Cary Neeper

Writer, Blogger, and Painter -- esteeming life wherever it might be.

News & Connections

MUSICALS
A thousand years from now a young woman with an identity crisis defends the personhood of her alien and animal friends, as humans tackle their most difficult challenge.
In this sci-fi musical melodrama set in 3002 CE, aliens and humans discover the danger of putting too much stock in occult symbols.
ESSAYS
COMPLEXITY
Exploration of complexity, its indicators, embedded chaos, and value in human organizations.

Book Reviews

We live at an exciting time in the history of human understanding. We have learned so much about who we are and how we live in this huge universe it is beyond awesome--how genes regulate each other, the beauty of star nurseries, how complex systems govern themselves and us and everything around us, yet remain unpredictable and utterly mysterious, why plants have thousands more genes than we do, how animals and birds develop cultures and communicate, how close we are in a continuum with other life yet so far we will never meet the other astronomers across the galaxy, and so much more.



Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature by Eric J. Chaisson. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Eric Chaisson, Director of the Wright Center for Innovative Science Education at Tufts University, author of "Cosmic Dawn" and the astronomy textbook "Astronomy Today," makes the case for a "…scientific philosophy in its own right, combining testable ideas, penetrating observations, and veritable inspiration while trekking…toward heightened understanding, without overstepping the bounds of science and intruding into religion."

Using energy rate density as an "empirical estimate" of complexity, he demonstrates how order has emerged in all the processes of nature, from the Big Bang to the rise of human societies. Insisting that we need both the holistic views of complexity and the classical reductionist approach, he describes how systems far from equilibrium select conditions that increase energy flow. While complexity increases with the energy flow, new emergent phenomena arise in the inanimate world as well as in living systems.

Chaisson starts with the early universe and works through stars to planets and life, pointing out that all these processes are subject to both chance and deterministic effects as they naturally find the "easiest way out of a difficult situation." "…Life differs not in kind from non-life, rather only in…degree of complexity," he says. All the while, at every level, islands of order--increased complexity and reduced entropy--arise in the vastness of disorder, powered ultimately by cosmic expansion, or, rather, by the second law of thermodynamics operating in "…non-equilibrium, dynamical settings."

Chaisson supports his thesis by calculating the free energy rate density for examples ranging from stars to steam engines to ourselves. This evolutionary, thermodynamic outlook is a useful, perhaps necessary, view if we are to better understand the material universe and survive long enough to add the meaning of our lives to cosmic evolution.



Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology by Ricard Solé and Brian Goodwin. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

This book is important as a comprehensive review of the application of complexity theory to biological studies.
In spite of a few errors and a spate of incomprehensible English, it is valuable for bringing us up to date on successful computer modeling of biological systems as examples of complexity. Mathematical treatments of the problems are set off in separate boxes from the text, which leaves the book accessible to non-scientists.

Solé and Goodwin define complexity as the difference between the probability of two independent systems and the probability of those systems when they modify each other. They characterize complex systems as exhibiting 1/​​f noise, power laws, nonlinearity, collective behavior, fractal structure, unpredictability and random fluctuations that result in symmetry-breaking. The authors then review the workings of complexity in everything from genes to traffic jams. The gene’s role, they say, is to stabilize patterns of emergent complexity.

In studying emergence, the authors stress it is essential to study details of the parts as well as the high-level modeling of cell dynamics. Examples that strike home are brain patterns and cardiac disease, in which orderly patterns are indicative of disease and chaos indicates health, health being an emergent phenomenon of the body. A discussion of the role of natural selection working with self-organization in evolution is followed by detailed descriptions of two current theories for the mechanism of the origin of life: closed chains of reactions of replicating, cooperating molecules and random catalytic reaction networks.



Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret J. Wheatley, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1999.

If you can read only one book on complexity, read this one. It is an award-winning exploration of complexity and how its insights can help solve organizational problems. Recommended for Meadville students.


The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

This book is recommended reading for Meadville students participating in my workshop on "The Implications of Complexity Theory for Theology." It’s value for that workshop is in Capra’s clear and succinct description of the basic concepts and the jargon used in talking about complex systems.

