Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                           ESSAYS

                                    Essay 54. Growth and Anti-growth

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Essay 54. Growth and Anti-growth


, repetitive, and skippable



1.  STARTING FROM AFAR:  Montaigne, de Tocqueville


In 2001, I intended my first Essays as a distant echo of Michel Montaigne’s Essays (1580). My own Essays (i.e., attempts) were supposed to reverberate in the freshly internetted halls of the New World, the term which in times of my youth was still synonymous with America. The halls are so big, however, that the e-sound could travel bouncing off the walls for decades before coming back to me. Meanwhile, I keep sending signals.

My primary subject is the large-scale novelty of the contemporary world and the fate of freedom in it, as seen by a newcomer transferred here from the extreme non-freedom of the totalitarian Soviet society. I wanted to borrow from Montaigne not his comprehensive openness regarding all aspects of his personal life, but his absolute freedom of reflection, including digressions, ramblings, and countless quotations.


Very early in my childhood, The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne (Essay 50) was my first and most powerful intellectual stimulus. Some incomprehensible pages of the book described chemical processes: making iron, soap, sulfuric and nitric acids, and nitroglycerin. I became a chemist. Much later, Montaigne became my first teacher of freedom by affirming individuality as its very beginning.  For the rest of my life I have been a too much of individualist for my own good. Montaigne’s Essays was one of the three most formative books of my youth, two other being Dhammapada and Henry Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha in a great Russian translation by Ivan Bunin. One introduced me into blind principles and the other into true poetry.


Hiawatha expanded my understanding of poetry beyond rhymed lines. Chemistry, at an even later stage of my life, opened to me a window through which the world as a whole could be seen and partially understood in terms of atomism and structural transformation. Poetry, science, unbound reflection, and blind moral principles, all coming from my early impressions, are the performing quartet of the collection at spirospero.  


Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America:


Men who live in democratic communities not only seldom indulge in meditation, but they naturally entertain very little esteem for it. A democratic state of society and democratic institutions plunge the greater part of men in constant active life; and the habits of mind which are suited to an active life, are not always suited to a contemplative one. (Volume 2, Chapter X)


For eight last years of my life in Communist Russia I had no access to professional life or any employment and my activity for long periods of time was spent in defiant inactivity.


I had come to America with a deeply ingrained habit of reflection. Thinking was my hobby. I was happy to reach the point when it finally became affordable as  my major activity, peacefully competing with going to the beach, tending to tomatoes, and fixing the porch. Luckily, by that time Internet was ready to accept anything bottled into a file and tossed into its muddy e-waters. 


I need this introduction to explain the origin, style, and direction of my casual Essays and somewhat more focused and substantial pieces in complexity because I am approaching very serious and intricate things in which the border between complexity and simplicity, as in all serious matters, disappears. This has always been my main intent and enjoyment, but by counting on minds both active and contemplative I most likely sentence my bottles to perpetual virginity. Indeed, exploiting the incomparable eloquence of  Alexis de Tocqueville,


                  TocquevilleEveryone  [in America] is actively in motion: some in quest of power, others of gain. In the midst of this universal tumult—this incessant conflict of jarring interests—this continual stride of men after fortune—where is that calm to be found which is necessary for the deeper combinations of the intellect? How can the mind dwell upon any single point, when everything whirls around it, and man himself is swept and beaten onwards by the heady current which rolls all things in its course?  (Alexis de Tocqueville,Democracy in America, Volume 2, Chapter X)


One way to find the calm is just to launch one’s mind into the whirlwind instead of focusing on the single point, only that single point should not be money.

Amongst a multitude of men you will find a selfish, mercantile, and trading taste for the discoveries of the mind, which must not be confounded with that disinterested passion which is kindled in the heart of the few. A desire to utilize knowledge is one thing; the pure desire to know is another ( Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2, Chapter X).

The powerful currents of American life, so contrasting with the pictures of deceitfully drowsy and prostrate suburbs, impress me much more than Niagara Falls. But what is that heady current and what is its course?  It is growth, the universal property of life and all evolving complex systems (X-systems) growing on life. The subject of this Essay is growth from the point of view of a chemist, and if there is growth, anti-growth must be nearby and, probably, growing, too.


2. COMPOSITION IN SAND AND GRAVEL: making fool of myself




Faith and reason do not mix. Neither do poetry and science. I still do not know what is immiscible with the Web except warm human touch. Reflection, however, like a glue (or money in economics), embeds poetry, science, and belief into a kind of composite material, in which components do not mix, but just tightly stick to each other, like cement, sand, and gravel in concrete, bones, vessels, muscles, and nerves in an organism, and, I guess, supply, demand, and price in economy.


While reading (superficially) Michel Foucault very late in my life, I felt baffled by a new and unfamiliar—except for a few previous encounters—kind of literature, rarely readable, but portentous (in both meanings of the word). I would put it into a broad category of search for the shifting borders between the four domains: poetry, science, reflection  (or philosophy, if reflection is too obscure), and blind moral principles. I was also surprised to find that all subjects of Foucault's investigation could be seen as economics: of sex, madness, medicine, knowledge, power, state, and ideology. Philosophy used to be about the sublime, economics is about the gritty. With Foucault and Heidegger, philosophy falls face into dust.

Economics, which I instinctively distrust for setting diverging goals, is the largest white spot on my own mental map. But if everything is economics (in the lives of most Human Americans, I believe, it is) how can I understand the world around me without economics?  Some encouragement (bold font is mine) comes from Erwin Schrodinger:


We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true who I am be lost forever) that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them—and at the risk of making fools of ourselves ( Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life ).


I have no problem with taking this risk, but the above quotation points also to a different matter.


Erwin Schrodinger was not interested in grand theories of everything. He looked at the phenomenon of life from a narrow, purely physical point of view, but addressing the widest audience. He was even criticized for his vulgarization of an important physical concept of entropy, to which he resorted in order to avoid technicalities. As result, he was the first to answer, as early as in 1944, some most general questions about life in a manner that helped James Watson and Francis Crick to search for more intimate molecular details of life. In my opinion, Erwin Schrodinger also formulated the most general principles of all Evolving Complex Systems (exystems). 


