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Thoughts on the work of J M Greer: The Wealth of Nature

September 28, 2011

Reading The Wealth of Nature by J M Greer and enjoying it very much. The chapter called The Metaphysics of Money is particularly interesting and original – at least to me.

Greer’s main message is that our civilization is, at best, in slow decline as we run out of the sort of concentrated energy needed to drive the industrial societies we have had in the West for about 400 years – and that we had better start to think of ways to live differently if we want to survive.

But there are four things Greer does not address – at least in this book – and which I would be interested to hear his views on.

1. New forms of energy. New forms of energy are often discovered from overcoming a potential hill. This is as true of fire itself, in which human muscle is used – in the of rubbing materials together – to break the chemical bonds in wood or dried grass to release energy, as it is in nuclear energy in which potential hills due to electric repulsion between the nuclei must be overcome so as to release energy – by Einstein’s famous equation.

Why is this important? Well, for two reasons: 1) We simply cannot rule out that another discovery of this magnitude is not just around the corner, in which case all our energy needs might be met for such a long time as to make other calculations irrelevant; 2) there may be a way (whacky as this might sound to some) to overcome the gravitational potential hill around the earth to mine terrestrial bodies and provide our resources this way.

Now if I were a big industrialist and megacapitalist – which I am not – it would be an intellectually honest approach to base my actions on these possibilities. I think Greer at least needs to address these issues, even if only to say that these ‘punts’ are too risky to be taken seriously as policy.

2. New ways to capture solar energy. This is the sort of thing I think Craig Venter is trying to do. Frankensteinish as it sounds, there is no a priori reason that an artificially created life form cannot ‘improve’ on the capture of solar energy by existing plants. Greer himself points out a) that there is a lot of sunlight coming to earth which is not captured; b) that plants are inefficient at capturing the light they do. So it may well be possible to engineer an organism which captures light and which then stores it as energy that we can use. If these organisms are also self-replicating, it is not clear that they would need the sort of entropy-hungry concentrating of energy that Greer rightly criticizes in many ‘green tech’ solutions.

3. The problem of weapons of defence. It is a grim fact that much technological innovation has been driven by wars. Further, weapons are energy and entropy hungry and, of course, terrifically destructive of both these things – and a lot else besides – when used. The ‘best’ weapons, then, tend to belong to the most advanced industrialised and technological societies. The problem with Greer’s vision is that the nations that choose to ‘tool down’ first in order to survive, will then be vulnerable to those who practise the brinkmanship of ploughing resources into weapons –  weapons which they would then be happy to use if they felt it was to their national advantage.

The history of humankind does not suggest that universal peace between nations is coming any time soon. It would therefore be a hard sell to the people of any nation that they need to abandon the making of weapons. I suggest that many would rather practise the sort of energy/entropy brinkmanship that the making of weapons requires, rather than leave themselves vulnerable to attack and domination by others.

4. The shift in awareness of what it is to be human. Greer’s views present a deep challenge to the very notion of what it has become to be human for a large part of the world. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say that since the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution in Europe – about 500 years ago – Western man has defined himself by the sort of problem solving that is inspired by – but also leads to – great breakthroughs in science, technology, medicine etc. And of course, this is now no longer Western: the civilizations of the East have completely embraced these aspects of humanness. But what Greer seems to suggest is that this very way of being – the sort of problem solving that distinguishes us from animals – is threatening our own survival. Thus survival requires a massive shift in consciousness. I see it as putting a kind of lid on the way we have been – though Greer might argue differently that it is actually more about expanding our consciousness in other areas. Whatever the correct picture of this is, it will certainly be an enormously difficult sell: to survive, we have to change what it means to be human.

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From → Economics, Philosophy

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