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Competitiveness of Nations

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Elemental Economics

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Dr. Harry Hillman Chartrand, PhD

Cultural Economist & Publisher

Compiler Press


215 Lake Crescent

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Curriculum Vitae


Launched  1998



                              ENVIRONMENTAL & NATURAL RESOURCE ECONOMICS 271                     

4.0 Ecological Economics

4.0 Ecological Economics

4.0 Introduction

Economics & Biology thru Time

Stuart Kauffman's Persistently Innovative Econosphere

i - Autonomous Agent

ii - Co-Evolution

iii - Adjacent Possible

iv - Comparative Advantage

v - Division & Specialization of Labour

vi - Natural Selection

4.1 Population

i - Urbanization

ii - Gender, Geography, Religion & Boys will be Boys

iii - Biodiversity

4.2 Climate Change: Contrasting Sciences

i - Ozone Depletion

ii - Global Warming

4.3 Sustainability, Competitiveness & Fitness

4.4 Links

4.0 Introduction

Until now we have worked with the Standard Model of Market Economics with its iconic 'X' marking the spot where willingness to pay by consumers equals the willingness to provide by producers.  If all costs and benefits are internalized in market price all is well.  If not then externalities exist the benefits and costs of which are not captured by market price.  Such a market failure then justifies governmental action to assure a socially optimum outcome maximizing net social benefits through law - including property rights, rules and regulations and/or fiscal policy - tax and spend.   Choice is made at the 'margin', e.g., where the additional or marginal cost of reducing pollution by one unit is exactly equal to the additional or marginal social benefit of doing so.  This model resulted from the Marginalist Revolution of the 1870s that successfully married Newtonian calculus of motion and Bentham's calculus of human happiness.   It displaced the Classical School of economics primarily concerned with distribution of national wealth among classes of peoples - landlords, capitalists, workers, etc. - with a focus on the allocative efficiency of the atomized consumer and producer.  Its origins lay in mechanics and the laws of motion as understood in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. 

Economics & Biology thru Time

As we have seen the first modern school of economics was in fact the French Physiocrats of the late 18th century.  It was they who gave us the terms: economist, laissez faire and laissez passer.   Their economic metaphor was not mechanics but biology, specifically farming.   With the beheading of the Physiocrats by Madame Gullotine during the French Revolution the discipline shifted to the beat of mechanical efficiencies in manufacturing cum Adam Smith including the division and specialization of labour.   The emergence of a mathematical and geometric hedonic (pleasure/pain) economics with the Marginalist Revolution spurred a countermovement in the United States where the biological metaphor took root.   In the first instance, Agricultural Economics broke off from the mainstream in the 1880s.  In the second instance the work of Richard Theodore Ely (1854–1943), first president of the American Economic Association, led to a distinct school of American Institutionalism which dominated American economics until the 1950s.

The leaders of the school which did not share a common model included John R. Commons whose work highlights the evolutionary nature of Law especially property law and how economic behaviour shifts and changes in response to legal changes (see his 1921 Legal Foundations of Capitalism).   Thorstein Veblen, on the other hand, focused on the relationship between culture and economics (see his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class) as well as the evolutionary nature of economics which recently led to the formation of a distinct sub-discipline called Evolutionary Economics.  Wesley C. Mitchell was the third pillar of the school focusing on collection and analysis of real world statistics founding in 1921 the National Bureau of Economic Research.  His efforts fed creation of the System of National Income Accounting in 1945.  The biological metaphor of American Institutionalism was, however, swept away during the Red Scare of the 1950s.  The School's support for collective action and especially unions was viewed as suspicious, if not Communist then at least 'fellow travelers'.   This also marked the emerging dominance of mathematical economics which was relatively safe from ideological contamination by Marxists. 

In this regard, the philosophy of science itself was re-directed in this period through the ideological efforts of James Conant, President of Harvard University.  His effort came to fruition with his protégé’s most influential work, Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structures of Scientific Revolutions.  Kuhn argues, in effect, that good paradigms like good fences make good neighbours so stick to your field of research and leave politics and other such things alone (Fuller 1992).    According to Kuhn specialization in the natural sciences leads to the progressive incommensurability of knowledge between scientific fields in which an Invisible College exists of perhaps 40 or 50 people in the entire world who can understand your work.  This conclusion has significant implications for interdisciplinary studies such as ecology.

With Ecological Economics another attempt is afoot to root economics once again in biology rather than mechanics.  Why should the outcome be different this time?  Arguably because the philosopher Immanuel Kant has finally been proved wrong.  Kant whose work in ecology was raised in 0. I ntroduction to this course argued that: There would never be a Newton of a blade of grass!  By this he meant that the sheer complexity of living things and ecologies would defy mathematical treatment.   Biology as a science, was in fact, until the Genomics Revolution, essentially descriptive and imprecise about the actual processes of life.  Genomics began some fifty years ago with the discovery by Watson and Cricks of the DNA double helix.  Their discovery that it could split into complementary strands established the physical basis for the encoding and transmission of genetic information within an individual organism and between generations.  In this regard, the New York Times on June 13, 1953 ran an article entitled “Clue to Chemistry of Heredity is Found” calling DNA “a substance as important to biologists as uranium is to nuclear physicists.” (Overbye 2003).  Today molecular biology finds expression in what is now called 'bioinformatics', a new school of both biology but also programming based on 4 rather than 2 bits of information.   One of the leaders in the field is Stuart Kauffman currently at the University of Calgary who has also attempted to root economics in biology. 