I do not believe in grand theories of everything and for a very simple reason: everything evolves and our knowledge of everything perpetually lacks something we have not even a hint what it could be. A theory of everything is a contradiction in terms. While physical world changes negligibly, if at all, during the human presence on earth, human history is a record of new and unanticipated events. What we can do is to explore borders between the certain and the possible, as well as the expected and the astonishing. We cannot predict the future, but where does the future start? We cannot know the unknown, but where does the known end?


Unlike physics, chemistry views the world as transformations of atomic objects selectively connected with bonds. This is certainly a very narrow slit to look at the world. But what we can see through it cannot be seen from other observation points. Regarded in this abstract way, chemistry is just a field of unusual mathematics, and Ulf Grenander created this field (Pattern Theory) single-handedly. I was powerfully influenced by Pattern Theory, but I will remain here as just a chemist, which is my nature. I will not speak about chemical formulas, however, except for a single trivial incidence.


Chemistry is deeply pictorial because it is about the imagination space. Most of what we see with chemical eyes can be presented in silent pictures consisting of points and lines. How can we describe them in human voice?  We are constrained by logic, but the choice of words is ours: we compose. This is why, thinking as a chemist, I do not want to limit myself to any verbal or visual palette. I am willing to make fool of myself.


I will come back to anti-growth, but for growth we need to rub shoulders with economics, the most unorthodox, but least inviting subject for me after orthodox religious faith.

PART 2  ECONOMICS , the new science of everything

3.  EVERYTHING  IS  ECONOMICS: from economics to economics of economics


Regarding the subject of growth, outside natural sciences we have only one source: economics. But what is economics? How vast is economics?

Google, August 7, 2007 : about 156,000,000 for economics. For comparison, about 104,000,000 for chemistry, about 117,000,000 for biology, about 110,000,000 for humans, but about 238,000,000 for politics and about 296,000,000 for medicine. The man-made things, however, beat them all: about 755,000,000 for technology. They have really grown up. See Essay 53, A Supper with Birds and Planes.

Economy is the main source of power and growth is an absolute obsession of global economy and everybody under its erratic skies. Greed is now called "individual maximization." Stock market is above all betting on growth (decline, too, as pre-growth). Academic productivity is a growing volume of grants and publications. Wealth is growth. Success is growth. Sex is growth. Collecting is growth. Sports is growth. Agriculture is growth. Tomatoes are growth. Career is growth. It is only in body weight and waistline that anti-growth begins to compete with growth, but the robust economy of weight loss is about growth, too.


In the eyes of physics the visible world is doomed to entropic decay, but life is about growing, blooming, and multiplying. Division is bitter, but multiplication is sweet.


In the last century, quite surreptitiously, economics had turned into the main interscience (but not yet science) of humanity, spanning from mathematics to biosciences and from thermodynamics to philosophy, with cognitive sciences in the folds. As physical sciences are united by the concept of energy, economics is united by the concept of moneysame money that divides the people who own it. For a compressed illustration of the ubiquity of economics, see APPENDIX 1. I confess, I was not prepared to find almost 1200 recognized subdivisions of economics (alas, no Buddhist economics there). In short, whatever you touch,


                                    If you prick us, do we not bleed?


Yes, all 1168 listed topics of economics (in fact, there are more than that), big and small—even the poet, his winged Rocinante, and each published line—bleed with money, one way or the other.


For example, Northwest Florida Review pays $5 per poem, while Hayden’s Ferry Review pays up to $100, and Boulevard pays $250 or more. The Meridian pays $15 per page, and The Georgia Review pays $3 per line.

Northwoods Journal charges a $1 reading fee for each poem. If they publish your work, they’ll pay you $0.10 per line.   (Source).

In my eyes nothing is as postmodern today as economics because it is about performance and performance is about growth. I begin to believe that the entire postmodernity in humanities and art, increasingly in sciences, and definitely in technology, is simply the complete absorption of human creativity of all kinds into the economy. I do not mean it to sound derogative. To scold evolution is to emulate King Xerxes who ordered to whip the sea for scattering his bridge made of boats.


Life is business. Business is the through-the-looking-glass wonderland, in which you have to run in order to stay in place and run twice as fast to get anywhere. The "heady current" rolls all things in its course. Postmodernity does not question ends: it watches the performance of means.


The Golden Standard of performance (source: Wikipedia):

In 1998, Deepak Chopra was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in physics for "his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness."


The business of economics has its own economy. And, of course, here is economics of economics:


July 23, 2007:  Google: Results 1 - 10 of about 664 for "economics of economics"

[June 12, 2009: about 907 for "economics of economics"].


Quoting the insightful Tom Coupe:


"Economics of Economics is studying the behavior of economists and the characteristics of the economics profession. Maybe this is less wackonomics than the others as it's mainly of interest to economists. At the other side, some people clearly do not like it" (  The Economics of Economics  ).


 There are  more "wackonomics"  at  Tom Coupe's site:

Meanwhile, the topic economics of terrorism is already a fully shaped domain:


July 23, 2007:  Results 1 - 10 of about 11,300 for "economics of terrorism." [June 12, 2009: about 43,800 for "economics of terrorism"]

{April, 2016: about 151,000 results (0.34 seconds) }.


As an example of what can be found in the intellectual marketplace about growth, I would refer to the series of works by Oded Galor and co-workers (available online), bringing together biological and social evolutions in a non-trivial way.


Unified evolutionary growth theory (the first one) that captures the co-evolution of:

- Homo Sapience

- Economies

in the long transition from an epoch of Malthusian stagnation to sustained growth.

The theory suggests that:

- The epoch of stagnation that has characterized most of human history led to a process of natural selection that transformed the characteristics of the human population and made them more complementary to the growth process


Fundamental Premise :

During the Malthusian Epoch, the composition of characteristics of the human species that are highly relevant for the understanding of the origin of economic growth has not been stationary. Hereditary human traits, physical or mental, that raised earning capacity, generated an evolutionary advantage

Source: Oded Galor and Omer Moav  Natural Selection and The Origin of Economic Growth    (2002)


Draw your conclusions, Piraha Indians of Amazon.


