Valuing the Earth: Ultimate Means and Biophysical Constraints

I’ve been enjoying reading Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics so much that I thought I should try to review some of the main points and add my own thoughts and reactions. The book is divided into three sections covering the three topics in the subtitle: 1)Ecology 2)Ethics and 3)Economics. So, I will follow this format with an additional aside on property somewhere in there. This is an edited work that has gone through two editions. So, not all of the authors completely agree with each other. Some of the chapters are from the 1970s, while others were added to later additions. C.S. Lewis’ famous essay from 1944, “The Abolition of Man”, is included in the ethics section (which was mentioned recently by a former seminary professor on his blog related to a completely different topic, A much neglected basic choice in theology). The titles for my posts are taken from headings of chapters or sections in the book.

In the introduction by Herman Daly, he uses the ends-means spectrum to talk about a framework for understanding the essays in the book. On the bottom of the spectrum are “ultimate means” (low-entropy matter-energy). At the top of the spectrum is “Ultimate end (?)”. In between are two sets of intermediate needs. Each of the four areas of the spectrum have a corresponding field of study. Physics deals with ultimate means, the material physical stuff of this world and how it works. Close to the bottom are the intermediate means of stocks of artifacts and labor power. This field is referred to as “Technics,” in other words how to deal with the ultimate means in terms of getting the raw materials and using them. Then there is a large gap before the intermediate ends of health, education, comfort, etc. This area corresponds to the field of ethics which defines the things we should do and the good life. The field covering the vast gap between intermediate means and ends is labeled political economy. I think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is helpful keep in mind in conjunction with this spectrum.


The author argues that typically economics ignores ultimate means and ends concerning itself primarily with this vast middle. “Absolute limits are absent from the economists’ paradigm because absolutes are encountered only in confrontation with the ultimate poles of the spectrum” (Daly 21). So, the first section of the book concerns whether or not ultimate means are limited. The second section concerns the question of ultimate means and the purpose towards which our economic activity moves us. The final section concerns the implications and interaction of these two poles of the spectrum.

Limited or Unlimited?

The growth economists’ vision is one of continuous growth in intermediate means (unconstrained by any scarcity of ultimate means) in order to satisfy ever more intermediate ends (unconstrained by any impositions from the Ultimate End). Infinite means plus infinite ends equals growth forever. (Daly 21-22)

So, the question is whether ultimate means are in fact unlimited. The essays consider two important aspects of this issue: availability and population. First, are the natural resources used to fuel our economy infinite? Second, how many people can the available natural resources support and at what cost to quality of life?

Natural resources are what fuels the economy, whether it’s vegetables, silver or oil. Even those who produce only ideas in our economy (e.g. a company that only makes brand names) still consume resources. They must eat, wear clothes and have a place to live which requires a lot of natural resources. They also certainly use equipment (computers, phones, etc.) that require lots of natural resources to produce. We are all dependent for our lives, lifestyles and work on the natural world no matter what we do for a living.

The economic process is solidly anchored to a material base which is subject to definite constraints. It is because of these constraints that the economic process has a unidirectional irrevocable evolution. In the economic world only money circulates back and forth between one economic sector and another (although, in truth, even bullion slowly wears out and its stock must be continuously replenished from the mineral deposits). In retrospect it appears that the economists of both persuasions (Marxist and orthodox growth economics) have succumbed to the worst economic fetishism–money fetishism. (Georgescu-Roegen 81)

We have been hearing about peak oil for some time now, and there seems to be a growing awareness that the resources we rely on, which once seemed to be infinite, are in fact finite. There are a couple responses that growth economists and optimists have to this fact of finite resources. First, they say we will simply be able to substitute different resources for the ones we’re currently using. So, we’ll turn to natural gas or something else and turn it into energy that will fuel our cars, homes and our economy. The assumption is that we will be able to substitute infinitely one resource for another, but once again the world is finite and we will eventually run out of material stuff or be unable to convert what’s left into energy. Remember that it takes energy to convert these resources into energy. Just as in the case of the Alberta Tar Sands we are expending ever more energy in order to extract resources than we are able to get energy out of those resources.

