Some small progress.... on a big change in plans  -  p.henshaw 1/13/09


I’ve been making some progress with understanding why and how the rules on earth seem changed.   Nature changed them in what amounts to a most insidious way.    She changed the meaning of investment from multiplying opportunity to multiplying complications.   Since our whole culture and all our experts are still using the old meaning of the rule while working on a planet where it switched, it means there is a great error in the present recovery plan for the economies, as well as one in the plans to avoid the effects of climate change.   We missed a very major turn in history.   It involves understanding some natural systems physics, but I’m getting a little better at making that understandable too.


It might take a little open discussion, of course, just to clearly understand what I’m referring to, but it's as if nature turned the meaning of growth and investment upside down, in the most natural way.   Our old sustainability plan, growth, now has the opposite effect on the earth it did before.  It used to multiply opportunity and making everything cheaper, but now at the limits it shrinks opportunity and makes everything more expensive.   Every kind of system begins with an environment of multiplying returns on investment.    In an environment of diminishing returns, though, investment no longer multiplies opportunities and opens ever greater horizons.   Once the point of approaching limits is crossed, further increasing investment shrinks and complicates the options, resulting in narrower and more conflicted choices.   We’re still operating as if we had an untouched earth with limitless resources.   That’s was certainly a good approximation for the experience we had as our culture developed over the last few hundred years,  but it is no longer true at all.    The rules are changed, but our culture didn’t know to expect it, and hasn’t noticed yet.   Our whole way of thinking only fits the past.


Where this all goes back to seems to be the “missing anatomy of entropy” you might call it.   Science has focused exclusively on the aspects of nature that one can explain with certainty, using fixed formulas and replacing controlled variables for physical things.   The tendency for things to decay and for energy to get lost,  “entropy” was left undescribed and relegated  to “general stuff that’s inexplicable”, a kind of error factor in the equations.    That’s a great large hiding place in a model for things of nature that don’t fit your model.   When you look carefully it seems to contain all kinds of natural phenomena that the use of formulas to explain things doesn’t work for.    For one it seems to be nature’s natural hiding place for the “wastes” of a process that as 'feedback' serve to build and maintain systems, nature’s own investment strategy.   Much of the 'loss factor' for the processes of nature is what gets lost in building things, ALONG WITH the mechanisms that tear them down.    I have a collection of my research letters on various subjects on my website blog, including a good recent simple one on this particular subject:  


In natural systems one of the most important functions of diverting products from the process, as "wastes" in that sense, is to use them to build the system itself.   The food you ate as a child was partly used to make bones, for example, as well as to let you run around.  The bones were a "loss of resources", relative to the running around, the apparent purpose of life for you at the time.    In nature building the system is the first sustainable product of the system, and then when it matures, the second sustainable product for it to  find it’s place in its environment.   It's odd, but this principle is not recognized in science.   What seems to get missed is that this ‘waste’ of the system's products that gets invested  back into building and integrating the system with its world is exceptionally hard to trace, and does not fit a set formula.    As a result it gets lumped into the "entropy" or "disorder factor" for nature, just treated as lost, and so has not been studied.    I even kept trying to have the growth in natural systems included on the list of unsolved problems of physics on Wikipedia, and it kept getting  erased.    Having not studied it we haven’t know to look for when to ask if the remarkable syntropy with the earth our civilization has enjoyed in the past (the positive feedback from our investments) would change to become increasingly expensive.   