If everything is economics, then economics must be complexity in flesh. It is a stock of an incredible variety of publications, bold and bright, as well as dull and drab, see Appendix 1.


As I suspect, the postmodern market economy of intellectual production started  with postmodern philosophy, of which David Lewis and his plurality of worlds is a relatively recent example.


The major drive came from the honest intent to understand complex systems. The work of Peter Turchin and his father Valentin Turchin, the founder of  Principia Cybernetica Web , numerous incursions of theoretical physicists into the tides of market economy, artificial life, the Santa Fe Institute, the creepy promissory notes and the actual ruthless progress of cognitive sciences, and grand theories coming from everywhere are some of many indicators of the insatiable voracity for understanding complex systems in which human molecules display their chemistry. There must be some reason for that apart of the natural curiosity and quest for understanding. If kingdoms were never meant for sale, managerial skills are, and we can manage anything but complexity.


The religious faith in mathematical equations and the escape from the tyranny of facts are emblematic of postmodern industry of knowledge. There is, however, a definite center in the global subconsciousness, activated by the lessons of all the hot and cold wars of the last century, plus the new World War with the invisible phantoms of terror. We have conquered space and time. Future is the next frontier and growth is the only way to invade and conquer the future, to flood it with your presence and to build a castle on the top of a mountain. We do not want to build on sand. We need some certainty. We would like to slow down the future to be able to respond to it, as in times of good old European wars written into history by a quill.


My own view of the world, with hard graphic skeletons on the move instead of equations, comes from the same historical experience, in which I was late only for WWI. 


The fate of North America and Europe has never been less certain for those who have long historical memory. The united states of United Europe are fragmented, and so are the united states of the United States. The not yet certified Science of Novelty (neology? the term is used in linguistic) which I am trying to peek into, is a paradoxical challenge to the classical science about the immutable laws of the world: I see it as a science about the shifting axiomatic grounds, about the rotating stage of the world theater, and about the limits of projections. As I tried to show in The New and the Different, the new is rare and it is dispersed in the overwhelming different , i.e., the recombinant variants of the old. The main problem of neology is not just to discern the new, which we can do well, but to estimate its kinetics: how fast it is running toward us before it freezes and petrifies into the old. Prediction without timing is fortune-telling.  


NOTE. I am greatly sympathetic of counterfactual thinking, which is now slowly burrowing its way through humanities. Chemical thinking is deeply counterfactual (allofactual is a better term) and requires a constant circumspection about what could possibly happen otherwise (look for transition state in complexity). The novelty of the physical universe crawls at a much slower pace than the novelty of human history or the history of our planet itself. Thus, life on the Earth is possible only because the Sun evolves incomparably slower than life. Who can seriously worry about the dimming Sun today? Probably, only the poets.


4. THE WORLD IS ON FIRE and Britain is to blame

 As an example of the contribution of poetry to the chemist's vision of the world that I attempt to practice in my Essays, this is how I see the Industrial Revolution.

54-fireLet us look at the map of coal and iron ore resources of United Kingdom, Figure 1. They either overlap or are extremely close. As a chemist I see them mixed up in a crucible on a lab bench and expect iron ore, Fe2O, to react with carbon, C, resulting in iron, Fe, and  carbon dioxide CO2 , because it is thermodynamically possible. All we need to start the reaction is to heat the mixture up.


I see the early Industrial Revolution, therefore, as an ignition of the process of reduction of iron oxide into metal, made probable and sustainable by the proximity of both in England. The fire evolved into the streams of molten pig iron and steel that solidified in the form of bridges, railways, locomotives, and various steam engines. The streams of money from all new useful things also greatly elevated the status and fecundity of scientist and engineer, so that even more useful things could be produced. That was one of many derivative fires.

The steam engine evolved further through the internal combustion engine. It was a secondary fire, ignited from the first, in which mineral oil began to burn at ever increasing speed. The industrial use of electricity evolved into IT: information technology. The weak electromagnetic tremor in IT devices keeps tweaking the global nervous system with its creative and destructive impulses.


Fire in this picture is not just a metaphor but an ideogram: a template for a pattern of a process represented across many domains and levels of the world. Classical German philosophy, aloof about coal and iron, was also a fire, still preserved as embers. While the pattern is very general, the template is a configuration taken from just one domain, in this case, chemical one. The chemical process of self-sustaining and accelerating change goes until the fuel and the oxidant are available and the temperature does not drop.  Instead of fuel and oxygen, any two components can interact in a fire-like pattern.


The modern economic growth is a typical—and the brightest—example of fire that involves more and more mineral fuel.  The natural limit on this process is one of very few indisputable but not yet unambiguously tested principles of economics. It has been examined, however, in physiology and medicine: breathing is a quiet and controlled chemical fire inside the organism. Without oxygen the human sooner or later dies, of which the torture by waterboarding takes notice. What leaves some hope to economics is that society always adapts, but at what price remains unclear even for economists.


Obviously, the fire has a chance to move into the stage of decline and collapse, which could still be kept at low metabolism for as long as its energy supply lasts. While energy is always partially dissipated, wasted, and irreversibly lost, matter is conservable and recyclable, for which, alas, energy is needed again. This simple comparison outlines the difference between Bios (life of organisms) and Technos (life of things): Technos can be recycled because its template —blueprints and files—are also species of conservable Technos.  This difference today does not seem as sharp as  fifty years ago:  the templates of life can be digitized and stored as Technos, while the files of digitized Technos can be killed—erased without a trace—or mutilated, or, worse, stolen and turned into cash.


Fire is not evolution. It is a chemical reaction that runs irreversibly and ends. Fire always burns out. Same happens to wars, revolutions, classical German philosophy, and the upheavals like Communism and Islamism. Evolution grows forests of  plants, animals, humans, and Things, and the lightning strikes of history start forest fires.


The global pattern of fire reflects in much smaller local outbursts. Here is another example from the insular Crucible of Industrial Revolution.


J. K. Rowling writes her first Harry Potter, which spreads over the world like fire. In this pattern, the material object—book—that arose as a mutation in the mind of the author, probably, just from a cup of tea, interacts with the money of consumers. The global fire was started by a spark, probably, as accidental as the creative impulse, and further self-sustained by the high temperature known as hype.  