After a brief discussion of the "new paradigm" of deep ecology, Capra neglects to point out our dependence on the good things scientists have done for society, while concentrating with fervor on our problems with the consumer society. Capra then makes some generalizations about values, logic, and paradigm shifts, and the history of science that would make good food for debate. Thankfully, he moves quickly on to the meat of the book.

He begins by describing systems thinking, but he neglects to point out that both analysis (reductionist science) and "basic principles of organization" (holistic thinking) are now working together to give us a complete view of how things—and life—work. He is also blind-sided by quantum mechanics, which can be regarded as an expansion of ideas to the microcosm and the cosmos, not Capra’s breaking down of the Cartesian paradigm. Newtonian equations still work well enough when we deal with the gadgets of everyday life.

The story of complexity begins in earnest with Capra’s description of Ilya Prigogine’s work formulating the thermodynamics of open systems, with self-regulation as a key property. The discussion moves on to cybernetics and information theory as an introduction to the importance of pattern in self-organization and emergence, the property or behavior of the whole complex system being more than the sum of the parts or their behavior.

For the layman, the most helpful section is "The Mathematics of Complexity." Working from the basic notion of linear, differential, and nonlinear equations, Capra moves us easily into phase states and strange attractors and on to Mandelbrot’s Set and fractal geometry. The ideas move naturally into a consideration of life with its pattern of organization, its structure, and its process, and we see how Prigogine’s dissipative structures acting far from equilibrium fit into Earth’s larger picture.

With a short summary of Stuart Kauffman’s work suggesting that natural selection sustains living systems at the edge of chaos, Capra leads us into new theories for the mechanism of evolution. Random mutation of genes is only part of a complex picture that includes DNA recombination and symbiogenesis.

After all this, the origin of life is seen as a natural outcome of chemical selection and the workings of complexity. This natural outcome is extended by Eric Chaisson in Cosmic Evolution, in which he quantifies the flow of energy in the evolution of examples from all the complex systems of existence.


The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion by Barbara Brown Taylor. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000.

Episcopal priest and college professor Barbara Taylors shares the enthusiasm for gleaning from quantum mechanics, cosmology, biology and complexity theory insights that impact religious faith.

In the first pages of her four essays, she reviews the issues between science and religion and decides both systems of thought should reinforce and inspire each other, while being clearly distinguished.

In discussing evolution, Taylor misses the point that systems of increased complexity like life occur in isolated spots of low entropy and are powered by no less than cosmic expansion. Such reactions are selected in all natural processes from the Big Bang to human societies. See Chaisson’s Cosmic Evolution.

Though she seems unclear on the concepts of theory and hypothesis, she does recognize that the laws of complexity contribute to possible mechanisms for the creation of life, that both chance and deterministic effects contribute to the ordering process. The patterns leading to life owe thanks to the natural processes of self-organization.

Taylor’s enthusiasm blossoms in her description of her first experience with a strange attractor demonstration. As the mathematical equations draws out the overlapping, never repeating paths of weather phase states, the butterfly effect, she sees metaphors in complexity that apply to her church community. Similarly, she draws spiritual analogies from the EPR paradox, quantum entanglement, evidence for a nonlocal universe--and comes up with the word panentheism to express her theology.

In Essay IV Taylor returns to the distinction between science and religion: science depending on observation, religion depending on revelation. She fails to point out, however, that revelation often passes through a human filter unchallenged, while scientific observation is thoroughly sifted, sorted, and reconstituted in the torturous process of verification by competitive peers.

Taylor fails to recognize that evolution is no longer just a model for biological history. Testable theories suggesting a mechanism for evolution as fact have recently come out of complexity studies and chemical selection theory. (See Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe, Eric Chaisson’s Cosmic Evolution and Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life.) This is of little consequence, however, compared to the importance of her assertion that confusion is generated by scientists who write about God and by theologians who talk about proof, when neither make clear their leap from one system of thought to the other.


Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion by John Polkinghorne. New York: Crossroad, 1998.