The relationship actually works both ways .   Thus Kauffman, in his eulogy of the growing diversity and complexity of life, draws on a root planted by Adam Smith (1723-1790) with his observation that the division and specialization of labour is limited by the extent of the market.  With respect to natural selection, Darwin himself recognized a debt to economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) and his observation that the food supply grows arithmetically while human population grows exponentially.  Furthermore, as we will see, Kauffman’s explanation of mutualism or co-evolution in molecular biology is based on the advantages of trade which conceptually links to yet another of Smith’s immediate successors, David Ricardo (1772-1823.  And Kauffman draws a parallel between survival of the fittest in biology and business failure in economics where the ‘survivor principle’ was coined by 1982 Nobel Prize winning economist George Stigler. The economic principle, however, lacks a determinant mechanism of selection. When asked which firms are successful, Stigler answers those that survive, no matter why.  

Ecological economics views the human economy as part of the biosphere itself - not separate and distinct.  Humanity following its Nature is simply part of the terrestrial biosphere and like other species is enframing and enabling Nature to serve its purpose.   The difference is that humanity is the only  species that grows its own food.  By doing so it generates a surplus that fosters increasing division and specialization of labour among its members at a rate unmatched in Nature and has achieved global dominance.  It is literally the highest link in the food chain.  Before examining some of Kauffman's parallels between biology and economics it is important to note some weaknesses of ecological economics as an emerging sub-discipline.

First, it is new and it is awfully complex mathematically at its bleeding edge.  There is no simple X marks the spot graphic that captures its complexity at a glance.  The theoretical implications of the Genomics Revolution for economics are only now being adduced. Put another way, it is only recently that new biological metaphors capable of supporting an ecological economics have emerged.  Kauffman’s intellectual affinity to economics as well as his debt and contribution to it is apparent throughout his work (1995, 2000). In this regard, he recommends a series of very sophisticated mathematical techniques for application in economics. Their sophistication is such that I am not qualified to judge their internal workings or technical merits.  I have, as always, strong epistemic reservations about low grade social scientific data fueling ever more sophisticated mathematical models, i.e., garbage in garbage out. Such low quality evidence should not be confused with that generated, without human mediation, in the natural & engineering sciences including biology.

The mathematical complexity of ecological 'hard science' is daunting enough.  One example, phenomenon exhibit widely varying growth rates like so many rounds of compound interest moving in different directions. Complex computer simulations with key assumption holding at least some factors constant are run against available data from widely different sources of varying quality - geographic, disciplinarian.  This is at least as complex as the financial securitization done by physicists and mathematicians hired by the financial community leading directly to the Great Recession of 2008.  Black swans are swimming out there but the false concreteness of numbers seems sound and certain.  In fact we never have enough knowledge or understanding let alone wisdom to make decisions in business and life but rather rely ultimately on 'informed' intuition.


Stuart Kauffman’s Persistently Innovative Econosphere

Nonetheless, a number of Kauffman’s metaphors have, I believe significance for mainstream economics and any future ecological economics.  I will examine four of them: the autonomous agent, co-evolution, the adjacent possible and comparative advantage. I will briefly consider two other ideologically commensurate concepts shared by biology and economics – division & specialization of labour and natural selection.

i - Autonomous Agents

Kauffman’s central concept is the autonomous agent (2000, 49-79). This is a Kantian-like entity with natural purpose acting on its own behalf in an environment and able to reproduce itself through “thermodynamic work cycles” (2000, 49).  For Kauffman, such work cycles involve, in Heideggerian fashion, the enframed linkage of endergonic (energy requiring) and exergonic (energy releasing) chemical reactions whereby:

the coherent organization of … constraints on the release of energy … constitutes the work by which agents build further constraints on the release of energy that in due course literally build a second copy of the agent itself…” (2000, 72)

Kauffman thus descends Kant from the cellular to the molecular level where he finds autocatalytic sets of “self-reproducing molecular systems” (Kauffman 2000, 130).  In effect, he finds the origin of life in chemistry.  He argues that life is the inevitable outcome of some threshold concentration of organic chemicals widely dispersed throughout astronomical space.  While this may be so, like Kant asserting there would never be a Newton for a blade of grass, Kaufman concludes that while linking exergonic and endergonic reactions is essential to definition of an autonomous agent, life itself is a “mysterious concatenation of matter, energy, information, and something more …” (2000, 47).

In the biosphere there is also a hierarchy of autonomous agents.  Kauffman points to the evolutionary transition from single-cell organisms without nuclei, prokaryotes, to eukaryotes, i.e., single-cell organisms with a nucleus plus mitochondria in animals or plastids in plants using chlorophyll. He concludes that:

eukaryotic cells are symbionts of two or more earlier separate autonomous agents that contributed the mitochondria, the plastids, and perhaps the nuclear structure of eukaryotes into a single novel reproducing entity, the eukaryotic cell. (Kauffman 2000, 120)

Life, of course, has burgeoned far beyond single-celled creatures. Kauffman notes there are some 265 different cell types in the human body (2000, 182). Each is an autonomous agent. Each, however, collectively combines to form a higher order agent – an organ - that, in turn, forms a functioning part of a yet higher order agent – the individual human being. Kauffman takes this hierarchy up from the geosphere of chemistry to the biosphere to the noösphere and beyond to the universe itself. The process I characterize as the increasing diversity and complexity of autocatalytic systems pursuing Kantian natural purpose. This process is also active in what Kauffman calls the econosphere where there are similarly higher and lower order autonomous agents like the individual and the firm.  He argues that humanity exhibits the same basic pattern of behaviour as all life - making a living:

The parallels are at least tantalizing, and probably more than that. While the mechanisms of heritable variation differ and the selection criteria differ, organisms in the biosphere and firms and individuals in the econosphere are busy trying to make a living and explore new ways of making a living. (2000, 216)

ii - Co-evolution

The mechanism driving increasing diversity and complexity is co-evolution defined as the mutual evolutionary influence of two species (molecular, organic or economic) that become dependent on each other.  Each exerts selective pressures on the other, thereby affecting each others’ evolution. This often involves morphological co-construction, e.g., the shape of an orchid flower matching the bill of the hummingbird. Co-evolution and co-construction apply in both symbiotic and predator/prey relationships between autonomous agents.

Kauffman argues that the primary mechanism of molecular evolution is not the template model of sequentially constructing DNA step-by-step up the ladder. Rather it is through coconstruction of its segments by sets of mutually dependent autocatalytic molecules that then integrate the parts into a new coherent living whole. This catches the Kantian sense that “each part is reciprocally means and end to every other. This involves a mutual dependence and simultaneity that is difficult to reconcile with ordinary causality” (Grene & Depew 2004, 94).

Given an ever changing fitness landscape, autonomous agents constantly adapt, adjust and evolve or go extinct, e.g., out of business, sometimes in avalanches of change. They do so by experimenting with mutations called preadaptations or exaptations which:

… in an appropriate environment [are] a causal consequence of a part of an organism that had not been of selective significance [but] might come to be of selective significance and hence be selected. Thereupon, that newly important causal consequence would be a new function available to the organism.” (Kauffman 2000, 130)

Arguably, in a knowledge-based economy, research & development (R&D) plays a commensurable role. It should be noted, however, that the concept of the self-organizing universe based on coevolution was first (to my knowledge) put forward by Eric Jantsch in Design for Evolution (1975) and then The Self-Organizing Universe (1980).

There are at least two other important characteristic of life on a fitness landscape. First, having reached a peak of fitness if the rate of mutation, change or experimentation becomes too rapid, i.e., crosses some threshold, then “the population ‘melts’ off the fitness peak and wanders away across the fitness landscape” (2000, 155). This is arguably the case with the ‘de-industrialization’ of traditional First World economies. Second, among the many border or transition states identified by Kauffman as characteristic of life one of the most intriguing is that life exists on the quantum/classic frontier.

… it is probably of more than passing interest that real living entities, cells, do straddle the classical and quantum boundary. One photon hitting a visual pigment molecule can beget a neural response. In short, real living systems straddle the quantum classical boundary. If there is a tendency of coevolving autonomous agents to increase the diversity of alternative events that can occur, then living entities must eventually hit the Heisenberg uncertainty limit and abide at least partially in the quantum realm. (2000, 149)

iii - Adjacent Possible

But from where do preadaptations and exaptations come? According to Kauffman, using chemical reaction charts as his model, they come from the ‘adjacent possible’ consisting “of all those molecular species that are not members of the actual, but are one reaction step away from the actual” (2000, 142). Extended to the noösphere, it is those thoughts and ideas which are candidates for application at the next level of ideological evolution. Economic and biological systems expand or explore the adjacent possible as quickly as possible subject to timely selection of the fit and unfit, e.g., going out of business.  If selection takes too long, then fitness may decline or simply melt away. Arguably, this explains ‘de-industrialization’ of some First World Nation-States. They maintained existing plant and equipment, e.g., in steel production, until fully depreciated through voluntary (and sometimes involuntary) quotas on imports from developing Asian producers who were investing in the best new technologies emerging from the adjacent possible. The fitness of the West fell, at least in terms of the traditional manufacturing-based economy.

A characteristic of the chemical adjacent possible is that its size (the number of possibilities) increases exponentially faster than the increase in the diversity, complexity and number of autonomous agents.  For example, a doubling in diversity may result in a fourfold or greater increase in the size of the adjacent possible, i.e., the number of new possible forms just one step away from becoming actual.  This, Kauffman argues, is one reason for the proliferation and diversification of life. The same may be said for knowledge itself. From this conclusion he argues there may be a fourth law of thermodynamics involving:

a tendency for self-constructing biospheres [and econospheres] to enlarge their workspace, the dimensionality of their adjacent possible, perhaps as fast, on average, as is possible ... (Kauffman 2000, 244)

This means an exponential increase in the ways and means by which autonomous agents make a living is the inevitable outcome of increased diversity and complexity. The transition from an agricultural- to a manufacturing-based economy demonstrates such an exponential increase in job opportunities, not just in number but in the kinds of jobs. New niches appear.

