Micah Redding — faith in humanity's future

The Vast Economy


Increasingly, I have come to believe that the world is best understood as a Vast Economy, an ecosystem encompassing all the small economies we know about and measure, utilizing our every choice, from the individual to the society at large, for its own ends and purposes. In this Economy, nothing is ever wasted, nothing is lost, and everything follows a brilliant and sinister logic.

Within this Economy, we may see different rings of sub-economies, different systems operating under specific rulesets and premises. These are the typical focus of human study, but they are simply small parts of the overall system, maintaining boundaries that are determined largely by dark forces looming outside their perimeters. From within a given economy, it may be nearly impossible to perceive that there is a boundary, that there is something on the other side, and that the known order of things is held in sway to forces both deeper and more absolute.

It is the rise and fall of these many sub-systems that is the business of the Vast Economy. Its own outer perimeters are the energy intake of the earth itself, at approximately 3,850,000 exajoules per year, and the energy which leaves as radiant heat. Everything in between belongs to the Economy, from the movements of tectonic plates to the fluctuations in the crime rate of Indonesia.

The economy as we normally consider it is the narrow band of human activity that involves the exchange of measured units of value within the structures and systems of approved, legal processes. But this economy exists only at the mercy of the larger world, a world which has given it leeway and protected it from outside incursions. The black market is not the exception to the legal economy, it is the more fundamental force which has given space for the legal economy to come into being. And the black market itself is only one band of activity within the much larger circles of energetic, psychological, and information exchange.

My interest is in the big picture of what exactly the Vast Economy is trying to optimize, and the particular role of human violence within that scheme. What makes this economy Vast is that there is nothing that ultimately works against it - our small economies must resist and react to forces which breach their boundaries, but from the overall perspective, these many sub-economies and their collisions are simply different ways of reaching the Vast Economy’s ends.

I suspect that one thing being optimized is the increase of cooperation, or conversely, the reduction of violence. Cooperation is the glue that has allowed complex systems of all kinds to form, from multi-cellular creatures to stock exchanges to the Autobahn. There is no end-point to this optimization - each additional layer of cooperation allows a new type of violence to emerge, providing the staging ground for the increase of a new level of cooperation and complexity.

But if cooperation is the ends, the means are many and varied. Human violence, in particular, has been in rapid decline for thousands of years; but the things that have reduced this violence are sometimes perplexing and counter-intuitive. Where there are mafia, mafia bosses will arise, reducing the overall incidence of violence, improving the efficiency of the operation. Where there is civil war, dictators will brutally dominate the people, expunging social unrest through their own killing programs. Tribal hierarchies, scapegoating rituals, the divine right of kings, total war - these are all answers the Economy has provided to problem of violence.

Of course, the reduction of violence needn’t be so bloody. Where society has chosen to practice compassion on a large scale, such measures are avoided. Gift economies, the rise of democracy, the free market - these are also answers the Economy has provided.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Economy has our best interests at heart. The brutal truth is that it will quite happily plow us under on the way forward. Becoming a mob boss might defuse violence today, but killing a mob boss might be the answer tomorrow.

The conclusion is that the Economy will achieve its ends no matter what. We may choose to instigate killing programs, or we may choose to start orphanages, but the Economy does not care. It will use both choices to move towards its own goals.

The purpose of writing this is not to address such choices. It is instead to suggest looking at things with new eyes. Everything we see, from the flow of traffic in the city, to the migration patterns of Florida retirees, to the political intrigue playing out on an international scale - is simply a mechanism in the overall scheme of the world. And everything we do, from the way we sip our coffee in the morning, to the career choice we agonize over - is simply another move in the game being played by The Vast Economy.


Gary Lee Parker:

Thank you for writing and sharing this. Interesting thoughts to ponder.

Kit Johnson:

I am with you. But I am always asking how much the big economy is indifferent, and how much it is giving, loving, bending the rules purely for the sake of joy.


Kit, I agree, and in this discussion, I'm only dealing with the basic idea, and one or two aspects of what it might mean. Particularly, I'm trying to lay the groundwork for understanding how our own actions, both "good and evil", can work towards certain ends, regardless of our intentions. This offers an alternative way of framing things - our actions matter, and yet are not absolute. I hope that this allows me to steer around several of the philosophical sinkholes of the last few hundred years.

Gregory Rader | OnTheSpiral.com:

Yes, Yes, Yes - "each additional layer of cooperation allows a new type of violence to emerge, providing the staging ground for the increase of a new level of cooperation and complexity" One of the themes I am contemplating is how new levels of complexity are sparked by catastrophic "bubbles" in preexisting economic layers. There are parallels between the steadily increasing destructiveness of financial crises today and the steady increase in the scale of atrocity brought about by wars during the 19th and 20th centuries. In a certain sense I think we could call the World Wars of the 20th century the last major bubbles of the political economy, marking the transition away from political economy and towards a new commercial/market-oriented paradigm. The World Wars culminated in the invention of the nuclear bomb and the explicit recognition that mutually assured destruction was the only possible outcome if events continued to unfold along the same trend lines. At that point, power-seeking (beyond certain limits) within the political paradigm essentially became an untenable proposition. Leaders of nations, from that point forward, would never again be lauded as great conquerors (as they were during earlier eras). I suspect that this predictable stream of financial crises indicates the start of a similar phase transition. Historians may look back on the early 21st century and argue that it should have been obvious certain policy decisions would precipitate subsequent bubbles, just as we now look back on the Treaty of Versailles and find it obvious that all the punishments levied against Germany would precipitate the rise of another power-hungry nationalistic dictator. The 'phase change' away from political economy did not portend the collapse of political bureaucracy. Rather, it involved the near universal acceptance of certain limits to unbridled ambition in form of something like moral/cultural common sense. The culture surrounding transactional economy (capitalism) seems to be in the midst of a similar reevaluation. In the middle-to-late 20th century, great investors were universally celebrated in the business press. We may be approaching a point at which that begins to change...a point at which a common recognition begins to emerge that the tools now available have advanced too far (a la nuclear weapons), and have too much destabilizing potential to be employed without *self-imposed* constraint.