In distinguishing science and religion (how vs. Why, worship and hope vs. Observation and experiment) John Polkinghorne of Queens’ College, Cambridge, defends science because it aims to understand the world, it reveals the unexpected, and it represents the way things are by a long process of verification through technology and challenge. He assumes, however, that evolutionary biology is not testable. True, historical evolution cannot be repeated, but the mechanisms of evolution derived from our current understanding of complexity and chemical selection theory are now being put to the test. (See Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe and Eric Chaisson’s Cosmic Evolution. Also, the decades of empirical work in the older fields of DNA analysis, fruit fly studies, and predictions based on geological sequencing should not be ignored when evaluating concepts about evolution.

On to another topic--I can’t criticize Polkinghorne when he discusses science and religion. He makes it quite clear--he believes we must not confuse science and religion. You can’t "give theological answers to…scientific questions." We must recognize the limits of each.

Polkinghorne also clearly expresses his faith in God as reflected in what we learn from modern science, for example, from the "fruitful interplay of chance and necessity in evolving cosmic history." He sees self-organization as "finely tuned potentiality," in a world where God interacts. He is inspired, not challenged, in his faith by the how of science.

Concerning the problem of evil--he distinguishes moral evil having human origins from physical evil, disasters, the latter being the "necessary cost of life [or creation]." Polkinghorne makes a leap to faith in God’s omnipotence, but believes God is rational, hence "our nature is tied to that of the physical world." Stuff happens. God is no magician.

In tuning his theology to complexity theory, Polkinghorne concludes that 1) God’s action (at bifurcation points in non-equilibrium reactions?) will always be hidden. 2) God runs things in a reliable, orderly fashion, as exemplified by strange attractors that hold unpredictable complex systems within patterned bounds. 3) The world continues to evolve, for God is both eternal and within time (Panentheism?). 4) Prayer can align us with God’s will (as one complex system controls or tempers another?).

Without apology, Polkinghorne leaps again from science to faith in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection and the human afterlife--because they make sense to him, as do the Big Band and evolution, though he can’t know all the evidence for either one directly. On the other hand, in concluding his discussion of science and religion, Polkinghorne says, "…human concepts of God are ultimately idols to be broken in the face of the greater reality."


Skeptics and True Believer: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion by Chet Raymo. New York: Walker and Company, 1998.

If you have time for only one book exploring science and religion, read this one. In a rambling, anecdotal style, Raymo explores the ifs, ands, and buts that persist in our culture regarding the long-standing feud between science and religion.

Raymo’s column, "Science Musings," is printed weekly in the Boston Globe. This book is an expansion of those musings. Here is a sample of the insights he brings to the apparent conflict: Our diminished sense of the sacred has resulted not from the growth of knowledge but from the failure of traditional religions to incorporate scientific discovery into a framework of spirituality and religious worship."

His attitude is consistent with that of Pope John Paul II, whose quote adds them both to the growing list of writers insisting that a clear distinction be made between science and religion. "‘Science can purify religion from error and superstition, and religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.’"

While reading this book one is taken along Raymo’s mental journey, sorting and evaluating with kindly and critical intent the exhilarating interplay of science and religion.


The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist by Richard Feynman, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998. Three lectures given by Richard Feynman as the John Danz Lecturer at the University of Washington in April of 1963.

Once in a while there comes along a book that rings all your bells. You want everyone you know to read it. You want leaders in every corner of society to memorize at least one quip from every page.

Such a book is The Meaning of It All.

In his typically open-hearted, playful, frank style, Richard Feynman spreads out his thoughts on 1) the requirement for doubt in the practice of science ("The Uncertainty of Science"), 2) the impact of scientific views on political and religious questions ("The Uncertainty of Values"), and 3) the impact of scientific discoveries on social problems. Thirty-five years after these lectures were given, his wisdom is still relevant.

From our perspective at the end of the millennium, Feynman's concerns are particularly poignant. This is a time, ironically, that is profoundly dependent on technology, while the conclusions of science, even its premises, are misunderstood and attacked. Feynman's concluding lecture (1963!) is entitled "This Unscientific Age."

Three of Feynman’s ideas illustrate why this book can be a stimulus to discussion:

1) Knowledge is not valuable unless it can help us make predictions.
2) Doubt makes new potentials possible. There is uncertainty in all knowledge. The only mistake we can make is to assume we know the answer.
3) Precision in defining words is not possible.

