Saturday, October 24, 2009

Biophysical Economics

The second conference of Biophysical Economics was held in Syracuse, NY at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

"Real economics is the study of how people transform nature to meet their needs," said Charles Hall, professor of systems ecology at SUNY-ESF and organizer of both gatherings in Syracuse. "Neoclassical economics is inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics."

"The financial crisis and subsequent global recession have led to much soul-searching among economists, the vast majority of whom never saw it coming. But were their assumptions and models wrong only because of minor errors or because today's dominant economic thinking violates the laws of physics?

A small but growing group of academics believe the latter is true, and they are out to prove it. These thinkers say that the neoclassical mantra of constant economic growth is ignoring the world's diminishing supply of energy at humanity's peril, failing to take account of the principle of net energy return on investment. They hope that a set of theories they call "biophysical economics" will improve upon neoclassical theory, or even replace it altogether."

What interests me as a sociologist is the idea that "biophysical" concepts are being encoded into many different branches of knowledge. Does this signal a major paradigm shift, or in biophysical terms, a non-linear phase transition of the system into a new state? Are we entering a new phase of human civilization?


  1. Interesting post, though I think it is important to distinguish between the world and our theories about it. Changes in the way we think about things don't necessarily indicate changes in the way the world works -- they could just be an indication of a deeper understanding of the same processes that have always been present.

  2. I'm keenly aware of the difference between a theory and a social fact. That Marx wrote a [theory] of "labor value" is also an historic [fact]. When academics appropriate and inscribe scientific theories into their disciplines, that is not just a [theory] but also a social [fact]. When this starts happening in all cognitive systems, it approaches a broad cultural paradigm. Thomas Homer Dixon said that ecology is becoming the scientific paradigm of the 21st century. What happens is that "the way we see things" becomes "the way things are" because social facts are constructed from our own perceptions, regardless of so-called "reality." I hope that I have understood your critique correctly.