Drivers wanted

Just because humans form part of this thing we generally call the ‘economy’, and may at times appear free to choose how to spend what income it affords them, we mustn’t simply assume they sit in the driving seat. Economies are complex objects, and the defining feature of complex things is that the whole is not simply the sum of its parts. So, yes, people are critical constituents of economies, and yes, the behaviour of the economy depends in part on the behaviour of its constituents, but that does not necessarily translate into people sitting in the driving seat. The real driver could still be hidden from view, lurking in the interactions.

But the global economy does behave as if something is driving it. For example, it has fought to maintain its own growth rate much like a bacterial colony, negotiating its way through technological, social, political and economic upheaval and disturbance. Or look at the arterial networks stretched over the Earth’s surface in the cover picture for this blog. Although no one took an overview in that design, designed it is, which is why it is so alluring. Some would argue these are simply the bi-products of interactions between a good number of the people desiring to grow their estate through profiting on investments. Others may point to the deliberate efforts of certain elites attempting to drive the global economy along particular pathways. If so, then people are in some sense at the wheel, and perhaps they can be persuaded to turn it to avoid some of the obstacles ahead, or at least to look in the foot well for pedals other than the accelerator. But the super-organism characteristics of the global economy, transcending any known human institution, suggest other possibilities.

What if no people are at the global wheel, en mass or otherwise? What if we have unwittingly helped construct an autonomous vehicle? Although that certainly wasn’t our intention, can such things emerge spontaneously? Didn’t we and our biological cohabitants? But if we believe the orthodoxy, the economy is different, imbued with subjective human magic and agency. But surely, like everything in this universe, isn’t the economy simply a blend of matter, energy and information? I say simply, the blends have become so rich in information their behaviours often confound and confuse us, appearing autonomous, even anticipatory.

What if in all its apparent unlikeliness, our planetary journey was simply the most likely one? What if, just like the biosphere, the economy is a structure: a low-probability, high-information configuration of matter. And the more sophisticated, information-rich the structure, the more degrees of freedom it can exert over the size, direction and usefulness of the flows coursing through its veins. These freedoms would feel like choice. And how are these configurations created? Through work done, and hence the dissipation of energy gradients. So where do people fit into this? They too are complex, ordered dissipative structures, self-similar in so many ways to the wider economic body they create and operate within. Like ants? Like ants. What, no agency? Perhaps we get to choose what refreshments are served and where to sit, and such choice feels like agency to many, but a thermodynamic hidden hand gets to drive the bus.

And now we have evolved such that we are afforded a glimpse over the planetary horizon. If we exploit this to chart a new course that protects the global super-organism, have we now become the drivers?D

4 Replies to “Drivers wanted”

  1. This is an important insight: We may feel like drivers, but we aren’t. In fact, economics displays this inherent tension or contradiction in a very salient way. Economists normally assume that human agents design and control technology, but when it comes to thinking about markets, they approach markets exactly like you name it, as a superorganism. And what is the justification? This is that markets generate information. Indeed, in many contexts ‘the markets’ obtain the status of quasi-agency, because ‘they’ are telling us what the value of assets is, where the entrepreneurial opportunities lurk, and so on, even recognized in accounting regulations (‘mark-to-market’). Once we, the human agents, directly interfere with markets, we would destroy this information-generating mechanism. This is the lesson learnt from the experience of the socialist planned economy, so the reasoning goes. Modern economics is built on a paradoxical foundation: Factually approaching markets as superorganisms, but only allowing for individual agency in economic explanations. This paradox has also infected much of thinking about economic policy: If you ought not meddle with the collective wisdom of markets, you only allow for action on the individual level, and claim that collective agency aka government intervention must always fail. Of course, this type of radical libertarianism has never prevailed over actual politics, but it seems to drive the vacillations and the incertitude regarding decisive action against global warming. Science plays a role in the background: A fascinating example is the classical discussion about the proper discount rate in calculating the social costs of carbon. William Nordhaus seminally argued that this should reflect the market interest rate, hence the information generated by markets in the previous sense. But if we apply that rate, the social costs of carbon become so small in the long run, that only weak policy responses might seem warranted, and market optimism would prevail: Let markets find the solution to the climate conundrum! Markets are treated like autonomous cars in current technological visions, and many economists have indeed approached markets as computational systems, i.e. as a type of materially dispersed Artificial Intelligence apparatus.


