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Limits to Progress

Biological life, human society, and machines are all systems that depend on an external reservoir of energy. For life, it is solar energy falling on the earth; for society it is the energy and materials supplied by nature and by other, subservient societies; for machines it is the dwindling reservoir of fossil fuels. But just as a refrigerator creates cold in a contained location by heating the environment outside it (which makes it ever more difficult to maintain the cold inside), the organization of life, of society, and of machines is maintained at the expense of their environments with diminishing returns. While one automobile might run forever on the world’s supply of fossil fuels without exhausting them or creating noticeable pollution, a billion of them cannot. Free lunch depends on an infinitely resilient environment; but the earth is not infinite and nature is resilient only within elastic bounds that are already on the verge of snapping. The bigger the effect of the part, the bigger the counter-effect of the whole. And when the part is large in relation to the whole, like industrial civilization on the planet, its impact is enormous. There are limits to the overall progress our civilization can make against the backdrop of nature and against that of the world community. There is no free lunch in the long term and on the large scale, neither in society nor in nature, because equilibrium implies that there is no overall long-term domination of one part by another and no progress without the slow co-evolution of the whole. The investment economy is in complete denial of this simple truth. If we applied the same common sense to economics that is involved in ecological principles, we might have a world that is just as well as sustainable.

RELATED TAGS: [limits to growth/progress, no free lunch, second law of thermodynamics, increasing entropy, modern/economic imperialism]

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