In the book business demand and supply are oxygen and fuel in the intake of the business machine. It is not important which is what: both are just two interacting components. We can imagine a planet with methane atmosphere and some limited source of oxygen coming from the ground. In this picture the economic roles of fuel and oxidizer are reversed.


When the next volumes of paper fuel are thrown into the fire, the enterprise rises the next step up in the form of movies, trinkets, bookmarks, spoofs, and the rest of paraphernalia. Both supply and demand are limited, and so is the hype.  


Children have less choice than the readers of Nora Roberts because of the immense peer pressure. What happens as result is the loss of  variety: the children read one huge volume after another on the same topic instead of absorbing twenty slimmer books which could open to them twenty new vistas.   


The business model took over Harry Potter after the writer had completed her first and most creative act, having established a template on which the process of growth progressed along a standard scenario, completely independent from the content and measurable as performance.


There are two kinds of growth. One is the relative and local growth that redistributes resources, reshuffles ideas, rearranges priorities, etc., within the available energy consumption until its source lasts. The other is the fire-like global growth, predatory, wasteful, frenzied, and dehumanizing. It consumes resources irreversibly, dissipates matter and energy, and expires at the end, leaving ashes and turning to new firewood.

I use the word "dehumanizing" without any scorn. It denotes the inclusion of humans into the modern economic metabolism which has brought a lot of stability, comfort, and "economic happiness," that most people in the West, including myself, enjoy and more have been embracing in the East. Still, anything ending with a question mark is legitimate within the framework of neology:

Mankind unsparingly uses every individual as material to heat its great machines; but what good are the machines when all individuals (that is, mankind) serve only to keep them going? Machines that are their own end—is that the umana commedia? (Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, all too Human,  "bad-tempered" thought No. 585, 1878)

With China and India burning in growth fever, with Russian czardom gloating over the  kneeling for Russian gas Europe, I believe, we will know the answer sooner than we would like.

What is growth, then? What is its origin? What is that clockwork mechanism that spins the hands in one direction only? What is its blessing? What is its curse?

5. WHY EVERYTHING GROWS and cannot stop

cotton plant

What is the evolutionary necessity of growth in evolving complex systems, such as life or economy?  I mean both the growth of an individual organism, for which there are obvious limits, and the property of organisms to multiply, i.e. population growth. The same questionwhy to growcan be addressed to empire, social movement, religion, business enterprise, party, and knowledge factory.



Why does everybody and everything want to grow and what happens as result?


Physics is largely counterintuitive. We do not see gravitation and electromagnetic field, neither do we deal with atoms outside a lab. We do not measure physical properties without instruments. It takes a powerful mental effort to penetrate the surface of observable events. There are, however, areas of science that seem to come from common sense. Thus, probability theory, which can be as complicated as anything in mathematics, came from simple considerations based on everyday experience. Chemistry looks arcane, but the chemical concepts of random collision, favorable mutual orientation, bonding, transition state, and breakup have parallels in the peculiar human and  animal  behavior known as courtship and love. Chemistry is in on the tip of the tong in romance and politics driven by intuition.


From the chemical angle, i.e., from the atomistic perception of systems as stable units and bonds (or as configurations of Pattern Theory), there is at least one major obvious difference between big complex systems and small simple ones: size.  


A small system can undergo a limited number of changes, many of them catastrophic.  For example, the simplest system of two connected atomic units, A—B, can change in only one direction:


A—B  A + B ,

which completely destroys its very identity. If the system is naturally in equilibrium between two parts, 


A—B    A + B ,


then an elimination or destruction of one part destroys the system. It took the early chemists an effort to understand that if salt disappears in water, not an atom is lost.

It is certainly true in the world of atoms and molecules that if some molecule once arose from the environment than it can happen again. We are interested, however, in the emergence of Evolving Complex Systems (exystems). The spontaneous appearance of anything complex from something simple would require a rare coincidence of rare events. Similarly, regarding X-systems of cognitive, social, and political nature, the unique individuality of initiators, founders, and circumstances, once lost, cannot be replaced or recreated.

Complexity is improbable, unless we, complex creatures, create it ourselves, and yet X-systems can be stable (i.e., probable) only if they are sufficiently complex or at least large enough as populations. The solution of the paradox lies in the distinction between local and global.


In a system

A—B—A—B—A—B—A—B—A—B  ,


a transformation


A—B—A—B—A—B—A—BA—B  —> A—B—A—B—A—B—A—B + A—B    




A—B—A—B—A—B—A—B—AB  —> A—B—A—B—A—B—A—B—A  + B    


leaves most of the system unchanged. The same applies to an addition of an extra part by chance. If the major part is capable of restoring the damage, or if the damaged part is not essential, the dynamic non-equilibrium system, like trees and animal bodies, becomes exceptionally stable.

The big size, therefore, turns annihilation into damage.  Growth is self-insurance against accidental loss.  This sounds like economics (GEL classificator G22, Insurance; Insurance companies).  In the origin and perpetuation of life, growth is life insurance.


Figures 2 and 3 illustrate growth as a major property of X-systems.

Figure 2. Size and damage
A. Lethality of damage to small size; B. Survival of  population;
C.  Large size and damage repair.

A damage in a small system (Figure 2A) can destroy the system if the energy of the impact per unit of size is high enough.  In a population (2B), a knocked out unit may not be fatal for the population. A large system  (2C) can preserve  viability because of the locality of the damage. The heavily wounded in Iraq soldiers illustrate human vitality, as well as the economics of presidency, in a macabre way.


In all X-systems, the economic function of growth, from the point of view of a chemist, is self-insurance against disaster. 


A large complex system can be destroyed if it is crippled with several simultaneous hits. Coincidence of several rare events, however, is very low. The laws of probability—the simple property of our world, which is, probably, the best argument against deity—is what made life on earth possible.

Amazingly, physicists used the improbability of complex systems as an argument against spontaneous emergence of life. For a chemist, however, as for a builder, political leader, and scientist, the gradual stepwise buildup of complexity is their daily bread. 

