Caesar’s last breath

by Geoff Olson

Breathe in. Breathe out. Now consider this: every breath you take contains at least one air molecule exhaled by Julius Caesar in his last breath. With your every breath, at least one of these molecules makes its way into your lungs. This pop-science factoid may sound dubious, but it actually began as a thought experiment by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi. It’s been a chem class standard ever since.

Mathematician John Allen Paulos took another look at the numbers for his 1988 book Innumeracy. He began from the assumption that two thousand years have been enough time for the carbon dioxide molecules in Caesar’s last breath to mix evenly in the atmosphere. “Thus there is a 1.8% chance that none of the molecules you are (still) holding in your lungs came from Caesar’s last breath. And there is a 98.2% chance that at least one of the molecules in your lungs came from Caesar’s last breath,” Paulos noted.

This counterintuitive calculation strikingly illustrates how interconnected our lives are, across vast stretches of time. The traffic of molecules between our bodies and the environment is the ultimate in “free trade.” As Zen philosopher Alan Watts once observed, human beings are like the whirlpools and eddies seen at the edge of running streams. We’re dynamical systems that maintain recognizable form while exchanging matter and energy with our environment.

We are inseparable from the larger patterns in which we’re embedded. The great lesson of twentieth century science, from quantum physics to ecology, is that we cannot understand the separate components apart from the whole. Yet there are places in the world where they apparently haven’t heard the news yet, and I don’t mean the refugee camps of Sudan or the jungles of Borneo; I mean the university faculty clubs in the First World.

Post-Keynesian economic theory is stuck in a Newtonian era rut – a push-pull paradigm – and it’s about to hit a wall, both intellectually and practically, in Earth’s carrying capacity.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been plenty of time to catch up with the non-reductionist worldview. In 1866, German biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term oekologie, or “ecology,” defining it as “…the comprehensive science of the relationship of the organism to the environment.” By the early twentieth century, poverty-stricken New York collector of scientific oddities Charles Fort had a grasp of where the new sciences were heading. “If there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere,” Fort stated.

In 1961, when weather scientist Edward Lorenz was programming a computer to predict weather patterns, he entered the decimal .506 as a shortcut, rather than the full sequence of .506127. The result was a radically different weather scenario. Lorenz remarked on this finding in a 1963 paper: “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever.” Appearing before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Lorenz gave a talk entitled, Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas? The title has since become a shorthand expression for nature’s interconnectedness.

Lorenz’s findings kick-started the 1980s academic cottage industry of “chaos theory.” Aided by the personal computing explosion, scientists plumbed the bizarre, psychedelic landscapes of fractals and “strange attractors,” mathematical forms that appeared to underlie some of nature’s most persistent themes. Suddenly, it became possible to see links between seemingly unrelated things. From dripping taps to the collapse of caribou populations, from the whirlpool of cream in your coffee cup to the pinwheel of stars in a galaxy millions of light years away, chaos theory supplied the connections. Charles Fort was right: you could measure a circle beginning anywhere.

The disciplines of chaos theory and complexity theory have both had a strong influence on the physical sciences and in some of the life sciences, as well. Urban planners and social scientists have also seized upon the new ideas. Yet, as far as neoclassical economics is concerned, it’s as if the discoveries of Lorenz and his colleagues never occurred. The disconnect between rhetoric and reality has alerted some of the silverbacks within the financial-speculative complex that something is very wrong with their profession. Among them are Joseph Steiglitz, former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, former hedge fund financier George Soros and University of Bologna professor of political economics Stefano Zamagni.

David Suzuki is another skeptic and he offers a great anecdote about economic thinking. While at the University of British Columbia, he figured it would be a good idea to supplement his academic background in biology with an understanding of economics. When he attended his first class, the instructor stood at the blackboard, drawing lines in chalk to show the flow from the resource base into the market, with subsidiary industries adding value and creating wealth for investors.

