Monday, May 28, 2007

The burning world

"The difference between science and economics is that science attempts to understand the behaviour of nature, while economics attempts to understand the behaviour of models. And many of these models have no relation to any state of nature that has ever existed on this planet."

That, in a nutshell, is the message of Thomas Legendre's remarkable novel The Burning, recently published in paperback in the UK. It's a campus novel which embeds an unorthodox economic polemic inside the usual academic and sexual shenanigans. Apart from some intrusive stylistic tics, it's a much more engaging and well-written story than one initially expects from the introduction of the protagonist:
His name was Logan Smith and he had just earned a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and he wasn't going to sleep in his hotel room tonight.

But it's this embedded critique of the neo-classical orthodoxy that distinguishes the book (although, perhaps unsurprisingly, its cover and blurb obscure this major aspect of the work). Legendre draws on the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen to argue that energy and entropy considerations impose fundamental limits on models of economic growth. Coming from a physics background, that does indeed seem obvious (I've often thought the same myself, at least), but it's not something you'll see acknowledged in mainstream economics in any significant way.

Legendre, via his fictional economics and astrophysics PhDs, focuses on energy constraints, but there's also increasing awareness - among materials scientists and geologists, if not among economists - about constraints imposed by specific limited resources. Research published in this week's New Scientist details the rapid consumption of limited resources of metals - from rare elements like gallium and indium, to commonplace materials like copper and silver. Ironically, this places severe limitations on the spread of clean technologies such as solar panels and fuel cells, as well as many other growth technologies:
as [Tom Graedel of Yale University] points out in a paper published last year (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 103, p 1209), "Virgin stocks of several metals appear inadequate to sustain the modern 'developed world' quality of life for all of Earth's people under contemporary technology." And when resources run short, conflict is often not far behind.

Of course, economics has its supply-and-demand models for this sort of thing, but the nice clean orthodox theories generally don't consider the implications for macro growth, or the possibility of technological limitations, or the general human mess of it all. In a real ashes-to-ashes detail, researchers are looking at reclaiming platinum, emitted in trace quantities from vehicle catalytic converters, from the dust accumulating in road-sweepers.

Less scrupulous operators are already responding to scarcity-driven price rises for some common metals through some creative reclamation. In another detail that would fit nicely into a moderately apocalyptic novel, the Guardian today reports that copper thieves, stealing cables and pipes for scrap value, are causing havoc for railway operators and other infrastructure providers, and are even being blamed for a gas explosion that destroyed a house in Bradford. The metal's likely destination is China, as that colossal country invests in its own infrastructure in a bid to reach US levels of production and consumption. At this rate, we're going to need a bigger planet.

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