the optimists seriously?
Should we not, instead, ignore them as we move ahead with the serious business
of establishing a sustainable world economy, in harmony with the physical and
biotic limitations of the Earth?
We should take the optimists seriously, and carefully answer and refute their
arguments, for the simple reason that the political-economic paradigm of endless
resources and constant growth dominates the thinking of those who establish and
implement governmental and corporate policies throughout the developed world. We
will return to an examination of this dominant economic paradigm near the end of
In the section that follows immediately, we will critically examine Mark
Sagoff's optimistic claims and projections regarding natural resources. In the
third and final section, we will explicate and scrutinize the fundamental tenets
and presuppositions of Julian Simon's defense of endless constant growth.
Mark Sagoff and the Limitless Earth.
All the basic resources that support industrial civilization, Mark Sagoff
argues, are abundant now and will remain so into the foreseeable future. In all
cases, I reply, his optimism is unfounded. (World Watch, 1999, 2000a, 2000b).
Can we feed the world population, believed by the United Nations estimates to
grow from eight to eleven billion in the next half-century? (World Resources
Institute, 1998, 143) Sagoff assures
us that "the trends are favorable. Global output of cereal crops has more
than tripled over the last 40 years, largely as a result of greater yields,
while agricultural output generally rose 160 percent, outpacing population
growth." (Sagoff, 1997, 10)
How have we managed this? Through "better seeds, more irrigation,
multicropping, and additional use of fertilizer..." (Sagoff, 1997, 10) He
further points out that new strains and methods promise to triple per-acre
cassava production in Africa, and triple corn yields in America.
Simply put, we have traded a rather inefficient but sustainable system of
solar to biomass energy (by means of animal power and manure fertilization), for
an intensive system that draws on the capital of fossil fuels (supplying both
machinery fuel and fertilizers), with a byproduct of greenhouse gases. In a very
real sense, industrial man eats petroleum. Consequently, land formerly used to
produce food for the draft animals, is converted to food production,
reforestation or urbanization. However, this, says ecologist, Kenneth Watt, is a
Between 1950 and  a final 11 million horses have been taken out of
American agriculture and replaced by tractors powered by crude oil. Since it
takes very roughly four times the acreage to support one horse as a person,
this means the we have been able to add 44 million people to the American
population [in those twenty years] for that one cause alone, because of a
fossil fuel subsidy...
Mankind is embarked on an absolutely immense gamble. We are letting the
population build up and up and up, by increasing the carrying capacity of the
Earth for people, using a crude-oil energy subsidy, on the assumption that
there's no inherent danger in this because when the need arises we'll be able
to get ultimate sources of energy...
The world can probably support between one and four billion people at the
absolute outside without a fossil-fuel energy subsidy...By the time we run out
of this fossil fuel energy subsidy, there will be 10 to 20 billion people in
the world... (Watt, 1970, 9-11).
This fossil fuel subsidy accounts for the tripling per-acre yield that Sagoff
refers to. Improved seeds and genetic engineering may increase per-acre yield
still more -- perhaps even enough to feed the world population of ten billion
projected for this century. But surely there must be an upper limit to all this. Or are we to
believe that yields can triple again, and then again? Surely available nutrients
and solar energy, not "knowledge," are that upper limit. And yet, as
we nove noted, Sagoff promises that 'the endless expansion of the global economy
is physically possible.'" (Sagoff, 1995, p.610).
Meanwhile, we have discovered that industrial agriculture is vulnerable
agriculture, as monocultures are assaulted by ever-more resistant pests, which
are then attacked by every more toxic pesticides. All the while, soil is lost
and ground water degraded by the massive importation of chemical pesticides and
fertilizers. A further loss of "natural capital." (Brown, 1999, 115)
What, then, of our forests and timber supply? Once again, Sagoff is
Timber prices stood at an all-time low in 1991... [The] eastern United
States, which loggers and farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries had nearly
denuded of trees, has become reforested during this century.... India now
plants four trees for every one it commercially harvests. (Sagoff, 1997,
Notice, however, that Sagoff cites the Indian forestry practice in terms of
numbers of trees, not biomass: i.e., the weight of a harvested tree against the
weight of four seedlings. If my neighbor were caught cutting down and hauling
away the ancient oak tree on my front lawn, I would not be compensated with four
acorns. Moreover, every tree cut and hauled away carries with it the nutrients
which, in a natural forest, are recycled through the death and decay of the old
trees. Still more drain on the "natural capital." Forest industry
advertisements to the contrary notwithstanding, industrial forestry is not
Sagoff writes that "the US is far more wooded today that it was 50 and
100 years ago." (Sagoff, 1997, 13) True enough: "wooded," but not
"forested." There is an important difference, such that if the total
area of woods and forests increases as the ratio of woods to forests also
increases, our wealth in "natural capital" may decrease significantly.
The difference can be seen at a glance. In the pacific northwest of the United
States, you will find logging trucks bearing a single 6-foot diameter 400 year
old log. In northern Wisconsin, recently my home of four years, the logs are
stacked crosswise, eight feet long and rarely more than a foot in diameter. The
pacific logs are from non-renewable old-growth forests such as we had in
Wisconsin two hundred years ago. In my former Wisconsin neighborhood, today's
harvest is not from "forests," but from second growth
"woods," and even worse, from "tree farms" monocultural
stands of trees, of identical size, age and species, arrayed in rows like
cornstalks in Iowa, and in a landscape just about as interesting aesthetically
or diverse biotically. Not a fair trade for the northern forest that the
voyageurs found there three-hundred years ago.
If timber is so plentiful, then why is there a demand to take the remaining
old-growth forests. Why don't those "tree farms" suffice? The wood is
plentiful, precisely because timber interests have finagled the North American
governments to give away the store i.e., the natural capital: witness the
amputation of the Tongas National Forest. Sagoff tells is that "forests now
provide the largest harvests in history." (Sagoff, 1997, 12) I have no
reason to doubt this. But somehow, I take no comfort in it, for it is a
Why should we be worried about water? After all, Sagoff reassures us, water,
like all matter, "is neither created nor destroyed: there is just as much
water now as there was 10,000 years ago." 7
He is right, of course: none of the water that enters my house is, strictly
speaking, destroyed. But believe me when I tell you that it is altered!
more to that water when it leaves than when it enters, and that "more"
is economically less. Thus, while I would willingly dip a ladle in to the inflow
I would not do so to the outflow. And what would it take to make that outflow a
useful resource again? Energy, of course the same "ultimate resource"
required to restore any natural capital (by reducing entropy). And the more
intensively we "use" water, the more polluted the outflow, the greater
the loss in natural capital, and the more energy required to restore it.
Unfortunately, we don't restore it all, and so we all continue to go down the
entropy escalator. Thankfully, nature does manage a few steps up the down
escalator through the simple expedient of solar energy: evaporation, atmospheric
circulation, and precipitation. What both nature and humans fail to restore as
natural capital is "waste" e.g., groundwater contamination, relocation
of fossil ground water to the atmosphere, water pollution.
"The bottom of the oil barrel," Sagoff assures us, "is fading
from view. No shortages of hydrocarbon fuels are in sight. (Sagoff, 1997, 16) In
defense of this claim, Sagoff repeats the oft-stated report that, "the
world's proven recoverable reserves of oil and gas have grown" eight-fold.
(Sagoff, 1997, 6). His optimism rests upon a careless disregard of those
qualifiers, "proven" and "recoverable." Those qualifiers
state what no ecologist has ever disputed; namely that new deposits will be
discovered, and that the techniques of extraction will be improved. Yet that
same "increase" suggests what no informed person can, on reflection,
truly believe; namely, that the Earth is replenishing its fossil fuel supply on
a time scale that is of any use to us. And yet this myth of "infinite
supply" is implicit in public policy debates. For example, in the recent US Presidential campaign, neither major party has addressed the question,
"When will we finally run out of petroleum, and what will we do then?"
Even so, the stubborn fact persists: the remaining supply of fossil fuels can
only be depleted. And since oil consumption has doubled each generation, this
means that we have extracted, each generation, an amount equal to all that has
been extracted before. A superficial appreciation of the sequence of powers of
two tells us that this trend is not sustainable. Thus one must devoutly hope
that Sagoff is correct when he assures us that the demand for oil is leveling
out. But with the vast majority of the world's population, and most
significantly the populations of China and India, aspiring to imitate our
high-consumption life-style, one must wonder.
Because the earth is not producing any more coal or oil, the qualified term,
"proven recoverable reserves" testifies to our expanding technological
capabilities, not to the an infinite supply, and eventually that technology must
encounter the limit of that supply. When it does, there will still be petroleum
and coal in the ground, but the price of extraction will be greater than its
market price a price considerably higher than it is today.
