Saturday, June 11, 2011

#162 / Circular Causation

I think I was a senior in college when I picked up a very thin hardback book from a "for sale" bin at the Stanford Bookstore, and bought a copy of Economic Theory And Under-Developed Regions, by Gunnar Myrdal. I still have the book, one of my favorites, and the stamp on the inside cover says it cost me $1.00. I note that it is available today in hardback on for $196.22. A more economical paperback edition also appears to be available (used), but the book is out of print.

Myrdal's insights on economic development are still worth reading, but I treasure the book for Chapter 2, entitled "The Principle of Circular and Cumulative Causation." I remember reading this Chapter as leading to a revelation, for me, about how the world actually works. My senior thesis for the Honors Program in Social Thought and Institutions was entitled "The Future of Change in America," and Myrdal's book suddenly made me aware that our future (and not just in America) was going to be determined by the principle of circular and cumulative causation. In short, the change that defines our future will be either a "vicious" or a "virtuous" circle. There is, as Myrdal says, "no ... tendency towards automatic self-stabilization in the social system." The fact that this is true lends urgency to our need to become personally involved in the politics of our time, to get the circle turning in the right direction.

A column by Thomas Friedman, in Friday's paper, set me thinking about this topic. The column had the title, "The Earth Is Full," and ended on an optimistic note, quoting an Australian "environmentalist-entrepreneur" (quite possibly an oxymoron) named Paul Gilding. Here is Gilding's take on where we are:
We are heading for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.
I can't disagree that we are "slow" to realize the dimensions of the crisis that has been caused by our disregard of the limits of the natural world, as we speed ahead, as "entrepreneurs," to create human wealth. As we have done it, wealth in the human world has impoverished the world of Nature, upon which we are ultimately dependent. The situation is not so different from the description of the difference between wealthy and poor nations in Myrdal's book, with the world of Nature playing the role of the underdeveloped and ever more impoverished part of the world. Myrdal's conclusion (different from what Mr. Gilding propounds) is that there is nothing "automatic" about changing the course of an ongoing process of circular and cumulative causation.

We don't stop a tornado, in other words, by noting that it is going to be destructive, assuming that our observations of the fact will then motivate the necessary action to eliminate the danger. And when the "Earth is full," there is nowhere to go to get out of the way of the tornado that our own actions have called forth.

With all due respect to Paul Gilding, and to the almost always cheery Thomas Friedman (he thought the war in Iraq was going to be dandy), being too "slow" is stupid. That's the definition of the word:


[stoo-pid, styoo]


lacking ordinary quickness and keenness of mind; dull

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