Kauffman is, however, critical of contemporary economics for its treatment of compliments and substitutes in what he calls the technological adjacent possible. Quite simply, the Standard Model offers no explanation for the emergence of compliments or substitutes or for the increasing diversity and complexity of new goods and services, e.g., the book versus the DVD. Kauffman uses the classic example of the automobile replacing not just the horse but also the network of goods and services associated with it. He points out the new web of compliments that followed innovation or emergence of the automobile. These included paved roads, garages, gasoline stations, parking lots, car insurance, the drive-in, then the drive-thru, etc. Such ‘Kauffman webs’ are, at least in part, commensurate with Paul David’s “network externalities effects” in economics (David 1990, 356). Kauffman would have us, however, look much deeper into the adjacent possible for compliments and substitutes to enhance economic fitness.

iv - Comparative Advantage

If the production function is the most elegant contribution to thought by economics, i.e., Y = f (K, L, N), then the theory of comparative advantage is one of its most obscure. When challenged by mathematician Stanislaw Ulam to “name me one proposition in all of the social sciences which is both true and non-trivial,” the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson responded with the theory of comparative advantage because:   

That it is logically true need not be argued before a mathematician; that it is not trivial is attested by the thousands of important and intelligent men who have never been able to grasp the doctrine for themselves or to believe it after it was explained to them. (Samuelson 1969)

This obscurity partially results because the theory engages a complex web of economic ideas including absolute advantage, division and specialization of labour, exchange, factor endowments, opportunity cost, production possibility frontiers, relative prices and trade. Furthermore, it would more accurately be called the theory of comparative cost rather than of advantage. And, of course, some of its results appear counter-intuitive.

Semantic obscurity has lead to the theory finding general expression as a numeric example such as that first used by David Ricardo to demonstrate the theory in his 1817 book The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.  In his case, the example concerned wheat and wine production in England and Portugal. In summary, comparative advantage means that mutually beneficial exchange is possible whenever relative production costs differ prior to trade.  One of its counter-intuitive deductions, however, is that if a country enjoys an absolute advantage in the production of all goods and services, i.e., can produce all of them cheaper than anyone else, it is still better off trading with other countries. The theory was used by Ricardo to counter arguments favouring protective tariffs and trade barriers which, intuitively, promise national prosperity.  It continues to serve this free-trade purpose.

The theory of comparative advantage, in effect, separates consumption from production. Without trade, a nation can only consume what it produces. With trade, it is able to consume more than it produces. Put another way, by specializing in what it does best, a nation can afford to buy more of what it does worst.  For Kauffman, and biology in general, the advantages of trade are old news:

Economics has its roots in agency and the emergence of advantages of trade among autonomous agents. The advantages of trade predate the human economy by essentially the entire history of life on this planet. Advantages of trade are found in the metabolic exchange of legume root nodule and fungi, sugar for fixed nitrogen carried in amino acids. Advantages of trade were found among the mixed microbial and algal communities along the littoral of the earth’s oceans four billion years ago. The trading of the econosphere is an outgrowth of the trading of the biosphere. (2000, 211)

To demonstrate the advantages of trade, he uses a biological example that, to my mind at least, is intuitive:

Consider two bacterial species, red and blue. Suppose the red species secretes a red metabolite, at metabolic cost to itself, that aids the replication rate of the blue species. Conversely, suppose the blue species secretes a different blue metabolite, at metabolic cost to itself, that increases the replication rate of the red species. Then the conditions for a mutualism are possible. Roughly stated, if blue helps red more than it costs itself, and vice versa, a mixed community of blue and red bacteria may grow. How will it happen? And is there an optimal “exchange rate” of blue-secreted metabolite to red-secreted metabolite, where that exchange rate is the analogue of price? (2000, 216-17)

How it will happen and at what rate is determined by co-evolution. The benefits of trade lead each to adjust to the other until optimal growth is achieved by both. Without each others help, individually each would be less fit. In such a symbiotic relationship there is also the potentiality for the emergence of a higher order autonomous agent, e.g., prokaryotes coevolving into eukaryotes, or European Nation-States coevolving as the European Union.

v - Division & Specialization of Labour

Kauffman in his eulogy of the growing diversity and complexity of life draws on a root planted by Adam Smith (1723-1790) with his observation that the division and specialization of labour is limited by the extent of the market.

vi- Natural Selection

With respect to natural selection, Darwin himself recognized a debt to economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), one of Smith’s immediate successors, and his observation that the food supply grows arithmetically while human population grows exponentially.  And Kauffman draws a parallel between survival of the fittest in biology and business failure in economics where the ‘survivor principle’ was coined by 1982 Nobel Prize winning economist George Stigler. The economic principle, however, lacks a determinant mechanism of selection.  When asked which firms are successful, Stigler answers those that survive, no matter why. It should also be noted that Kauffman’s explanation of mutualism or co-evolution in molecular biology is based on the advantages of trade which conceptually links to yet another of Smith’s immediate successor, David Ricardo (1772-1823).


4.1 Population, Urbanization & Bio-diversity

It was Thomas Malthus's 1796  An Essay on the Principle of Population that led economics to be become known as 'the dismal science'.   The human food supply grows arithmetically while the human population grows geometrically.  His insight inspired Darwin and has haunted our civilization ever since.  What Malthus held constant, however, was technological change - both instrumental (GMO) and organizational (agribusiness).  With the human planetary population rising to 9 billion by 2050 from 7 today the question of how to feed all these new mouths is no longer a technical one (see 3.2 Agriculture) but rather a political economic one.  It is a question to be framed inclusive of quality of life and our growing environmental footprint as a species.  

We are the only species on the planet that raises its own food.  The resulting surplus allows us to grow our population essentially as we choose.   Over the last four centuries of the Scientific Reveloution population growth has fostered increasing division and specialization of labour among us beginning our species baby steps towards the stars, planets and asteroids.  It has extended our grasp to the genetic elements of Life itself which we are beginning to enframe and enable to serve human purpose.   It has also allowed us to wage devastating wars against each other and against Nature.  War remains the greatest cause of food scarcity during an era global surplus.  We are the last highest link in the food chain.  No other species eats us and survives long.   Our only real enemy is ourselves.  So what is the human condition, environmentally, economically in the second decade of the 21st century?


