Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Wealth of Nature

Last week’s Archdruid Report pointed out that modern economic thought, through its lasting difficulties in coming to terms with the dependence of human economic activity on the world of nature, has played a very large role in backing industrial civilization into its present difficulties. It probably would have been wise, though, to point out that the word “modern” here is being used in a historical sense, for these difficulties date straight back to the beginning of economics as a distinct field of study.

Adam Smith, who set the whole ball rolling with his The Wealth of Nations, started that book with the following sentence: “The annual labor of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessities and conveniences of life.” It does not seem to have occurred to Smith that the annual labor of a nation would be utterly useless without the natural raw materials, goods, and services – in the language suggested in last week’s post, the primary goods – that enable labor to be done at all, by making human life possible in the first place and by providing all that labor with something to labor on. Certainly it has occurred to very few of his successors.

The classic example is David Ricardo, who remains an influential figure in economics, not least because his theories – he was a vocal proponent of free trade, and provided what are still the standard arguments in its favor – proved to be highly useful to the British Empire in its time, and of course to the American empire in ours. Ricardo is famous for, among other things, building a significant part of his economic theories on the claim that land retains its “original and indestructible” economic value no matter what economic use is made of it.

This is an odd claim. Even in the early 19th century, when Ricardo originally made it, plenty of people could have set him straight. Bad farming practices that led to soil sterility were known in Ricardo’s time, and so was the impact of industrial pollution – though of course we have gotten much better at both since then. It may be relevant that Ricardo was born and raised in London, as far from the realities of agricultural life as you could get in his time; it is at least as relevant that his theories show the habit of dodging inconvenient facts for what look uncomfortably like ideological reasons – his arguments in favor of free trade, for example, only work if you grant the unstated assumption that international trade and its supporting infrastructure cost nothing in terms of labor, materials, or money, and also dodge the extent to which control of the transport routes and exchange processes determine who profits from the trade.

What is far more interesting, though, is that his definition of land prefigured the way that natural resources have been treated by most economists ever since. This is as true of radical economists as of their capitalist rivals; recent proponents of “green socialism,” for example, might want to reread Marx, who explicitly rejected the idea that the “free gifts of nature” could have any value at all. (The disastrous mistreatment of the environment common under Marxist regimes in the 20th century was not accidental, but a natural outgrowth of Marxist theory.) Nearly the only concession made to the ecological dimensions of economics in the mainstream, and it’s a fairly recent one, is the concept of “externalities” – the recognition that if somebody does something that fouls the environment, other people may suffer a loss of economic value as a result, and might deserve compensation for that.

Now of course this is true, and Garrett Hardin’s famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” built on that insight to remind us that a society that permits the advantages of ecological abuse to go to individuals, while the costs are shared by the whole society, is effectively subsidizing the destruction of its environment. Still, both the “externalities” argument and the structure Hardin built on it miss the central issues raised by the interface between environment and economics. Both tacitly accept Ricardo’s fantasy of invulnerable land as the normal state of affairs, apply it to the entire environment, and then focus attention on the exceptional situation when somebody does manage to make land (or some other environmental resource) less valuable.

Let’s take a closer look at the land whose value Ricardo considered “indestructible.” He was talking primarily about land as an economic factor in agriculture, and so shall we. What he apparently did not realize, but ecologists have shown in exact detail since his time, is that fertile land suitable for growing crops does not simply happen. Like anything else of value, it must be made, and once made, it must be maintained; the only difference is that the laborers that make and maintain it do not happen to be human beings.

Soil suitable for crops, after all, is not simply rock dust. A large part of it – sometimes more than half – is organic matter, some living, some dead but not yet wholly decayed, some dissolved into organic colloids complex enough to give analytical chemists sleepless nights, and all of it is put there by the activity of living things over long periods of time. Energy and raw materials flow through soil, uniting bacteria, fungi, algae, worms, insects, and many other living things into one of the most intricate ecosystems on Earth. Plants participate in and depend on this bewilderingly complex world; they draw water and mineral nutrients from it, and cycle leaves and a wide range of chemical compounds back into it.

