Letter published to Sat edition of Financial Times by G.Kallis and JMAlier
October 22, 2011 4:29 am
No utopian but a truly worldly philosopher
From Profs Giorgos Kallis and Joan Martinez-Alier.
Sir, Christopher Caldwell, in “Décroissance: how the French counter capitalism” (October 15), refers correctly to Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen as an intellectual hero of the degrowth (décroissance) movement, but qualifies him wrongly as a “utopian thinker”. Far from a utopian, Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) was a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association and a professor of economics at Vanderbilt, holding a PhD in statistics from the Sorbonne and a degree in mathematics from his native Bucharest. As a Rockefeller scholar at Harvard he worked closely with notable economists Joseph Schumpeter and Wassily Leontief. Paul Samuelson called him a “scholar’s scholar, an economist’s economist”.
A truly “worldly philosopher”, Georgescu-Roegen in The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Harvard University Press, 1971) argued that economic growth increases entropy; useful energy is dissipated, it cannot be recycled. He predicted that the economy simply cannot continue to grow forever no matter how much technology advances. Once fossil-fuel stocks are depleted, a simpler living out of renewable, flow resources will be inevitable, and the descent had better be a smooth rather than a catastrophic one.
For his disciples in the community of ecological economics, the crisis came as no surprise: energy and food prices knocked the economy down. It is easy for the financial system to increase private or public debts and to confuse this expansion of credit for the creation of real wealth. But the real economy of energy and materials cannot be forced to grow at the compound interest rate necessary to pay off debts.
It is a hopeful sign that the degrowth movement is grounding its view of the economy on the thermodynamic analysis of Georgescu-Roegen. Utopian is to think that endless growth is possible in a finite planet.
Giorgos Kallis and Joan Martinez-Alier, ICTA, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain
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