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The Growth Matrix 1

18 July 2008

Friends, this is going to be a long post that we have to build in sections.  But it belongs together, because there is a sustained argument to be made here.  I hope it will not drive you away, or for very long, anyway.


There are not many things I love about traveling for work.  Most of the meetings I attend are boring, tedious, superfluous, or just plain dumb.  Some, gratefully, achieve a real purpose and deliver what they promise.  But that’s not what I have in mind this morning.

One of the things I do love about traveling for work is the opportunity to have a leisurely supper with interesting people and substantive conversation about important things.  (Usually, the food is ordinary; we can’t afford better on our per diem allotments.  But I’m not complaining; ordinary food is plenty good here in the U. S.)

This past Tuesday evening, a number of colleagues and I prevailed on our motel shuttle driver to ferry us down to Zona Rosa in Kansas City to eat supper.  Most of the troupe consisted of young-ish faculty types in our 30s and 40s; we also had a department head from a land-grant university, and an erudite Californian who represents a high-profile agricultural producer association and has to deal with environmental regulations, laws, and all of that on behalf of his producer members.  The topic of conversation for most of the evening was, “how ought we to define sustainability in the context of concentrated livestock and poultry production?”


By the way, I’m going to be peppering this post with little morsels from the New Testament, so don’t let that distract you.  Please understand:  I don’t intend them as proof texts, as if the NT were written specifically and uniquely with 21st-century America in mind.  Rather, I’m just bouncing off my Willard-inspired conviction that Jesus and the NT writers “really understood important stuff” and that their teachings may have a great deal more to say to us at the cultural and political level than the individualistic religions of modernity might reckon.  For now, take the NT references as ornamental, little tiles that fit the mosaic I want to develop here, not as anchor tiles that necessarily define the image.  

We may reach that point, but I don’t presuppose it just yet.


Let’s start with a chart of wealth distribution worldwide.  Here, wealth is expressed in terms of ecological footprint per capita, an approximate measure of an individual’s net use of solar energy.  The more energy intensive your lifestyle, the wealthier you are likely to be…or perhaps it’s better to say that the other way ’round.


Today's global distribution of wealth.

Figure 1. Today's global distribution of wealth.

This chart is probably not accurate – for any number of reasons, none of which is important to my thesis – in that the true distribution may be multimodal (have more than one peak, or local maximum), may not be “normal” (the mean equals both the mode and the median), and may not have the correct mean value (in this case, 4 acres per capita).  But those are just details.  Indisputable facts are that wealth is distributed globally, that some are wealthier than others, and that 50% of people occupy a footprint lower than the median.  (That last “fact” is really just a definition.)

One of the overarching objectives that most nations and many individuals have is to increase the energy intensiveness of their lifestyles – in short, to get wealthier.  There are many reasons for that, but one of them surely is to improve their perceived quality of life by leaving behind the awful, self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing things that poverty brings:  disease, malnutrition, poor education, and all the rest.  Medicine, food, and schools cost money, and they require energy, so they effectively occupy part of the earth’s surface so that they can harvest sunlight (solar energy) and transform molecules into other molecules.  We accelerate those transformations by burning fossil fuels, by harnessing wind and hydroelectric power, by blasting nuclei with atomic bullets and boiling water with the energy released.  Then we write and publish books, we process farm products, we manufacture drugs, and we distribute those things across the globe so that people can use them where they live.  It all works, though, because we use energy to do it.

By the way, that is probably why the tropics have such an incredible degree of biodiversity:  there is more solar energy input per unit area in the tropics than at any other latitude.  And that brings up another, related point:  the distribution in the figure above applies equally well to biodiversity.  The higher up the food chain you go, the greater your aggregate footprint on the earth.  Some organisms require more solar energy to sustain them than others.

The distribution of wealth in Figure 1 is a source of insult to some people.  We call those people “egalitarians.”  To remedy the fact that some people occupy a greater area of earth’s surface than others, throughout history there have been a number of political and military initiatives.  We call those initiatives “socialism,” whose primary objective is to redistribute wealth so that everyone has the same amount (figure 2) of earth’s land area, solar energy, and resources at their disposal.

Figure 2. Socialism's objective of wealth equalization.

Of course, the socialists expected – or hoped, against all evidence to the contrary – that the average value of the new distribution would be higher than the previous average, as shown in Figure 2.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well, which is why we ended up saying, “socialism is the uniform distribution of misery.”  Instead of Figure 2, we saw Figure 3:


Figure 3.  Socialism generally results in lower average wealth.

Figure 3. Socialism generally results in lower average wealth. (Ignore the yellow line in the legend; not sure how that snuck in there.)


We’ll continue with a new post, “The Growth Matrix 2.”


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kent permalink
    18 July 2008 3:25 pm

    qb – Very interesting topic and post. I am eagerly awaiting more.

    Live in Gunnison, Co (saw your post at Cope’s blog).

  2. 20 July 2008 7:57 pm

    I too trekked over here from Mike’s blog. How lovely to read my “twin’s” own words on his own blog! 🙂

    Read some of your previous entries, as well as this latest. You are faithful to the promise I saw on Mike’s blog. Fascinating!!


  3. 23 July 2008 10:07 pm

    Hey qb,

    Don’t know much about the growth matrix, but wanted to say hi from Shelley and me. We are in Valparaiso, IN working with a cofc here. We love it up here, though it’s a bit different. Lots of snow this past winter. Nice summer so far. And being near Chicago is awesome.

    I’d love to see a pic of you and your family. It’s been a long time and is really good to keep in touch every now and then. I’ll try to get my blog going soon. I enjoy reading your stuff on Cope’s blog. Keep it up.

    Stay in touch. Gig ’em Aggies!!!

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