Figures 3A
and 3B show that if the probability of the damaging factor, i.e., generalized temperature, increases, a growth of the system is equivalent to an increase in temperature (intensity of chaos). A combined multiple damage, however, can be beyond repair. Again, look at the Republican Party and the President's crumbling internal circle. Under right circumstances the same could apply to the Democrats, who should not be too gleeful.


Figure 3.  Size, temperature, and vulnerability

.  Growth  (broken line) increases  the vulnerability to multiple defects at the same probability of damage;
B.  Increased probability of damage (i.e., high temperature) creates multiple damage beyond repair.  

The size of the individual system and the size of population seems unconditionally beneficial only at the very state of emergence when the medium from which life emerges works as an inexhaustible resource. When the resource becomes limited, anti-growth plays tug of war with growth.


Growth has some unintended by Creator consequences for the evolution of exystems, but that should be a separate subject. In short, the excess of energy and matter over the minimum  necessary for subsistence,  vaguely similar to the famous Mehrwert , surplus value of Karl Marx,  creates a  stepa green pasturetoward the next level in a food chain. The simple reason is that biochemical mechanisms of life are universal. The variety emerges and evolution takes off full throttle: the lion hunts antelopes, the government collects taxes,  the professor steers the postgraduates in the direction of his career, the bookstore peddles Harry Potter trinkets, and wealth creates super-wealth.


In human matters, as in biochemical matters, the mechanisms of evolution are universal because humans are universal enzymes capable of assembling and taking apart anything, from political system to article on economics, and from nuclear weapons to reputation. The moment comes when humans start manipulating living organisms, and, finally, their own bodies and somebody else’s minds. 


The next natural question is how a non-equilibrium system can be stable, if only temporarily, since any deviation from equilibrium decreases stability. The answer is that equilibrium is the most stable state only of a closed system. The surface of planet Earth is an open system: open to solar energy, energy of the planet’s core, and the cold of the space.


Why do we need instability to ensure stability? Why do exystems need to be far from equilibrium , i.e. to continuously consume energy and disperse heat? The answer was given by Erwin Schrodinger in 1944 in an incomparably lucent  form. The text of his groundbreaking book What is Life is available on the Web. It was the very beginning of the revolution in biology. I see it as the firm and lasting foundation for the science of exystems.

Schrodinger warned his audience that the subject matter of his public lectures, which preceded the book, was difficult.  It still remains difficult and incessantly stimulating. I do not need to repeat here the discussion of the thermodynamic aspects of life in a large popular literature, as well as in complexity. I am more interested in non-biological exystems, among which the ailing American Democracy is the closest to my heart (are many readers today as excited by Alex de Tocqueville as I was?).

Time to move from the sunshine exuberance of growth to the rainy days of  decline.

6. DIVISION AGAINST MULTIPLICATION: federalism? feudalism?

Next, what is the consequence of growth?


Growth is suicidal. But take it easy, so is life. As Anton Chekhov said, life is a deadly disease: the one who lives inadvertently dies.


As an economic and political phenomenon, growth carries a kind of autoimmune disease that kills it long before the total global triumph.

The same objection of improbability that physicists have been setting against the spontaneous origin of life applies to the origin of species. If genome is very long, as it is in most species, then Darwinian evolution may look problematic. The probability of a significant viable mutation, like the elephant's trunk, is very low (do we, really? it is just a multiplication of a nose unit). To continue generalization, radically new developments in history (WWI, 9-11, military challenge to US, catastrophic presidency) are highly improbable a priori  because our imagination is not only boundless but also tuned up to optimism.


It seems to me that it is exactly the large size of genome, which makes most local changes in it realistic, ensures evolution, so that  other subsystems of the organism stay untouched and ready to accommodate the new change. For example, the elephant’s trunk may be a result of a mutation at a very early stage, so that muscles, nerves, and vessels automatically follow the new shape of the nose.  By the same logic, only in reverse, if the genome evolves as a set of nested compartments organized like a tree of systematics, a viable mutation should be close to previous mutations in the same subsystem of the organism and have non-disruptive character.


calculatorThe role of size and number in evolution has been discussed, but I am scarcely familiar with literature on the subject, so that  the above and the following is nothing but my uneducated guess. My purpose is to illustrate the generality and the commonsensical nature of chemical view of the world. I can do it only by observing the world from sufficient distance.


Biological life, paradoxically, is much less mysterious than biological death. It is hardly a surprise that history has the same asymmetry. Any empire is inherently unstable and is either in deep slumber or in turmoil. But why is its growth lethal? 

In the same way that growth makes any change more and more local, it makes any authority less and less potent.  When empirecompany, office, clangrows, the leader  faces more and more unpredictable events and contradicting choices. The leader loses efficiency and delegates increasing part of his duties.

It does not look like anything having to do with chemistry. But, as I  noted in Essay 53, Power: Hidden Stick, Shared Carrot, there is an analogy between concentration of social and financial power and localization of energy in quantum physics, which plays profound role in chemistry. See also Essay 37, On the Soul.

Social structures need leaders, but why?  What is so different about social chemistry, as compared with molecular chemistry? 

While positive chemical bonds are more stable than disconnected atoms, social bonds can be either way: positive as well as negative. Some, like the mother-child bond, are very much like chemical bond, but some family and work ties are negative in the sense that they need a constant effort (supply of energy) to maintain, like to keep the ball in the air. In politics, mutual sympathies between nations are exception rather than rule. The most notable example was the forceful unifying of disparate nations and sects by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The mutual distrust and hate exploded after the liberation. Rivalry is just another word for competition not only in democracies, but also inside all units of any society: family, institution, school, armed forces, science, arts, and government.   

There is an important difference between negative and neutral bonds. The latter require approximately equal energy to lock or to break. For example, to close or open a door requires about the same energy in the absence of any  other external influences. To keep the metaphoric gates of secrecy, more material gates of illegal immigration, or quite nightmarish gates of terrorism closed requires a constant work.  To keep the society open requires a lot of work, too. For that purpose the entire  design of the social and political machine was put on a blueprint in the US Constitution.  Freedom can be exhausting.

In short, the force of authority is needed to keep a social structure in shape. The problem with the growth of a social structure is that the sovereign power of the leader per unit of size decreases with the size. Any added deputy has a more concentrated power over a smaller unit, but at a price: his or her own power and freedom of choice is limited by the immediate superior.  Figure 3 illustrates the expansion of an abstract "kingdom," the appearance of an intermediate executive body, a mesoderm (see also Essay 43 on mesoderm), and the transition to "federalism."


