Theology of Money – 3. Ecology of Money

Capital

Goodchild begins by defining capital as “the means of production that has itself been produced.” Money represents capital, but only one form of capital, whereas an ecology of money looks at the relationship between money and other forms of capital. Capital is a form of wealth, and it is not simply human production but also natural production. Here Goodchild goes beyond most philosophers and theologians by refusing to constrain his analysis solely to symbolic and ideal levels. Goodchild demonstrates the fundamental incompatibility between ecology, where the production of capital is tied to finite natural resources and energy flows, and economy, which posits unlimited growth by measuring capital solely in terms of rates of profit. Modern economic activity only measures rates of profit, which defines capitalism, rather than all of the various inputs, natural and human, that produce wealth. Ecology and economy are mathematically incompatible.

Exchange

Economically, money functions as the value of value, the value that allows exchangeability or interchangeability of values. The nature of money explains exchange: it is represents an anticipation of the future, which means that money is essentially credit.

Money

Money promises value, and when viewed solely in terms of exchange, money’s power is absolute, because no other value or power can withstand it.

Debt

Following the work of Geoffrey Ingham, Goodchild understands money as a promise to pay which is a process of production that creates money as debt. Ironically, the more money you have the more debt you create, which spirals out of control until you have a crisis of credit like the one that began in 2007, the year A Theology of Money was published in the UK.

Promise

Money is the promise of value, which means a promise to pay which creates a debt, a form of capital that works for awhile when supplied with sufficient energy flows, but the creation of financial wealth is at the same time the creation of debt, which means that modern economic freedom of purchasing power ends up being deeply constraining. Money is generally understood narrowly, in terms of one of its functions rather than broadly, ecologically. Goodchild shows how money as promise of value is essentially credit, which leads to an ecology of credit and the need for new forms of social evaluation.

Reflections

Modern industrial civilization is based upon the ability to capitalize upon new sources of energy, primarily fossil fuels, and these deposits of “ancient sunlight” have reached peak rates of extraction and exploitation, which means that the financial crisis is also an energy crisis. Goodchild mentions the fact that capital is a neg-entropic production process; it involves self-assembly and intermediation. Goodchild does not explicitly discuss thermodynamics, but I think part of the schizophrenia of the 20th century is a legacy of the inability to reconcile in thought or action the twin legacies of the 19th—thermodynamics and particularly the Second Law, and evolution, which appears neg-entropic. Complexity theory is a potential solution, and it emphasizes complex self-adaptive systems, or self-organization, which occurs through self-reinforcing feedback loops and dissipative structures far from equilibrium.

The problem is that we haven’t been able to fully integrate complexity with thermodynamics, although Ilya Prigogine has come the closest I think in his book The End of Certainty. Deleuze gives us a sketch of a solution in chapter 5 of Difference and Repetition, the “Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible,” but it is not fully fleshed out. He does mention the “transcendental illusion of entropy,” where intensities of difference are preserved underneath extensities in a kind of hysteresis. Rod Swenson takes this idea further in his idea of autocatakinetic systems, where he supplements the law of entropy with a law of maximum rate of reduction of gradient differentials. This is why evolution is NOT neg-entropic. Entropy, understood correctly, is the same process that leads to self-organization and production of capital, and it is not primarily thermo-dynamic. Entropy is also time, but that’s a different story. I think Goodchild’s understanding of capital here gives us tools to understand nature as immediately and essentially productive, even if he does not engage all of these issues I’m raising.

The split that Goodchild refers to between economy and ecology is similar to the one between the sciences (which are rendered blind) and the humanities/philosophy (which becomes impotent). As animals, we cannot process solar radiation directly; we consume plants or other animals and burn up their carbohydrates for fuel. Oxidation is burning, and mostly we get energy from burning stuff, which is a powerfully constraining thermodynamic mindset. So we strip mine the planet and burn it up to fuel our economic growth and wealth, and we are now consuming the means of production themselves in a desperate attempt to sustain current rates of profit.

Einstein and Feynman showed us another option, and it is the same one that M.K. Hubbert called for in his diagnosis of “peak oil.” But at present we can only utilize nuclear energy for bombs and boilers. We burn nuclear fuel to heat water to turn a turbine, which is a carry-over from 19th century thermodynamics. There has to be another way, even if it may be too late to deploy (but I hope not too late). I’ve been working with someone who has developed a proposal to revamp nuclear energy, based upon the processes of the earth’s production of its magnetic field, which are not fully understood. It’s a radical idea, and it involves entraining nuclear elements in rotating shells and generating a magnetic field directly, that would then generate electricity. This is a little far afield but I think it is something that is opened up and profoundly related to Goodchild’s extraordinary analysis.