Globalization of the economy is either cause or effect of massive urbanization of the last century.  This forms another distinct sub-discipline: Urban Economics,  From hunter gathers wandering the land in search of food 10,000 years ago we began to settle in village, towns and then cities around which agriculture produced a surplus.  Farmers could grow and raise much more food than they could eat.  Division and specialization of labour took off and civilization - living in cities - began.   This pattern persisted until about 200 years ago when the factory system emerged with the Industrial Revolution fuelled for the first time not by fluctuating winds and water or the muscles of animals and men but steam.   Labour flowed from the country-side into the cities to man the factories.  An increasingly small population remained on the land to feed the cities.   Roughly speaking in the Canada of 1900 some 60% of the population was rural, today 3% or so. 

Traditionally the City is seen as a machine but increasingly it is viewed as an ecology. This is sometimes called the human-built environment or an arcology marrying ‘architecture’ including urban design and planning to ‘ecology’. The City is thus a living thing. It is planted, grown, cultivated and maintained by its citizens – a word literally meaning ‘those who live in cities’.

The City is thus a web of mutually supportive relationships between physical structures such as buildings, roads, water and power lines and its inhabitants. As the City grows its citizens evolve ever more complex webs of transactions called business, policing, health, education, welfare, recreation and culture. This division & specialization of labour generates the gains from trade that were, and remain, the primary reason for civilization – living in cities. Its different parts, ideally, co-evolve building on each other’s strengths and compensating for weaknesses increasing overall civic competitiveness, fitness and sustainability. Thus the hummingbird’s bill co-evolves with the orchid to perfectly fit its flower.

As noted by Adam Smith long ago, division and specialization of labour is limited by the extent of the market. Thus as the City grows, niches unfold opening up new and different ways of earning a living. Increasing diversity of opportunity combined with tolerance of difference and the willingness of citizens – old and new – to grasp emerging opportunities define the dynamism of a City. The adjacent possible – the realm where possibilities one step away from being realized reside – expands, particularly during spurts of economic growth. Creativity, inventiveness and imagination are required to see them and courage and confidence to grasp them.  

For the first time in human history the majority (3.3 billion) of the human population is now civilized.  The pattern above, however, arguably describes cities in the already urbanized world.  For the rest, however, the situation varies dramatically.  Robert Kaplan, in his 1994 essay and later in a book called The Coming Anarchy, describes the state of slums in Turkey, West Africa, Brazil and elsewhere in the world reporting on the social costs of rapid urbanization in the developing world.  In fact by 2030 some 5 billion will live in cities, the vast majority in the developing world.  Most, however, have moved before municipal infrastructure is in place.  This has led to a self-provision of traditional municipal services by major building complexes and clusters, e.g., San Paulo in Brazil and Bangledor in India.

As noted in 0. Introduction a global society in which there is contiguous urban development separated only by natural barriers – mountains, oceans and deserts - has been called the Ecumenopolis – the World City - by urban planner Constantinius Doxiadis; its global reality is visible in a composite photograph of “The World at Night” published by NASA in the year 2000.  We see a World City whose shimmering lights soar out into the infinite blackness of space.  However, there is no global economics, no generally accepted model for managing the planet.

cluster theory

'urban heat island effect' micro-climates

Gender, Geography, Religion & Boys will be Boys

That there are 7 billion human beings on the planet now and will be 9 billion by 2050 cannot be argued.  As the saying goes: Demography is destiny!  This increase is the single greatest environmental threat facing the planet and its biosphere - nothing fails like success!   No one can morally ask who should die and who should never be born as a solution.  And it is not just numbers and morality that are daunting but also the gender, geographic, religious and age distribution of projected population growth.

The single most effective means of human population control is the empowerment of women.  As your authors suggest educated working women can control their reproductive cycle and represent arguably the best economic investment that can be made in so-called developing countries.  Unfortunately this natural asset is actually shrinking in relative terms just where such an investment has potentially the highest rates of return - environmentally and economically.  Thus in Asia there are conservatively some 160 million missing girls, missing because they were selected out by, among other things, 'industrialized' ultrasound  scanning.    When we consider boys below, the implications of this demographic reality for global peace and security will be exposed.

So population growth will concentrate in the developing or former Third World.  It will increasingly be housed in rapidly growing urban centres; there will, relatively speaking, be fewer and fewer girls and women.   Why?  Excepting Leninist China the primary force is religion.    In all mainstream religions - Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto - there is either recent history or continuing practice of legal misogyny and sexual apartheid.  They also espouse: Go forth and multiply in God's name.  In Canada it was not until 1928 that a woman was recognized as a Person with the legal right to vote.  In law she was until then the 'chattel' or moveable property of a male - husband, father, brother, whatever.  This was also the tradition in ancient Greece and Rome as well. 

The legal, social and economic equality of women attained in the last quarter of the 20th century is arguably one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization.  It is not shared, however, around the world in spite of U.N. declarations, treaties and conventions.  Arguably the 9/11 attack was motivated by fear and/or hatred of the provocative female freedom enjoyed in the secular West.  The Taliban too fear female liberation.  In west Africa, and elsewhere especially in the Islamic world, fear of female sexuality, as opposed to fertility, leads to so-called 'female circumcision'.