The farmer who wants to grow crops is attempting to extract wealth from the underground ecosystem of the soil. She can ignore that, and simply plant and harvest with no attention to the needs of the soil, but the soil will be depleted of nutrients in a few years and her crops will fail. Alternatively, she can replace nutrients with chemical fertilizers, predators with pesticides, and so on; if she does this she will have to use steadily larger doses of chemicals to get the same yields, and when the chemical feedstocks run out – as they eventually will – she will be left with soil too sterile and pest-ridden to grow much of anything. If she wants to fulfill Ricardo’s promise and hand the land on to her grandchildren in the same condition that it came from her grandparents, she will have to provide the things the soil needs for its long-term health. Put another way, she will have to barter with the soil, giving it the things it will accept in exchange for crops.

This is the premise of organic agriculture, of course. It’s a premise that has proven itself over millennia, in the Asian farming regions that inspired the organic pioneers of the early 20th century to devise a more general way of doing the same thing, and over decades, in the farms now using organic methods to get yields roughly comparable to those of chemical agriculture. The organic approach has many dimensions, but one may not have received the importance it deserves. To an organic farmer, land is not a commodity that can be owned but a community with which she interacts, and that community has its own economy on which the farmer’s own economy depends.

Imagine, to develop this concept into a metaphor, that our farmer got crops, not from the fields, but from a village of some indigenous tribe near her home. The inhabitants of the village are deeply conservative, and their own economy follows traditional patterns not subject to change. If the farmer wants crops, she must find out what the villagers are willing to take in exchange for them, and that will be determined by the internal dynamics of the village economy: what is already produced in surplus amounts, what is scarce, what is desired and what is detested by the villagers. Her relations with the village, in other words, would be exactly the same in outline as those of an organic farmer with her land.

The same thing is true of every other form of economic activity, though the dependence on nature may be less obvious in some cases than in others. Behind the human activities that produce secondary goods lie nonhuman activities that produce primary goods – the biological cycles that yield soil fertility, crop pollination, and countless other things; the hydrological cycles that put fresh water into reservoirs and taps; the tectonic processes in the crust that put economically useful metals and minerals into veins in the rocks; and, of central importance just now, the extraordinarily complex interplay of biological and geological processes that stored away countless billions of tons of carbon under the earth’s surface in the form of fossil fuels.

Conventional economics assumes that these things get there by some materialist equivalent of divine fiat. This misstates the situation disastrously. Primary goods are produced by an exact analogue of the way that secondary goods are produced: raw materials are transformed, through labor, using existing capital and energy, to produce goods and services of value. The difference is simply that all this takes place in the nonhuman world. Human beings do not manage the production of primary goods, and the disastrous results of trying to do so suggest that we probably never will; on the other hand, in at least some cases – maltreated farmland is a good example – we can interfere with the production of primary goods, and suffer the consequences.

E.F. Schumacher’s insight, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods, thus needs to be extended further. There is also a primary and secondary economy. The cycles of nature that produce goods needed by human beings constitute the primary economy, while the process by which human beings produce goods is the secondary economy. The secondary economy depends utterly on the primary in at least two ways. First, as discussed last week, something like three-quarters of all economic value in today’s world is produced by nature – that is, by the primary economy – and only around a quarter is produced by human labor. Second, even that quarter is made directly or indirectly from primary goods, and cannot be made at all if the necessary primary goods aren’t there. This is why the attempt to replace a depleted natural resource with something else always involves substitution costs: human labor must be brought in to replace some part of the work previously done by nature, and the costs of that part of the work thus end up having to be paid out of the secondary economy.

We have become so used to thinking of economics as a matter of human labor that it’s probably best to point out that what are sometimes called “primary industries” – farming, mining, and the like – belong to the secondary economy, not the primary one. The primary economy consists wholly of those nonhuman processes that yield economic goods to human beings. Thus a farm and the crops grown on it are part of the secondary economy, while the soil, water, sun, and genetic potential in the seed stock that make the farm and its crops possible are part of the primary economy. In the same way, a mine is part of the secondary economy, while the slow geological processes that put ore in the ground where it can be mined are part of the primary economy. If you examine any human economic activity, you’ll find behind it natural processes that make that activity possible; those processes are the inputs from the primary economy that make the secondary economy possible.

