An Evolving Biochemical Technicolor Bird’s Nest

We need to think of economics as something much wider and more diverse than the 2-dimensional graphs we are so used to. Economists, investors and political leaders routinely push us to believe economic progress means expansion over time. When the total amount of goods, services and currency exchanged in a given place expands over a given interval, the assumption is the economy is healthy and access to wealth is generally increasing.

Critics of these many thinkers argue this is linear thinking, that it leads to irresponsible consumption, an ongoing incentive to hide waste and collateral damage, and that a more natural and responsible economic paradigm would be what is called “the circular economy”. In this view, things are situated as they are; we use some of these things and fashion them into others; ultimately, it is our use of things that gives value, but everything can continue to intermingle. Ideally, there is no net waste, and so, the economy is circular.

The contest between linear and circular economic thinking suggests a binary opposition in which the human economy is oriented either toward profit-driven planned obsolescence or toward responsible reusability and life-cycle ecological integrity. This binary opposition is set up in no small measure, because we spend so much time looking at bar graphs and pie charts, and other 2-dimensional graphic representations of lived human experience. With such a heavy emphasis on what maps onto the X and Y axes, we end up looking for improvements to the graphic situation, without always getting down to what happens at the level of person to person human interaction.

Measuring value at the human scale is a very different task from understanding whether a national economy produced more exchange last year than the year before. In any small human community—a family, two friends hiking, a basketball team, a group of ten students hoping to master a foreign language—decisions are informed by values that are determined only partly by what is visible in the conventional macroeconomy, only partly by what is visible in a more intimate microeconomic assessment.

GDELT-birdnest-zoom-x3What connects my actions to the life of someone on the other side of the planet is hard to identify, but real, active, and can be mapped by science, ethics, faith, or data. Most of what gives value to human endeavor touches the economy, but has its roots in something more nuanced, more personal and more complex. Much of what motivates our consideration of value exists in the dark spaces between the visible connections.

Jacques Derrida once explained, in a tour de force lecture at Villanova University on religion, deconstruction, ethics, and truth-seeking, that “absolute unity would be a catastrophe”. Before you can have human intelligence, you first have to have darkness and light, gravity and what it pulls in, or what works around it, hydrogen, helium, carbon and everything else, and enough difference and complexity that we can get to cellular biology and red blood cells that use iron to carry oxygen throughout our entire body, to our brains, eyes, fingertips. Only with difference can we come to exist in our complexity.

If our economy were truly 2-dimensional (adhering strictly to a linear or circular model), it would be a catastrophe, because virtually nothing of human experience as we live it would be of any value. Our economy is much more like an always evolving biochemical technicolor bird’s nest than it is a line, an arc, or a circle, and this complexity is how and why we are able to talk about value. It is full of connections, overlaps, interferences, and color, and all of these interacting features work together to give us the economic map and driving forces we experience.

Complex intermingling is what human intelligence is made of. Economics is about how human beings live with it. We need to embrace complexity, honor the ecology of our experience, and learn to talk about human socio-political dynamics that are always evolving through values that reside in the dark spaces where something unquantifiable makes the difference.

[ The Note for May 2016 ]


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