If, however, there are at least 160 million missing girls in Asia then by deduction there 160 million extra boys.  In China where the one child policy resulted in a surplus of boys the problem of the little emperors has arisen.  When before the typical family had three boys and three girls the future of the family especially the elderly lay with the success of at least one child, generally but not always a boy.  Afterwards the family's future rested on one little head on whom all blessing are bestowed.  Needless to say swelled heads can result.  The more important question is when these boys reach manhood where will they find little women?   Hormones blazing such young men traditionally went to war or became engaged in criminal gang activity.  Arguably it will be where gender bias against women is greatest that future wars with their devastating effects on the environment will be fought and where street gang cultures will flourish best. Where the gender balance is more equitable - demographically, legally, politically, socially - there will tend to be peace, order and good government. 

It should be noted, however, that in the West the highest birth rates are among religious fundamentalists - Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Islamic - with traditional views about the status of women in human society.   Secularists are not demographically replacing themselves   Is demography destiny?  


On the one hand increased urbanization frees up habitat - unless converted to agriculture or other uses.  It also reduces the demand for 'bush meat' and thereby inhibits reduction of biodiversity.  On the other hand, urban concentration generally means higher wealth and a growing appetite for exotic animals as pets and animal parts, e.g., rhino horn,  as medicinal agents or aphrodisiacs. 


4.2 Climate Change: Contrasting Sciences

It is of course climate change that has become the focal concern about humanity's ecological footprint on this planet.  That climate changes is in the nature of things.  Whether caused by asteroids, comets, earthquakes, volcanoes or the changing intensity of the Sun, the climate of planet Earth always has and always will change through time.  Unlike the discount rate and present value of future events, however, assessment of climate change has traditionally been based on one's personal experience and/or the remembered or recorded experience of one's ancestors.  However, it is only some 20 generations since the Scientific Revolution began instrumental measurement of climate and its change.  It is arguably only 5 generations since we developed the technology to use proxies to estimate past climate conditions, e.g., tree rings, ice cores, etc.

In that time we have come to learn of the major forces creating Earth's climate and contributing to its change.  The ionosphere blocking deadly UV radiation from the sun, the balance of gases in the atmosphere, the great ocean currents exchanging hot southern for cold northern waters, volcanoes causing so far only short term change like Mount Tambora's 1815 eruption making 1816 the year without summer or Krakatoa's 1883 eruption that caused a 5 year volcanic winter.  Roughly during the same period the human population soared almost 18 fold from 400 million in 1500 to 7 billion today.  This is a species whose emergence 200,000 years ago - then numbering in the thousands - contributed to the extinction of almost all megafauna on the planet.  There is little doubt that it has an effect on the environment and climate when numbering in the billions.  The question is how much and in what direction?   Is it life affirming with respect to other life forms on this planet or life denying in order to feed its own increasing numbers?  Concerning problems of population control see above 4.1 Population, Urbanization & Bio-diversity

During the last 50 years - about two and a half generations - new instrumentation has been added - near and far Earth satellites.   Sensing and measuring everything from gravity variations on the planet to recent solar observatories reporting on our single most important energy source - the Sun.  It was thus only in 1958, a year after Sputnik and the beginning of the Space Race, that the Van Allen Belts of charged particles flowing along the Earth's magnetic torus were discovered by Explorer 1.   Some theories but then instrumental proof.

As an example of new intelligence being gathered consider this October 9, 2011 report on the BBC Ultraviolet light shone on cold winter conundrum  Variations in solar UV apparently triggered recent cold winters in northern Europe.  Who would have guessed?  Who could have guessed without the instruments in place around the Sun.  As for rogue asteroids crashing into our little blue marble repeating the sad tale of the dinosaur there is a growing international enterprise to survey the skies.  This includes Hubble and other orbiting observatories. 

We are beginning a new age of discovery about our home world and its environment.  It is also increasingly international in nature including the International Space Station - the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon.  Human access to the station is, at the moment, in the hands of the Russian Federation.  The European Union has been active in launching numerous scientific observatories and interplanetary missions.   And then there is the burgeoning Chinese, Indian and Japanese space programs which have sent instruments to the Moon, comets and asteroids and back.  The privatization of the American space industry promises some surprises and forecast developments including space ecology tours - see the Earth from Space in zero g's - and, of course, hotels. 

Nonetheless we are just at the beginning of a new age of enlightenment - the Earth as seen from Space. 

i - Ozone Depletion

The contrasting success of the 1987 Montreal Protocol to the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Rio or Earth Summit) demonstrates the varying authority of contrasting sciences.  Thus by 1985 there was hard data subject to testing that the ozone in the atmosphere was depleting potentially exposing Earth to devastating ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.  Opening over the Antarctic continent a hole appeared in the ionosphere and was growing.  It represented a clear and present danger to all of humanity in a very short timeframe.  The worst case scenario was such holes opening and closing over population centres such as NYC.  In effect torching the human population.  

The Vienna Conference of 1985 came into force in 1988 acting as a framework for international efforts to protect the ozone layer. It did not include any legally binding targets.  However, the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer established such goals including mechanisms to encourage the phasing out of production substances responsible for ozone depletion.  Some 196 countries have ratified the Protocol and the ozone layer is expected to recover by 2050.

ii - Global Warming

By contrast the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate (UNFCCC) has been less successful.  The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty produced at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - the Earth Summit - held in Rio de Janeiro from June 3 to 14, 1992. Its objective was to stabilize greenhouse gases at a level that would prevent human change of Earth's climate, specifically its current 'normal' temperature distribution around the world.  It too like the Vienna Convention on ozone did not include any legally binding targets.  The 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change like the 1987 Montreal Protocol did.