Thus Adam Smith’s dictum cited earlier badly needs reformulation. The product of the natural environment of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessities and conveniences of life; the annual human labor is simply the energy input required to turn some of that product into forms useful for human beings. The wealth of nations, it turns out, is ultimately the wealth of nature, and the sooner the value of natural cycles and primary goods is taken into account, the better chance our descendants will have of avoiding the self-defeating habits that are pushing modern industrial system down the long road to collapse. To do so, however, will require a clear sense of the difference between value and price, or to put matters another way, between wealth and money – the theme of next week’s post.

33 comments:

bryant said...

Conventional economics assumes that these things get there by some materialist equivalent of divine fiat....or actual divine fiat.

I suspect that the notion, explicitly evident in the Abrahamic religions, that the earth was create for men by God underpins this fairly obvious error of thought.

While James G. Watt isn't any kind of religious scholar, he probably spoke for many Christian when he remarked that natural resources needed to be managed until "the Lord returns".

bbcomm said...

Besides a clear distinction between value and price, and wealth and money, we need one between prosperity and economic growth. The concept of a state that's zero-growth but still offers wholeness for most participants--it's so alien and elusive to us that even "prosperity" seems too gilded in this context.

RDatta said...

The secondary economy is in an ultimate sense, not separate from teh primary economy; it si a directed extension of the primary economy, to make goods and services useful for Homo sapiens.

It is good to have you clarify for us the world - view that had been familiar to "primitive" societies from time immemorial.

secondera said...

The notion that anyone can own land is flawed. It is akin to the idea that anyone can own anyone else but, currently there is no abolitionist movement for land.

Capitalism is compulsive about creating new and ever more abstract property rights. Real estate was inherited from feudalism but then came capital, mineral rights, water rights, patents, copyrights, trademarks and most recently derivatives. Patents and copyrights themselves are spawning new property rights in the digital age with corporations claiming extension of these rights to software, genetic sequences and business practices.

John Michael Greer said...

Bryant, you're doubtless right -- though it's interesting to watch how the moral content of the Christian view of nature has been quietly filed off, even by many of those who claim to be Christian, in favor of an amoral fantasy of greed that claims that the world is ours to waste.

BBcom, I'll be getting to that one, too. Our society's fixation on economic growth is, after all, a mark of its horrendous inefficiency -- an efficient economy would supply human needs and wants with a steadily decreasing annual throughput of labor, materials and energy.

Rdatta, good! You're quite correct, of course, that I'm saying nothing new. I'm simply trying to translate it into a language -- the language of economics -- where it's very rarely been said.

rainman said...

JMG, thanks for another intelligent, insightful and thought-provoking post. You are, quite simply, the best thing on the Internet.

Nnonnth said...

Agree with every word, and with the comments before mine (1st 3 and JMG's reply).

Do agree particularly with Bryant -- it's very striking how irreverence for the processes of nature is prefigured by the lack of attention to it in Christianity. A great religion, don't get me wrong, but nature is just not its strong point. The shadow side of that lack of attention is the greed.

In fact western spirituality since the time of the last decline hasn't been too good on nature. There's not much about it in Plato, and the Hermetic sages were citydwellers -- contrast them with the Taoists! The west has often been more comfortable with a kind of mental abstraction it seems to me, when it becomes conscious of its spirituality. It instantly wants to stamp out the earthy from a kind of embarassment. Clearly, pagan Europe (for example) was very well in touch with natural spiritual processes too. In some places it still is, actually. But in most, those things must be revived along with everything else.


This Primary/Secondary idea seems so obvious to me. I would love to know: has it been influential? Have there been any actual economists since Schumacher who accepted the theory?

Some good stuff on soil on Sharon Astyk's blog recently.

Also, anyone who watched the Prince of Wales' Dimbleby lecture last night will have noticed that, in detailing the problems we face (and even without mentioning Peak Oil) he did strike this economic note quite well. I suspect he's read his Schumacher:

Just as our banking sector is struggling with its debts... so Nature's life-support systems are failing to cope with the debts we have built up there too," he said. "If we don't face up to this, then Nature, the biggest bank of all, could go bust. And no amount of quantitative easing will revive it.

His ideas for tackling the problems are in my opinion too top-down and ill-conceived. But it was good to see ideas like the above getting airtime.

Nnonnth said...

That lecture is here BTW if people want to see:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00lncxc/Richard_Dimbleby_Lecture_Facing_the_Future/

Robert Magill said...

