Tales Of Our Times: Foes Find There Is No Free Lunch

Tales of Our Times
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Foes Find There Is No Free Lunch

Should we worry about the national debt? Should we cut down a mountainside full of trees to meet current needs? The questions together are a curious pair.

Or more to the point, how curious is it never to hear the questions asked together? They are but two forms of the same question: How do we husband assets so as to maintain capabilities for those who come later? The puzzle is posed. The fields of economics and ecology are more like mirrored copies of each other than they are different. They are chapters in the same book.

Even their names sound strangely similar for good reason. “Economist” and “ecologist” both derive from the Greek word “ecos” (oikos), which means “house.” Originally an economist was a manager or keeper of the house (home economist). An ecologist is a keeper of the big house in which we all live.

The reason the national debt matters is that we cannot spend more than we replenish on an ongoing basis. Overspending results in loss of the nation’s long-term ability to raise capital at a decent price. Lenders run away. The money supply erodes. Lenders in the U.S. and abroad demand a higher interest rate.

The case against overcutting trees on a mountainside is we cannot cut more trees than we replenish on an ongoing basis. Overcutting results in loss of the mountain’s long-term ability to raise trees at a decent price. Water runs away. Soil erodes. Nutrients are not replenished by nature. Water, soil and nutrients cost more to acquire than before.

There is one large difference between money and a mountainside of trees. Money is money and can be moved anywhere it is needed. In contrast, trees on one mountainside cannot stop floods and erosion on another mountainside.

Economics and ecology evolved from the same batch of principles. Both pursuits find the same unyielding link between what is sown and what is reaped, which ultimately governs outcomes. The disciplines coalesce in a single thought: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

This guiding insight came together in strokes of rare irony.  
Milton Friedman was a conservative-minded, world-renowned economist at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1977. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976. He popularized the economic axiom by using it as the title of his 1977 book, “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.”   

Barry Commoner was a liberal-minded, world-renowned ecologist at Washington University in St. Louis from 1947 to 1981. He put forward the Four Laws of Ecology, of which No. 4 states “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” These are the exact words.

The Fourth Law of Ecology was not pillaged from Milton Friedman. It is distinctly true in either context. “There is no free lunch” is a mainstay of conservative economists and conservative ecologists. Both schools of caretakers anchor their doctrine in the same bedrock. Issues get hopelessly snarled when each camp combats the other with the same mighty truth.

Political banners copy the quirk. One party selects economic conservatism and the other selects ecological conservatism. Each one wants to conserve half our assets and deplete the vital other half.

What if a third party were to arise from the status quo? A rising party needs a sprightly name that stands apart from the old ones freighted with icons, a name that prods us to solve the problems we face. A sharp prod of a name is the “Generations Party.”

The new party platform is easy to construct. It pops up wherever we turn, on the right, the left and in between. Economic and natural assets are intertwined; loss to one hurts the other. We need both to stay strong for generations to come.

A Generations Party would keep the hard truth. We reap what we sow. There is no such thing as a free lunch.


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