However, I suspect that the limit on the use of fossil fuels will be
dictated, not by the amount of "reserves," but by the capacity of the
atmosphere to absorb their combustion products. On this point, Sagoff and I
agree, though he seems a bit more sanguine about this problem than I am. Plant
ecologists that I have read have warned that while the added dose of atmospheric
CO2 might stimulate plant biomass production, this appears to be better news to
weeds than to cash crops. Furthermore, there is experimental evidence that
global warming may precipitate still more release of carbon dioxide from organic
soils. (Harte, et al., 1995) Furthermore, sudden climatic changes can make large
areas inhospitable to the previously established species. Some of us might be able to move north when the
planet heats up. But our forests and ecosystems can not. (Kerr, 1995, 731)
The Pricing Argument:
In defense of the claim that essential resources are abundant now and into
the foreseeable future, both Sagoff and Simon cite falling prices for these
resources. Recall our opening quotation from Sagoff: "From a global point
of view, raw materials have grown more abundant and prices for them have fallen,
in spite of an expanding economy and growing world population." (Sagoff,
This citation of global resource prices is not reassuring. In point of fact,
commodity and resource prices reflect the willingness to pay of those who are in
the market, now. That willingness to pay is reflected in cash amounts, and thus
those amounts are subject to all the moral limitations that cash is heir to
-- limitations that Sagoff has explicated elsewhere with great cogency and
eloquence. (Sagoff, 1988, Chapters 2 and 3).
Most significantly, the falling prices of resources reflects, not their enduring value, but rather prices at the present moment. However, due to the arithmetic of pricing, in particular "the discount rate," resource and environmental costs deferred into the remote future (e.g., costs incurred from radwaste, loss of biodiversity, global warming, etc.), need not factor significantly into the cost-benefit analyses of investors or, for that matter, economically oriented policy-makers. This is because, from the point of view of the present time, the absolute value of money (i.e., at zero interest) diminishes through time, (which is why a decision to save money must be rewarded with a "bonus," which we know of as "the interest rate.").9
Thus, for example, with a modest return on investment of five percent, an entrepreneur can accept a doubling of resource costs (e.g. of timber of crude oil) in fourteen years, and in a lifetime of seventy years, a cost increase multiplied by thirty-two. With a not-so modest return of ten percent, the present value of today's constant dollar (at zero interest) is worth less than a penny in fifty years. Little incentive here for the investor to provide for the remote future.
In light of this, consider: Sagoff cites John Holdren's estimates that oil and natural gas reserves extend several decades into the future. If so, the delayed costs of global warming resulting from the consumption of those fuels will be paid by our successors who are centuries and millennia in the future. According to the arithmetic of discounting from the perspective of time present, those remaining decades matter very little, and those deprived future generations centuries and millennia into the future matter not at all.
Furthermore, competitive advantage goes to the firm that returns on
investments now, not in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.
Because investors shop around for the returns that are both "the first
and the most," the markets further "bid down" the value of
Resource prices are depressed by the current squandering of "natural
capital" by policies which "externalize" costs (in terms of
eventually depleted resources) to our descendants. The depletion of
"natural capital" is rarely factored into conventional economic
analysis or into markets, since we insufficiently understand or appreciate
the extent of "natural services." The ecological
"service" of the stratospheric ozone layer, and the depletion of
this "capital" by CFCs, is a case in point.
"And what will we do when we finally run out of fossil fuels and
petrochemicals?" "How are our grandchildren supposed to deal with
global warming, or UV radiation, or radwaste?" Answer: "We,
correction, they, will think of something we know not what." More
bluntly, "that's their problem, not ours."
Resource prices are often artificially low due to "politically
arranged" government subsidies the virtual "free gift" of
national forest timber to private corporations, and oil depletion allowances
are cases in point.
Excluded from the markets, thus having no voice in the determination of
prices, are the ever-growing hordes of the destitute, as well as other
species, and future generations.
In short, the cost reductions in resources that Sagoff quotes are systemically
Assessing our global "wealth" in terms of our consumption is
comparable to judging an individual's wealth in terms of his possessions. Both global and personal wealth are misleading, if they fail to take into account the security of the
"capital" on which that wealth is based. (For example, a profligate
"playboy" who cashes in blue-chip stocks to purchase a yacht,
increases his "apparent wealth" as he decreases his "real
wealth"). If the bio-scientists are to
be believed, the security of "natural capital" -- the capacity of the
Earth's physico-chemical-biotic systems to sustain the impact of industrial
civilization -- is tenuous.
The apparent global "resource wealth" that Sagoff describes is, I
submit, comparable to the apparent wealth of the consumer, surrounded by
material goods and immersed in consumer debt, and the apparent increase in that
wealth is accomplished through the expenditure of our natural resource capital a
quantity, incidentally, not factored into standard economic analyses.. We are on
a resource spree, with little regard for the discounted future.
In Dispraise of "Warehouse Earth:"
For all it's good cheer and reassurances, Sagoff's argument is more interesting
for what it excludes. There is a brief mention of thermodynamics, but not of entropy, which is that aspect of thermodynamics most subversive of his thesis.
In addition, one rarely encounters the word, "ecology," and yet the
ecologist's view of the systemic web of our biotic and physical life support
stand in sharp contrast to the picture of "warehouse earth" that one
gains from reading this essay
Despite the alleged opportunities for unlimited growth, Sagoff insists (and I
agree) that we should curb growth and consumption so as to preserve "the
beauty and spontaneity of the natural world (4) ... [and] the intrinsically
wonderful aspects of Creation." (Sagoff, 1997, 4-5) Quoting John Muir,
Henry David Thoreau, Steven Jay Gould and E. O. Wilson, he cites the
fascination, mystery, and miracle of nature, meaning, I take it, the ultimate
inscrutability of nature.
Yet the nature that I read about in the first part of this paper is a nature
that is all too "scrutable." So scrutable, in fact, that we can devise
a global info-economy whereby our knowledge of the workings of nature can expand
to virtually usurp the place of the other factors in economic well-being,
hitherto thought indispensable: resources and energy. It is, in brief, a nature
that we could, if we wanted to, totally artificialize and then competently
manage. We could, he says, but of course we really shouldn't.
However, I would insist that this very mystery and miracle of nature those
qualities that give it its intrinsic value confound the conceit that nature is
"manageable," and will permit perpetual growth and artificialization
by whatever amount of knowledge that we can come by. For any attempt to
artificialize and manage nature produces new management problems, requiring
still more knowledge in short, the quest for "total
management" suggests a race to overtake our own shadow, as the solution of
immediate problems produces still more problems. We seem to believe that we can
catch up, if only we just run a little bit faster.
The reason why mysterious nature is, in principle, less than fully manageable
is no mystery: the reason is entropy.
Sagoff refers to the Second Thermodynamic law, but only by pointing out that
in a closed system "free energy" can be transformed into "bound
energy," but not the reverse: that you can't burn a lump of coal twice. Far
more important is the rule that, absent the importation of energy from outside a
system, nature moves from conditions of low to high probability, from order to
disorder, from complexity to simplicity, from high to low potential, toward
increased entropy. Localized negentropy (as in organic evolution, or the
designing of a city, or in scientific research and development) can only be
accomplished through the importation of energy and information from outside. And
the net result will be an increase in entropy outside the system. Thus the price
of order here is disorder there, of complexity is simplification, of utilized
energy is less available energy. "There is no such thing as a free
lunch." And that is why "total management" of nature will forever
I will have much more to say about entropy near the close of this essay.
In the final analysis, entropy and ecology are the undoing of the
info-economy that Sagoff says we can but should not have. A library of
ecological horror stories affirm those most basic of ecological laws: 'you can't
do just one thing," and "there is no 'away'." Public health
measures explode the population, pest control "selects" super-pests,
the stuff that cools our food erodes the ozone, and so on. Virtually all our environmental problems turn out to be the results of prior
environmental "solutions." (Natural disasters are excluded from this
observation). Touch a strand, and trouble the web. "The law of unintended
consequences" reigns supreme.
It is true that there are promising prospects ahead for utilizing solar
energy, perhaps the only acceptable long-term fuel to drive the global economy..
The technological wizardry that Sagoff describes, along with the short-term drop
in resource prices that it has promoted, have bought us some time. But if we use
that time to continue our spree, with no thought for the long-term morrow, then
we are merely climbing higher up the cliff from which we will fall. And when we
are about to fall, the aesthetic and spiritual values of wild nature that Mark
Sagoff celebrates will be a distant memory, sacrificed to our insatiable
appetite for "more, still more."
Julian Simon's Cornucopism: The Elements
The late Julian Simon's essential thesis is that there are no physical
limitations on economic growth or human population growth. The only resource
shortage, he claims, is human knowledge and ingenuity: "The Ultimate
Resource" which, in adequate supply, is capable of solving any and all
Prof. Simon's ideas have been universally dismissed by environmental
scientists as crackpot, and yet he was something of a hero among libertarians,
neo-classical economists, and their political disciples. Because the latter group
is far more influential in the articulation and implementation of national and
international environmental and economic policies, Simon's ideas should be taken
very seriously, and scrupulously examined and rebutted.
As we noted at the beginning, these are the fundamental tenets of Julian Simon's position:
The supply of natural resources is infinite.
Almost all trends in environmental quality are positive.
History is a reliable guide to future possibilities.
There is only one scarcity: Human brain power "The Ultimate
Accordingly, population growth rates are not a problem, except possibly in
the sense of being too slow.
What is interesting about Simon's position is that the data that he cites in
its defense are for the most part correct. The trouble is that these data are
either irrelevant or partial, and as a result, do not sustain his cheerful
world-view. 14 However, that world view is supported by several presuppositions
which are occasionally stated or hinted at, but more often unacknowledged. And
some of the more salient of these presuppositions can be inferred, not by the
pattern of evidence that he cites, but by the patterns of significant
information that he disregards.