Figure 4. Growth and differentiation of management and function

I find federalism a convenient shortcut for a class of complex systems that are absent, as far as I know, in animal populations. It is new and rare in history, and can, probably, exist only at certain conditions. Still, it is well worth generalization because "democracy" is too political and multiform.

Federalism, the division of the system into semi-independent units, the abolition of the czar, and the limits on personal power of  local leaders have been, probably (who can know for sure?)  the main reason for the long, rarely fractured record of success of American society, the success being measured by the general stability. 

Social stability is a curious phenomenon. My naive impression is that the American stability is based on the overall acceptance of the margin of instability in the form of poverty, crime, fraud, deviance, and just simple stupidity. The optimistic America, unlike the stern and pessimistic authoritarian and idealistic societies, accepts the imperfections and risks associated with life on the move. It has the courage to face life. The totalitarian society, in which I lived in Russia, was based on expecting the worst from people and was struggling in vain for perfection.  Hypocrisy is the natural outcome of the struggle in secular and religious orthodoxies.


Figure 5. Vulnerability of the  centralized system

Figure 5 symbolically portrays the consequences of centralization of management: the damaged core can be sensitive to small damage with fatal consequences to the entire system.

NOTE (2016). Russia was in shambles after its revolutions of 1917 and 1989. This is why 

Intuitively, federalism and feudalism somehow fit the same very abstract contractual pattern. This is a haunting question, cautiously but persistently brought up in literature ( Google: Results 1 - 10 of about 74,700 for feudalism federalism August 11,2007 )

Both federalism and feudalism are etymologically related to trust (fealty, fidelity, and federal come from fidere, to trust ). The lord trusts the vassal, the sub-units trust the federal representative. The states get pork, the vassals get fiefdoms. The lord has no separate army to have a hold over  the vassals.  The transition from feudalism to capitalist democracy, therefore, looks like evolution of the energy resource from renewable (land) to exhaustible (mineral fuel): from a society of humans to a society of machine parts. Otherwise, the structure of relations is similar. 


The power of a feudal lord was measured in the currency of land. The modern currency of power is money. I hope that I am still within my limits of foolishness by saying that the immense concentration of private wealth in modern times, especially in conjunction with limited energy resources, revives some patterns of feudalism. Whether federalism, or feudalism, or another term from history books, patterns are not anchored: they float through time, place, and across interdisciplinary borders.


NOTE (2016). I am now in the world flooded with oil and gas. The stock market is neurotic because it takes it for the end of growth. Yet mineral fuel remains limited for more reasons than ever.  Even the sunlight harvest is limited, but the non-mineral energy—that of the sun, tides, and winds—is still enormous. The consequences of changes in sources of energy, including human labor, are still unexplored, however. We are busy with traveling to Mars. 


If all that looks outrageously simplistic, it should:  the chemical view of extra-molecular world does not solve any problems. It only helps to see the bones through the fat flesh of complexity. 

As far as growth of complexity is concerned, it evolves in at least three forms:


Growth is trivial. What is anti-growth, then? The trivial part of it is known as decline. Is there anything less trivial?  I believe it is the will not to grow, moreover, the will to have less.

NOTE:  Growth of temperature, chaos, and uncertainty may not be consciously pursued in business, but it is still growth, set as a goal in insurrections and revolutions.

PART 3   LESS is the only solution, but what is the problem?

Dhammapada, Verse 167


In an oblique way, this Essay is a repercussion of the impact of Dhammapada on my youth.

I now identify the short ancient book’s invective against multiplication with the call to limit growth. What can be a less popular idea in America? This is why I keep it in the folder of blind moral principles. All religions are irrational and all ideologies are beyond proof. All prophesies require long waiting until they are useless, true or not. Reason and belief do not mix, except in the belief in reason. 


My own copy of Dhammapada was the highly professional Russian translation directly from the language of Pali, elegantly published in 1960.  What impressed me so much in my youth was the commandment rendered as  “do not increase existence.”  [не увеличивай существования]. I had left the book in Russia, but when I returned to it in English translations, I ran into a mystery.


Chapter 13 of Dhammapada starts with Verse 167:


hinaj dhammaj na seveyya    pamadena na sajvase

micchaditthij na seveyya       na siya lokavaddhano


In various English translations the fourth part of  Verse 167 , na siya lokavaddhano, has been translated differently, but mostly converging on a single meaning:


(1)   be not a friend of the world,

(2)   do not be a world-upholder,

(3)   linger not long in worldly existence,

(4)   don’t busy yourself with the world.  


There were interpretations more in line with my personal perception:

(5)   do not cultivate the world,

(6)  do not augment the world.


The discrepancies had been troubling me until I found a detailed interpretation at the Digital Library & Museum of Buddhist Studies of National Taiwan University Library, where the verse was translated as:

            Don't practice inferior teachings; don't connect with negligence.

Don't embrace wrong beliefs; don't be attached to the world.


But the linguistic commentaries in the same source seemed to suggest another interpretation.


The key last word  lokavaddhano  is a composite of loka, world, and vaddhano , derived from vaddhana  translated as indulgence, attachment.  The commentary, however, mentioned that its root was vaddh- , growth.  The word vaddhano  was Nominative of singular, masculine noun.  Literally, as I see it, the grower of the world.


I found also a more direct translation at Concise Pali-English Dictionary:  


vaddhana : [nt.] growth; increase; enlargement.   nt. :  neuter gender.


My initial understanding since the age of  25 was do not multiply existence, i.e., with hindsight, do not grow complexity, do not grow attachments, do not surround yourself with numerous objects of desire and care, do not multiply material things. In short, minimize. In modern lingo, it, probably, sounds like focus and prioritize.  When, at about that age, I had read about Albert Einstein not wearing socks and using the same soap for washing and shaving, I saw him as a Buddhist simplifier.

By no means I consider myself a true Buddhist. Besides, “true” is the most divisive word if applied to religion or ideology.

