[FoRK] [tt] Does economics violate the laws of physics?

Ken Ganshirt @ Yahoo ken_ganshirt at yahoo.ca
Thu Oct 29 23:11:42 PDT 2009

[Wind warning] Caution: if you are only marginally interested in the subject the following is rather long and potentially boring so you might wish to push the "Next" button on your reader. Unless you are looking for a non-addictive sleeping soporific. [/warning]

--- On Thu, 10/29/09, Jeff Bone <jbone at place.org> wrote:
> Ken asks:
> > Jeff, I've frequently heard arguments like yours that
> > "... increased productivity and technology leads to
> > increased carrying capacity". I've never been able to suss
> > it myself and I've not seen an explanation that made sense
> > to me in the larger context of planetary carrying capacity.
> Consider the increase in mean food output per farmed acre over the 
> last few centuries as a function of agricultural technology including
> fertilizer, smarter cultivation processes, industrial-grade productivity
> in harvesting and planting that compress cycles.  All of this squeeze
> more and bigger harvests out of a single unit of time / space.  Consider
> the increase in the amount of practically-farmable land due to
> technological progress in cost-effective water transport and storage,
> irrigation efficiency, etc.  Etc.  Examples abound;  surely this is
> clear?  

In a word: No.

This is the same basic argument I've read every time I encounter an attempt to articulate how carrying capacity is "increased" by the use of technology. It just doesn't compute for me. 

I suppose if you have a sufficiently narrow view of "carrying capacity" and look at one teensy patch of dirt I can see how one might think they've increased its carrying capacity.

But please note that my question includes the qualifier: "in the larger context of planetary carrying capacity."

Here's the problem I continue to have with that explanation: 

I can use the same "proof" to show that with the addition of some water, a few chemicals, some seeds, some energy and hydroponics technology I can increase the carrying capacity of a plastic tray.

The explanation you offer does not describe how to increase the carrying capacity of anything. It's a *recipe* of how to assemble and combine a number of necessary ingredients with dirt to produce edible stuff. It's the same as saying that your mother's angel cake recipe tells how to increase the carrying capacity of the cake pan.

This is no exaggeration when you consider that intensive farming has rendered much of our soil into a nearly sterile growing medium that requires the manual addition of everything in order to grow anything. With "modern" "high-tech" "hyper-efficient" intensive farming practises, the dirt has little more function than a hydroponics tray.

In the example you offer, you are not getting "more" out of that patch of dirt. You are ADDING to it a number of inputs that are, essentially, equivalent to what you later harvest from it. 

When you add fertilizers you remove them  from some other use. When you use the energy to produce the fertilizers and till the land you remove it from some other use. When you use water to artificially irrigate you remove it from some other use. 

And in all cases we render some portion of the inputs permanently unusable for anything further. 

In doing so, we reduce the carrying capacity of the planet by a similar quantity. I think.

> Low-tech = low-efficiency use of a unit resource.  Better-tech = more-
> efficient use of a unit resource = said unit resource supports more
> people.

Incomplete equation: "said unit resource..." *PLUS ALL THE ADDED INPUTS* "...supports more people."

It's not the "Better-tech"; it's the energy used in the application of that better-tech, plus whatever other additional inputs the "Better-tech" recipe calls for, that enables the increased output.

said standard resource + added inputs + recipe = increased output(s).

In the proffered example and its many standard variants, the said unit resource becomes just one ingredient or utensil in the better-tech recipe.

What you call "more-efficient use" isn't, necessarily. "More-efficient use" in this context is shorthand for decisions to apply the necessary additional inputs to this particular use rather than some other use, in the manner described by the Better-tech recipe.

This is not necessarily more efficient use of the standard resource. One needs to define the parameters and quantify them to support this contention. Nor is it necessarily more efficient use of the additional inputs that have been diverted to this use. Again, what are the parameters and quantification used to measure and declare it more "efficient".

Eg. More efficient than What, by How Many of Which units?

Yeah, I know I'm supposed to take it on faith that feeding more people is a Better use of the standard resource and all the additional inputs in the proffered example than any other possible use we might choose to put them to. But even if I buy that, it's a completely different (faith-based) argument than "more-efficient" use of them.

> (This is a bit simplistic.  Basically, everything
> that's happened on this planet since the advent of life has
> been just a constant reconfiguration of more or less the
> same set of atoms, with ample energy input.  

Just so. I'm surprised that, when you understand that, you can say technology increases carrying capacity. Technology simply helps us understand various ways to rearrange stuff. 

Some have referred to it -- in the context of planetary carrying capacity -- as "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic". I remain uncommitted and still a little confused but the more I study the issues the more I'm sympathizing with at least the spirit of this interpretation.

> > I would be interested in a lucid, plain language
> > explanation from someone who believes otherwise: that
> > technology can somehow overcome what I believe is the
> > absolute limit of planetary carrying capacity rather than
> > simply helping us reach that limit ever faster. Is there
> > some simple principle involved here that I'm overlooking?
> Now there's a fundamentally different, and interesting,
> question.

But it's not a different question. It's the same question. I apologize if asking it a couple of slightly different ways caused some confusion. 

I am only able to view carrying capacity in a planetary sense. A failing, I know, but in the context of discussions like this it seems the only sense that matters. Any narrower slice ends up in a discussion of what appears to be simply ways to rearrange things ... different recipes for how to use various inputs to produce different-but-equivalent outputs. Most of those recipes involve some depletion of (rendering permanently unusable) what I view as ultimately a finite resource: the planet.

How do you view this statement? "'Increasing' productivity is simply an exercise in substitution." 

(Yes, I think it's relevant to the discussion because some variant of "increased productivity of unit resources" always crops up in these discussions.)


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