August 31, 2010

Georgescu-Roegen and ecological economics

Clément Levallois writes in Can de-growth be considered a policy option? A historical note on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and the Club of Rome, published in Ecological Economics by:
If [according to Georgescu-Roegen] the economic process is an entropic one, economic growth should be curbed or even reversed, in order to stop the "waste" of energy in "non-necessary" uses, so as to preserve it for the sake of future generations.

This conclusion raises at least two questions, to which Georgescu-Roegen provided answers which many found unconvincing. What is the rate of this entropic decay? And if we accept that it is necessary to economize on natural resources, to which level of economic activity should we be ready to scale down our current societies? The answer to the first question is unknowable, since the non-mechanical character of entropy makes an "entropymeter" inconceivable. This implies that it is impossible to predict whether it is our current generation or generations in the distant future who will be confronted with the direst consequences of the exhaustion of natural resources.

To the second question, Georgescu-Roegen provided a logical answer: "… not only growth, but also a zero-growth state, nay, even a declining state which does not converge toward annihilation, cannot exist forever in a finite environment." [Energy and economic myths, Southern Economic Journal 41 (3) (1975), pp. 347–381]
I am unconvinced by Georgescu-Roegen assumptions but he looks more coherent than the ecological economists and their followers who believe that a sustainable, as well as equitable and happy, future is possible.


  1. The statement questioning whether a happy future is possible reflects a point of view of a certain, pessimistic kind.
    Unfortunately, this kind of viewpoint is facilitated by the level of focus. However, we need to shift from astrophysics, or even theoretical physics, to something like historical sociology, therapeutic psychology, and biology.
    As evolution has innovated numerous adaptations at one level, historical sociology with a focus on events like the co-operative business model, Jungian psychology, or green technological businesses, can provide us with alternatives.
    Although the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Chernobyl blew up, and Wall Street swindled the world again in 2008, but organic certification has grown significantly, as has fair trade, among other initiatives. I suggest looking at the Global 300 list of the International Co-operative Alliance, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, and Cradle to Cradle Green Tech Certification to grasp better the meaning of new movements.
    Whatever the ultimate fate of the universe, the establishment of effective cultural behaviors like the cultural basis for science have shown that genocidal annihilation is still only a horrible possibility, while efforts at positive social change are a certainty.

  2. To read G-R's 1975 paper is to come upon several pessimistic comments which I think reflect the apparent ultimate entropic fate of a dissipating universe, which the original post reflects. This view ultimately reflects a failure to distinguish between theoretical physics, etc. and our current realities and concerns within the future short and longterm, but still less than 100 years.
    To know that the sun will collapse in 5 billion years is not currently relevant, while corporate executives use an incomplete and antiquated economic philsophy of profit maximization that deprives employees, communities, and ecosystems of ownership rights and service values, and ignores whole cost accounting of social and environmental costs and benefits.
    Cobb et al wrote "GDP Up, ...America Down?" in 1995 in the Atlantic, available online last I knew. , while Ellerman has written on ownership writes, as discussed in various academic journals, and by M. A. Lutz in his 1999 Economics for the Common Good, and Greider in his 2003 The Soul of Capitalism.