25 August 2010

Beyond The Empty World Economy: Embracing Time and Consequence


It’s the horizon that is the problem. It's horizons in time that we have not evolved to see over. We are species with little capacity for no long term planning and its killing us.

Over the last two days Mike Brown, former Microsoft CFO and Nasdaq Chair presented arguments for restricting the dangers of “short selling” — placing bets that investments will fail. Part of Mr. Brown’s cogent argument rested on the dangers of millisecond trading performed solely in the rarified realms of silicon intelligence. This “high frequency” computer trading is a profound example of how science and technology alter the fundamentals of our economic life. Their appearance shifts the adjacent possible –- to use Stuart Kauffman’s terminology –- which then manifests as new facts on the ground for all of us.

But there are dangers living at the other end of timescales for the integration of science, technology and economics. It is the long time horizon which poses the threat to our project of civilization. If we are to adapt to the challenges facing us now we must learn a longer vision that reaches over that temporal horizon.

We live in an illusory empty world economics, where material magically appears for consumption and its waste products magically disappear again. This economic structure was constructed before the tight couplings of ecological relationship were discovered. Thus the fundamentals of our economic model exists in a fictional world where consequences for planetary systems of atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere were of little or no importance. To understand how this was possible you need only reflect on a single word.


The timescales for large-scale changes in planetary systems have been too long to be seen or acted on.

The horizon was too far away.

Climate change, driven by 100 years of exponential growth in fossil fuel consumption is an obvious example of consequences living over the time horizon of our economics. For those who continue to insist on ignoring the overwhelming evidence for Climate Change the impending crisis in fresh water supplies can serve as an example.

Stepping back it is remarkable that our science and technology became so powerful, so quickly that their economic deployment rocketed us towards the “ceilings” in planetary systems in just a century or so. On one level we could be proud of ourselves. But as Spiderman’s uncle says. “With great power comes great responsibility”

The responsibility here will be to invent a new economics of consequences, an economics that can think in centuries.

This will not be easy but it will not be without precedent. Humanity has shown itself capable of engaging in multi-generational projects (The Great Wall of China, The Great Cathedrals of Europe, Stonehenge, etc). The trick, of course, is to get started now. There is more to say on this idea of humanity and the Long Now and I will post on it again.

For now it is enough to see the disparity between the short attention span built deep into the heart of our economics and the long attention to consequence that our scientific and technological evolution have forced upon us.

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