We pick Feynman's brain as he rambles on, and we enjoy arguing with him from thirty years down the road, picking at details. We agree with his diatribe against elitism in the media, their condescension and misinterpretation of polls. Never confuse what is possible with what is probable, he warns. Don't calculate the probability of a happening after it happens.

But the real value in his thinking is the clarity he brings to the definition of science and its distinction from religion.

Science can only observe what happens when you do something.

Science can't answer value questions. Like religion, however, it can inspire, striking awe in us as we learn how extensive is the universe, how myriad the details and interconnections.

Science requires doubt. When religion insists on certainty, conflict arises between the two. The evidence suggesting the facts of existence conflict with traditional religious "facts" [metaphysics]. The historical God of scriptures cannot encompass the universe as we know it today.

Implicitly, Feynman challenges us to match our faith to new paradigms thrown up by science. Does a belief in religion require unquestioning belief in ancient details? Or is faith at the heart of religion, not details? Can't God be Whatever Is? Isn’t that a deeper faith?

Lots of food for thought here. Don't miss this book. Not only are Feynman's thoughts timely, his wonder is infectious, and his wit is always entertaining. Enjoy.


Green Space, Green Time by Connie Barlow. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997.
Green Space, Green Time is an exploration of how "...religious depth and vigor can emerge from a science-based world view." Indeed, it has for me. Such an experience is at the heart of my own observation-derived faith.
Barlow's view is that society has a gaping hole dimming its vigor, which "...can be plugged only by a value system through which Western civilization recognizes its debt to and reciprocity with the very environment that sustains it."Again, I agree. Our longevity as a species depends on such recognition--soon!

Where I can't agree with Barlow is in her plea for a world myth based on modern cosmology. She says, "Only [metaphor] can...jostle our emotional core." I can't agree--for three reasons. 1) The danger in making myths out of cosmology, or any description of nature, is that it freezes current knowledge, which rapidly moves forward, rendering the myth obsolete. 2) New information that is gathering at a mind-boggling rate about cosmology and biology is so extraordinary, it strikes us with awe at the power, the beauty, the detail, and the vastness of everything around us. We need not clothe it in myth. Only scientific illiteracy stands between us and such inspiring awe. 3) One of the most exciting aspects of scientific knowledge is in the doubt that is inherent in its very nature. The search for reality never ends; the evidence can only continue to point in one direction or another.

Richard Feynman, in the Danz lectures given in 1963 and published recently as The Meaning Of It All, (Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1998) puts it this way: "All scientific knowledge is uncertain. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise...you might not solve it. Doubt allows looking for new ideas...Doubt is...the possibility of a new potential."

Faith is not about doubt and not about evidence, though evidence can inspire faith. Faith always takes a leap. That is why we must be very careful to distinguish science and religion. Religion is about faith. Science is about evidence, a tale that has no ending.

We need only read the wonderful books on cosmology and complexity now being published to "...jostle our emotional core..." and continue the search for our place in the universe’s intricate beauty.


Emergence: From Chaos To Order by John H. Holland Reading, MA: Helix/​​Addison-Wesley, 1998.

"Seeds..." says John Holland, father of genetic algorithms, a leader of the study of complexity at the Santa Fe Institute, and Professor of Psychology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan "...are the very embodiment of emergence--much coming from little..." [where] "...a few rules give rise to extraordinarily complex games..." Playing by the rules results in "... patterns that are dynamic, always changing, and usually persistent. Such "...complexity is not just the complexity of random patterns." Holland does not "...call a phenomenon emergent unless it is recognizable and recurring...."

Understanding "...the whys and wherefores of emergent phenomena..." will allow us to "...know the limitations of scientific answers to questions like 'How do living systems emerge from the laws of physics and chemistry? Can we explain consciousness as an emergent property...?'"

Emergence occurs on is more than a collection of skin, bones, and neurons.

The work of modeling, our best hope of comprehending emergence, is finding the origin and relationship of the recognizable, recurring regularities in the emergent phenomena of complex systems. Models of complex systems exhibit emergent phenomena, making "...anticipation and prediction possible."