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17 Responses to “Theology of Money – 3. Ecology of Money”

  1. Pros O. Key Says:

    Thanks for showing how the relation between complexity and thermodynamics is crucial here. Entropy is increasing disorder, defined as a loss of information. But physics normally measures quantities of matter and energy, not of information. It crosses the line here, and this is perhaps why Deleuze can write about a transcendental illusion. Philosophy deals with quality of information. Goodchild’s analysis of representation as imagined bits of information suggests that it is reified and commodified, prepared for exchange, and so ultimately structured as if by money. Inversely, this extensive order is the only kind that can be measured by money. Yet money, credit, promise and desire are treated as belonging to a different kind of order, one that is temporally inflected. And if the debt system is a self-organising system, then it seems to intensify itself at the same time as it dissipates the pre-existing natural order.

    But would it be right to call the self-organizing debt system ‘entropy’, since it seems to work both ways at once? Does it help matters to call it ‘time’ instead? Or is there something as yet unnamed, some intensive process, that works on and through entropy, time, and debt? Does ‘complexity’ capture what really matters here? I mean, do we want autonomous, self-organising systems for their own sake, or is there something that really counts that can only operate physically through seizing complexity?

    I suppose I am asking whether there is any scope for something like a soul in this ontology.

  2. Clayton Crockett Says:

    Great engagement and question. Deleuze calls it intensity, which is what drives repetition. I’m not opposed to using the word soul, but personally I see these processes as more immanent and nondualistic, so I wouldn’t conceive soul as something extra or added to the process, but something emergent from or produced by it. I see the material and the spiritual as two descriptions of the same thing, rather than a split between crude atomic reductionism or ephemeral spiritualization/idealization. It’s all energy conversion, and the process of energy conversion ‘is’ entropy because it ‘is’ time.

    I know these reflections are a bit of a tangent from the book, and I apologize if anyone is confused, since they are somewhat provocative and elliptical. but this is what I’m really stuggling to comprehend and I think it’s consonant with what Goodchild is doing in a broad sense, because I agree with him that theology concerns the “ordering of time, attention and devotion,” rather than the specific belief in this or that religious practice or claim.

    If anyone wants to discuss this further, and/or read a copy of the proposal I mentioned above, please email me at ClaytonC@uca.edu. The proposal is pretty technical in a scientific sense, but it is readable in the sense that it’s discursive rather than formal or mathematical. The author is not an academic scientist, though, which is part of the problem in distributing his ideas and getting feedback, but rather an architect with very thorough technical, scientific and mathematical training who’s done an incredible amount of research.

  3. No sleep for the wicked Says:

    Isn’t the analysis is 3.2 too pessimistic? Suppose there is a great deal in Copenhagen and a shift to efficiency savings and renewables. There will be spare cash from efficiency, carbon taxes to spend, and decreased demand will bring down the price of fossil fuels. According to the argument, this would fuel economic growth through a multiplier effect, so increasing consumption of fossil fuels.

    But what we get in the first place is a shift of money away from the fossil fuel corporations. With reduced prices, investment in extraction is harder, and the cost of production goes up. Less profitable production means less investment, and less production.

    Isn’t Goodchild’s entire economic theory too deterministic? Aren’t there other factors that direct what economic activity will take place?

  4. Clayton Crockett Says:

    It is pessimistic, but I don’t think it’s wrong. Capital is tied to production, the assembly of a machine, but machines don’t work without energy flows. The key notion is EROEI, or energy return on energy investment, which for oil is enormous as compared to other sources of fuel. Check out The Oil Drum (www.theoildrum.com). At present, all other sources of alternative energy have nowhere near the EROEI needed to replace oil. The peaking of world oil production in this decade means that we don’t have the energy to fuel another financial bubble. I think the economy is essentially tied to the extraction and exploitation of energy, whereas most people think about money, finance and economy in a vacuum, which is why Goodchild is right to insist upon an ecology of money.

    Goodchild footnoted “Jeavon’s paradox,” which means that a reduction in one place will be compensated by more production somewhere else. This is why Copenhagen cannot work, even though I’d like to see something emerge anyway. Less production means less capital and less wealth, and capitalism as far as I can tell does not ‘work’ in reverse. We will keep doing what we’re doing, which is consume more and more, until we no longer can. Which is what’s happening with the economy, we kept creating more and more money as debt until we couldn’t anymore, which happened in summer 2007, and now money is being destroyed at a tremendous rate.

