The two words that govern our lives, ecology and economics, have very similar roots.
Many of our new words come from the dominant influence of America—which is so prevalent that in many countries, the prefix ‘United States’ is often dropped.
Verbs like tweet have found their way into various languages, as have nouns like pack or spread, and adjectives like prime.
But back in the day, if you wanted to come up with a new word, and give it that pizazz, there was only one thing for it—you went Greek.
If you wonder why ecology and economics rule you, it’s a no-brainer: ecology determines what you eat, and economy how you pay for food. Then there are a couple of other reasons why the two are important.
But back to the Greek. Oikos can mean three things: family, family property, or house. That’s similar to Chinese, where wo de jia means both my house, and my family.
So both these words are about the house, which you can interpret as the planet, your neighborhood park, or the country you live in.
So now for the terminations: logos means reason, and nomos means custom or law.
In general terms, one word means household function, and the other household management.
In ecology there’s a concept known as adaptive radiation, where a common structure adapts to changing environments through evolution—or if you happen to be a creationist, a fairy wand has been waved over the pentadactyl limb, magically transforming it into a bat’s wing, a human hand, a porpoise fin…
So ecology and economics packed their bags and headed off in different directions. But ecology stayed the course, and after hundreds of years there is not a single lie in it.
As a result, ecology has become increasingly valuable as our understanding grows, and we’re able to describe our life-support systems, and to manipulate them for food production. We can model these systems inside a computer and predict what may happen to them.
And whenever we (or nature) tip the system far enough from balance, the results are obvious, and often dramatic.
Economics has done its best to follow this course, in the complicated matter of household management. But because we don’t deal in the supply and demand of mass and energy, but instead slip in an intermediary that we can adjust and falsify, the whole system is flawed.
Schoolchildren learn in chemistry class that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Nevertheless, when they learn about money, and how to use it, that concept breaks down.
This is relatively recent—when I was at grade school, we had a ‘shop’ where the kids could buy things, spend ‘money’, and learn about making change. Among other things, in those pre-digital times, it helped with simple math.
If you played monopoly, it demonstrated the basic concepts of ownership, profit and loss, and financial management—it included a debt model, and if a combination of bad, i.e. luck and judgement, put you in trouble with the bank, it was curtains.
Maybe there’s a version now where you can take out sub-prime loans, leverage your position with credit default swaps, perhaps the central bank can print money.
By the time I was at college, in the heady days of Reagan and Thatcher, wise men explained debt was a good thing, and that all countries did it. Fast-forward to 2016, where the world economy is now valued by the IMF at $75 trillion.
That would be the world GDP, so if you divide by the world population (7.4 billion, but I’ll add a decimal because no one really knows) you get a per capita GDP of 10,000 dollars.
That’s an equivalent monthly salary of 840 bucks, and since most of the world is way below that, it means that wealth distribution is obscenely uneven.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson points out that the world debt now stands at $152 trillion—that’s double the size of the world economy.
And yet we’re looking for economic growth, much of which is predicated on debt.
Any ecological system where the energy consumption rate is substantially greater than the existing energy is condemned.
Samuelson points out that an overall growth rate of one percent means a spend of $750 billion. Not only is that unlikely in today’s economy, but it would be based on borrowing.
If we roll back to 2002, world debt was $67 trillion, roughly on a par with the world economy, so what we see is debt growing much faster than population—in 2002, there were 6.3 billion people on this planet, and now we’re at 7.4 billion.
It’s beyond question that the economic system will melt down, and also that we are unable to deal with the concept as a society. Many years ago, the Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki said that humans suffer from an ‘old mind’ syndrome—he meant that we’re predisposed by evolution to deal with local crises, but utterly unable to deal with planetary ones.
So the two interesting questions are: when will the system collapse, and what will the collapse look like?
If you’re an optimist, you might consider that, as masters of the universe, we will prevail. The human brain, so fertile in inventing the weaponry with which to wage war, will overcome this challenge also.
But if like me, you’re an optimist with experience, then you can be certain of two things. The first is that ecology will dictate the timing—you can print money, but you can’t print protein. The second is that any collapse is by definition non-linear.
Whenever this happens, and it will be triggered by the shortage of food or water, possibly both, humans will have no idea how to react. Goods and services we now prize will become worthless—I’m talking about automobiles, cellphones, vacations, and fancy houses—the very essence of our lives in developed countries, as we now perceive it.
Property in London or Los Angeles, which is built on mountains of debt, will collapse—not physically, but in value. And people will die, on a scale we find impossible to imagine. In the end, it boils down to the issue of carrying capacity.
To paraphrase another Clinton, in an election far far away: it’s the ecology, stoopid.