Which brings us to the next rebuttal that technology will save us. Unfortunately, this ignores fundamental laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics says that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Economists seem to recognize this with the oft quoted adage “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” However, we ignore this law in the way we talk about economic consumption. In reality, nothing is ever consumed. It is simply converted into something else. Gasoline does not disappear when it is burned. Coal does not disappear when we turn it into energy to keep the fridge running. This is where the second law of thermodynamics comes into play. This is also known as entropy, “a measure of the unavailable energy in a thermodynamic system.” This is the law that states that energy always moves from low entropy to high entropy. The heat from a pot of boiling water when taken away from a heat/energy source will eventually equalize with the surrounding temperature of the room. It is impossible for the pot of water to boil again without an external source of heat/energy.

Economics in general has yet to catch up to the reality of physics.

This is often a touchy subject and one many people are still uncomfortable even discussing. However, if our ultimate means are in fact limited, then this has a direct impact on the amount of world population that is sustainable. The quality of life on the planet is directly related to the amount of people we are trying to support. Just look at the biggest cities in the world and you will see that the amount of people crammed into one place has a direct impact on quality of life. As was mentioned several times in the book, claims that world food production could support 40-45 billion people sound good, but what kind of world would we live in if that many people existed on the planet. We are quickly approaching 7 billion people on the planet. In order to continue to sustain life on the planet and increase the quality of life for more people, we will be forced one way or another to address the population issue.

Terrestrial vs. Solar Energy
Another distinction that I found very helpful was between a “stock” and “flow” of energy. The majority of the resources now being used to produce energy come from the earth. This is a stock, because it is a finite supply of something. We can theoretically use it all up today and there would be no more tomorrow. The sun, however, is a flow of energy. We cannot tap into future stores of the sun’s energy. Even if we could harness the maximum amount of direct energy from the sun it would not take away from the flow of energy tomorrow. Georgescu-Roegen lays out an interesting comparison between the massive flow of free energy from the sun that only produces a waste product of escaping heat and the terrestrial stock of energy that requires energy to extract and process, not to mention the waste it produces. A comparison of only the amounts of raw energy produced is staggering. The sun produces 10^13 Q of energy annually where Q=10^18 BTU. Total world consumption at the time of the chapter (1975) was only 0.2 Q annually. The estimate of the total amount of fossil fuels available at that time was 200 Q (100). Even considering how outdated the numbers are the difference is staggering.

All of this might really be a long way of saying that we are still creatures and constrained by the limits of our creatureliness. As the people of God and followers of Christ we are clearly called to “keep and till” the earth (Gen 2:15). If it is our “dominion” then we will one day have to answer for what happened to it, because it is our responsibility. If our economics chooses to ignore the laws of nature then according to our Scriptures it is also in rebellion from God, or simply contrary to science, whichever you prefer. The result is the same.

Next… The Purpose of Wealth


10 thoughts on “Valuing the Earth: Ultimate Means and Biophysical Constraints

  1. JTapp

    It’s an interesting philosophical (sort of) question, does believing that technology will save us mean a contradiction of the second law of thermodynamics? Does our thinking of consumption in economics ignore physics (and does it matter)? Tyler Cowen hashes out these types of things on his blog a lot (but he hashes out a lot about everything).

    Besides the Matt Ridley discussion you linked to, a recent article from The Atlantic comes to mind: “Shooting for the Sun.” The inventor who patented the Super Soaker water gun is working on a new type of engine. “Johnson had made the tantalizing claim that his device would be able to turn solar heat into electricity with twice the efficiency of a photovoltaic cell.”

    So, here we have inventors working on plausible ways to power things without using our stock of fossil fuels (and without moving parts). It seems that technological progress like that would make a world of 40-45 billion people not quite as scary. I also think of the world of Star Trek where they have “replicators” that re-assemble atoms to create food/drink, matter that was previously dissipated after consumption. That’s simply harnessing the laws of physics, right? Sure, it’s science fiction, but so were automobiles, submarines, and space travel 150 years ago.