Ecology is an impending Black Swan quagmire therefore incorporation is anathema to Economists.

Don said...

Bryant's comment that many within the Abrahamic religions believe the earth was created for humans is certainly true enough, but it ought to be pointed out that this notion, however widespread among adherents of these faiths, is rooted in a misreading of the sacred texts.

One Christian voice that speaks out against this misreading is Wendell Berry's. For a good example of both Berry's indictment of the very problem bryant mentions, and his more accurate understanding of the sacred texts, read his essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" in the collection Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Pantheon Books, 1993).

faoladh said...

Combine this with Jane Jacobs (who also took issue with Adam Smith in her Cities and the Wealth of Nations), and I think that we'd have an economic theory which can finally overturn the mistakes of the 18th-19th century economists. What new economic philosophies might develop from these?

Kathy said...

Good post JMG. One question. You note that organic farmers get comparable yields to non organic farmers. Are they supplying organic input totally from the fields they are farming or do they get organic input from elsewhere (manure, city yard waste etc.). I bring in outside organic material to my garden in the form of leaves from the nearby town. I am not sure at all that I could get equivalent yields if I didn't borrow from land that is being shorted of that organic material. If you are farming for sale you are constantly sending your minerals and organic material elsewhere so it would seem that you need to turn elsewhere for inputs. We have done large scale agriculture by mining minerals from a few locations and from natural gas. Can we turn all our farms organic and find enough organic inputs to sustain the same level for the whole country?

James m Dakin said...

A very good point that has been recently forgotten. Don't forget the solution that has never been forgotten is war. When you run out, just steal from next door. You may not care, being too old for the draft ( and we can't afford much more conquest anyway ), but nuclear weapons make resource theft everyone's problem. Thanks, Druid Dude, for a great publication ( and I did buy your book as payment, with the new one on my Amazon wish list ).

John Michael Greer said...

Secondera, the idea of ownership is a social construct; so is the idea of non-ownership. I don't see either as inherently better or worse than the other.

Rainman, thanks!

Nnonnth, in my readings in economics so far I have yet to find the primary/secondary distinction mentioned by any other economist, even the ecological economists. No idea why. Thanks for the link!

Robert, but why did economists refuse to incorporate the environment in their models centuries before it became an impending Black Swan? I think there's more to it than the ostrich response of assuming that if you don't see it, it can't see you.

Don, of course there are thoughtful members of the Abrahamic religions these days who have grasped the need for their faiths to take on an ecological dimension -- and Berry's an excellent example. Very often, as I see it, the people who are using scripture to justify ecological pillage are among the many people these days who still use Judeo-Christian language and metaphors but have hollowed them out of their original content, and filled the space with the modern religion of progress.

Faoladh, thanks for the reference! I'll check Jacobs' book out.

Kathy, the missing link in most organic farming these days is the use of composted human waste. Organic matter gets imported from elsewhere because the single richest and most useful flow of nutrients for plants gets quite literally flushed down the toilet instead. Change that, and there's no reason why an organic farm should have to import anything.

James, thank you! I'll be talking later on about the role of war in the economics of decline, too.

thetinfoilhatsociety said...

I know this is a little off topic, but the conversation about humanure interests me.

I agree in theory that putting that back into the soil should be a good thing. What I worry about, however, is that we humans are probably more disease ridden than any other species on earth; how do we ensure that these things don't get put back into the soil and continue the infection cycle?

I am aware that a properly heated compost pile can kill many bad things, but not everyone will do so; this is where my worry lies. In fact, I can't seem to get a simple vegetative compost pile up to any decent heat -- I simply let it sit for a year or two before I use it. And I don't save any obviously diseased plants.

Do we end up segregating human excrement based on the owner's disease status?

-Susan

Joel said...

>dissolved into organic colloids complex enough to give analytical chemists sleepless nights

I hate to pick nits here, but the first word should probably be "suspended." Dissolution destroys colloids, like clouds burning off in the afternoon sun, for example.

I enjoyed the essay. And of course you're absolutely right about the complexity of soil. My work on batteries was frustrating partly because intercalation reactions are complicated, even in simplified experimental settings and with ridiculously pure synthetic materials. In nature, a wide range of minerals participate in intercalation and adsorption reactions for a variety of important ions, and biological systems are responding actively to these reactions...and that's just the flow of ions into and out of the inorganic component of soil.