In physics as well as in economics the assumption is that the past is the future, particularly for any kind of "law of nature" you don’t understand.  When you only know how to refer to things with vague generalities, cultural preferences then also seem to have a lot of influence.    That for a few centuries nature seemed to extend a limitless multiplying hand to our desires for ever multiplying wealth, has clearly been part of the persuasion.    It let us arrange all our theories, practices and promises to line up with a perfectly impossible dream, that an endless multiplying syntropy for all our wishes would surely be a permanent feature of the universe, just as soon as we got it right!     Walt Disney made a great animated movie about the ancient Greek tale of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, which fits our circumstance quite well.  Disney video on YouTube: The Sorcerer's Apprentice


Anyway, what is quite predictable is that nothing ever begins without experiencing something like temporarily unlimited syntropy, the building process during which a ‘waste’ of some of the product multiplies the process.     That develops in the naturally explosive way that feedbacks do, first getting more and more productive and then less and less productive, as the opportunity for it in the environment is explored and consumed.      The key to making that a useful observation is that you don’t need to trace every part of a whole complex system to read the experience of the system as a whole. You can “look around” at the returns on investment, whether they are multiplying opportunity or multiplying complications, whether they are limited mostly by the amount of investment or becoming limited by their environment.   


That switch would be naturally expected at some point for any development process, but I think it occurred for the world economy about 50-100 years ago.   The economic measurements are obscured by the turbulent politics of the 20th century, and the diversion of investment into fictitious bubbles more recently, or I think you could clearly see the declining productivity of investment in the changing shape of the growth curve.     The point at which the syntropy of economic investment switched meanings though, seems surely to at least have been by the time it was noticed that development had major attendant complications, the time when a global environmental movement emerged as a major social and political force of concern about our colliding with limits.   That’s an easy way to mark the shift in attention from concern only with building up ourselves in a limitless place to the issues we were running into  in a crowded place.     That switch in attention, from free multiplication to integrating with the complications of a rich environment is the “point of diminishing returns” for multiplying  investment.    That “turning point” in the curve was the limit of growth, the point where the natural rules changed, being crossed at the very moment in time when the subject came up.    From then on the ‘benefits’ of sticking with the growth path switched from being endless multiplying wealth to endless multiplying complications.


So,... now that we overshot the curve and collapsed, and don't have a lot of untapped resources to use, what should we do??    The Obama plan for economic recovery simply won’t work is because this is not 1930 again.    It’s a plan to undo the collapse and resume perpetual growth on the original path.    It maintains the perennial assumption of the economists that we have a limitless earth of ever expanding opportunity, and that old rules never change.  What we have been clearly observing is the opposite, though.   We have already built the airports, and already burned the earth’s entire store of cheap jet fuel, the kind of great expansions that were key to making the recovery of the 30’s a success.    We also already destroyed and rebuilt Europe and Japan to future stimulate our new high energy consuming  technology.    Similar projects and resources are not in the offing, just the need to replace the workings of in-place systems with more expensive technology than was used before.   All our options appear ever more expensive, not ever cheaper.    Virtually every important resource is showing diminishing returns for our increasing investments.    We’re scraping the bottom. for example, of our good available arable land and water resources, and the "green revolution" seems unlikely to be repeated.   When you look at the plans for mitigating the effects of global warming you find they all are predicated on multiplying the expansion of the economies to solve the problems that the multiplying expansion of the economies caused.   They're also predicated on paying for it with the future multiplying profits that continued exploding growth should produce, all the while the evidence is that our conflicting interests and reliance on efficiency as a resource make growth ever more complex and less profitable.    Perhaps this long recession we now see opening up in front of us, a bad hangover caused by the financial collapse, is really the gift in disguise we truly needed to help us sober us up.     We’ve been burning up the future potential of the earth at an amazing accelerating rate, and it seems this may give us a well deserved chance to think.    


I'm all for government making investments to stabilizing things of real lasting value that the economic collapse threatens, communities and workforces and things.  I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll have ever multiplying profits from exploiting the earth, as the future of a hundred years ago did to pay for recovering from the last collapse, though.     We need to account for how the whole earth is producing increasing complications and diminishing returns, for nearly everything we are doing.   The curves we are on clearly seem to be threatening to raise the costs of a great many things to a point of vanishing returns if we don’t back off and regroup.     We need time to think, to find how to chart a sustainable course.    Just hastily throwing huge amounts of time, promises, talent and energy, only to attempt to reinvigorate an endless explosion plan that just blew up very badly, does not seem like a good investment.     We may have new things to explore of greater value.