Exploring Complexity in Economic Theory - Thomas Homer-Dixon

Thomas Homer-Dixon, Professor at the Centre for Environment and Business in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, speaking in the panel "Exploring Complexity in Economic Theory" at the Bretton Woods Conference on April 10, 2011.

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As someone who trained in biochemistry and ecology, spent 17 years commercial fishing, and 25 years developing software, and all of that time involved in politics and community service, interested in mathematics, physics and evolution; I can only heartily agree with all you say.

 
It seems to me that we face some very deep issues.
 
It is possible that economics might continue to offer valuable contributions to human development, and it is also possible that we may choose a path that makes economics redundant in terms of large scale decision making.
 
Humanity as a whole faces many large scale threats.
 
Comet and meteor strike are both low probability high impact events.
 
Large scale volcanism is similar.
 
So is large scale pandemic - with some highly infectious agent with a long incubation period.
 
The only effective strategies I have come across that allow us to deal with all of the above involve mega-scale technologies.  To produce those requires automation of the entire process of production, and the resulting exponential growth of technology.  The most logical power source is the sun, a nice nuclear reactor safely housed 93 million miles away.
 
If we are to create such technologies, then it seems logical to also program them to produce abundance of the goods and services that all people require to live and prosper.
 
In such abundance, money has marginal utility, as nothing important is scarce (abundant things have no economic value), and thus economics similarly has no utility.
 
 
 
Certainly there is risk in such a strategy, as we have no data about how people would react in such circumstances over the long term.
 
The question is, what is the risk of not adopting such a strategy?
 
To me, it seems to be certain extinction, sooner or later.
 
 
 
There is a myth that we are short of energy - we are not.
 
Humanity uses far less than 0.1% of the energy the sun delivers to earth.  And the energy available in near earth orbit is true mind boggling.
 
All we lack is appropriate technology, distributed appropriately.
 
 
 
It seems that economics cannot deliver that technology, as all economic theory is founded on the assumption of asymmetric distribution requiring trade; and is thus a factor working against (rather than for) abundance [despite the amazing abundance that some few of us are fortunate enough to experience right now].
 
 
 
It seems that all major advances in living systems have been about developing successive levels of cooperation.   RNA molecules got together and cooperated to make cells and DNA.   Colonies of cells got together within cell membranes to make eukaryotic cells.  Cells got together to make bodies.  Bodies got together to make communities and cultures.  Mimetic evolution is on an exponential growth phase.
 
 
 
Are we able to get past competition, to a new level of cooperation, based up technology and awareness?
 
 
 
Can we see past the patterns of our past, into a whole new realm of possibility?
 
I loved your response to the Q&A session - aligns perfectly with my own.
 

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