Computer models depend on 1) finding the essential components (the players and the pieces), 2) implementing these basic building blocks as rules (sets of instructions to the computer), and 3) combining the instructions to determine their interactions (the computer program).

As an example, think about a game of chess where there are ten possible moves, starting from a pattern of pieces on the board (its initial state). After 10 moves there are 10,000,000,000 ways of playing the game. After 50 moves there are 10 to the 50th ways of playing, more than the number of atoms on Earth.

Another example: the human brain has 50 billion neurons, each of which can make connections to 1000 to 10,000 other neurons. (A typical digital computer element only makes 10 connections.)

The point is that a small number of rules (or laws of nature) can define a game (or a life) so complicated "...we will never exhaust its possibilities." The problem is to find the key players in a complex system and to define the relevant mechanisms that move the players.

The hope is thus to find "...unchanging laws that generate the changing configurations of the game." With these laws in hand, the model can then predict if, when, and how emergent phenomena occur in particular complex systems. Failed predictions can provide a basis for improvement of the model.

Everyone benefits from such predictions, for their applications extend from physics and chemistry to biology. Once accurate models are devised, useful predictions will also be forthcoming in psychology, economics, and sociology.

Emergence and modeling: practical new ideas that are impacting our view of life and meaning.


The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature by Ilya Prigogine. New York: The Free Press, 1997.

For a more complete historical development of his study of reactions far from equilibrium leading to self-organization, read Prigogine's first book Order Out of Chaos, Bantam, 1984.

In The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, Ilya Prigogine, Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, describes complexity and its wide application to the natural sciences. Keeping one mind's eye tuned to its implications for philosophy, he presents the idea that most natural systems are complex, therefore probabilistic. He makes the case that both classical and quantum mechanics need to be extended far beyond equilibrium to the real world. Thus, he makes intuitive sense of time, space, and the Big Bang. His math, based on probabilities, sends the arrow of time off in the only direction we experience.

Though the precise formulation of parts of complexity theory has only recently emerged, Prigogine shares with non-scientists the basic physical ideas and mathematical logic that have led to his conviction that our world view, to be accurate and inclusive, must extend beyond the time-reversible, deterministic world of Galileo, Newton, and Shrodinger's equation. These laws of classical and quantum mechanics are still useful, indeed necessary, for organizing information and making predictions, but they are valid only for special cases, for contained systems like gas in a bottle. Prigonine suggests that natural law and quantum mechanics need to be extended beyond equilibrium, to be rewritten to describe the real world, which is neither deterministic nor time reversible.


The explosive appearance of the universe is like a phase transition (water changing to ice), an emerging property induced in the pre-universe quantum vacuum by the interactions of gravity and matter.

In Prigogines's extended view, time moves in only one direction, and it becomes eternal. Hence, it precedes the Big Bang, which he sees as the ultimate example of an irreversible process, a phase transition (like water changing to ice), an emerging property induced in the pre-universe quantum vacuum by the interactions of gravity and matter. Stephen Hawking's imaginary time becomes fiction.

To a biologist like myself, complexity, with its capacity for self-organization, sets off a revolution in thought as useful and significant as the Copernican revolution was to astronomers. Self-organization makes life possible, even inevitable. The implications for one's religious faith are exciting, inspiring in the deepest sense.

Placing possibilities and probabilities firmly in the laws of nature makes emergence the key to how chemistry produces life, how genes produce babies with soul, how chemistry and genes together with natural selection produce a continually evolving biosphere, how human beings produce the internet--and stock market fluctuations.

The price, of course, is certainty. Predictions, especially in the long run, cannot be made in open nonlinear systems, which include nearly everything we perceive as natural. Example: we know the weather can not be predicted accurately months in advance, only a few days in advance.

The price of certainty is cheap, however, considering the philosophical reward inherent in a complex existence: The human body and human society are two examples of a large collection of complex systems. If everything human is built from complex systems, meaning is built into our very nature, for one basic characteristic of complex systems is that small changes in initial conditions result in large differences over time. What we do makes a difference, after all. The proof is in our complexity.


