The Brain and the Birth Canal

We all know someone who rants totally depressingly about sustainability. Who keeps on predicting Neo-Luddite regression to serfs-eating-porridge medieval conditions because of anthropogenic destruction of the planet. A grim-faced, Old Testament prophet kind of guy whose always repeating this mantra about limits to growth and ecological doom.

Well, he might have just a glimmer of a hopeful smile on his face in the future.

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What’s in the box ?

Paul Romer is an economist (probable future Nobel laureate) who leads a new wave of economists predicting a weightless economy. He says you can put an infinity of ideas in the box. In fact, using the power of ideas to rearrange matter, there is no limit to development and growth inside the box.

Robert Costanza is an ecologist (and almost certainly a future Nobel laureate).. He is the co-founder of both Ecological Economics and Ecosystem Health . His work with an extensive network of the best and brightest economists, ecologists and other related systems scientists measures and defines the global (and particular, local) context for the box.

Mr. Costanza’s prodigious volume of scholarship is an attempt to recognize and measure Nature’s services, the environment that the human economy is embedded within. His team recently published a first attempt to quantify Nature’s services to the human economy in the 15 May 97 issue of NATURE. .

Mr. Costanza and his co-workers in ecological economics and ecosystem health are endeavoring to quantify, understand and educate about ecosystems, the ecosphere, and about the dangers and precautionary constraints that must regulate the presently expanding box of the human economy.

Why? Well, our friend the grim-faced prophet is just more aware then your average consumer of the potential catastrophe of an ever expanding economy. He’s scared sick conscious because he’s aware that humanity has just maybe survived at least two scary human accidental suicide scenarios.

Nuclear winter, a catastrophic, vegetation annihilating, climate change that could have mimicked the dinosaur destroying asteroid collision 65 million years ago, was as close as full scale nuclear war. And the unrecognized side-effect of one small group of the one hundred thousand synthetic chemicals created in this century - CFCs - could have lead to the complete removal of the protective ozone layer. The slow accumulation of ozone depleting CFCs could have resulted in Peter Jennings quietly telling us to kiss our collective asses goodbye.

Ray, (lets call him Ray for ray of hope), is an environmentalist. He has become a fervent opponent of growth because he has been a witness to ecosystem degradation caused by the greenfield expansion of the economy everywhere he’s lived. Ray also reads and thinks, (poor fool); he has learned to think globally and to use extended time frames.

Pandora’s box has become his favorite metaphor and he is the life of the party when he has a few beers and gets on a roll about what globalization and economic expansion mean for life on this planet.

Global warming with its potential for human suffering and dislocation, and the death by a thousand cuts currently being inflicted upon ecosystems by human economic development are just two of the more insidious side effects of a greenfield economy increasing at exponential speed.

Mr. Romer and his fellow weightless growth economists are a lot calmer and more reasonable about economic growth. After all scientific knowledge at the end of the 20th century, the cosmology based upon evolution, relativity and non-equilibrium thermodynamics within post-Hubble time frames, is predicated upon ever increasing growth and complexity.

You can’t put a rock on Johnny’s head and keep him six for ever and ever. There’s always been end of the world prophets, especially in years with "magic’ numbers, but the odds against Armageddon today have never been better.

Much more to the point, for the first time the information economy is now the largest component of the developed world’s economy. Services, not the manufacture of goods, is the future of the global economy.

And this is precisely the reason Mr. Costanza and his co-workers are among the most important people on the planet.

Take another look at the box in the circle. It’s the astronaut economy bottom-half of a Goodland-Daly-Serify graph explaining Kenneth Boulding’s famous prediction of the emerging astronaut economy. (The top, cowboy economy, half of the graph is the same blue Earth with a much smaller box representing the size of the human economy with lots of room to smoke, spit, shoot or subdivide.)

The box reaching the limits of the blue circle represents an expanding economy reaching not material limits to growth (we can think up substitutes for any materials we temporarily run short of) but limits to nature’s ability to withstand anthropogenic change and provide services needed for human survival.. Global warming, species extinction and ozone depletion are examples of unwanted side-effects of human economies overloading natural sinks as populations and their ecological footprints grow exponentially.

As David Korten has pointed out, in each of the past four decades the global economy has grown by the equivalent of all economic growth from the stone age to 1950. How much of this growth is ‘within the box’ and how much is at the expense of nature’s economy and unsustainable should be a key question asked by those in a position to manage human economies.

A study by Peter Vitousek and co-workers found that 40% of the net primary production of photosynthesis on Earth is already co-opted by the human economy. The percentage of net primary production which can be sustainably used by the human economy without endangering the health and function of global ecosystems is another important and extremely complex question that so far hasn’t been even adequately formulated or even deemed important by those in a position to manage human economies.

There would not be a human economy box without agriculture, but what is the limit to human reordering of nature for human use? Shouldn’t managers of the human economy, at all scales from local to global, have access to a sustainability calculus that would delineate the edges of the box in order to safeguard access to Eden for generations of the future?

Ecological economics and ecosystem health are integrative sciences that seek to safety proof human society by developing knowledge and constraints so that there is still a healthy planetary environment for the box (where inside a vast universe of potential room to grow opens up never ending options for the human quest).

There is a very human metaphor for the Romer-Costanza problem: enfolded gray matter in its protective box, the human skull, must first of all make the dangerous passage through the birth canal in order to reach the world where the infinite possibilities of life are possible. Neotony, the suspended development of maturity, developed in evolution over millions of years, and the physiological and social evolutions that co-evolved to make neotony possible, helps make the dangerous passage almost foolproof.

But too big, too fast could mean death for Mum and no future of infinite possibility for human kind.

Yale University’s John Gordon, in providing an overview of ecosystem management, the management of human action in order to protect the health and function of ecosystems, gets the priorities right when he forecasts:

"EM technology will probably emerge as more important to people than either the technology of the communications revolution or biotechnology because of its potential usefulness in guaranteeing a livable environment."

Romer’s vision of infinitely expanding opportunity is only possible if Costanza succeeds in safety proofing our place on this fragile small blue planet first.

Unfortunately the economist is part of an annual $18 trillions US wave of expansion while the ecologist must defend every wetland, every forest, every global ecosystem in the path of greenfield expansion. And he must defend these infinitely important, irreplaceable ecosystems in the economic arena where money now is the only thing that matters.

And if standing in the way of progress in delineating the boundaries of the box weren’t enough, the ecologist must question a human centered world view developed over the ten millennia of agriculture redesign of the world for human use.

Our frazzled friend expects the world to wake up, but the smart money’s on limitless greenfield expansion. Perhaps God, in Her wisdom, is developing the possibility of a Cesarean.

Or do we get serious and recognize the danger of exponential greenfield growth - developing consensus on a regulatory framework to constrain growth to inside the box? or even into a smaller box if ecosphere health and function is deemed still at risk at the present level of demand upon nature’s services?

To protect our freedom to grow. To safety proof civilization so that people don’t have to play sad, slow dark-ages kind of games in the future.

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