The superficial plausibility of Simon's position is gained much more through
his exclusion than through his citing of data. As we shall see, missing from
Simon's cheerful prognoses is any acknowledgment or apparent comprehension of
such fundamental ecological principles as nutrient cycling, feedback mechanisms,
and limiting factors, or even that very foundation of physical science: thermodynamics and
entropy. His perspective is confined to his own field of
market economics. 15
Julian Simon's Cornucopism: The Presuppositions
This remarkable collection of assertions describes a world-view radically at
odds with that of most biological and physical scientists. It is a view which,
if true, would seem to rest upon a number of presuppositions equally at odds
with "establishment science." In this section, I will sketch what
appear to me to be the presuppositions that are both most crucial to the
cornucopian world view, and most vulnerable to scientific and conceptual
criticism. The task of refuting these assumptions will occupy us throughout the
remainder of this paper.
Many or most of these assumptions would be rejected by Simon and the
cornucopians. But if I've done my work effectively, that rejection is so much
the worse for cornucopism, since a rejection of these presuppositions entails a
rejection of their world view. So the challenge of this analysis is simply this:
can the cornucopians carry forth their cheerful view of the world without the
baggage of the seemingly absurd assumptions on which they rest? I submit that
they can not.
The supply of natural resources is infinite.
Closer inspection reveals that Simon means by this that "the supply of
natural resources in not finite in any economic sense." (Simon, 1981,
42) If shortages appear and prices begin to rise, "human ingenuity"
gets to work and finds cheaper ways to extract or recycle the resource, or else
finds alternative resources that provide the same "service" -- e.g.,
coal for whale oil, thence petroleum for coal. (Simon, 1984, 15) In
the future there is no practical limit to what human brain power will provide,
not even, as we noted above, alchemy: the transmutation of elements.
Not content with this rather straightforward explanation of
"non-finitude," Simon boldly ventures beyond the fringe.
"Finitude," he reminds us, is a concept which "originates in
mathematics." He then proceeds with an argument so strange that it must be
quoted at some length, if we are to believe that he really means what his is
The length of a one-inch line is finite in the sense that it is bounded at
both ends. But the line within the endpoints contains an infinite number of
points; these points cannot be counted, because they have no defined size.
Therefore, the number of points in a one-inch segment [of a line] is not
finite. Similarly, the quantity of copper that will ever by available to us is
not finite, because there is no method (even in principle) of making an
appropriate count of it... (My italic, EP) (Simon, 1981, 47)
Note that word, "similarly." Clearly, Simon wishes to draw an
inference from mathematics to the "real world." Unfortunately, such an
inference is invalid, since:
... in the context of mathematics ... all propositions are tautologous
definitions... But scientific subjects are empirical rather than
definitional... [Thus] mathematics is not a science in the ordinary sense
because it does not deal with facts other than the stuff of mathematics
itself, and hence such terms as "finite" do not have the same
meaning elsewhere that they do in mathematics.
This quotation is wholly consistent with the view of mathematics that is
generally accepted by scientists, mathematicians and philosophers today as well
as by Julian Simon, who is the author. (Simon, 1981, 48) In fact, of the two
quotations just cited, the second appears just one page after the first.
Remarkably, Simon seems quite unaware that he has thus totally demolished the
conclusion that he painstakingly attempted to establish just three paragraphs
But there is worse to come. In that same "points in a line"
example, Simon equates (without supporting argument) the concepts of
"indeterminate" and "not finite" (which he is willing to
treat as "infinite"). Continuing: "The quantity of a natural
resource that might be available to us ... can never be known even in principle,
just as the number of points in a one-inch line can never be counted even in
principle... Hence resources are not 'finite' in any meaningful sense."
I should find this very reassuring: for if the day of my death is
indeterminate, then by Simon's reckoning I can assume that I am immortal. And
since that drill hole on my property, left from a failed attempt at oil
exploration, is of indeterminate depth, I can assume that it is infinitely deep.
Absurd? Of course! But what else could he mean by his inference from
"indeterminate" to "infinite"?
History assures us that human progress is perpetual. The essential
parameters of historical development are invariable, and thus there are no
essential discontinuities in history. Accordingly, since history discloses that
human ingenuity has always eventually triumphed over environmental adversity in
the past, there is no reason to doubt that it will do so in the future.
The question of what, if any, meaning and lessons might be drawn from
history, is one of the most profound and intractable issues in both philosophy
and historical scholarship. And that very fact undermines much of the
cornucopian argument, which requires a naive and simplistic belief that history
is a reliable predictor of the future.
The cornucopian argument rests, not only upon a false reading of history, but
also on an over simplistic notion of induction: namely, that the long history of
successful human "coping" with nature gives us inductive warrant to
assume more of the same in the future.
By way of refutation, environmental alarmists like to tell the story of the
optimist who falls off a high building, and who reflects, two-thirds of the way
down, "well, so far, so good!" I prefer another tale told by Bertrand
Russell, which concerns a certain farmer and his turkey. From the point of view
of the reflective turkey, the farmer will always greet him in the morning with a
bucket of grain. Why? Because, by simple inductive reasoning, it follows that
the more often this happens, the more secure he is in the belief that it will
happen again until, one morning, the farmer appears with an axe. Now from the
farmer's better informed point of view, he knows that the more often the turkey
gets the grain, the less likely it is that he will survive another day.
Similarly, life underwriters adopt the farmer's point of view.
Eco-scientists, like the farmer, have the better informed point of view. They
understand all too well that "business as usual," celebrated by the
cornucopians, is undermining the physical-biotic structure that supports that
"business," and that the more our industrial "business as
usual" continues as it has, the less likely it is that we will be able to
continue. We are, as eco-scientists like to put it, "living off our biotic
capital." All this is due to conditions in the real world well known to,
and exhaustively studied by, these scientists conditions systematically
discounted and ignored by the cornucopians.
Whatever problems may appear, human ingenuity will be equal to it. We've
always solved our problems in the past, and we'll continue to do so long into
This is, of course, a corollary to the previous assumption: that history is a
reliable guide to future possibilities. However, this assertion brings to mind
an epistemological observation, prefaced by a personal recollection.
Several years ago, I was engaged in a debate with a fundamentalist preacher.
To his claims of the actual existence of a heaven and hell, I protested that he
was offering no evidence to support his claim. He replied, "just you wait
you are eventually going to encounter plenty of evidence, when you meet your
His retort was not particularly useful at the time.
I submit that this oft-reiterated claim, "human ingenuity will be equal
to the task" is super-empirical hand-waving of the same type. It is simply
a "secular eschatology" -- a kind of "cargo cultism," which
attempts to answer scientifically validated challenges with unverifiable
In the meantime, "human ingenuity"
has been at work and in the very
biotic, atmospheric and other sciences that the cornucopians summarily dismiss.
The cornucopian confidence in "gray matter," thus appears to be
curiously selective. Never mind, they tell us, what "ingenious humans"
in the sciences are telling us now, and kindly disregard the weight of evidence
and the strength of inference amassed through this applied
"ingenuity." The cornucopians have faith that somehow, sometime, some
other "ingenious humans" will eventually come along to prove that they
are right. "Just you wait!"
Nature is just inert "stuff," a warehouse of resources, on which
we act and from which we take, but about which we need not give special notice.
If nature causes us problems, we simply assemble our "best minds" and
they will take care of it.
Prof. Simon's "nature" is a very strange place: almost a caricature
of George Berkeley's subjective idealism: "To be, is to be perceived." In
Simon's world, nature practically exists only when we find some use for
it. "To be is to be a commodity." (More fairly: "to be of any
concern to us, is to be a commodity") . Complete your transaction, turn
your attention elsewhere, and nature will, for all practical purposes, just
disappear until you next find need of it -- infinitely and perpetually available.
Moreover, Nature is also an infinite "sink." When we throw something
"away," it is really "away" -- it never comes back. The chain
of causation, which is very useful to us when we want resources from nature,
somehow just stops when we cease taking note of it.
The Berkeleyan world view goes even further: "to be is to be
intended." It then follows that there are no "unintended
consequences." In other words, after we enjoy the desired effect, there are
no further causes. Pesticide residues "go away," never to appear
again. The CO2 produced by the burning of fossil fuels is of no further concern
to us. Nor are the pesticides after they kill the pests, and are thus
miraculously rendered innocuous to song birds.
Of course, the cornucopians will retort that this is an unfair
caricature and of course they are right. And yet, they act as if this
caricature were true. Cornucopians pay almost no attention to the complications and costs of
"unintended consequences" (called "externalities" by
economists) and they are quite unimpressed by the findings, even less the
warnings, of scientists who study ongoing phenomena in "uncommodified
nature." And if the cornucopians admit that causation continues unnoticed,
they will then claim, "well never mind, we can fix all that. Don't
underestimate the power of human ingenuity, especially when motivated by
In short, cornucopians seem to be totally unconcerned by "Hardin's Law:"
You can't do just one thing. (Hardin, 1970, 17) And they rarely bother to ask
Hardin's query: And then what? (Hardin, 1976, 122) All this is surpassingly
strange since, despite their allegiance to free market theory, the cornucopians
thus conveniently ignore that most fundamental of economic maxims: "there
is no such thing as a free lunch."
Nature (and, in particular the biosphere) is a mechanical order, not a
systemic order of mutually interacting components.