At Home In The Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity by Stuart Kauffman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Stuart Kauffman's thesis is that we are the inevitable products of the universe. The self-organization laws of complexity, working with natural selection, have sifted out "rare, useful forms" from random mutations to organize chemicals into systems of huge molecules, then aggregations of interacting molecules working together to form cells, then organisms, then ecosystems and societies.

Kauffman's thesis is that biological systems evolve to the edge of chaos, to self-organized criticality, just inside the ordered state, where stability is in delicate balance with flexibility and collective properties are understood as a complex whole.

The beauty of Kauffman's ideas is that they are testable. This book is a gold mine of thesis ideas. If life is the inevitable consequence of natural selection acting on self-organized systems, on systems ordering themselves spontaneously---we may see life (self-reproducing molecules) emerge in the laboratory in a few decades.

Meanwhile, the emerging laws of self-organization and complexity are having major impacts on all fields of study from physics to economics. Thanks to computer modeling and the analytical work of many recently organized Institutes of Complexity (fifty in Western Europe, in Santa Fe and in Austin, Texas), we suddenly find ourselves in a new paradigm, where we can search for theories of the whole. Now we can look at the big, open-ended picture, where short-term predictions are more realistic, and the limits to long-term predictions are understood.


Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992.

How did it all get started? This is the entertaining story of the Santa Fe Institute, what happened when physicists sat down to talk to economists!!


The Beauty of Fractals: Images of Complex Dynamical Systems by H.-O. Peitgen and P.H.Richter. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986.

This is the early pictorial and mathematical classic that takes one so deep into the workings of the Mandelbrot Set that, when we emerge, we know our vision has changed and our understanding is different, broader and deeper, though we may not know why.
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The Mistaken Extinction: Dinosaur Evolution and The Origin of Birds by Lowell Dingus and Timothy Rowe. New York: W.H.Freeman & Co., 1998.

Here is a "must-read" for my grandchildren. Why? Two reasons: 1) I want them to experience the joy of seeing T. rex in my turkey strutting past; I want them to hear the trombone tones of a Hadrosaur transformed into the song of a robin. 2) In these days of shaky claims and ignored evidence, the stories and examples in this book are better than definitions for understanding and evaluating what science is supposed to be, how it works, and what happens when it's principles are ignored.

Using the storytelling techniques of mystery writers, Rowe and Dingus present the detective work of scientists as they sort out evidence for events leading to the "extinction" of dinosaurs. The story doesn't end with the Cretaceous extinction of non-avian dinosaurs; it begins there. The authors make their case using cladistics--the detailed, convincing, and testable method of grouping species with shared characteristics. Cladistics successfully traces the genealogy of birds back to avian dinosaurs. The old Linnean system of classification is thrown into serious question.

Along the way, the role of modern paleontologists as detectives is attractively painted. Most importantly, the nature of scientific arguments is illustrated as "...decided on the weight of the evidence rather than the weight of opinion or appeal to authority."

Finally, the role we humans play in the current wave of dinosaur extinction is vividly painted by the stories of the dodo, the great auk and the passenger pigeon. The end of the dinosaurs' story is not yet written, but it would be tragic to discover that "...despite all our attempts to pin the atrocity on ancient catastrophes and cataclysms, dinosaurs were extinguished--not by the next extraterrestrial impact or volcanic eruption--but rather by the actions of our own human hands..."

The authors end on a somewhat optimistic note in their challenge to the next generation of scientists, pointing out that the tools for study and change are available in universities and natural history museums in many parts of the world. It is up to us to see that support for these institutions does not evaporate so our grandchildren can continue the story and write their own ending.


Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival by Thomas Prugh with Robert Constanza, John H. Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland, and Richard B. Norgaard, ISEE Press, Solomons, MD, 1995.

This book should be studied by anyone who does community planning, hoping to create a sustainable future. This is the clearest presentation I’ve seen of ecological (sustainable) economics, the failure of current economic thinking, and the policies it generates.

Published by the International Society for Ecological Economics, the book makes a strong case for investing in natural capital, then tells us how. Natural capital is the periodic flow of valuable good and services that are not human made. They provide our life support. For example, trees provide oxygen, erosion control, and habitat.