I am not attracted to either mysticism or asceticism. I have a few superstitions (the spiders bring good news and I never kill them; one should never mix fresh milk and cucumbers; do not gossip), but I do not believe in any world but the one around me. And yet Buddhism has the same spell on me as on many Western people. One of its charms is some separation between the final goal and the ways of achieving it. The rich assortment of ways and means in Buddhism allows for unwrapping one item without opening another. One can be happy just by walking the pathways and coming home. The dogmatic symmetry of the Buddhist teaching and the tight straps of control over young prankish chaos never attracted me, but they were a good preparation for mature age.


To summarize, Dhammapada imprinted me with a clear distinction between necessity and excess in material world. We are individual in our needs but faceless in our temptations. The luxury and wealth of ideas is a quite different matter.


A very selectively read Dhammapada is one of my sources of blind moral principles (BMP) which have nothing to do with reason and logic. They complement for me the more pragmatic, explicit, and commanding Judeo-Christian principles. The BMPs  are axioms of human existence and by choosing, inventing, or inheriting different sets of axioms we sign up to a life of not always realistic ideals.  


NOTE (2016). To summarize my material life, I followed Dhammapada—partly, by circumstances, partly by choice.

To endure order and to wreak havoc are two ends of the scale of human behavior.  What makes life worth living is that we constantly bend and violate our principles. No religion shuns this game, not even fundamentalism, but the Evangelical Christians in America seem to beat anybody else in lavishly dispensing forgiveness to each other at the expense of tolerance. 


My meditation on Verse 167 of Dhammapada should not be taken too seriously. I am not an expert. Besides, following blind moral principles, I do not need to care about facts and truth.  This is convenient but certainly incompatible with science. There is, however, a small (Google: about 25,200 for "buddhist economics", August 7, 2007; 42,100 in 2016) but well-tended plot of Buddhist economics, which I am not to visit here. The vast  Economics, however, cannot be neglected in any way because it is has already fused not only with the biology of the global population of Homo sapiens, but also with its blind moral principles. What Michel Foucault called bio-politics is nothing but economics.


NOTE: Taoism (Lao Tzu) is another source of anti-growth ideas. There must be some reason for the emergence of the detachment idea in Eastern philosophy.

8.  IDEOLOGY AND ENERGY : the sleepy hollows of life


The anti-growth spirit of Buddhism has not yet presented any real competition to the ideology of growth.  Nevertheless, anti-growth happens all the time, coming, of course, as growth.

I believe there are at least three ways of anti-growth caused by growth.

1. Consequence of growth of one or more among competitors for a limited resource.  This is the most trivial phenomenon of biological and social evolution. It is often overlooked, however, that land is the most ancient limited resource. Land is a natural, powered by sunlight machine for growing food, building materials, and animal power. There is the trivial zero-sum growth, in which competitors push each other away over a nearly constant resource, as the history of European empires and real estate in Manhattan exemplify. If history did not end long ago, it is because the efficiency of the land use has been growing (growth, again). I am interested, however, in the Manhattan of the size of the Earth, flooded not with dollars, but photons of the sunlight. The little Manhattan can be built upwards and downwards, but its supply of sunlight does not change, while demand for energy increases. The Earth is no different, but has neither bridges nor tunnels to the rest of the universe, except the one-way bridge from the Sun.

2. Consequence of errors and chaos in the systems of control and management. The particular talent, mental decline, or death of an authoritarian leader often changes the fate of the entire system. So does the elected leadership, for better or worse. In business and government, the threat of collapse is countered with more:  more time, more money, more troops, more information technology, more subcontractors, etc., until the downturn comes.

3. Anti-growth as an idea.

I am morbidly fascinated by ideas, the invisible and intangible ghosts that rule our human world. The first two kinds of anti-growth are known as the trivial decline, but the world of ideas is so evolutionary new that we, humans, have not yet quite adjusted to their immaterial power. Take philosophy: after Aristotle it is never about the world but about our ideas of it. We know what to do with a dollar bill and a donut, but what to do with ideas, except trying to sell them as fast as possible?

That growth of economy means borrowing against the future has been suspected or well understood for quite a time. There is a significant volume of literature related to what I would call economic anti-growth, more accurately, the ideology advocating limits to growth . It all started in 1972 with Limits to Growth (abstract) published by The Club of Rome and updated after 30 years. The idea itself goes back to Robert Thomas Malthus, who did not anticipate, however, any economic competition between babies and their toys.


The anti-growth ideas find their way up from the social subconsciousness in various forms: from protection and preservation of environment (also in the form of growth of nature preserves) to discrediting the growth of bottled water industry, which will certainly mean a growth of some grotesque alternative. Here is something about beer:


While many deplore the drunken Brits wandering Prague, criticism has begun to come from a new source: environmental groups who are not amused by the carbon emissions their short- and midrange flights leave in the atmosphere. Last week some 2,000 anti-climate-change activists set up camp at London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the world’s busiest hubs, to protest the emissions spewed by such flights. Environmentalists also protested the airport’s plan to add a new runway. (Source: The Prague Post ,  August 22, 2007 )


There is, however, a categorical NO to MORE and an equally categorical WELCOME to LESS. 


As an example of the modern form of the categorical anti-growth, I would quote a publication of  The Free Range Energy Beyond Oil Project :


Why the Only Solution is “Less”   The Laws of Thermodynamics cannot be changed – if we don't have the energy we need we are unable to carry out the work we want to. Consequently, as we face a peak in global energy supply, there is only one realistic option: We have to use “less” energy, and consume “less” resources.

By growth and anti-growth I mean not just ideas, but ideologies, the programs for action, competing for a nest in a growing number of minds. The ideologies set the direction of social change in the same way as energy landscape sets the direction of change in physical and chemical processes.


The role of ideology can be compared with the tilt of a tray with a ball on it. By changing the tilt we make the ball roll in certain direction. The tray of evolution, however, is not flat. There are valleys and hollows in it where the ball can come to a relative rest, provided we do not shake it too much. The tray of life is coming toward us like a long treadmill and we cannot see what is there behind its point of return. Neither can we stay in cozy hollows: we have to run from the point of entry behind or we would fall off. Did Lewis Carroll anticipate a conveyor belt in 1865?