This axiom of the cornucopian world-view is challenged by the late economist,
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, who writes:
"... the founders of the neoclassical school set out to erect an
economic science after the pattern of mechanics.... [and thus], analytic
pieces that adorn the standard economic literature ... reduce the economic
process to a self-sustained mechanical analogue. The patent fact that between
the economic process and the material environment there exists a continuous
mutual influence which is history making carries no weight with the standard
economist." (Georgescu-Roegen, 1993, 75).
But while the "pattern of mechanics" is implicit in neo-classical
economic theory, it is contrary to the principles of thermodynamics: "The
opposition between the entropy law with its unidirectional qualitative change
and mechanics where everything can move either forward of backward while
remaining self-identical is accepted without reservation by every physicist and
philosopher of science." (Georgescu-Roegen, 1993, 87-8) Georgescu-Roegen's
enduring legacy is his demonstration that entropy, the cornerstone of
physical science, challenges the very foundations of classical
economic theory even more, the reassurances of the cornucopians. I will have much more to say about
Simon's mechanistic view of physical reality is nowhere more evident than in
his dismissal of concerns about "global warming."
... no threatening trend in human welfare has been connected to [global
warming]... It may even be that a greenhouse effect would benefit us on
balance by warming some areas we'd like warmer, [sic] and by increasing the carbon
dioxide to agriculture... [Moreover], we now have large and ever-increasing
capabilities to reverse such trends if they are proven to be dangerous, and at
costs that are manageable. 16 (Simon's italics). (Myers and Simon, 1994, 18-9)
Unfortunately, Simon offers not a word to identify these putative
"capabilities" with which we will unscramble the atmospheric omelet.
Simon's view here of global atmospheric processes is astonishingly
ill-informed. Brushing aside whole libraries of scientific data, he chooses to
regard "global warming" as "global warming -- period." He
acknowledges no changes in "warehouse Earth" except that everywhere
things are a bit warmer. To Simon, "warming" the Earth, is essentially
no different that turning up the thermostat and "warming up the
house." He thus fails to recognize that the global climate is a system.
Accordingly, global warming in toto, would mean that some regions might in fact
be cooler, some much hotter, some dryer, some wetter, some subject to more
violent tropical storms, and so on, far beyond our reckoning. Ocean currents
would likely change with dramatic consequences. For example, there is
great concern that fresh water in the North Atlantic from the melting Greenland
ice-cap might shut down the "thermo-haline conveyer" that powers the Gulf Stream,
which would condemn Great Britain and northern Europe to a climate
comparable to its latitudinal opposite, Labrador. (Of course, as we have seen,
if scientists tell us that "we don't know the full effects" of
something, Simon routinely interprets this to mean, "there are no
effects"). Also, Simon typically fails to comprehend the sensitivity of
established ecosystems to such sudden climatic changes. For example, whole
forest ecosystems, unable to "migrate" to more favorable climates,
would collapse. (Kerr, 1995, 731)17
Because elementary matter can not be destroyed, we'll never run out of
resources. The dumps and sinks of today are the mines of tomorrow.
This seems to make superficial sense to the mechanist mind-set of reversible
processes favored by the cornucopians. However, elemental resources that are
scattered as "garbage" are often woefully beyond recovery. This is so
due to some fundamental thermodynamic principles, to which we will return.
In particular, nature can be successfully managed. So-called
"biological services" (such as insect pollination) are fully
replicable if not dispensable, once we put our engineering skills to the task.
"Biological services," like so many basic concepts of the life and
physical sciences, are totally ignored in Julian Simon's writings. Small wonder.
To acknowledge these services, is to admit that it just might be possible that
management of the natural order which created and nurtured our species, might be
forever beyond our capabilities. Yet such capabilities are implicit in Simon's
cavalier assumption that any problems that might arise can be handled by
Very well, cornucopians, "manage"
The "biotic services" that we can cite are endless. (Daily,
1997; Costanza et al., 1997b; Baskin, 1997) I will settle for two examples
of such "services." First, the oceanic phytoplankton, whose production of atmospheric oxygen
is greater than that of the tropical rain forests. (Myers, 1984) Next, consider permanent removal of
CO2 from the atmosphere by zooplankton, coral and mollusks (which convert it
into carbonates and eventually into limestone). And plankton, of course, is the
base of the oceanic ecosystem, and thus utterly necessary of we are to be fed
from the seas. And yet, the plankton are threatened by ultra-violet radiation
from ozone depletion (Häder, 1995), and the formation of carbonates by the
increasing acidification of the ocean by atmospheric CO2. Not to worry, Simon reassures us, since that increased UV
radiation might improve our vitamin D intake, and the harmful effects might be
overcome by wearing hats, and anyway, says Simon, "if human interaction
is causing the change, then human intervention can reverse it." (Myers and
Simon, 1994, 63)
Unfortunately, hats are not of much use to the plankton.
Then there the are micro-invertebrates such as mites and worms, along with
the bacteria -- what E. O. Wilson calls, "the
little things that run the world" -- that transform "dirt" into
soil, and which transforms the waste of
completed life into nutrients for new life. Of these "little things,"
that we need invertebrates but they don't need us... If invertebrates were
to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few
months... The earth would rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out,
narrowing and closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms
of vegetation would die off, and with them the last remnants of the
vertebrates. The remaining fungi, after enjoying a population explosion of
stupendous proportions, would also perish. Within a few decades, the world
would return to the state of a billion years ago, composed primarily of
bacteria, algae, and a few other very simple multicellular plants. (Wilson,
There is literally no end to an accounting of our debt to the other life
forms which maintain the physical-chemical-biotic nexus that is the ecosphere --
Gaia. But in Julian Simon's writings, there is scarcely a beginning of an
acknowledgment of that debt.
Recently, the incapacity of human ingenuity to "manage" an
ecosystem was vividly demonstrated by the spectacular failure of "Biosphere
II." This two-hundred million dollar project attempted to establish a
totally isolated and enclosed ecosystem which, like natural systems, could
sustain the eight human "ecospherians" indefinitely. Instead, reports
Paul Ehrlich and associates,
... the experiment ended early in failure: atmospheric oxygen concentration
had dropped [from 20] to 14 percent (a level typical of elevations of 17,500
feet); carbon dioxide spiked erratically; nitrous-oxide concentrations rose to
levels that can impair brain functions; nineteen of twenty-five vertebrate
species went extinct; all pollinators went extinct thereby dooming to eventual
extinction most of the plant species; aggressive vines and algal mats overgrew
other vegetation and polluted the water, crazy ants, cockroaches and katydids
ran rampant. Not even heroic efforts on the part of the system's desperate
inhabitants could suffice to make the system viable. (Ehrlich, et al., 1997,
In fact, we cannot "manage the Earth," precisely because the planet
is not an "inert warehouse;" rather, it is a lively place, more
complex and "wonderful" (literally "full of wonders") than
we can ever know or even imagine. It is all this, because it is, first and
foremost, systemic, and thus it displays these features:
flows and nutrients which
cycle through the life forms of the
trophic pyramids -- from plants to herbivores to carnivores.
biotic and atmospheric action is synergistic, in ways that constantly
surprise us and thus are out of our control. For example, photochemical
smog, we have found, is more than just a "soup" of component air
pollutants. It is a substance "cooked" into existence by those
substances, through the catalytic action of sunlight.
the biosphere displays numerous "feedback effects:" positive
feedbacks which initiate "runaway sequences," such as "red
tides" or possibly, for that matter, the greenhouse effects; and
negative feedbacks which are characteristic of stable ecosystems.
we must also cope with time-lag effects, such as the eventual
release of "geologically stored" toxic and radiological materials,
or the slow
spread of pollutants through aquifers.
we are constantly surprised by threshold effects or "tipping
effects," such as when a forest or a lake appears capable of absorbing
pollutants without harm, until eventually a slight increase causes massive
die-offs or eutrophication. (In popular parlance, this phenomenon is known
as "the final straw that breaks the back).
Because of these mechanisms, and many more, the biosphere is, to paraphrase
J. D. S. Haldane, not only more mysterious that we suppose, but more mysterious
than we can suppose. Accordingly, the biosphere is not reliably
"The Facts speak for themselves."
To the anticipated criticism, "but what about the other side's
data?", Simon boldly replies, "there are no other data." He
continues, "I invite you to test for yourself this assertion that the
conditions of humanity have gotten better." And he then refers the readers
to the Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the United States. He concludes,
"every single measure shows a trend of improvement rather than the
deterioration that the doomsayers claim has occurred." (Myers and Simon,
No data? Perhaps he just has not bothered to look. Simon claims that
"There is no documentation of further data produced by biologists since
1979 to demonstrate what Norman Myers was saying" about mass extinctions.
Myers replies, "during those thirteen years, the number of papers published
on the mass extinction crisis is over three hundred... No documentation, no
data, Professor Simon?" (Myers and Simon, 1994, 129)
Simply put, Simon counts as "data," what he wants to use as
"data." The rest, he simply disregards. As we stated at the outset,
the problem with Simon's argument is not that the data which he cites is not
factual, but that it is partial or irrelevant. And it is that vast body of
unacknowledged fact and theory that demolishes the cornucopian view.