The Protocol laid out greenhouse gas emission reductions for developed countries and established mechanisms including emissions trading, the clean development mechanism and joint implementation agreements.  Most industrialized countries and some central European economies in transition agreed to reduce emissions by an average of 6 to 8% below 1990 levels by 2008–2012.  The developing world including India and China, however, were and remain exempt.

The United States was required to reduce emissions 7% below 1990 levels but Congress did not ratify the treaty after President Clinton signed it and the Bush administration explicitly rejected the protocol in 2001.  There were fundamental economic reasons for doing so including enormous costs of complying while developing countries did not.  The post-1997 eruption of China as the world's factory for almost everything and India the global answering service makes the decision almost prescient in hindsight.   The decision was not, however, just about economics but also about the arguably differing authority of contrasting sciences.

When it comes to global warming we are dealing with a different form of science than the Montreal Protocol.  Arguably Montreal is based on old style reductive science in which experimental testing can confirm results.  Modeling of complex system such as climate change arguably represents the outer limits of contemporary science for a number of reasons.  First, traditional reductive science of controlled experimental conditions gives way to 'real world' integrative inter-disciplinary sciences such as ecology and climatology.  They are in a sense 'synthetic sciences'.  As in the 'soft' or human sciences experimental testing is severely limited.  Second, modeling requires evidence of varying quality drawn from widely different sub-disciplines within physics, chemistry and biology.  The interdisciplinary correlation of potentially incommensurate findings across disciplinary borders remains problematic.  

Third, modeling as in economics requires holding certain factors constant while examining effects caused by changes in others.  Such assumed  'constants' may or may not in fact remain constant in real world situations.  The case of black carbon and sulphates currently ignored in most climate models is a case in point.   Fourth,  models are generally tested through computer simulations comparing forecast outcomes against available data sets.  The model is then re-calibrated to generate outcomes that more closely approximate evidence presented in such data sets.  This puts a premium on the quality and length of data sets which are themselves often the result of manipulating or massaging observational data accumulated in many different places by many different observers over differing time frames.  This was one issue raised during the 2009  Climategate Controversy.  

Fifth and finally, that such modeling can be off the mark was demonstrated in a field arguably less complex than climate change - investment finance.  Many of the same statistical and mathematical techniques developed originally in physics were used to generate so-called Collateral Debt Obligations (CDOs) probabilistically engineered to secure a positive rate of return in the sub-prime mortgage market.   When a key assumption (that regional housing markets would not all go down at the same time) was broken the outcome was anything but secure for the entire financial industry.    That physicists have moved on from Wall Street is reflected in a recent independent review of Climategate data series by physicists.

This critique is not intended to reject such modeling but rather to recognize its inherent limitations and treat its findings with reasonable doubt compared to traditional  experimental science.  It is, however, no coincidence that the Rio Declaration introduces for the first time, to my knowledge, the 'precautionary principle' as a norm of international environmental law - jus cogens (See 2.3 Property Right - The Commons (Natural & Artificial) & International Law).  To quote the Rio Declaration:

Principle 15

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Findings from such modeling indicated that human activity particularly burning fossil fuels is affecting the Earth's climate.  Based on these findings a global effort called the Kyoto Protocol was developed to slow human induced global warming.   In many ways this effort is based on the precautionary principle given "lack of full scientific certainty'.   Unlike ozone depletion with its nearly immediate and devastating impact around the world, global warming is an externality distant in time (fifty to one hundred years or 2 1/2 to 5 generations) with benefits and costs unevenly distributed through geopolitical space, i.e., some will win and some will lose from global warming.   One response to the winner/loser outcome has been introduction of an additional argument in favour of united action - 'global weirding'.   In this view global warming involves not just a rise in average temperature but also increasingly severe weather patterns around the world.

In fact the Protocol exempted 'developing' countries from formal abatement obligations placing the burden on developed world economies.  Given the rapid economic rise of the developing world especially China, India and Brazil since 1997 this exemption arguably threatens the entire project.  Thus China has now surpassed the United States as the largest single source of global warming gases.  Given China's growing dependency on coal fired generation of electricity its contribution to global warming is likely to grow not diminish in the near future.   Attempts to extend abatement obligations among developing countries has been firmly rejected.    Is it equitable that developing countries should sacrifice growth and development by abating green house gases when the rise of the developed world was fuelled by generating such gases through burning fossil fuels in the past? 

The economic cost to the developed world of this global effort is huge!  The economic costs of inaction according to some experts is much higher.  The 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change published by the U.K. Office of Climate Change lays out the potential damage to the economy of inaction.  The review, like virtually all of climate change evidence, is the result of synthetic science involving both individual physical and engineering sciences as well as the soft sciences, i.e., the social sciences and humanities.  It assumes over the relevant timeframe no other climate changing events, e.g., solar cooling, volcanoes, etc.  These are 'black swan' events, i.e., very low probability but high impact.  Only the global warming effects of human behaviour is considered.   Tipping points is another device presented in much of the literature.  A marginal effect such as human induced global warming according to this narrative tips the balance of, for example, melting of the ice caps, cessation of the Gulf Stream, eruption of undersea and tundra-based methane deposits, etc.    These too are black swan events but ones generally presented to sustain the global effort.