  2. lucas Post author

    I just think we as a society tend towards putting more faith in technology than is really warranted. It’s a little too much like religious faith for my own comfort. As you point out it is faith, a belief in something that is unknown. I prefer that we deal with what we know about reality and move forward based on that reality rather than faith in science fiction.

    I do, however, appreciate that technology has a role to play, as you pointed out with improvements in solar energy. It seems to be a human tendency to move towards extremes rather than moderation, balance or a third way. Not sure why this is, but the reaction to technology can’t simply be to jettison all technology or you become simply ineffective.

    Even if we can have solar energy for 40-45 million people, the impact on natural resources (excluding your Star Trek hypothesis) would absolutely devastating. They still have to eat and the materials to make whatever we’re powering, not to mention the technology collecting the solar energy all comes from natural resources. You have to have a lot of faith in technology to put the survival of the species and the planet at risk for a belief that someday science fiction will come true and we’ll discover something to overturn the laws of thermodynamics. It just doesn’t seem logical or rational to me to ignore what we know, for what we hope will come true.

  3. JTapp

    You note in the post that some of the essays are older, so perhaps back when people were obsessed with exponential population growth that no longer exists today?
    As civilizations develop and become wealthier, birth rates tend to fall. This contradicts some of Malthus, but it’s what we see in the data.

    I guess I’m just pretty confident that this world is temporary and we shouldn’t be focused on making it permanent. While we should indeed be good stewards of it while we have it, if God allows population to progress further and put strain on the earth then I have faith in His purposes.

  4. lucas Post author

    We’re about to hit 7 billion. I’ve read much more recent stuff on population growth that talks about the same problem. There may be some slowing in how fast it’s growing, but if you look at the curve over the long term (say thousands of years: the exponential growth should be much more unsettling and unnerving.

    You may be right about birth rates although I’ve read some things that have taken this assumption to task (can’t remember where off the top of my head), but that is still a very short-sighted view of population growth and assumes that we will be able to make everyone wealthy enough for birth rates to fall and that a world that wealthy will be sustainable. Those are both pretty big assumptions that you would need to support with more evidence.

    Your last paragraph would require a pretty long response. So, I’m not sure where to begin. Let’s just say I don’t share your assumptions about the earth being temporary or the nature of God’s will. These would be good subjects for future posts though and I look forward to that discussion as well.

  5. lucas Post author

    I meant to make a not that the growth curve I linked to covers the beginning of agriculture to the present which I find interesting. Prior to this the estimates are that the rate of growth was not exponential, but incredibly slow and would never have posed the problems we now face. Take that as you will, but it’s a fact to consider.

  6. JTapp

    Here’s a link to the United Nations’ population projections to 2300. You can see the current and further projected decline in the growth rate of the population (and fertility) through this century. In the conclusion the report says “Population growth falls and rises…totals in 2300, at least for the world as a whole, end up close to where they are expected to be in 2050.”

    They have different scenarios projected out. The low population projection for 2300 is 2.3 billion, medium is 9 billion and the high is 36.4 billion.

    I’ve not read through the whole report to see what factors and assumptions are in play.

  7. lucas Post author

    The spread of the UN predictions of population somewhere between 2.3 billion and 36.4 billion is hilarious. I could have made that prediction. I know there’s more detail in the study, but even in the executive summary they state that an average of 0.3 children above replacement or 0.2 children below replacement would make the spread shown above. That’s a huge margin of error. What should we be basing our planning for the future on, the assumption that all will be hunky dory if everything lines up just right or a worst case scenario? It’s good business practice to plan for your worst case scenario while hoping for the best.

    It all has to be based on what is happening right now and current trends, but predicting the future is notoriously difficult. I don’t think economists have a very good batting average in this regard either (though economics seems very helpful in analyzing the past ).

    Anyway… this will have to be my last comment until I get back from Chihuahua Colony. Looking forward to picking up the conversation after my retreat.

  8. JTapp

    Of course all forecasts are subject to error, particularly 300 year ones. I was just pointing out that various population experts who compiled that study for the U.N. aren’t widely predicting exponential growth and are indeed charting a decline in the growth rate of the population and fertility in this century. It was intended to address the points in your second comment.


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