The visual metaphor of landscape in evolution was suggested by Conrad Waddington (1905-1975), Figure 6A. 

epigenetic landscape    energy landscape

A                                      B


                                                    Figure 6. Stability landscapes


                                A. Epigenetic landscape along  C. H. Waddington. B. Energy landscape


The illustration (6A) from  his book Organisers & Genes (1940)  is explained as follows:


Waddington's epigenetic landscape is a metaphor for how gene regulation determines development. One is asked to imagine a number of marbles rolling down a hill towards a wall. The marbles will compete for the grooves on the slope, and come to rest at the lowest points. These points represent the eventual cell fates, that is, tissue types.


Obviously, the same can be said about memes of different ideologies. The ideology landscape generates certain types of behavior, which are stable in the corresponding ideological environment. They could clash with a different environment, as sometimes happens with immigrants. I use this digression  to emphasize  the  universality of  stability  as the abstract counterpart of energy in physics (Figure 6B).


It is time to reveal my personal tilt.


I am whole-heartedly, although only instinctively, for limited growth, preservation of nature, and minimizing waste. What thermodynamics tells me, however, is that to counter the powerful natural will to grow, we need to use more energy, consume more resources, and to write more checks. The prospect of a war against growth is ghastly because it is a war against our own human nature. I also realize that the occasional excess is the spice of life, while the regular excess is just routine and needs more and more excess.


If so, any proponent of anti-growth cannot rely on rational arguments. We simply do not know what is going to happen if we rein in our inborn will to grow. Anti-growth can be just another suicide cult or a pretext for violence. If we cannot indefinitely grow energy production, then let evolution (economics calls it market) take its course and just hope that adaptation will prevail. Anyway, dinosaurs had adapted as lizards). All the more, it is absolutely hopeless to fight evolution. By definition, evolution is what happens in the end. I suspect, however, that the role of ideas in human evolution is largely unclear. We can evaluate it post factum, but not in situ nascendi , when we need it most.


I am for conservation, prudence, frugality, against waste, against aggressive litter of disposable gadgets and toys, theft of time, dumbing down, and voluntary slavery of being wired and always on call.  Am I a retrograde grouch?  Quite possibly. Another possibility is that I have a hypertrophied instinct of freedom and feel aversion to the prospect of becoming a part of a machine or a herd.  But whatever anybody is for, there is someone who is against it or there is the only someone whose opinion matters.

Growth is what most people want, do, and celebrate. It is here. Anti-growth is what some dissidents and apostates want, do, and celebrate, probably, only because it is not there. Anti-growth means to keep growth in check, which may require as much energy as growth.

A pure idea itself is beyond quantification. On the contrary,  the  meme of the idea is as much prone to growth in a population of minds as crabgrass among lawn grass.

If not rational, than what kind of argument can I present for anti-growth?


do not doI feel uncomfortable in the world of ideologies. Ideology is anti-freedom of thought more than anti-anything-else. While I cannot act by non-thinking, I can act by feeling, doubting, and,

probably, by non-acting  (wu wei in Taoism).

How can we justify anti-growth if, indeed, thermodynamics does not say anything nice about the future of us, humans? I do not have rational arguments for anti-growth. I do not have even any personal interest in it. I confess of having some strong atavistic instincts of growth.

My own argument against growth is artistic, i.e., essentially, poetic. It is also pictorial, see Figure 7. In my youth I saw the world as a borderless globe on which humans could move in any direction, build any life they wanted, and grow toward the stars. With time, after the influence of thermodynamics, personal experience, observation of the changing world, and especially after moving to America, I began to see the human position in the world differently: as the place inside a sphere, not on it.  It was not because the exhaustion of resources had come earlier than expected, but because I saw the incredible extent of waste in the disposable civilization in my new life against the incredibly low level of consumption in my previous life. I have no expertise in the problem except the emotional one.


A                                                        B


Figure 7. The open (A) and closed (B) worlds

balloonWe live in a world closed in space.  Thermodynamically, it is a system open only to energy. It could be compared with a hot air balloon in the air, Figure 8, flying to an unknown destination. We all are in a closed cabin. We burn our fuel or use the sunlight. I have to share space and breathe the same air with mostly indifferent, occasionally friendly, and also sometimes highly unsympathetic and hostile people. Moreover, most of my companions are not even people. Some are animals and plants, others just man-made or self-made Things that need energy, others are parts of human bodies, like heart pacer, stent, and electronic prosthesis.


I want to stretch my legs. I want privacy. The food  and water are limited. The fuel in the tanks is limited. What should I do? I do not ask "What we should do?" because there is no "we."  When the fuel nears the end, who is going to be jettisoned to keep the balloon in the air? The scientist, who can divert energy from the sunlight?  The dictator, who could maintain order?  The free thinker? The unbeliever? The Hummer monster? The computer, which does not take too much energy and does not whine for water? Me, who keeps to himself?

I have to grow myself into "we,"  grow that "we," and make sure we do not believe anymore in growth.  We have to land, to find a place under the sun, and to think what to do next, and, probably, how to escape the Inquisition of Holy Growth, with the blueprints of our minds stored in Google's web search records. 


 It is remarkable that not only the arthritic Microsoft but also the young Google, whom I noticed and embraced right after his birth, are being discussed today in connection with evil.


I realize that my antipathy to growth does not make any logical, scientific, economic, or any other sense. Anti-growth, or Taoit is just a blind moral principle, double-edged, like any blind moral principle, even “do not kill” that can turn suicidal. Waste of energy and matter, disposal of able man-made things, waste of human time and attention are in my overheated imagination the next level below murder.  

Economics captivates and unnerves me. Is it just a modern religion with the only commandment: grow and  multiply?  Is it an ideology of extremes, polarities, and contrasts, the wind that fans up the new world fire in which oil, nature, vehicles, and lives are burning? Is Confucianism, with its commandment of  the Middle Road, a kind of anti-economics? Didn't it bring to power Mao and his frenzy of destruction, as well as the post-Mao frenzy of construction? Economic growth was as much an obsession of  Soviet Communism as it has been of capitalism.  Disruption, the new buzzword of business, associates in my mind with the Soviet slogan of destruction of the old