Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Gaia hypothesis, equilibrium, and libertarianism.

The Gaia hypothesis essentially postulates a self-regulating earth in which life creates the conditions necessary for more life. This makes a lot of sense, of course, because everything has a tendency towards equilibrium. For a microcosmic example, imagine that a few breeding pairs of sheep are introduced to an island with lots of plants. but no previous mammalian inhabitants. The sheep, having no predators and an at first unlimited supply of food, will eat and breed, their population expanding exponentially.

One spring, however, more sheep will be alive than vegetation will sprout to feed, and many sheep will die of starvation. The sheep population will decrease, and will continue to oscillate around a certain value until something about the environment changes. This value is called the carrying capacity for, in this case, sheep.

One of the really sweet things about being human is that we can consciously, decisively, and rapidly augment the Earth's carrying capacity through technological advance. (I think that's awesome, which is why I'm going to major in environmental engineering.) This is what allows the small fraction of Americans who are farmers to produce food not only for the rest of America, but for many other countries as well. Unfortunately, at the moment, many of our methods of increasing the Earth's carrying capacity for humans will become impractical in the forseeable future, most notably the use of oil.

Some proponents of the Gaia hypothesis would say that the rise in sea levels precipitated by the huge increase in temperatures itself precipitated by the greenhouse-gas emissions caused by the use of fossil fuels is what will restore human population to the carrying capacity. These people, however, obviously don't know history, or supply and demand.

Here's what, assuming no government subsidies on oil products (which there were cries for after Katrina from, ironically, the ostensibly environmentalist left), will happen as oil runs out and population continues to increase. Red lines represent the current situation; gray ones represent the future. Price of the good represented is found at the intersection of the supply and demand lines:

As you can see, as supply decreases and demand (based on first-world population) increases, price skyrockets. When the price of something increases, more people find substitutes for that thing. That means if the government allows fossil-fuel derived energy prices to increase as they naturally will, less fossil fuels will be used and less global warming will occur. Energy prices will at first rise, putting a cramp on the economy, but they will then fall back to equilibrium levels.

That's because a free market is a stable equilibrium - when disturbed, it will quickly find its way back to its original position. Command economies, on the other hand, are unstable equilibria - when disturbed, they will oscillate wildly until they come to rest at a free market. If I had the computer skills to do so, I could superimpose this on the Nolan chart and it would be amazing.

Since I don't, imagine the Nolan chart on a piece of paper, with the libertarian corner pointing down. Now rotate the piece of paper about an axis from one long side to the other so that you are looking at the edge of the bottom short side of the piece of paper. Now, make the originally horizaontal line at the center of the chart come up, so that a little hill is formed in between the libertarian corner and the communist corner. Raise the communist corner up a bit. Now imagine a ball free to roll around this surface, but not off it. That ball is the economy. Now imagine little gnomes trying to push it around the surface. Those are our dear politicians. It will naturally fall towards a stable free market, but with the combined force of the gnomes, it can be almost maintained at the unstable left or right positions. Elevation on this chart, then, represents the level of control necessary. The left and right policies are thus harder to maintain - less efficient, in other words - than the communist policy.

I'm going to send this to my economics teacher to make sure this makes sense.


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