"The facts speak for themselves" is the first refuge of the
huckster posing as a scientist. 18
But as anyone even casually familiar with the
philosophy of science knows full well, "facts" only speak to us in
context of other facts, and guided by theory. This is what distinguishes sound scientific theory and
ad hoc caricatures such as "creation science" and, I submit, cornucopism. In the case of science, theory arises out of observation of facts, effectively classified and organized as the result of prior investigations (thus enabling the scientist, in his subsequent investigations, to distinguish "relevant" from "irrelevant" data). Reciprocally, a developing theory refines "the investigator's eye" as he returns to further explore the "facts" with a sharper sense of "relevance." Thus, in principle, all components of a sound scientific system (theory and facts) are "fair game" for reassessment. All scientific assertions, that is to say, are vulnerable to "the falsifiability principle:" i.e., the principle that scientific theories must yield implications that can clearly and unequivocally be shown to be otherwise, if the world is not what the theory describes it to be.
In the case of pseudo-science, a preconceived dogma selects facts and pre-determines what is to count as a "fact" and as "evidence," all the while this "preconceived dogma" remains outside the realm of "permissible inquiry," not amenable to reassessment in the light of new factual information, which is to say "the non-falsifiable in principle." In the present case, Julian Simon offers us the non-falsifiable, "super-empirical" reassurance that somehow, sometime in the future, economic incentive combined with human ingenuity is capable of solving any environmental problems that may arise, by means we cannot even guess at today.
(See my "Is
Science Another Dogma?" in Conscience of a Progressive,
"Facts do not speak for themselves." Give someone a
license both to pick any "facts" that he chooses and to disregard any
others that he may find inconvenient, and he will be able to claim a
"demonstration" of virtually any strange notion under the sun.
However, by violating the "falsifiability rule," this self-concocted
"ability" to "prove anything whatever" amounts to a capacity
to prove nothing at all.
The preponderance of scientific opinion and theory, in the relevant
disciplines of ecology, atmospherics, soils, demographics, and even physics, is
simply wrong. Julian Simon and his friends know better. Furthermore, the
well-known pessimism of environmental scientists is suspiciously motivated.
With this claim the cornucopians, quite frankly, display colossal
For they contend, in effect, that the consensus opinion of entire fields of
established sciences ecology, atmospheric chemistry and climatology,
demographics, agronomy, etc. are fundamentally in error. All this scientific
investigation and expertise is casually brushed aside in favor of historical
analogies ("trends"), selected anecdotes, and abstract economic
modeling. Still worse, at the close of his Science and Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists articles, and throughout the two books examined herein, Professor
Simon practices unlicensed psychoanalysis as he claims that the pessimism of
"established science" is a conspiracy, motivated by careerism,
competitive grantsmanship, a public fascination with bad news, and willingness
to exaggerate in order to mobilize public activism. 19 (Simon, 1981a, 1436-7, and
The Entropy Trap 20
Throughout this essay, we have referred to the thermodynamic laws, and in
particular the entropy principle, and have promised to explain how entropy is
the most fundamental and decisive refutation of cornucopian optimism. It is
time now to fulfill that promise.
While thermodynamics, in the minutiae of mathematical elaboration, can only
be comprehended by advanced students and practitioners of physics, in its
general, non-quantitative formulation, the second law is quite simple: closed
physical systems move from states of free to bound energy, from high to low
probability, and from order to disorder. These progressions can only be reversed
in localized systems by the importation of information and energy (i.e., by
"opening" the closed system). In the words of Nicholas
Georgescu-Roegen, "the free ["useful"] heat-energy of a closed system
continuously and irrevocably degrades itself into bound ["useless"]
energy... Entropy (i.e., the amount of bound energy) of a closed system
continuously increases [as] ... the order of such a system steadily
turns into disorder." 21
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1993, 78).
Ehrlich, Ehrlich and Holdren express the second thermodynamic law as follows:
"all physical processes, natural and technological, proceed in such a way
that the availability of the energy involved decreases... What is consumed when
we use energy ... is not energy itself but its availability for doing useful
They then spell out five significant implications of the second law:
1. "In any transformation of energy, some of the energy is degraded
[from useful "free" to useless "bound" energy. EP].
2. "No process is possible whose sole result is the conversion of a
given quantity of heat (thermal energy) into an equal amount of useful work.
[Thus "perpetual motion machines" are physically impossible. EP].
3. "No process is possible whose sole result is the flow of heat from
a colder body to a hotter one.
4. "The availability of a given quantity of energy can only be used
once; that is, the property of convertibility into useful work cannot be
5. "In spontaneous processes, concentrations (of anything) tend to
disperse, structure tends to disappear, order becomes disorder."
(Ehrlich, Ehrlich, Holdren, 1993, 71).
This final formulation, linking work and heat to
structure, order and
probability, is the most puzzling implication of the second law, and the
implication which bears most heavily on the cornucopian world view. An
elaboration is in order.
The most memorable explanation, to my mind, comes from Isaac Asimov.22
a typical child's bedroom. When clean, it is orderly and improbable. Then
entropy sets in, and it becomes disorderly and more probable. Why
"probable?" Because, for example, dirty sox belong in just one place
-- the laundry basket -- but instead end up "anywhere else," which is a more
"probable" location than the basket. A made-up bed is just one
improbable condition of numerous states of the bed; "unmade" is all
Then mother sees the entropic mess, and says "no dinner for you, young
man, until you clean this up!" So what does it take to reverse entropy and
achieve the improbably neat condition? Knowledge of where things belong
(information) and energy.
Next, consider "dispersion" and "probability:" The tea in
the tea bag disperses into the cup of hot water. Never does the tea in the cup
return to the leaves. Every pool game begins with a "break" of a
racked triangle of fifteen balls. No game has ever succeeded in returning the
scattered balls to a triangle. For that you need "outside" information
and energy -- a player "racking them up." You will never shuffle a deck
of cards into the numerical order of suits. (Conceivably possible but virtually
impossible). In the natural world, any organism deprived of nourishment (energy
input) will die, and its constituent matter will disintegrate and dissipate -- i.e., entropically degrade from a complex and organized state, to a simple and
chaotic condition. Once again, "all physical processes proceed in such a
way that the entropy of the universe increases." Accordingly, as one wit
put it: "We can't win, we can't break even, and we can't get out of the
game." (Ehrlich, Ehrlich, Holdren, 1993, 72).
In the realm of deliberate action, this means that
order, concentration and
useful energy within a system is purchased at the cost of greater disorder,
dispersion and lost potential from outside the system. Physical-chemical
processes are irreversible: You can't unscramble an egg. You can't strike a
match twice (the "free energy" has been "bound" after the
first strike). Water pressure behind a dam, having turned a turbine, cannot turn
it again, until external solar energy has evaporated it, turned into rain again
and dropped it on the upstream watershed.
But if the natural tendency of systems is toward dispersal, disorder and
simplicity, how then did life on Earth evolve over millions of years toward
greater complexity from probable to improbable states? And what accounts for the
regenerative forces, upon which the very phenomenon of life depends ? All
this came about and continues simply because the
Earth's climate and ecosystems are not "closed systems." The energy
that drives the reverse entropy that is life and evolution toward a more
complex, more orderly and less probable state, comes to us from an
external source: the sun a thermonuclear furnace that "binds" (i.e.,
transforms to a useless and degraded form) -- free
energy through nuclear fusion, on a time scale of billions of years. That
radiant thermonuclear energy is then captured by photosynthesis and converted
into chemical energy (carbohydrates), and the scattered nutrients from earlier
death and decay gathered, reassembled and reorganized into complex organisms. In
individual organisms, this captured energy is directed to a struggle for
survival, and through this competition and natural selection, more complex
organisms evolve.23 Eventually,
in the species homo sapiens reflective intelligence, knowledge and
technical capacity have emerged, and with them moral agency and responsibility.
In short: the biosphere and human culture are "entropy pumps"
powered by "imported" solar energy (in the case of human culture,
solar energy "stored" in biomass and fossil fuels) -- i.e., localized
eddies of increasing complexity and decreasing probability, against the
universal entropic current flowing toward dispersion, simplicity and disorder.24
The implication for environmental policy and management is stark:
anthropogenic environmental "problems" are the result of prior
"solutions"! (By "anthropogenic" we mean to
exclude from this rule environmental problems of natural origin such as
earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, etc.). Think about it! The "solution"
to premature death has resulted in the population
explosion. The "solution" to mass transportation has led to air
pollution and climate change. The "solution" to intensive agriculture has caused nitrate
pollution of ground water and the eutrophication of streams.