Aeroponics, anyone?

John Michael Greer said...

Tinfoil, this is why info about composting toilets and the like is worth learning and passing on. Bacteria and viruses used to the sheltered environment of a human gut don't stand a chance in the fiercely Darwinian environment of a properly managed composter. John Jenkins' Humanure Handbook is a good source.

Joel, of course you're right. The word I should have used was "decomposed," since the colloids in question are the leftoffs from bacterial and fungal decomposition of dead plant and animal matter in the soil.

earthdoglady said...

In terms of organic input required please investigate some permaculture ideas. It is possible to grow enough plants to add to the soil and provide ongoing fertility on the same property that crops are grown. I highly recommend Geoff Lawton's DVD, 'Establishing a Food Forest'.
http://permaculture.org.au/store/food_forest_dvd.htm We may also feed some of the crop to animals and return their manure as well as our own.

Draco TB said...

the idea of ownership is a social construct; so is the idea of non-ownership. I don't see either as inherently better or worse than the other.

The problem of individual ownership of land is that some people will always claim absolute rights to it and abuse it and everything that crosses it. So the land will become polluted, water downstream of it will be dead or non-existent (get used up in irrigation) etc. We have this problem in NZ. Our government recognized the problem some years ago but the farmers persuaded them that they would take care of it - they haven't. Our last government was looking at doing something about it but was getting a lot of flak about roding roughshod over property rights.

JimK said...

Nature: An Economic History, by Geerat Vermeij, looks very relevant to this discussion. Chapter three is titled "Human and Nonhuman Economics Compared". I have yet to read the book, but it's at least on a shelf ready, rather than stuffed away in a box!

tata_23 said...

The idea of primary resources VS secondary resources reflects the idea of evolved VS devolved land. There is no such thing as development of the land, sustainable or otherwise. Basically, any human intervention pertaining to the land is a devolution of the land. Land is always in the highest possible state of evolution. The land is always doing what it is supposed to be doing. When people decide to develop resources, especially primary resources, they are making those things into something lessor than they are. Even the best run, completely sustainable organic farm is not as highly evolved as the land was before there was a farm. Certainly, that kind of farm creates it's own ecosystem and enriches the soil, becoming something very useful to humans while putting back to the earth. But, that farm is still not as complex or as perfect as the land was before that farm existed on it. Nature simply does and is.
Industrialized people feel they must control nature and change it. Throughout human history people have done this, but industrialized people also feel they have actually improved the land because now someone can make money off of it. That land "just siting around doing nothing" should be made into a overpriced housing development so people can live totally detached from the natural world in a haze of modern conveniences and stuff. "Look at that empty field and all those trees over there. Let's put a strip mall there. That land is just sitting idle."
This kind of societal thinking has not benefited us as a society at all, as is now very evident. What would help our society is a shift toward minimizing the impact of our actions pertaining to land and its resources. Such as more organic farms, less land under tillage, more farmers on those farms, no more fuel crops, no more luxury crops like corn just for corn syrup, more food crops to be fed directly to people and not to animals, more dietary change to eat less meat and more plants, and so on. Society has a lot of work to do.

Pete Murphy said...

Terrific post, John. Your final paragraph, calling for the reformation of Smith's theory, is proufound. I'd like to share some additional perspective on why unfettered free trade is a flawed theory and why population growth has become economically cancerous.

I am author of a book titled "Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America." My theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption begins to decline. This occurs because, as people are forced to crowd together and conserve space, it becomes ever more impractical to own many products. Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge ramifications for U.S. policy toward population management (especially immigration policy) and trade. The implications for population policy may be obvious, but why trade? It's because these effects of an excessive population density - rising unemployment and poverty - are actually imported when we attempt to engage in free trade in manufactured goods with a nation that is much more densely populated. Our economies combine. The work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while the more densely populated nation gets free access to a healthy market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic, irreversible trade deficit and loss of jobs, tantamount to economic suicide.

One need look no further than the U.S.'s trade data for proof of this effect. Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

Our trade deficit with China is getting all of the attention these days. But, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China in manufactured goods is rather unremarkable - nineteenth on the list. Our per capita deficit with other nations such as Japan, Germany, Mexico, Korea and others (all much more densely populated than the U.S.) is worse. My point is not that our deficit with China isn't a problem, but rather that it's exactly what we should have expected when we suddenly applied a trade policy that was a proven failure around the world to a country with one fifth of the world's population.

Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage is overly simplistic and flawed because it does not take into consideration this population density effect and what happens when two nations grossly disparate in population density attempt to trade freely in manufactured goods. While free trade in natural resources and free trade in manufactured goods between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed beneficial, just as Ricardo predicts, it’s a sure-fire loser when attempting to trade freely in manufactured goods with a nation with an excessive population density.

If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit either of my web sites at OpenWindowPublishingCo.com or PeteMurphy.wordpress.com where you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like. (It's also available at Amazon.com.)

Please forgive me for the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph, but I don't know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about trade without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

RudolfC said...

Draco said: "The problem of individual ownership of land is that some people will always claim absolute rights to it and abuse it and everything that crosses it." But the problem with corporate ownership of land is Hardin's "tragedy of the commons." Perhaps the medieval institution of serfdom was wiser than we think: the serf was bound to his land, so on the one hand he couldn't be kicked off it (theoretically), but on the other he and his heirs were stuck with it forever, so it made sense to take care of it.
By the way, what say we all get together and nominate Joe Jenkins for the Nobel Peace Prize? His research and ideas could go a long way to making the world a more sustainable place.

Bill Pulliam said...

Assorted comments...

As to why economists left nature out of the picture, I think this is intimately related to your ongoing theme of the pervasive cultural mythology of progress. We believe that as it is our destiny to progress ever onward and upward, that we have left those ancient natural limits far behind us. Nature was a force that shaped primitive societies. We have progressed to the point where we shape our own societies and will soon advance so far that we shape the universe itself. At least so goes the story.

When I was in grad school, the soil scientists sometimes said that "Soil is the poor man's tropics." By this they meant that if you wanted to see a splendor of incredible biodiversity and amazingly intricate and complex ecological associations, just put a cubic centimeter of soil under a microscope. No need to travel off to the Amazon. Aren't the current estimates that this random cubic centimeter of natural soil contains something like millions of species of microbes, almost all of them "unknown to science?"

About organic matter, permaculture, fertility, and the like. Compost recycles and redistributes nutrients. It does not create them. On a large scale, nutrients come from two sources: the atmosphere and the rocks. From the rocks they are released slowly by chemical weathering; from the atmosphere they (mostly nitrogen) are fixed by living microbes. Other "atmospheric" inputs like sulfur deposition are really just variants of these two. For instance, man-made sulfur inputs in rain mostly come from burning coal; in other words, from rocks, aided by human activities. You can make your farm close to nutrient self sufficient without large sources of external organic fertilizers if you encourage the biological fixation of N and discourage the loss of mineral nutrients by leaching and erosion. Crop rotations or intercroping with nitrogen fixing plants, building up organic matter in the soil (which helps retain mineral nutrients by binding them chemically while still leaving them available to plant roots, as well as encouraging nitrogen fixation by free-living microbes), cover crops and careful management of tillage and irrigation can almost entirely eliminate loss of soil and nutrients by erosion and greatly reduce leaching. So it can be done without big outside subsidies of manure, etc., but it will take time, thought, and good management.

Of course on a societal scale, imported manure and compost from livestock operations, sewage plants, solid waste streams, agricultural and forestry operations, etc. represent the same thing in the bigger picture. It's just a matter of where you draw the boundary around your system that you want to keep "self-sufficient," and how much energy it takes to gather and move all this stuff around.

DIYer said...

I'm looking forward to that essay on ownership.

I think there's certainly a natural, wired-in concept of ownership among many mammals. I can see it in our dogs, some more than others -- of course the dog's dominant/submissive nature plays a big role in that.

The ownership thing has gone totally berserk in the late 20th century however. Did the entertainment industry really think that by suing 10 year old girls for downloading, they could revivify the ashes of John Lennon or thaw out old Walt Disney to create more of their stock in trade?

On the other hand, of course, we have numerous tragedies-of-the-commons in progress and in the making. Do I still own all those goats if I let them graze the common down to bare dirt?