    It’s not entirely deterministic, in the sense that everything is determined, but it is broadly predictive in the sense that we can know what is going on and extrapolate from this. Everything is energy conversion in a material sense. Chaotic complexity is non-deterministic, but still offers patterns. We can’t predict or know the future, but we can grasp the mechanisms at work now and see roughly how they are working themselves out–although there will always be surprises along the way.

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    Clayton sums up the situation well here. The sad fact is that even the most contentious proposals are fundamentally inadequate. Orthodox climate science may have the support of the scientific community, but its effects on public policy throughout the world has been cosmetic at best, and there is no reason to be optimistic this will change anytime soon. In practice, if not in spoken principle, the power brokers of the major gvts of the world agree with the naysayers; inasmuch as they disagree, they are agree with their corporate financiers. All the derisive emails in the world, or even aggressive collusion in a disciplinary organ, won’t change this.

  6. Clayton Crockett Says:

    It won’t change in time, but it will fall apart, and that’s what’s going on right now, even though they’re desperately trying to hold it together. Corporate capitalism is collapsing, and that means that something else will happen, which could be better and it could be worse-fascist, etc. I like Deleuze’s quote: “there’s nothing to fear or to hope, only to look for new weapons.” I don’t think we can prevent what’s happening, but we can prepare for it and for what’s coming after, even though we can’t predict exactly what that will be.

    And what’s interesting about my friend is that he told me that it wasn’t until he began taking religion and theology seriously did he have his breakthrough. Whether or not it will work, or in time, I think it says something about the split between genuine philosophic and theological thinking and real scientific development, which has been disastrous.

  7. No sleep for the wicked Says:

    I can’t see corporate capitalism collapsing. Even if we get a peak oil depression, and people’s lives start collapsing, that doesn’t mean that corporate capitalism will. Especially if Goodchild is right, and money trumps all other political movements.

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my earlier post. I was wondering if there is something wrong with the economics of Goodchild’s argument. Is it necessary to use all the fossil fuels in the ground – because if we use less, won’t the prices eventually go up rather than down?

    This is a separate issue from climate change and peak oil. It’s about the determinism of a debt money system, and whether there is any choice about how the economy unfolds globally.

  8. Clayton Crockett Says:

    I don’t know if it will collapse, but I think it will, because I can’t see how corporate capitalism can work in reverse, in absolute terms. That is, if there are no more bubbles to inflate. I don’t know what will happen to money if the global financial system breaks down, probably hyperinflation and reversion to nationalism. But right now we’re going through a period of deflation, which should continue as long as the system of international financing continues.
    I don’t think Goodchild is predicting the future, but rather analyzing how money works now, and I don’t know what he would say is most likely to happen, although I remember how powerfully struck he was by peak oil.

    We’ll never use all the fossil fuels in the ground, that’s not what peak oil means. It means a maximum rate of extraction, which will never be exceeded, and that happened this decade. Yes, prices go up as resources become scarcer and more expensive to extract. But at a certain point these price increases crash the economy, which happened last summer with oil at almost $150. The demand destruction brought oil and gas prices down. It’s not a linear process, but a nonlinear one where energy and finance are interrelated in very complex ways. I’ve learned a lot from the blog The Automatic Earth (theautomaticearth.blogspot.com).

    Again, I don’t think the economy is completely deterministic, and I don’t get that from Goodchild either. But it does operate within certain parameters and constraints, it obeys certain physical laws which means you can’t just do or have anything. The incredible material wealth based on cheap energy led many to think that money and wealth is immaterial, based only on imagination and innovation.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    If anything, I think Goodchild exposes the illusion that the economy is deterministic. There is a common remark made about Bergson’s Time and Free-will that his defense of free-will is not easy, in many cases freedom does not manifest, but he shows its possibility and the conditions for that manifestation. I would say this is also true of Goodchild’s analysis. By showing us what money can do, by outlining the cage we find ourselves in, he also exposes weaknesses in that cage that we may exploit in the creation of evaluative forms of credit, or, stated in more accessible terms, the reevaluation of all values (money).

  10. Pros O. Key Says:

    I think you’ve not fully addressed the force of No Sleep’s objection, Clayton. It is about whether the economic system entirely determines what is done, or whether we already have a theoretical power to change evaluations, such as choose to stop using fossil fuels. Can our evaluations change the economic climate and so become self-propagating? If we invest in renewables, and cut back on energy use, will we make fossil fuels more expensive, and so cut back on their total use?