This "undoing" of our good intentions has received popular notice in
Edward Tenner's book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of
Unintended Consequences. (Tenner, 1996) In his review of the book in Science,
Langdon Winner cites some of these "unintended consequences:
Antibiotics marshaled against disease have spawned new varieties of highly
virulent drug-resistant bacteria that pose new threats to human health. Methods
for preventing forest fires have been so effective in preserving the dry
underbrush that wildfires are now enormous conflagrations... Cleverly engineered
structures that have altered the contours of rivers and beaches have unwittingly
contributed to the lethal force of "natural disasters" that now vex
civilization. (Winner, 1996, 1052)
Herein lies the fatal flaw in the cornucopians' attempt to extrapolate into
the future, favorable trends (i.e., increased wealth and resources) from the
past. While, in the past, we have "exported" our "entropy
cost" to the environment as pollution, we have managed so far to "get
away with it." For, true to the traditional pioneer spirit, we have been
able to "use it up, then move on." But now, with the expanding
population, there is no more "on" to "move" to, and still
worse, the pollution sink that is the environment is nearing saturation,
whereby the synergisms, feedbacks and threshold effects begin to kick in. In
fact, this has already happened in the Grand Banks fisheries, and is likely
happening in the atmosphere with ozone depletion and global warming. But don't
expect the cornucopians to recognize any of this. "Entropy" and
"thermodynamics" (along with the additional physical principles,
"synergism," "threshold," and "feedback") are
missing from the indexes of the two Simon books on my desk, and I cannot recall
encountering any of these concepts anywhere in Simon's writings.25
Finally, the principle that "order (negentropy) is purchased at the
price of greater disorder (entropy)" may be the undoing of Simon's
"secular eschatology." i.e., the faith that "we'll think of
something, don't underestimate the ingenuity of human beings." It is the
irreparable hole in the cornucopia, since however we might manage to
"fix" (reverse the entropy of) developing environmental problems,
these "fixes" are very likely to create still more problems (entropy).
The rule that "every man-made environmental problem we now have is the result
of a prior solution" appears to counsel despair: The rules of the
thermodynamic game seem to forbid ultimate success: "we can't win, we
can't break even, we can't leave the game." There is, however, an
acceptable option -- quite possibly the only option -- and that is to cherish
and preserve the natural system that brought us here in the first place, namely
the biosphere. If so, we must, like the ecosystem itself, recycle basic
resources and charge the entropy bill to the sun's account. The more we maintain the complexity of
the global ecosystem and the civilized condition by drawing from solar entropy,
and the less we maintain this complexity at the cost of polluting our air, water
and nutrients, and depleting upon non-renewable energy sources, the longer we
will be able to sustain the advantages of industrial civilization. So long
as we keep the entropy that drives our sustainable civilization at a safe
distance of one-hundred forty million kilometers, we might achieve a plus-sum
technology: at long last, "solutions" that do not bring about still
greater problems. Finding and
following that path toward sustainability is the task of ecologically informed
scientific research, technological development, and public policy-making.
That enlightened policy will not be forthcoming from the cornucopians, whose
world-view takes no account of the laws of thermodynamics and the entropy
principle. Since these laws are at the foundation of modern physics and thus
"no exception to [the thermodynamic laws] has every been observed,"
(Ehrlich, Ehrlich, Holdren, 1993, 69) it follows that the cornucopians must be
positing a different physical universe than the one we happen to reside in. Any
economic and industrial policy based upon a belief in this fanciful universe is
fated to fail.
A Triumph of Theory over Realism
"An analysis of far-out examples is a useful
and favorite trick of economists..."
Julian Simon (1981, 43)
"The Theory is Beautiful;
It's Reality that has me baffled."
How can intelligent and well educated individuals such as Julian Simon arrive
at such bizarre conclusions? They do so by adopting a world-view that is an
ontology in a Kantian sense: it is a priori, and thus not the product of
empirical investigation of the world, but rather a theoretical construct that
imposes a view upon the world, thus dictating what will and will not count as
evidence as to the nature of the world. And since that "world view" is
pre-supposed, and refuting evidence is excluded a priori, this is an
"ontology" that violates the most fundamental requirement of
scientific inquiry, falsifiability; namely, the requirement that all scientific
hypotheses clearly indicate the type of evidence that would prove it false. In
simple terms, nothing will budge Simon's world view, since he declares, at the
outset, that nothing will be allowed to do so.
Clearly, Simon's ontology is derived from a dominant paradigm of his
discipline of economics: the perfect market. In theory, the "perfect
market" has these qualities:
An infinite (or very large) pool of potential buyers and sellers
Radical autonomy: i.e., no collusion among the potential agents.
All relevant information available to the agents.
No transaction costs.
No externalities, positive or negative, resulting from the transactions.
Transactions, once completed, are final.
All transactions are completely voluntary.
"Pareto Optimality:" no transactions that leave a party worse
All agents are solely motivated to maximize their personal utility, or
"preference satisfaction." (I.e., all parties are so-called
"The perfect market" thus aggregates autonomous agents, prepared to
exchange discrete items such as cash, goods, services, resources. It is this
theoretical construct that describes the mechanistic and atomistic
"world" of Simon's "ontology. It is also, let us note, a
"world" wherein "market incentives" activate the "human
ingenuity" which, Simon believes, can in principle overcome all obstacles
be they ecological or even thermodynamic.
As all economists (including Simon) will readily agree, the theoretical
"perfect market" comprised of "economic agents" is an
"ideal type," nowhere found in "the real world." However,
like "ideal types" in physics such as "frictionless
machine," "absolute zero" and "perfect vacuum" (also
nowhere exemplified in nature), the "perfect market" and
"economic man" are essential to the abstract quantified modeling that
characterizes modern economic theory.27
This abstract world-view of autonomous, utility-maximizing rational agents is
replicated in the political ideology of libertarianism, with its fundamental and
inviolable rights to life, liberty and property, and its concomitant denial of
"welfare rights" and "social duties." Accordingly, to the
libertarian, the only legitimate functions of government are the protection of
life, liberty and property from external threats (the military), internal threats
(the police), and civil disputes (the courts). To the libertarian, all else -- education, welfare, promotion of the arts, protection of the environment, etc.
-- are solely the concern of private individuals, and no business of the
government. Thus the libertarian repeats in his political theory, what the
classical economist describes in his central paradigm: an aggregate of discrete,
autonomous individuals, each owning items and parcels of property, totally
encapsulated by title and well-defined boundary lines. To both,
"society" is like a "swap meet," comprised of self-serving
"economic persons," all mutual strangers meeting on inert
"Newtonian space" (which, qua "inert," is totally unaffected
by what transpires upon it).28
Classical, free-market economic theory, then, appears to be the foundation of
Simon's atomistic world-view of autonomous individuals, inviolable property
lines, and discrete events. From this idee fixee of "the perfect
market" he moves outward to a theory of politics, libertarianism, and
thence to a theory of physical reality -- a view of a world of infinite resources,
infinite possibilities, infinite growth, all this unhampered by such limitations
and complications as feedbacks, synergisms, time lag effects, and above all, entropy. In this Simonized world, "nature" is a passive theater
whereupon we seek to maximize our individual utilities, all the while absorbing
our assaults without consequences. By this account, in nature, just as in the
market, when a transaction is agreed to and the exchange is made, then that's
the end of it. All acts are disconnected. You can "do just one thing!"
No need to ask "Garrett Hardin's query: "... and then what?"
To Julian Simon, then, economics is the "queen of sciences,"
according to which human endeavor and even physical reality is best interpreted.
This point of view is not unique to Simon: for example, A. Myrick Freeman writes
that " to the economist, the environment is a scarce resource which
contributes to human welfare." (Freeman, 1983) And William Baxter:
All our environmental problems are, in essence, specific instances of a
problem of great familiarity: how can we arrange our society so as to make the
most effective use of our resources... To assert that there is ... an
environmental problem is to assert, at least implicitly, that one or more
resources is not being used so as to maximize human satisfactions....
Environmental problems are economic problems, and better insight can be gained
by economic analysis. (Baxter, 1974, 15-17)
In short, in an audacious reversal of Copernicus, these economists are
proposing to place humanity, and in particular "consumer preferences,"
back at the center of the physical universe. In contradistinction, the economist
Georgescu-Roegen insists that "the economic process is solidly anchored to
a material base which is subject to definite constraints." (Georgescu-Roegen,
1993, 81) Gaylord Nelson puts the matter more bluntly: "the economy is a
wholly owned subsidiary of the environment."29 (Nelson, 1994)
Unfortunately, Julian Simon's "ontology" simply does not describe the
world that we live in, since it is articulated with a fundamental
disregard of basic ecological (which is to say natural) laws not to
mention the findings of behavioral science and the insights of moral
philosophy (which I cannot
elaborate in this space).30 The surveyor can plot a property line within a
centimeter, but that line has no meaning or significance to the conditions of
nature which give that property its value and which, for that matter, sustain our
very lives. The atmosphere, the ocean, cycling nutrients, migrating birds,
insects and spores, global pollution sinks and heat sinks: none of these are the
least aware of property lines. None can be meaningfully contained within the
confines, and thus within the concept, of "inviolable private
While Julian Simon's "ontology" selects,
a priori, what is to count
as data and evidence, it does not enjoy a priori immunity from the challenge of
scientific facts. Nature, as discovered and articulated in the body of modern
bio-science, "talks back" to Simon's "ontology." Simon's
reductive/atomistic world view entails claims that are empirically falsifiable
(thus scientifically meaningful), and furthermore, demonstrably false (thus
scientifically refuted). Simply put, "human ingenuity," exemplified by
modern science, has persuasively demonstrated that in the "real
world," energy flows up trophic pyramids, nutrients recycle through and
back into ecosystems, and entropy reigns supreme, and thus each ingenious
"solution" generates new problems. Furthermore, science has taught us
that the atmosphere, the oceans and the soil, which support our lives, are in
fact systems, and not infinitely large and inert "dumps." In short,
life (including human life), and its supporting mechanisms are simply not what
Julian Simon claims them to be. Hardin's Law "you can't do just one
thing" is more than a slogan: it is a demonstrable fact.
