A cornucopia of natural resources poured into the West from the 11th century on. This flow grew tenfold during the 16th century and has never stopped growing, until now. It is understandable that at the time, faced with such bounty, humans believed it to be infinite and that the wealth would continue to increase. Today, we are reminded of the story of the Sultan proposing to reward the inventor of the chessboard with grains of wheat. One on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on and so forth. It would require about 1 500 years of today’s output to cover the 64-square chessboard. What is possible in mathematics is not necessarily materially feasible. Infinity is only a mathematical concept, and has no physical reality.
Let us take another example, retaining the doubling principle above. We are all familiar with interest rates on loans and savings. Let us try to determine how long it would take to double a capital with a constant interest rate. The formula is simple: the number of years after which the capital is multiplied by “x” is log(x) / log(1+percent of annual interest).
For an interest rate of 2% per annum, the doubling period is:
This is fantastic for savings, as your capital doubles in only 35 years. But for reimbursing a loan, it is quite a different matter, because you will have already paid back twice the amount after only 35 years. This also applies to demography and to natural resources. As the number of humans increases by a certain percentage every year, the number is inevitably doubled after a certain number of years. Ditto for the exploitation of natural resources. Obviously, if these are finite, they will be depleted by leaps and bounds.
The concept of infinite growth is therefore a physical absurdity. Just as “what goes up, must come down”, growth bears the seeds of its own decline.
From the 16th century onward, trade expanded with the flow of wealth, laying the groundwork for the principles of modern economic theory. Natural science thrived, with one scientific discovery after another. Mathematical tools were developed to model nature. Humans were able to explain natural phenomena and even reproduce them, and were always trying to predict them.
Everyone aspired to his own “natural” science. Kant dreamed of a “scientific” metaphysics. This happened for a simple reason, as physics discovered “universal” laws. One striking and conclusive example is Newton’s law of gravity.
Science reigned and economics, which used the same mathematical tools, claimed scientific status (even though it is no more than a human invention, at a given time and in a given place).
Since natural resources seemed infinite, they were considered as flows and not as stock. Therefore, the creation of wealth was understandably posited on the capacity to invest and the capacity to work, instead of on the accessibility of resources.
Today, we know that many natural resources are not flows but a stock, and that the creation of wealth is directly proportional to that stock. It is therefore high time to take a fresh look at Adam Smith. This is not the place for a critique of liberalism or any other theory (Marx made the same mistake a century later), but one to review the theorization of trade.
Another problem with economics is the negation of entropy. At no time is any allusion made to the deterioration of the system; on the contrary, deterioration is viewed as a source of wealth. In GDP calculations, a damaged car creates wealth because a new one is consumed. Economics, which claims to be a “natural” science, has cavalierly ignored thermodynamics.
With the transition from the tool to the machine, humans dug canals, created roads, built embankments, excavated tunnels. They adapted nature to their will, and soon believed themselves the more powerful. In his inaugural speech, the latest U.S. president appeared to be a fervent disciple of this persistent belief when he declared: “We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”
The latest delusion is about climate warming, man will succeed in stabilizing temperatures (which are influenced chiefly by astrophysical factors) simply by producing fewer greenhouse gases!
Natural disasters, which are normal and common occurrences, should inspire in us a little more humility.
We could have stopped there, believing in exponential growth, basing our trade on a false argument (stock and not flow) and imagining ourselves more powerful than nature. But that wasn’t enough: modern man has added his intellectual superiority. Obviously, if humans are capable of so many exploits (like walking on the moon), this means that they are, above all, extremely intelligent. As usual, the strongest believe themselves the smartest. And yet there is no trace of intelligence in our modern world - the level of knowledge has rocketed, yet many skills have disappeared. We have become scientists who are unable to do anything anymore.
On the contrary, compared to primitive peoples, modern man is:
The general pattern discussed above is a recent concept. Until the mid-18th century, the representation of world history began about 7 000 years ago with the Genesis. This means that philosophers like Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire may have proposed coherent arguments, but these were based on false data. Hasn’t the time come, here also, to take a fresh look at them?