Two remarks by author Prugh tell the tale. "We haven’t tried capitalism yet because we’ve never put natural capital on the balance sheet...We have confused capital with income...", which is otherwise prosecuted as fraud within the accepted neoclassical economic system. As a result, we use more and more resources to make fewer people productive, whereas, until the population quits growing (85 million per year in the mid 90’s), we must use more people to reduce throughput of materials and energy, if we are to maintain a reasonable quality of life.

With clear reasoning that is hard to disputel, Prugh attacks neoclassical economics, which is still taught as dogma in most university economics departments. Recent history of economic thought, he says, has so concentrated on being mathematically rigorous that it ignores concrete factual information. It "...ignores data that can not easily be reconciled to theory..." by making several questionable assumptions: 1) The environment (Earth and its renewable and nonrenewable resources) is merely a factor of production, not a source of materials and waste sinks. 2) Human made capital can be substituted for natural resources and environmental services. (Can human technology replace clean air, fertile soil, biodiversity, or pure water?) 3) With its assumptions of unlimited resources, neoclassical economics rejects any limit to growth and regards growth as the solution to poverty and environmental degradation. 4) Human society, economists say, is best served by the individual pursuing his or her own interests. The circumstances have changed, Prugh argues. Ayn Rand ethics no longer work. We need more community and more non-economic values in a crowded world.

Allocation of resources is made efficient by he emphasis on markets and prices in current economic dogma, but scale is ignored. Crucial to scale is throughput, which is population times per capita consumption of a resource. To reduce throughput and maintain natural capital for the future, three basic conditions must be met.

All policies we propose in the name of sustainability should be measured against the following conditions, which work to preserve natural capital. A) The rate of harvest of renewable resources must equal the rate of regeneration. B) The use (mining) of nonrenewables must equal the development of reasonable substitutes. C) The rate of waste production must be less than or equal to the environment’s ability to absorb it.

Prugh does not engage in diatribe or long lists of frightening statistics that wear us down. He clearly outlines what we need to do. First, to jog awareness of our myths, the GNP should be abandoned for something like the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), which includes the costs of environmental degradation. Also, a realistic index should include home production, public service, public facilities and public non-market activities, differences in work and leisure conditions between the wealthy and those living in poverty, inequities in the distribution of income, and the depletion of natural capital.

Ideas for preserving natural capital begin with discouraging population growth and increasing efficiency in meeting human needs. Other ideas include depletion taxes, elimination of subsidies and depletion allowances, elimination of tax breaks for consuming resources, and marketable pollution taxes, which provide incentives for efficiency and technical improvements.

Furthermore, ecological tariffs (tariffs on goods produced in countries ignoring environmental costs of production) would protect those countries internalizing all environmental costs, which do force prices up. Flexible environmental insurance bonds on estimated damage to the environment address the problem of uncertainty in cleanup technology. If there is no damage, the insurance money, kept in escrow, can be returned. "Resource utilities" can be established in which profit-making businesses trade public control for a monopoly at a specific rate of return.

Finally, ideas of communal management and graded "ecozoning" can provide a rational answer to social traps, where individual private gain (including property rights) cause long-term losses to society. Water is now a striking case in point in New Mexico. Ecozoning means dividing activities or policies into categories according to their ecological damage: those that produce non-sustainable long-term damage, those that result in measurable, sub-critical damage, and those that do no damage to the ecosystem. Regulate only those in the first category where survival is at stake, provide incentives like depletion taxes and marketable pollution rights for those economic activities that do manageable damage, and leave those activities that cause no damage to the realm of individual or property rights.

These options require a paradigm shift, a shift in thinking represented by new insights. An example is seen in how Prugh recognizes society, individual human activity, and nature as complex systems; such complex systems have the robustness of a gyroscope. They readjust to minor perturbations but fail (options for the future fail) if the perturbations are indefinite or too large. Also, because of mutual adaptation between natural systems, "...our ability to predict and control nature is inherently limited."

Paradigm shifts aside, this book is an indispensable summary of the concepts of ecological economics and their practical application. It is a guide for planning how to make certain that future generations can meet their basic needs.