It is a cheerful universe that Prof. Simon describes for us. Unfortunately,
as Richard Feynman used to remind his students, it is not the universe that we
happen to live in, and for reasons that physicists like Feynman are especially
well qualified to demonstrate.
Why, then, are Julian Simon and the cornucopians taken seriously?
The dominant paradigm in the industrialized world requires "constant
growth." One might call this the "shark economy" since, like many
sharks, the global economy as currently constituted has to move constantly in
order to stay alive. Quiescence means death. The engine of modern economy is
"return on investment," i.e., growth. In contrast, in natural
ecosystems there are limits to population growth, resources are recycled, and
there is a constant tendency (never fully realized) toward system stability and
Thus the economists' choice is simple and stark: either devise and defend a
new economic theory that accommodates itself to the basic conditions of life as
articulated by the life sciences (e.g., ecosystemic stability and population
limits) and the physical sciences (e.g., thermodynamic laws), or else simply
choose to ignore these facts and deal instead with a fanciful world. Clearly,
Simon has chosen the latter course and, in the face of both common sense and
scientific evidence, has posited, as he must, a world of infinite resources that
is supportive of perpetual growth.
I once heard Paul Ehrlich remark that if an engineer proposed a design for an
aircraft with a constantly expanding crew, we would think him mad. And yet, when
an economist defends a theory that posits a perpetually growing global economy,
he is awarded a Nobel Prize. Notwithstanding that, "perpetual growth"
is unknown in the natural world. In the words of my late friend, the novelist Edward Abbey,
"the ideology of constant growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."
It is an ideology that leads to the death both of the cancer and its host.
While I have argued that there are severe limitations to the applicability of
economic theory to the natural world, economic theory might nonetheless help to
explain the successful promulgation of Prof. Simon's ideas: There is a demand,
lavishly rewarded, for an apologia for classical economic practice, for a
justification of global industrial "business as usual," and thus for a
dismissal of the eco-scientists' warnings. Julian Simon has met that demand with
extraordinary wit and cleverness.
In short, if there were no Julian Simon he would have to be invented.
But Simon posits a world-view and proposes a policy that can only lead to
ruin. To paraphrase the wise and much-lamented physicist, Richard Feynman
"For a successful environmental policy, reality must take precedence over
wishful thinking, for nature cannot be fooled."32
Copyright 2000, 2007 by Ernest Partridge
I take this to be a fair paraphrase, since it is taken from the title of
Chapter 3 of Simon's book, The Ultimate Resource, "Can the
Supply of Natural Resources Really be Infinite? Yes!"(1981).
Another chapter title (Chapter 18) in
The Ultimate Resource,
This is the essential message of Simon's book,
Ultimate Resource (1981), of his paper in Science (1980a) and
indeed most of his writings. In the anthology, The Resourceful
Earth..., co-edited with Herman Kahn, he writes: "If present trends
continue the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more
populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less
vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in
now. Stresses involving population, resources, and environment will be
less in the future than now..." (Simon, 1984, 14)
Mark Sagoff, "Do We Consume Too Much," full unpublished
manuscript (52 p.), of which pp 29-39 were read by Prof. Sagoff at the
conference, Environmental Challenges to Business, April 4-6, 1997,
University of Virginia. A later version under the same title appeared in Environmental
Challenges to Business, ed. Joel Reichart and Patricia Werhane, Society
for Business Ethics, Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center,
2000. All citations below from the unpublished conference manuscript.
Sagoff, 1995, 610. Sagoff also quotes Peter Drucker, who argues that where
there is effective management, "that is, the application of knowledge
to knowledge, we can always obtain the other resources.' He adds: 'The basic
resource -- "the means of production", to use the economist's term
-- is no longer capital, nor natural resources... It is and will be
State of the World 1999, State of the World 2000, Vital Signs 2000,
The Worldwatch Institute. I cite these excellent anthologies, not only as
direct confirmation of my claims about the limitations of natural resources,
but also as "gateways" that cite hundreds of publications and
studies that also substantiate these claims.
Private correspondence, Mark Sagoff to Ernest Partridge, March 30, 1997.
Herman Daly makes the point supremely well: "The
matter/energy we return [to the environment] is not the same as the
matter/energy we take in. If it were, we could simply use it again and again
in a closed circular flow. Common observation tells us, however, and the
entropy law confirms, that waste matter/energy is qualitatively different
from raw materials. We irrevocably use up not only the value we add to
matter, but also the value that was added by nature before we imported it
into the economic sub-system, and that was necessary for it to be considered
a resource in the first place. (Daly, 1975, 6).
Accordingly, the loss of "present value" through
time ("the discount rate") is the mathematical reciprocal of the
added value required to motivate saving ("the interest
rate"). The equation for the discount rate is as follows: Present Value = FV/(1
+ i)t – where "FV" = Future Value; i = annual
interest rate; and t = time in years. Accordingly, the "present
value" of $100 in fourteen years ("future value"), at an
interest rate of 5% is $50.50. The present value of $1 in fifty years at a
10% discount (interest rate) is, according to the formula, less than a penny
(.85 cents). For a more detailed examination of "the discounted
future" and its moral and environmental implications, see my
Search of Sustainable Values" (Partridge, 2001).
For two recent and influential works that take
"natural capital" very seriously and which adopt an appropriately
long-grange approach to economic policy, see Gretchen Daily, Nature's
Services (1997) and Hawkin, Lovins and Lovins , Natural Capitalism
(1999). In the flyleaf to the latter, we find: "Traditional
capitalism ... has always neglected to assign monetary value to its largest
stock of capital -- namely, the natural resources and ecosystem services
that make possible all economic activity, and all life. Natural
capitalism, in contrast, takes a proper accounting of these costs."
For a careful argument against "using money to signal resource
scarcity or natural capital depletion," see Rees and Wackernagel,
For instance, Simon's cornucopism is believed to deserve a hearing by such
prestigious publications as Science, which published
"Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News,
(1980, and also the Bulletin of the
Atomic Scientists "Bright Global Future," (1984), and New Scientist "Disappearing Species,
Deforestation and Data," (1986). And
his influential book, The Ultimate Resource, was considered
significant enough to be published by Princeton University Press (1981).
This is not to say that these esteemed publications erred in choosing to
publish Simon's papers. These papers are important for the significant
policies that they support and for the display of a fallacies assembled in
support of what, to many, appear to be plausible conclusions. Equally
valuable as these papers were the abundant criticisms that were to follow in
the "Letters" section of these publications.
Philosopher Jan Narveson fully concurs: "Sustainability has become the buzz-word, the implication being that life as
we currently know it and enjoy it is not sustainable.... Should we be
impressed by that? ... [T]he answer is no. Future generations will consist,
after all, of rational animals, resourceful people like our ancestors and (I
hope!) ourselves. They will be able to cope. The human species has made a
decent or better than decent life for itself in an incredible variety of
"ecologies" ... It is astonishing how contemporary humans can
overlook the resourcefulness of their fellows in all of this recent cant
about ecology.... There is ... no resource problem of consequence for the
globe." (Narveson, 1993, 24).
As an example of a non-sequitur, consider Simon's dismissal of
governmental concern about soil erosion, which he charges is a
"fraud." On the contrary, he says (perhaps correctly) that soil
loss has decreased by all of 6% (from 5.1 tons/acre to 4.8 tons/acre). But
it does not follow from this that it is of no concern. Quite the contrary,
he cites and does not contest Al Gore's observation that "eight acres
of prime topsoil floats past Memphis every hour" and that half of the
topsoil of Iowa has been lost to erosion. So the question he should ask, and
doesn't, is whether this allegedly "reduced" loss still
constitutes a problem. If so, then what is the "fraud?" (Myers and
Simon, 1994, p. 53). (Analogously, the FBI reports a 15% drop in murder
rates last year. According to Prof. Simon's logic, it then follows that
murder is no longer a problem in the US).
Herein is the trap that caught no less of a bio-scientist than Paul
Ehrlich, who, in 1980, carelessly consented to "wager" Simon that
pending shortages in five designated metals would cause a rise in their
prices during the next decade. Simon won that wager. Ehrlich's mistake was
to consent to "play the game" according to the rules of Simon's
discipline of economics. Recently, Ehrlich and his colleague, Stephen
Schneider, challenged Simon to a new wager, this time utilizing indexes
derived from atmospheric and soil science, and also involving supplies of
rice, wheat and firewood, and additional factors such as AIDS mortality,
ocean fisheries, male sperm counts and species extinctions. Simon refused
the offer, on the grounds that these indicators, based upon the biological
and physical conditions, "have only indirect effects on people."
Charles Petit, "Two Stanford Scholars Take on Rosy Economist,"
San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 1995, p. A-15. The final quotation is
from Petit, not Simon.
Myers & Simon, op. cit., 18-9. Simon is referring here to
acid rain and ozone depletion as well as the greenhouse effect. However, our
focus of concern here is on global warming. About the ozone layer, Simon
reports that "there has been no increase in skin cancers from
ozone." (Ibid.) I doubt that he would be able to convince the Australians of
this. A computer search (in "Google") of
"Australia" and "skin cancer" and
"ultraviolet" (Boolean sum) yielded 5370 hits. Note the following
from the National Cancer Institute, a U. S. government agency:
"Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer...
