Can Ecology and Economics be unified?
”Just like plants improved the efficiency of photosynthesis by moving the Rubisco reactions to a separate part of the leaf, James Watt doubled the efficiency of steam power by separating the hot and cold parts of the engine. This pattern extends to the modern day. We get more food from less land, more energy from less fuel, and more computation from smaller circuits.“ - this is absurd. We do get more food from less land but that is because we pump ungodly amounts of fossil fuels in the food production process. Numerous studies have shown that the energy efficiency of the modern agricultural sector is much worse than slash and burn or many other forms of primitiv agriculture.
An increase in efficiency does not imply a decrease in resource consumption. This has never happened in past and never will, each increase in efficiency is matched with an instantaneous increase in the overall consumption. Yes we made the electric bulbs more efficient, but we also increased their reach, making the overall consumption of electricity go up. Think of any tech and this is true, there has not been one single year when there has been a decrease in resource consumption. And this is keeping in mind that most of the world still lives in poverty. What we have managed to do for them is to feed them, and that has ruined ecosystems around the world, just to feed us. Imagine the amount of resources that will be required in making their standard of living at par with the west.
But this argument still ignores the main reason growth is pursued. Technological progress, efficiency maximisation, resource extraction, all of these are mere means to an end. And the end is the maximisation of return on capital invested. It is not inherent in technology that it will seek indefinite and explosive growth, but it is the fiduciary duty of a chief executive to his shareholders that he maximise the return on their capital, and failing to do so, he will be sacked and another pawn will be brought in his place who can ensure growth. Technology is just the means to deliver these return. Efficiency plays the game of capital when it makes chasing these returns easier, in no other context is efficiency beneficial to our society that thrives on planned obsolescence.
"Since each human is born with this invention-machine in their skull, the rate of invention increases with our population size. This positive feedback loop defines the arc of human history and secures the prospects for unlimited future growth in human prosperity."
I have to ask then, Maxwell, what do you think our prospects are after 2050? Population stagnation and decline appear to be a sure bet at this point. Does this spell the end of progress or will AI pick up the slack?
I don't think it's fair to say biologists see "collapse." In logistic growth - as opposed to Malthus- growth slows gently until you reach a relatively stable population size (carrying capacity). You do not see a crash as Malthus hypothesised. There are some classic models like Lotka–Volterra which have booms and busts, but this is a predator prey model and doesn't apply to us.
From an ecological viewpoint, carrying capacity is fundamentally limited because, although in theory new technology can raise it to some degree, at the end of the day it's at the very least limited by the number of atoms in the universe. As far as I know we live in a finite universe with finite (and indeed, a decreasing amount of) energy. Perhaps this is a rather weak claim but nevertheless important to point out.
My null hypothesis for the pattern of human growth that we see today is that we are simply reaching our carrying capacity. If so, any attempts to artificially raise fertility rates through policy will be dynamically resisted in perhaps unpredictable ways. So to me when economists suggest some policy or the other to raise fertility rates, to me it seems a bit ridiculous... like expecting the ocean to rise because you threw a pebble in.
If we saturate efficiency gains against natural laws , and there are plenty to choose from ..., Chambadal-Novikov, Carnot, Betz, Shockley–Queisser ,etc ... , you just end up back to the sane idea that there are limits.
Overcoming some limiting factors does not generalize infinitely to all. There is no evidence to say we will be able to make leaps over limiting factors continuously against diminishing returns to complexity and there is absolutely proven thousands of known limits that cannot be overcome if you are a believer in physics . In the case you aren't it would just go back to being a pseudoscientist like most economists.
And not all humans are born with invention machines in their skulls, most invent nothing. Yet again population increases will butt up against diminishing returns as total factor productivity of inventiveness declines which is already measurable and studied. However my argument doesn't rely on this because maybe AI delimits us there to another level constrained by energy.
Economics and ecology are not aligned in a vision of unlimited growth and prosperity. Relative decoupling of "growth" from the physical reality can get more growth but absolute decoupling is impossible. So you still hit boundaries, get into intensification traps and cause mass extinctions. This fictitious Absolute-decoupling even if it was achieved would look like someone just typing in lots of numbers in a database or a math equation that = ♾️ and then pretending that is infinite growth. Which is not meaningful.
>"This episode in evolutionary history shows that there is more to population dynamics than the usual story told by ecologists. "
No sir , your strawman ecologist only exists in the mind of you and economists. Please read Howard T Odum. To get a holistic understanding .
Since you like the biological metaphor, Your arguments are equivalent to you positing something like an infinite number of efficiency gains like C3 to C4 to Crassulacean Acid metabolism to and unlimited number of more innovations being possible . Unfortunately the reality is that that isn't possible , reality isn't infinitely malleable and doesn't work off your hopes and dreams of techno-hopium pseudoscience.
I would suggest rather than pumping out there puff peices like the rest of the tech-bro-infinity crowd we try to normalize accepting the limits of reality and and accept not ignoring them because they are scary. It's been moving towards a pseudoscientiific secular religion.
If people adopt this religion then it allows them to ignore the very real limiting factors, waste absorption rates, and the fact we haven't transhumanned ourselves out of dependence upon earths biosphere yet. Sometimes growth must be abandoned for survival , so the blind faith in growth full speed ahead is insane if not examined to make sure we are going to get escape velocity rather than sputter and crash. Better to throttle biosphere destroying growth and take a safer slower approach to get the singularity rather than kill ourselves with stupid ideology.
This is very insightful, thank you! If you look at history its also the case that places with higher populations have proportionally higher population growth too. Having more humans around isn't more mouths to feed but seems to generate more ideas etc (ie Romer's nobel), and this leads to more prosperity. Now, perhaps at very high population levels like ours today something fundamentally changes, but someone would need to have a good argument for what that thing might be!