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The Growth Matrix 2

13 August 2008

In the first post, we noted that economic freedom results – inevitably, probably – in a nonuniform distribution of wealth and per capita net energy consumption, which we use the term “ecological footprint” to represent in the aggregate.  The idea here is that real wealth depends on “natural capital,” which in a remarkably seminal way means energy.  This idea has a lot of bearings to it, and we need to think about them.

For example, the late ecologist H. T. Odum once proposed that the evolution of societies or ecosystems favors those species that are able to scavenge energy more effectively than other species.  If that is approximately true in natural systems where the fallen human will is not in play, just imagine what happens to such systems when we add the human will into the mix.

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In biology, we use the terms “competition” and “competitive advantage” to describe processes and relationships that favor one species over another at the same tier of complexity.  When we consider the microbial flora in a mammalian digestive tract, for example, we say that even though aerobic (oxygen-requiring) bacteria may be introduced into the tract in certain foodstuffs, they end up at a “competitive disadvantage” as compared to the anaerobes (the ones that do not require oxygen).  Because the gut is depleted of oxygen, the anaerobes flourish, and the aerobes perish.  We insist on anthropomorphisms , and so we call the phenomenon “competition.”  But I doubt that a Salmonella is aware that it is “competing” with a Pseudomonas for whatever food lies about the two of them.  It simply does what it does.

The degree of self-awareness involved in these relationships appears to increase as we move up the food chain.  We’ve all watched the standard Animal Planet shows about the African savannah:  cheetah sees antelope, cheetah chases antelope, cheetah kills antelope, hyenas move in and take the carcass away.  The cheetah knows it’s possible, apparently, because she keeps looking around for incoming threats; her survival, and that of her cubs, depend on biological paranoia.  Except it’s not paranoia.  The hyenas really are out to get her kill.

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My wife and her business partner at the time bought a franchise whose territory was centered in Amarillo and extended to most of the Panhandle.  The franchise grew modestly, and it looked promising.  But another lady in the area decided to copy the concept and (shamelessly, I think) introduced her own version of it as a direct competitor for the consignors and the cash flow that they brought to my wife’s business.  I remember vividly the visceral reaction in my stomach when I heard that first advertisement on the radio.  “OK, game on,” I remember thinking.  “We need to figure out a way to crush her.”

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Wait a minute.  You probably read that last paragraph and thought, “well, sure!”  That’s the American way.  We rely on this biologically programmed behavior known as “competition” to ensure that the fittest companies that accomplish the most are most likely to survive in the free market, and it works.   But you probably did just what I did as I wrote that paragraph.  You skipped blithely over the central presupposition:  “the franchise grew…”  

Somehow, growth is self-validating.  “Flourishing” and “growth” are so intertwined in our biology, we can’t even tell where one ends and the other begins.

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Gotta stop now.  But there’s lots more to go, starting with a little letter by James, the half-brother of Jesus.  I hope you’ll stay with me on this.

qb

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