Suzuki pointed to the side of the blackboard that was empty of equations, the resource base, and asked whether the calculations took into account the effect of human activity on the environment, the diminishing reserves and growing waste that Suzuki reasonably regarded as a cost mortgaged into the future. “That’s an externality,” the instructor responded dryly. In other words, the environment is something external to the grand human workings of the market and not worth factoring in. Suzuki left the class on the spot.

According to Stefano Zamagni, prior to the 1900s, economics was referred to as “the science of happiness.” By the late twentieth century, it bore the ignominious title, “the dismal science.” In a lecture in Vancouver in 2004, Zamagni described the crisis facing economic science. Economists identify the common good with the sum total of individual goods, the professor says, which doesn’t work, as it ignores “the good of every individual in all the dimensions of a human being.” What Zamagni calls the “original sin of economics” is the reductionist idea that economic relations are reducible to the exchange of equivalence: I give or do something for you and you give or do something for me of the same value.

Yet there is another dimension to exchange, based on the principle of reciprocity, and as Zamagni noted, “…the principle of reciprocity is completely different from the exchange of goods.” Reciprocity is closely tied to trust and both variables are entirely missing from economic equations. In fact, they are extremely difficult or impossible to quantify, yet immensely important for sustaining fair economic relations. Enron, anyone?

Zamagni connects several decades of materialistic economic philosophy, with its reductionistic disconnect from the real word, to the deterioration of North American civic and family life. The “instrumental rationality” of economic thinking, he says, has ventured far beyond its sphere of applicability, justifying a dog-eat-dog paradigm for both interpersonal and international relations.

Steve Keen, associate professor of economics and finance at the University of Western Sydney, describes conventional economic theory as “autistic.” “What passes for ‘normal’ in economics barely deserves the appellation ‘science,’ he asserts in his 2001 paper Economists Don’t Have Ears.

Keen writes: “Most introductory economics textbooks present a sanitized, uncritical rendition of conventional economic theory…the courses in which these textbooks are used do little to counter this mendacious presentation. Students might learn, for example, that ‘externalities’ reduce the efficiency of the market mechanism. However, they will not learn that the ‘proof’ that markets are efficient is itself flawed.” Keen also assails the economics, as taught at an undergraduate level, as “profoundly boring,” and those who move from the discipline into accountancy, finance or management learn just enough to walk away from the classroom with a warped view of the world.

Although there is a vast body of literature critical of economic thinking, the students aren’t exposed to any of it. Most students end up swallowing the axioms of economic science because, as Keen notes, “…their training leaves them both insufficiently literate and insufficiently numerate.” Neither are they given the historical context for economic thinking, making it seem as if some bearded prof had delivered it from on high, reading from inscribed tablets.

Economics has persevered with mathematical methods that professional mathematicians have long ago transcended, Keen writes. “This dated version of mathematics shields students from new developments in mathematics that, incidentally, undermine much of neoclassical economic theory.”

In particular, applying the findings of chaos theory to real-world market behaviour involves an understanding of “ordinary differential equations.” Yet this topic is taught in very few courses on mathematical economics, notes Keen, and where it is taught, it is not covered in sufficient depth.

“Economics students therefore graduate from Masters and PhD programs with an effectively vacuous understanding of economics, no appreciation of the intellectual history of their discipline and an approach to mathematics, which hobbles both their critical understanding of economics and their ability to appreciate the latest advances in mathematics and other sciences.

“A minority of these ill-informed students themselves go on to be academic economists, and then repeat the process. Ignorance is perpetuated,” Keen claims.

Bill Rees, professor at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, is best known for his concept of the “ecological footprint.” He received a PhD from the University of Toronto in population ecology in 1969 and when UBC’s forward-thinking School of Planning went looking for someone with a background in the biological science, Rees fit the bill. He began to ponder the relationship between the carrying capacity of the environment and economic activity, subsequently developing “a simple little model” showing that the human carrying capacity of the Lower Mainland was less than half of the population of the time. In a 2006 article by Robert Alsted in the Vancouver Courier, Rees discussed the response from colleagues:

“One of them, a prominent Canadian resource economist, took him to lunch and with genuine concern told him that if he continued to pursue his research interests as expressed in that little paper, his career at UBC would be ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ Didn’t he know? Carrying capacity as a concept had been demolished long since –trade, technology and human ingenuity could make up for any regional resource shortfalls.”