Three grand strategies have been proposed to tackle global warming.  These are geoengineering, adaptation and mitigation.   Geoengineering envisages massive projects ranging from seeding the oceans with iron particles to stimulate plankton growth and thereby absorb green house gases to space 'umbrellas' to cut solar heating of the planet.  Adaptation involves preparing for the likely consequences of global warming such as rising sea levels.  Population could, for example, be gradually moved to higher ground.  Mitigation involves steps to minimize the effects of global warming by, for example, abating generation of green house gases.  To date geoengineering and adaptation have been effectively ruled out and mitigation has become the chosen strategy.

During negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol a search began for cost effective mitigating solutions.  Two major alternatives were considered: emission charges and national cap and trade schemes.   It was determined that emission charges would lead to economic leakage from jurisdictions imposing such charges to those that did not placing abating countries at a competitive disadvantage.   It could also lead to a 'race to the bottom'.  Cap and trade, on the other hand, would serve to nationalize revenue flows.  Each nation ratifying the Protocol would be assigned a cap on how much green house gas they could produce.  The cap could then be used to permit countries exceeding their target to cover their excess by buying capacity from nations that  succeeded in keeping output below their assigned cap.  The most extensive cap and trade system has been adopted by the European Union in which national caps have in a number of member states been auctioned off to corporate citizens who in turn are allowed to trade between themselves.

4.3 Sustainability, Competitiveness & Fitness

'Sustainability' is a term with many meanings to many people.  It can mean sustaining our current life style and/or standard of living into the future.  This is analogous to the long-run outcome of perfect competition in economics - the steady state.  It is an equilibrium end state.  It can mean curtailing our current standard of living to ensure future generations have resources available to sustain their needs into their future.  It can mean curtailing our current standards in order to sustain the remaining 'natural' environment and other species.  Such curtailment, to be effective, would, however, require what futurists of the 1970 called 'the spontaneous dawning of awareness' by virtually the entire human population.  It can also, as suggested in the Bruntland Report, simply mean meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future.   This last definition sounds like Bain's definition of economic conservation - wise use (See 3.4 Mining).

Sustainability, however, must compete with the other great buzz phrase of our age: competitiveness.  The term arose as a sports metaphor.  In sports, it is the opposing team that is the challenge. The playing field, the environment itself, is generally fixed, invariant and subsidiary to the consciousness of players at play.  The competitiveness of sports brings the sense of win/lose against an opponent and winner take all.   Nation-States have adopted competitiveness as a norm which finds expression in comparative advantage and the benefits of trade.  Specializing in what one does best allows one to trade for what one does worse. 

Shifting to biology, however, offers yet another term that arguably captures the sense of sustainability and extends it: fitness.  Natural selection involves not just an opponent but also new invariants and affordances thrown up by an ever changing environment. In this sense Darwinian fitness is not simply bodily strength, intelligence, vigor or bravery vis-à-vis rivals. Rather, fitness is a compounded result of the mutual relationship between an organism and its environment including symbiotic as well as predator/prey relationships. In fact, symbionts can significantly enhance fitness, i.e., the probability one will survive and leave descendants.

The fitness landscape is constantly changing, altered and distorted by perpetual adaptation by competitors and symbionts as well as environmental variation and change such as increased heat or cold, wet or dry and the rise and fall of mountains, etc. Shifting to a biological metaphor expands focal attention to include the environment and symbionts, dimensions the sports analogy cannot capture. The fitness of biology brings a sense of survival/reproduction in an environment increasing enframed and enabled by human technology and populated by many more symbionts than predators. The sports metaphor is hostile and aggressive; the biological, cooperative and coevolutionary.  In effect, most Nation-States, especially smaller ones, have opted for coevolution with other Nation-States in the guise of trading blocs such as NAFTA and the European Union.  Division and specialization of knowledge remains limited by the extent of the market and most Nation-States are not large enough in population and/or natural resources to specialize in everything. They can no longer independently reproduce.

Fitness also implies flexibility in the face of environmental change.  Overspecialization can be deadly  if the environment changes suddenly, e.g., a bird flu epidemic halting international trade for months.  Fitness also suggests conservation or sustainability of resources (and knowledge generally lost by outsourcing work to other countries) to meet future unexpected, possibly Black Swan events.

4.4 Links

Black, R., "Global warming 'confirmed' by independent study" , BBC Online, October 20, 2011.

Bruntland, G.H., Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future,  United Nations, 1987.

Economist, “Climate Change in Black and White, The Economist Magazine, February 17, 2011.

Hvistendahl, M., "Where Have All the Girls Gone?| It's true: Western money and advice really did help fuel the explosion of sex selection in Asia", Foreign Policy, June 27, 2011

Kaplan, R. D., "The Coming Anarchy" How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet", Atlantic Monthly; February 1994, 273 (2),  pages 44-76.

Kauffman S.A., The Sciences of Complexity and “Origins of Order”, Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. Two: Symposia and Invited Papers, 1990, 299-322.

Kauffman S.A., At Home in the Universe, Oxford University Press, 1995:  Ch. 9: Organisms and Artifacts, 191-206; Ch. 12: An Emerging Global Civilization, 273-304.

Kauffman S. A. ,Investigations, Oxford University Press, 2000: Ch. 9: The Persistently Innovative Econosphere, 211-241; Ch. 10: A Coconstructing Cosmos?, 243-266.

Kerri, B., "Making Sense of 7 Billion People", WIRED, October 31, 2011.

Stern, N., Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, U.K. Office of Climate Change, October 30, 2006 .