Diminishing Marginal Utility

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by Olduvai.ca

It seems axiomatic that exponential growth in debt/credit (i.e. pulling growth from the future) is the means being used by the-powers-that-be to counter the law of Diminishing Marginal Utility (also known as Diminishing Returns). It also seems obvious that on a finite planet where perpetual growth is impossible, there are probably only two means by which this debt will ever be reconciled: abrogation of the debt (i.e. bankruptcy) or (hyper)inflation. Either of these ‘solutions’ will wreak havoc on the majority of (all?) people.

Should archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis laid out in The Collapse of Complex Societies hold true, then ‘collapse’ is most assuredly guaranteed. And it seems that the financialised economic system may be the penultimate sand grain that impacts those other grains also near a critical state and leads to the eventual phase transition that concludes in a much simpler state (i.e. a loss of complexity).

It seems to me that the only question that remains is will this transition be relatively lengthy such as that which occurred when the Roman Empire ‘fell’, or will it be relatively quick as it was for the Eastern Islanders? And the most significant issue, it would seem to me, is what the world will be like when we lose the energy sources required to maintain our globalised, just-in-time, industrial civilisation (especially water and food production and distribution).

Just looking at my own region (province of Ontario, Canada), we long ago overshot our natural carrying capacity and are dependent upon food imports to feed at least 25% (and growing) of our population. Only 3-5% of our current food production is consumed ‘locally’, while most of it (at least 70%) is channeled towards ethanol (soybean and corn). This hardly seems wise and certainly not sustainable as more and more or our limited arable lands are paved over to accommodate a continually growing population (thanks to immigration since ‘domestic’ growth is below replacement values).

The breakdown of trade (whether it is due to trade wars or other factors such as finite liquid fuels) appears to be increasing (not surprising given we are all struggling to maintain or increase our slice of the pie), meaning food will become not only more costly but increasingly sparse.

But try telling/informing the political class who are intent on chasing growth (mostly because there is money to be had and they hold the belief that growth only has positive consequences and any negative ones are easily ‘solved’–at least, that is the narrative they sell) that we are bumping up against real, biophysical limits and that their pursuit of endless growth is actually the antithesis of long-term ‘prosperity’. It is next to impossible. We seem destined to experience the collapse that accompanies such overshoot, regardless of our protestations and attempts to alter our trajectory.

I am increasingly convinced most of us will suffer significantly as the-powers-that-be ignore the warnings and signals that abound and this all plays out.


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