In recent years, there has been some noodling with “the economics of happiness” along with the emerging new science of “behavourial economics.” But as long as GDP calculations can factor a heart attack, a divorce or an oil tanker spill as economic pluses, the rot goes to the core of the discipline.

“The mad rantings of men in authority often have their origins in the jottings of some forgotten professor of economics,” said John Maynard Keynes, himself a largely forgotten professor of economics. As journalist Naomi Klein demonstrates in her most recent book The Shock Doctrine, the economic theories of Milton Friedman were put into practice in Chile immediately following the 1972 coup. Friedman’s dangerous, destructive ideas became the intellectual foundation for the subsequent neocolonial domination of Latin America, under the so-called “Washington consensus.”

From the corporate-backed war of attrition on the pubic sector, to Canada’s proxy war in Afghanistan, with its perpetually-undefined “mission,” to the Iraqi debacle and the American’s current sabre-rattling with Iran, surely part of the problem resides in the education of the advisors and handlers who surround our leaders. These people suffer from a serious thinking problem. Their blinkered, one-size fits all vision of a world monoculture, of democracy at gunpoint, is about what you’d expect from anyone whose worldview is post-Enlightenment, but pre-Einsteinian.

I’m sure many of these highly educated sorts would fail to see the full relevance of the anecdote about Caesar’s last breath. But I’d like to think a few of them would be stirred by the words of the late Italian author Primo Levi. In his book The Periodic Table, Levi tracks the path of a carbon atom as it escapes from a block of limestone and travels into the airways of a falcon. It fails to penetrate the bird’s bloodstream and continues whirling about in the atmosphere for another eight years, before being inhaled by the author himself. The carbon atom makes its way into Levi’s bloodstream and into a brain cell that, as he says, “…guides this hand of mine to make this dot upon the page: this one.”

Levi’s scientific lyricism underscores the message of Caesar’s last breath. Our lives are intimately interwoven with all things, living and nonliving. It’s hardly a radical notion: most of us get it by now. “The Butterfly Effect” is well known enough that it became the title of a Hollywood film. Yet the idea that human beings are rational free agents, with no allegiance to anyone or anything other than their own self-interest, remains a given in neoclassical economics. It’s not a workable recipe for dealing with a finite planet with real-world limits, but it works just fine as a philosophy for psychopaths.

Like former chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, we’re all co-authors in the universal process of creation. This is demonstrably true in market economics. Our collective capacity for reality construction is demonstrated by the gyrations of stock exchanges. The value of stocks are no more than what we collectively believe them to be, arguably making market economics a branch of social psychology.

The world as we experience it is a weird amalgam of world and worldview, of expectation and external relations. Werner Heisenberg, one of the architects of quantum theory, held that “…what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” As scientists penetrate nature to smaller and smaller scales, all they find are ghostlike entities that evaporate into abstract clouds of probabilities. And the deeper they go, they find only the relationships between things, which themselves are only relationships between other things, whether we call them quarks, strings, “virtual particles” or some other conceptual will-o’-the-wisp.

Recent physics experiments in Vienna on “non-locality” have confirmed that all parts of the universe appear to be in instantaneous connection with all other parts. This is reminiscent of the Buddhist notion of “mutual arising” or the Vedic myth of Indra’s net, composed of an endless web of jewels that reflect one another.

Through its recursive retreat into endless layers of pattern, it seems the universe forever hides its face from us, hinting that our self-image as independent beings isn’t the whole story. It’s more like a game of hide and seek between observer and observed.

Ultimately, we are no more “rational utility maximizers” in a “free market” than we are sacks of chemicals disconnected from the air we breathe. We are creative patterns, whirlpools and turbulent flows, inseparable from all the other patterns in the river of being. This is what ecology and the sciences of connectedness have been telling us for decades. And as the frogs, songbirds and honeybees continue with their vanishing acts, the time is running short for the wizards of the dismal science to get it.

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