Saturday, December 31, 2011

Natural Selection of Economic Models

We are now closing the year 2011, which has been remarkably like 2010. Continued global warming, continued opposition to the teaching of evolution and global warming, continued economic uncertainty, and another year with a Congress that considers its sole function to be partisan strife.

But one of these years, enormous changes will have to come. As economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out decades ago, and as environmental entrepreneur Paul Gilding has pointed out in his 2011 book The Great Disruption, growth cannot continue forever in a finite world. Gilding says that our current economic system will collapse, since it depends totally on economic growth. It will have to be replaced by an equilibrium economy. Gilding points out that this inevitable transition will not occur smoothly or gradually. At some point, a critical mass of people will realize that, in a finite world in which global warming will disrupt our lives, we have to change. Many of us realize this already; and we are a rapidly growing minority. The change will be disruptive, since entire industries (such as coal and oil) have refused to admit that we are about to collide with natural ecological limits; they will fight to keep people not just using but wasting natural resources. Big corporations will continue to demand government bailouts for their own business mistakes. They preach capitalism but demand socialism. The resulting chaos, in a world with natural disasters and scarce food, will not be pretty. One of these years—it might be 2012—will make 2011 seem like a very uneventful year.

Gilding says that we will emerge from the chaos with a new and sustainable economic system. He says that it is the next stage of human evolution. When I first read this, I assumed that he simply did not know what evolution was. But after I had read more of his book, I could see that he may be right. He did not mean biological evolution. He meant cultural evolution—some memes are propagated more than others. I have written about this process in books. But after reading Gilding’s book, I found a new example of cultural evolution: the economy.

The economy consists of many memes, which include: We have to keep growing to avoid collapse; we have to acquire ever more stuff in order to be happy; since the economy will always grow, we can put ourselves deeply into debt; ecological issues are something that we can take care of someday when we are all rich. These are the old, destructive memes that have brought our economy to the brink of disaster. But there are other economic memes: Our economy can be sustainable; happiness does not require lots of stuff; we can live within our means; we need to fit our economy into ecological limits now. There are millions of people (not enough millions) who believe this second set of memes; and there are hundreds of companies that abide by them. That is, in the world of economic memes, there is diversity.

And then along comes catastrophic natural selection: an economic collapse. If we were all hypnotized by consumerism, then this collapse would mean extinction. However, natural selection will in this case favor the sustainability memes, which already constitute a significant minority of the memetic variation in our population. Yes, there will be an enormous collapse; but many individuals and corporations are at least partly ready for it. There are, for example, hundreds of alternative energy companies ready to fill the void that will be left by the downfall of the petroleum industry.

This sounds like good news. I wish I could believe it, but I believe that political conservatives will prevent us from making enough changes to survive the coming collapse; they will suppress the solutions. The CEOs of financial corporations, for example, want to keep us in debt rather than to let us live without owing them money. Like a bunch of walnut trees suppressing other plant species by poisoning the forest with juglones (a process known as allelopathy), these CEOs are suppressing the sustainability memes. But they cannot wipe them out. At some point, a sustainable world may emerge, by the process of cultural evolution.

On this last day of the year, we sigh in relief that we have not yet fallen into disaster. We look forward to a new year in which, if we are lucky, the memes of sustainability will have a chance to make progress, and in which the collapse will not yet occur. If we are lucky.

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