Worldwide, the highest rates of skin cancer are found in South Africa and
Australia, areas that receive the highest amounts of ultraviolet
radiation." (NIH, 1998. See also, D. Leffell and D. Brash,
"Sunlight and Skin Cancer" in the September, 1996 issue of Scientific
Briefly, this is how the "thermohaline conveyer
works. Tropical warm water in the Gulf Stream evaporates at the surface,
increasing the salinity and thus the weight (specific gravity) of the water,
whereupon this heavier water sinks to the ocean bottom and travels south --
contrary to the Gulf Stream at the surface. If the surface water is less
saline (due to ice-cap melting), it will not sink and the conveyer will cease
-- as it has in the past, causing ice-ages in Europe. Bogi Hansen, Svein
Østerhus, Detlef Quadfasel, and William Turrell, "Already
the Day After Tomorrow?," Science 13 August 2004 305: 953-954.
Additional articles in Science on the thermohaline conveyer
Regarding forest ecosystems: Working Group II of IPCC (1995) concludes that with
approximately 5E C. warming, "midlatitude
climate zones ... would shift northward by a hefty 550 kilometers over the
next century. At that rate, some species of trees might not be able to keep
up and might simply die out. In eastern North America, the panel says, a
high-end warming would wipe out much of the eastern hardwood forest, opening
the way for grassland and scrubland." (Quoting Kerr, 1995, 731).
As an example, consider the 1996 NBC Television program on "The
Mysterious Origins of Man," which has attracted the ire of Science
magazine and the AAAS. In this strange compendium of kookery, we were told
that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, that the sphinx was built 25,000 years
ago, and that the site of Atlantis is now under a mile of Antarctic Ice. At
the close, the "host," actor Charlton Heston, urged us to
"keep an open mind," and reminded us that "the facts speak
"The conspiracy of establishment science" is a recurrent theme
amongst creationists, UFO-logists, and other pseudo-scientific groups. The
charge of "establishment conspiracy" was particularly prominent in
the NBC-TV program, "The Mysterious Origins of Man," cited in the
The title is "borrowed" from Kenneth Boulding,
of the Twentieth Century, 1965, Ch. VII. I can think of no better way
to describe the significance of the concept of entropy to
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1993, 78) Herman Daly and Kenneth Boulding are
among the few economists to take entropy seriously.
I have long-since forgotten just where I read this. However, I am quite
(though not totally) certain, that the source of this example is Isaac
Thermodynamics provides the "creationists" with one of their
favorite arguments against the theory of Evolution. According to the
principle of entropy, they claim, it is impossible for complex life forms to
"evolve" from simpler forms. They conveniently ignore the further
stipulation that this rule applies to "closed systems." The
Earth's biosphere, however, is not a closed system. Evolution is
"powered" by solar energy. And when that energy flux is shut off
by comet or asteroid impacts (most recently, 60 million years ago), the
global ecosystem is severely "set back" to a simpler and more
probable state. Recovery from these "extinction spasms" is
accomplished through the availability of "improbably" complex
information (negentropy) stored in the genes of the surviving organisms.
The terms "pumps" and "eddies" are, of course,
metaphors, intended to illustrate the localized "reversal" of
surrounding universal processes. For example, a hand pump draws water
"up" contrary the universal downward pull of gravity. And an eddy
is a localized current that flows upstream alongside the primary downstream
flow of a river's current. Both pumps and eddies function only through the
importation of external energy.
The contrast between the economists' and the physicists treatment of
"heat" is instructive. In the taxonomy of classical economics,
heat is a subset of "energy," which in turn is a subset of the
category of "economic resources;" i.e., "heat "is just
one of many economic "goods." To the physicist studying the
potentiality of all physical activity, heat is virtually everything. All
work proceeds from heat differential ("free energy"), and the end
product of all useful activity is useless or "bound" heat. In
other words, according to the second law of thermodynamics, without heat
differential, nothing happens.
While I would prefer the politically correct "economic person,"
the term "man" is used here to reflect an historically established
gender preference: "economic man" (homo economicus).
If the physicist uses "ideal types" to advantage, then why not
the economist? Because the difference between the disciplines is crucial: In
physics, these "ideal types" are derived, "one at a
time," from carefully conducted experiments and measurements, and they
are asymptotic extrapolations from "near perfect" laboratory
conditions -- "end points" of precisely measured empirical
functions. And finally, in physics, unlike economics, these "ideal
types, when employed in the "hypothetical-deductive" methodology
of physical science, yield falsifiable predictions and thence experimental
None of this is true of the economists'
"ideal types." They are not extrapolated to zero, they are not the
single controlled variables of experiments, but rather are "bundled
together" in theoretical constructs. Furthermore, they
"posit" as irrelevant to their theory, conditions which are in
fact inalienable to human motives and economic activity: such things as
transaction costs, externalities, collusion, restricted access, imperfect
information, distributive injustice, self-transcending motivation and
For a more developed critique of libertarianism, see my
"Environmental Justice and Shared Fate...,"
Review, Winter/Spring, 1996, 2:2. pp. 138-147, and my
"With Liberty for Some."
in Michael Zimmerman et al, eds., Environmental Philosophy,
3rd ed. ed. (Prentice Hall, 2004). My dissatisfactions with neo-classical economic theory, and
its application to public policy, may be found in my papers, "In
Search of Sustainable Values," (2001) the International Journal of Sustainable
Development, and my unpublished "Remedial
Economics for Regressives." All
these papers available at this website. My most comprehensive critique of
libertarianism and neo-classical economic theory, incorporating most
of the above papers, may be found in my book-in-progress,
Conscience of a Progressive,
For a further critique of the neo-classical economic
approach to public policy, see my "With
Liberty for Some" (Partridge, 2000a) and "In
Search of Sustainable Values" Partridge, 2001). Also,
Mark Sagoff, The Economy of the Earth. (1988)
But let this much suffice: First of all, human beings are in fact
inalienably social animals, and not the egoistic autonomous agents
of the classical economic paradigm. Well ordered societies can only exist
and endure if the members thereof have concerns which transcend their
personal "utility maximization." (I have developed this notion at
length in my paper, "Why Care About the Future?," in Responsibilities
to Future Generations, ed. Partridge, Buffalo, Prometheus Books, 1981.
See also, Mark Sagoff, The Economy of the Earth, Cambridge
University Press, 1988, Chs. 2 & 3). Furthermore, "perfect free
market transactions," far from being exemplars of "rational
decision-making," often have little to do with "rationality."
We do not regard "willingness to pay" as relevant in the criminal
or civil justice systems. Nor is this relevant in national defense or in
education. Scientific and scholarly papers are not evaluated by pricing at
the margin, nor are mathematical proofs or even economic theories. And moral
issues are not properly settled by the "free market," otherwise
we would still condone slavery. Clearly, the life of homo economicus
is neither healthy, nor moral, nor even, in the final analysis, "rational.".
(Partridge, 2000, 2001). For my "liberal" alternative to libertarian
moral theory, see Chapters 12-15 of my book-in-progress,
Conscience of a Progressive,
This qualification, "never fully realized," is
crucial. Thus I mention a "tendency" toward stability, while
deliberately avoiding more traditional terms "balance of nature"
and "equilibrium." These terms have been largely discarded by
contemporary ecologists. My position occupies a middle ground between the
"balance of nature" view and the more radical "disequilibrium"
theories that are currently fashionable. See my "Reconstructing
Ecology" (2000b), and "Nature
for Better or Worse" (Section 8), this website.
The "New Ecologists" correctly
point out that "population limits" vary according to constantly
changing ecological conditions. Also, populations can fluctuate dramatically
within an ecosystem: the population variations between Canadian Lynx
(predator) and Hare (prey) is a classical example. However, that there are
ultimate limits to the growth of a species population in a region seems
beyond dispute. A population can not exceed the food supply or a
"limiting factor" nutrient ("Liebig’s Law").
As for recycling, there is a popular slogan among environmentalists that
"in nature, there is no such thing as garbage," meaning that the
"waste" of one life form is a resource to another. It is a good
point, almost completely true. In fact, some nutrients are lost to
"geological deposit" (e.g., by sinking to ocean depths), while
others are released from geological "stores" (e.g., through
erosion and volcanic activity). Still, the "economy" of nature
found in the numerous "nutrient cycles" stands in noteworthy
contrast to the "throughput" (from raw material to commodity to
garbage and pollution) that is found in industrial societies.
Originally, "for a successful technology, reality must take
precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." This
remark appeared at the close of Feynman's dissent from the report of the
Congressional Select Committee investigating the Challenger Shuttle
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Washington, D. C.: Island Press.
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R. V. O'Neill, J. Paruelo, R.G.Raskin, P. Sutton, and M. vandenBelt (1997b), "The Value
of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital," Nature, 387:253-260.
Daily, Gretchen C. (ed.), (1997), Nature's Services,
Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Daly, H. (1997): Consumption and the Environment,
Report from the Institute for Philosophy
and Public Policy, 15:4, Fall, 1975.
Ehrlich, P., G. Daily, S. Daily, N. Myers, J. Salzman (1997): No Middle Way on the
Environment, Atlantic Monthly, December, 1997.
Ehrlich, P, A. Ehrlich and J. Holdren (1993): Availability, Entropy and the Laws of
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