Danby said...

tata_23
There is no such thing as "more highly evolved" and "less highly evolved". Both terms presuppose an endpoint or purpose to evolution. The soil is never "doing what it is supposed to be doing" unless you posit a will that gives purpose to the activity within the soil. While I certainly do believe in such a will, it is the will that gave mankind a garden, not a wilderness.

Why is a higher calling for a hectare of soil to support a population of shrews and locusts than for it to support a thousand generations of Chinese peasants?

tata_23 said...

A point of order on human manure in compost for crops. It is a frowned upon practice to compost our poop in the west because, quite frankly, we ingest so much crap. Our diets are so full of chemicals and our medications concentrate into toxins that persist in the environment - why you aren't supposed to flush old pills. To concentrate the artificial chemicals and preservatives of our diets, coupled with the pharmaceuticals, creates a toxic solid waste that is not suitable for growing crops.
In other countries rural populations, such as in China, composting the family's poop for their crops is common practice. What they ingest is worlds different from us in the US. This is why municipal sludge is not allowed in Certified Organic crops.

Draco TB said...

RudolfC said...
But the problem with corporate ownership of land is Hardin's "tragedy of the commons."
Actually, that's incorrect. Let me try to explain.

The problem with the Tragedy of the Commons wasn't that the land was available for use by everyone but by individual self-interest and a lack of rules regarding the use of the land. This allowed people to use the land as they wished for their own benefit without considering the costs. The individual would benefit directly but the costs associated with those benefits would be shared across the entire community. The individual would be better off while the community would be worse off. This is exactly the same problem that I described with individually owned farms because those farms still exist within the commons. The environmental degradation (cost) is born by all while all the benefits go to the farmer.

What's needed is communal rules regarding the use of land that extends to privately owned lands as well. As I said, our (NZ) last government was looking into this but the farmers were fighting back with cries about property rights. Then we voted in a conservative government.

tata_23 said...

Danby, the terms I use as to "more" or "less evolved", or the soil "doing what it is supposed to do" are not literal. They are descriptive so as to make a philosophical point. And, no, I do not purport that any one creature is more deserving of the bounty of the land. But, industrial society surly has taken more than its due.

dnissley said...

Some discussion (or surprising lack of it) over at metafilter.

thricelost said...

Like any functioning economy, the "primary economy" in your post will likely correct its imbalances over time. Probably this won't be good for the "secondary economy;" I assume all effects will be amplified there. For all we know, some of the world myths about Atlantis or the tower of Babel or the Flood or whatnot have some basis in history and it's happened before.

After witnessing the reponse of politicians over the last decade on various issues, and seeing how people tend to support them doing the exact opposite of what they should be, I fully expect we will not prevent the collapse of the "secondary economy."

Right now, it's like watching the Federal Reserve in 2001 lowering interest rates to transfer the dot com bubble into the housing bubble. You know the end won't be pretty but you know it's inevitable.

I just don't think humans will ever stop ruining the system that supports them. Ever. Their hands will have to be bound against their will by the planet itself. Do you believe otherwise?

ric said...

Thanks so much for this fantastic and thought-provoking series of posts, JMG. Sometimes it takes an individual or many individuals operating outside of the traditional, approved institutions to improve the framework supporting a discipline like economics or physics. Einstein at the turn of the century comes to mind. This is what I think you are doing in regards to economics - improving the underlying framework so the discipline can more accurately describe observed behavior in how "goods and services" are distributed among individuals belonging to a society. Of course Einstein╩╗s work merely had to help explain puzzling experimental lab results. Your work is helping to explain the ongoing collapse of humanity╩╗s most technologically advanced society.

I was wondering if you could share (or point me in the right direction) of any correspondence you may have had with any professional economists to which you alluded in the first paragraph of this post.

bgibb said...

Hello,

I've just come across your work as a result of an article in The Guardian. My compliments.

I suggest an additiion to your primary and secondary economies. I would add a third, the fictive speculative economy of financial markets.

Perhaps, the recent collapse of the latest asset bubble follows the logic of the catabolic catastrophe. As the bubble inflates, Hyman Minsky asserts that there is an increasing degradation in the quality of capital investments that eventually causes the bubble to collapse.

I suspect that the economic dependence on asset inflation to maintain economic growth is due to the diminishing returns of economic ativity in the primary and secondary economies.

I'm looking forward to reading The Long Descent.

Cheers.