    But I do suspect that No Sleep is wrong here. His explanation suggests that efficiency measures etc. would lead first to a reduction in fossil fuel use, before supply and demand might bring down the price to raise demand. But all this happens simultaneously – energy efficiency creates more energy demand at the same time.

    The periodisation happens in respect of boom and bust. The current recession may have led to the cancellation of investment in fossil fuel extraction, which means that the next peak and bust will come quicker, and again a difficult environment for investment. That way, the oil reserves will last longer.

    But, whatever the timescale, the bottom line will be this: is it profitable to extract and use fossil fuels? The evidence we have from continuing deforestation is that political will, sustainable technologies, and legislation do not work at a global level to prevent ongoing destruction of primary forests, even when we know better. So Goodchild gives us a theory of why collectively we cannot do what we know to be right.

    I’m not sure that this works at an individual level, though. Why do we, as individuals, still have larger than sustainable carbon footprints?

  11. Clayton Crockett Says:

    That’s a very good point, and gets at the aporia here, which is precisely the sovereign power of money. I want to say that it’s a ‘weak’ power (although I think Goodchild would hate that word) because it’s the promise to pay or credit which ‘determines’ the future. We can resist the power of money in certain determinate circumstances and choose options that do not pay, but only in light of possible future payments. That is, the futural structure of money organizes our thoughts, our values and our actions such that it always ‘wins.’ Michael Ruppert (cf. the film Collapse) says that until you change the way money works, nothing will change. I think he’s right.

    So we can say we know better, that it’s a matter of will and we think we can choose to do less, spend less, eat less, and some individuals can accomplish this in limited ways but not the society overall. And most individuals compensate or overcompensate for specific steps to reduce carbon footprints with other, less obvious practices that increase it.

    Goodchild is attempting to elaborate a way to think about developing habits and institutions of evaluation that would work to counter the destructive power of money. This is both possible and impossible, but I don’t think we’re simply stuck with money and capitalism, as in some stereotypical formulations of postmodernism. Not due to some heroism, but because the entire structure is collapsing, and that’s because we’re run up against real limits ecologically.

    It’s hard to specify where’s the determinism and where’s the freedom, but I think a lot of people see them too oppositionally and dualistically.

  12. Alex Says:

    I’m not sure the system is collapsing. I heard this rhetoric a lot, but it simply isn’t true. What we have seen in the last year the massive re-statement of the values of capitalism.

  13. Clayton Crockett Says:

    What we’ve seen last year is a desperate attempt to stave off collapse, and unbelievable manipulation by calling it a ‘recovery.’ Meanwhile the whole economy is being hollowed out just underneath the surface. Of course the transfer of wealth from poor to rich continues unabated, it’s what the bailout was for, but this is a symptom of crisis and decay, not health.

    Early next year, i think, we’ll see a sharp move downward in the markets, combined with a flight to the dollar for safety, as we shift into the next leg down in this depression. This won’t be an immediate or instant collapse, but a gradual one with many counter-movements, but the trajectory is set. They’ve kept it going for so long many people think that means that it can be kept in the air indefinitely, just as many people believe that you can have infinite growth with a finite resource base. Of course I could be wrong, and many parts of me would love to be wrong, but this makes the most sense of everything that I can figure out.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This conversation really seems to me to have run aground, and I’d venture to say that it’s because it has strayed a bit too far from the text — everyone is just kind of throwing out their well-informed and yet pre-existing opinions about the decline of capitalism, which would be great if they were put in more explicit dialogue with Goodchild’s views. Not that Goodchild is God or something, just that he might provide a medium for something other than just swapping opinions. He might also provide a way out of the seeming fatalism here, because it seems clear that the money we know today was invented at a determinate time and that he at least hopes it’s possible to invent something even more powerful that can defeat it. Right? I mean, his project isn’t ultimately to let the physical limitations of reality take care of things for us.

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If anything, it seems to me that along with a much more impoverished physical environment, the coming catastrophe is likely to lead to an even worse social form, if anything worthy of being called a “social form” arises before we all kill each other off. There’s an undeniable fascination to doomsaying and disaster, but it seems to me that this book is much more fundamentally about trying desperately to figure out a way to avert it or at least be ready with something new when it comes — otherwise, why even bother with the analysis?

  16. Clayton Crockett Says:

    Sorry Adam–I’m trying to address the same problematic I see Goodchild dealing with, but I have strayed from the text. Hans Frei said of biblical interpretation that we always move from text to truth too soon.

    I don’t think we can avert it, but Goodchild’s work is fundamentally about developing something new.


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