Carey King tries to reconcile and synthesise two main competing frames or “narratives” via a conceptualisation of the global human endeavour, the synthesis facilitated by broadly describing the human system as an “economic superorganism”.
The first of the two narratives is that of the techno-optimist, expressed through the currently dominant lens of the neo-classical economics view of markets, prices and the hidden hand.
The second narrative is that of the techno-realistic environmentalist, expressed through finite planet, limits to growth environmental economics and so on.
King draws on analogies with evolutionary biology in the natural world, as a common thread through the book. He talks often about energy exploitation and conversion into useful work in the natural world as well as in human activities, infrastructures and ways of organising. This, and references to material/energy substitution and throughput through the economy, remind me of the work of Fraser Murison Smith (eg “A Planetary Economy”, “Economics of a Crowded Planet”) which tackle some similar topics.
King’s book is a valiant attempt at comparison and synthesis. Does it work? It’s hard to know.
I agree with just about everything he says.
But I’m left with an impression that he leaves it very open and perhaps says too little about what he thinks will actually happen next. Is he optimistic or pessimistic about the future? It’s hard to tell.
Will limits to growth realism find its way to setting future global policies and achievable plans for effective stewardship of the earth’s renewable and non-renewable resources in time to avert the worst-case environmental catastrophes, or will collapse, even extinction, be the future of humanity?
King expresses no substantive view about the likely future trajectory of humanity.
And in appearing to be leaning towards the natural world’s seeming ambivalence about the future of humanity, is he abrogating responsibility for taking a positive stance on such matters? That interpretation would, I think, be a little harsh.
After all, I think he is pretty clear where his values and worldview actually leads him. He regards the downsides evidently caused by the world’s tendency to cling to neoliberalism and markets as being a signal that unabated neoliberalism is not a good way forward at this point.
And his concluding paragraphs highlight the need to engage with many aspects of recognising limits to growth.
The missing piece of the jigsaw, for me, is addressing whether positive actions by individuals, groups, communities, businesses and governments can and will make the necessary changes to system structure and direction to enable us to transition successfully into a fair and sustainable future.
He treats some of the relevant issues a little superficially (understandably in a book that tackles such an enormous topic) and leaves the question dangling as a “time will tell”.
His final paragraphs summarise via these excerpts:
excerpts from book --------------------
“There seems to be a paradox. The low carbon energy solutions appear at hand, yet the economy does not take the steps to actually lower greenhouse gas emissions. The paradox exists only if we force a false choice between the endpoints of each of the energy and economic narratives of this book. The paradox vanishes if we think of the global economy as a superorganism."
"The most certain way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce consumption of physical resources, but we seem unwilling (so far) to self-impose this constraint. One of the main reasons is because the techno-optimistic and infinite substitutability economic narrative, which dominates economic thinking, and thus, also policy design, says we don’t have to. It does not contemplate physical constraints on long-term growth."
"In contrast, the techno-realistic narrative assumes a finite Earth can and will eventually constrain increases in consumption and economic growth…
From an evolutionary perspective, each entity … within the economic superorganism competes against the others within a physical world, and in doing so seeks to remove constraints on itself… This is how the superorganism … ignores the energy narratives of fossil fuels versus renewable energy. It minimises constraints by using some combination of all types of energy technologies… It will not be surprised at an end to growth. It expects it. The difficult questions relate to whether or not we should plan for the end of growth and if so, what such a plan even looks like.
There are tradeoffs between short-term versus long-term thinking, between markets versus plans, between applying versus removing economic constraints, and between worldviews that consider the economy as a physical system versus those that don’t…”
excerpts end ------------------------------------
I think his book is a very valuable contribution to these discussions, particularly as it highlights some of the ways we can look at human systems through the lens of biological evolution. This helps us to become more self-aware as a species. Recognising that there are some key differences between evolutionary biology and how human systems are purposefully created (by us, not by nature) might just enable us to weave our way collectively through what White and Hagens aptly describe as “the bottlenecks of the twenty first century” (in a book with the same title).
I’ll leave you with one more set of questions:
Does the paradox King describes really vanish in the way he posits, given the dominant and powerfully incumbent position of the techno-optimistic neo-classical libertarian economic model?
Or are we just kidding ourselves that the paradox will go away by itself, without concerted, conscious effort to confront the paradox and the factors that keep incumbent structures in place and deal with them for the sake of future generations?
Is King attributing too much confidence in evolutionary pressures, when we know that, for humans, biological evolutionary processes have been largely overtaken by human social collective decision-making processes (good and bad ones)?
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.