  2. Deep within this post, there is a question about human nature and human capabilities: Are we like ants? Could we decide and do otherwise? This is ultimately the litmus test for a liberal (or, rather, a libertarian) setting. Could we, by concious choice an the atomistic micro level of individual behaviour, change the overall course of global technospheric growth – or are we all incapable of doing so, unable to shed our skins, enslaved by our nature plus the complex levels of institutions, groups and processes all around us. There is room to go individually off-grid, to head for degrowth, to live a life of sufficiency and promote this to others, which might become convinced simply by the mere power of the (moral) argument… One could even say that at least part of the Fridays For Future students are living examples of this.
    However, this inevitably hits the rock of competition and advantageous unwillingness in participitation by others. Yes, it is possible the stop the collective growth machine, when everybody agrees to do so. As it is in theory possible that all the atoms within a solid block of matter happen to move all into the same direction, moving the whole block. it’s statistically possible, yet that incredibly unlikely that nobody has observed such a leaping block so far. Now, one can argue that humans possess some more options than atoms, they can discuss and concive the others to move along in synchrony. This is what one can call social change – becoming institutional, cultural change when there’s collective action from this. So yes, no doubt, there is some hope and some human capability to macro level agency. The hard question then is, will this suffice? Can such change possibly be fast and strong enough? And what might be the means to convince the others to move along, will they move along willingly, following the better moral argument, or will it be the pragmatic adjustment to threat and looming violence? History is abundant with examples of deep social changes. Typically and in the long run, emancipatory changes prevailled, and one can argue that this is due to the fact that this is the direction of more degrees of freedom for each individual – leading to exponentially more degrees of freedom for the whole of each society. And that other strategies, forcefully limiting the individual degrees of freedom, that these other stretegies got kicked out of the race, overgrown by competing “more liberal” strategies.
    On that level, asking for limitation becomes a quest for changing humans – not human nature necessarily, as it is inherently hard to distinguish where “our” nature ends and nurture takes over. But it would adress the induvidual strive for “more”. A new liberating tone then would be “I don’t want to have to want ever more”.

    This might sound utopian, yet in some way, is part of what is currently happening.

    In a simply and possible too naive picture, we can picture our growing technospheric system as an ideal gas, taking up all the space provided. It’s possible to hold it within a container (imagine a pressure cooker), yet it becomes ever harder the hotter the gas, the faster the induvidual particles within it. It’s hard to imagine part of the gas cooling (some particles slowing down, while other remain speed), as thermal equilibrium works against this. This only becomes possible when more structure is allowed in the setting, and heat being transferred to the outside. Which, when looking at human society, would mean to consider institutions, groups on different levels, all that complexity – and how to get rid of excess “energy” (well, maybe we could even leave the “” aside?) by syphoning it off, putting it to restorational use (like renaturalization, soil carbon built-up, picking up plastic waste, …).

    Again, this is a tug-of-war between different drivers. maybe thermodynamics wins. But only if we fail to set the right system boundaries (what’s within, what’s outside, and where/who can we get rid of the excess heat?).


  3. When the Chinese Emperor met the British delegation that wanted to negotiate a trade treaty, he famously said that the Chinese do not need what the British had to offer, because the Empire was replete with all things that people need. The British started to export Opium to China, and when the Chinese wanted to keep that out and destroyed the drugs, that served as a cause for war. China had no choice but to industrialize and to change her energy system and economy fundamentally, after the British aggression. I remember very well that when you attended my class on ecological economics years ago, we discussed these issues already and wondered whether in a world of countries scrambling for power, there would be sufficient scope for this kind of limiting ‘wants’. That was before Trump, alas! Interestingly, in the ‘Millenium Ecosystem Assessment’ of 2005, the report already introduced a scenario entitled ‘Order out of Strength’. That is exactly into which the world is tumbling now, with strongmen ruiling all important countries, apart from Europe. Who is ‘we’? The 2005 scenario was by far the worst one in that report, directly resulting in great ecological damage and catastrophe. Is ‘Fridays for Future’, if growing towards a new reform movement, powerful enough to change the mechanics of the scramble for power in human society?


  4. Very true, in a world which is perceived as “zero sum” competitions it will be impossible to move toward any kind of benevolent reduction. It’s the Hobbsian trap. I think one of the SSCPs also has part of this story incorporated (the worst one in ecological terms, and ultimately also in social terms). Whenever self-regulation comes with the cost of reduced security, it’s pretty hard to do so anyway (or to convince the own group). There is a reason why fighter planes and tanks are not built in accordance with exhaust gas regulations and the like – at least as long as the feedback is too slow to directly affect the damage-causing agent in question.
    But, I would add, isn’t this both the origin story of the Hobbsian Leviathan and for supranational organisations like the UN, the security council within, and steps like the Paris agreement? I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that direct agruments from security need to trump everything. If one loses the own support base due to inconsiderate action, it might well be that the more security-bolstering option is the one with less military capability. The verdict about Trumpism is still open – it might well be that it only lasts a short term due to internal adverse effects and backlash from other countries. Not necessarily that in the way that he cannot get re-elected, but that the aggressive stance might cause the US global influence to dwindle. Of course, it might well be the case that we are indeed moving toward a increasingly less cooperative world.
    Isn’t this again a question about the unit of selection of cultural evolution in terms of international cooperation? The nation state as the unit of reference and as the platform which shapes the worldview of its memebrs certainly poses a problem here. We do not necessarily need to envision an all-encompassing world government for solving this dilemma, but we need strong diplomatic ties and treaties that enforce cooperation in such a way that it will be less beneficial (in terms of game theory) to play defect rather than cooperate. I think this is part of what it means to shift cooperation from one level to another, very similar to the notion of Haff’s strata.


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