Foster, J. (2011) “Energy, aesthetics and knowledge in complex economic systems.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. Volume 80, Issue 1, September, pages 88-100.



It is argued that the fact that economic systems are dissipative structures must be taken fully into account in economics if we are to understand the nature of the economic-ecological interface and how to deal with emergent environmental problems, such as global warming. Such problems are a product of economic growth, which is widely accepted to be the outcome of the acquisition and application of knowledge. Drawing upon disparate literatures within and outside economics, it is argued that economic growth should be more properly viewed as the outcome of a co-evolutionary process that involves the autocatalytic interaction of new knowledge and access of increasing amounts of free energy to do increasingly specialized forms of work. The conventional view is that energy is just a factor of production used increasingly as new knowledge is employed. The possibility of reverse causation is considered here. Specifically, the relevance of the ‘energy hypothesis,’ associated with Eric Schneider and his collaborators, is assessed. This hypothesis states that all dissipative structures have, as their primary objective, the reduction of accessible free energy gradients. It is concluded that such a hypothesis cannot be rejected in the context of economic behaviour and that this opens up an important research agenda for economists. It is argued that such research has to be interdisciplinary because our economic behaviour is driven by aspirational goals which are aesthetic constructions in the mind and strongly connected to our emotions. In this regard, recent neuropsychological literature, arguing that certain emotional dispositions are necessary before we can employ our cognitive capabilities effectively, is important to digest. Thus, the possibility exists that it is in the emotional domain of the mind that the energy hypothesis is operative. Aesthetic constructions are, thus, connecting agents in the knowledge-energy co-evolutionary process. Some of the macroeconomic evidence concerning the relationship between free energy use and economic growth is considered and it is found that the energy hypothesis cannot be rejected in the economic domain. However, considerably more research needs to be undertaken before any firm conclusions can be drawn.