Progress! Economic growth! Affluence! Forget about it—at least while basic laws of science are in effect. I talk with Tom Wessels, ecologist, professor, and one of New England’s clearest environmental voices. We focus on Tom’s gem of a book, The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future. In it he explains how any economy focusing on economic growth (which differs from economic development) conflicts with basic scientific laws. And that never ends well.
Here’s the deal: Life on Earth isn’t linear. It’s much more interesting, dynamic, and creative. Most aspects of our lives—the biotic world we live in, our weather, bodies, communities, economies, our political structures—are complex systems. They can’t be understood through the linear, reductionist thinking that has held sway for several hundred years. Damn you, Descartes!!
Tom Wessels has a knack for explaining simply and clearly where our daily lives meet scientific laws. Once we can see systems, relationships, and emergence as how the planet rolls, we might be able to build living economies that thrive within living ecosystems.
We sat in his lovely hand-built home and talked about how “economic growth” on a finite planet is a dangerous fantasy (particularly addictive to politicians), how to improve our relations with natural systems, and:
- How complex systems work—and how they can thrive
- How linear systems work
- Where these ideas have been the past several hundred years
- How positive feedback loops can bite us in not-so-positive places
- How corporate mergers and free trade defy the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics—BAD!
- How a return to “ancient values” can bring us back to what matters
…And we’re greeted by the sight of a doe and her tiny fawn enjoying a romp in the field outside the window.
Tom Wessels is a terrestrial ecologist and professor emeritus at Antioch University New England where he founded the master’s degree program in Conservation Biology. Tom has conducted ecology and sustainability workshops through out the United States for over three decades and is the author of six books, including Reading the Forested Landscape, The Myth of Progress, with his latest being Granite, Fire, and Fog: The Natural and Cultural History of Acadia.
Want more on complexity and systems thinking? The late, great Donella Meadows wrote Thinking in Systems.
Music in this episode is “In These Times” by the Blue Dot Sessions, used via a Creative Commons license.
And while we’re talking books, my comrades at the Dark Mountain Project in the UK have just published Walking On Lava, Selected Works for Uncivilised Times. I’m really honored to have my work included. Essays, stories, and art from Dark Mountain’s first ten years take a slant look at our critical age. Included is the original Dark Mountain Manifesto, which says it all…