"Every man ... lives by exchanging"
Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
"There is no wealth but life."
John Ruskin, Ethics of the Dust
"For we pay a price for everything we get or take in this world"
Anne in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
"After all, what's life anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die."
Charlotte in Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
"And yet hunger won out, as it always does in human affairs."
Tom Junod, Esquire "My Mom Couldn't Cook"
[A living organism] ... feeds upon negative entropy ... Thus the device by which an organism maintains itself stationary at a fairly high level of orderliness (= fairly low level of entropy) really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment."
Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life?
"Entropy is the price of structure."
Ilya Prigogine, Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature
"After all, what is a cell but a series of orchestrated chemical reactions that extract energy from the environment to build order?"
Annie Prud'homme & Rosalind Groeewould, The Molecular Origins of Life
"Cells require dynamic disequilibrium -- that is what being alive is all about."
Nick Lane, NATURE
"The simplest of cells and the most complex of organisms rely on food and nutrients to fuel intricate metabolic programmes that enable survival ... the set of metabolic reactions that is required for life is vast and complex."
B.P. Tu & S.L. Knight, Metabolic Cycles as an Underlying Basis of Biological Oscillations, NATURE
"How does the living organism avoid decay? The obvious answer is: By eating, drinking, breathing and (in the case of plants) assimilating. The technical term is metabolism. The Greek word (metaballein) means change or exchange."
Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life?
"Available energy is the main object at stake in the struggle for existence and the evolution of the world" & "Thermodynamics, correctly interpreted does not just allow Darwinian evolution; it favors it."
"Energy flows and conversions sustain and delimit the lives of all organisms"
Vaclav Smil, World History and Energy, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ENERGY
"Happy is the man who can recognize in the work of today a connected portion of the work of life, and an embodiment of the work of Eternity."
James Clerk Maxwell, founder of modern physics in his private journal at age 23
"A finite living being partakes of infinity"
J.W. Goethe, The Essential Goethe
"The universe is transformation; our life is what our thoughts make it."
Marcus Aurelius, The Mediatations
"There is a strange sense in which this is a participatory universe."
John Archibald Wheeler, American theoretical physicist
"For some purposes ... it is desirable to take a broader view of the subject."
J. Willard Gibbs, Preface: Elementary Principles in Statistical Mechanics
To Market, to Market in Bhutan:
Exchanging resources for either a weaver's expertise (above), or a shopkeeper's curated goods
The Wondrous Economy
- If you're alive, you're already hitched to a star, and putting it to work in your life.
- Through food, life is caught up in and governed by a larger system of unfathomable vastness and strange beauty.
- Humans negotiate our universe by being born "consumers," but "consumption" is really transformation and exchange. We are in a ceaseless feedback with the larger Universe via our local environment. This is not anything woo-woo or new age or even remotely contestable. There are astonishing implications to a full understanding of why we must eat to stay alive.
- Our relationship to food can broadly explain our "consumption" nature in its obvious and obscured forms, our very creation, and is the ultimate Rosetta Stone to much of human nature.
- The most essential property of what we term "consumption" is that it is always an exchange. What we understand as consumption is always exchange, and not only in the market sense, but at the most fundamental level that both includes and transcends all life on Earth.
The Universe -- which includes us in our present and other forms and intervals -- is on an unknown journey.
In a practical way that reflects known universal physical laws, this journey fuels and drives and organizes our planet, our sun, our galaxy, every leaf, every blade of grass, every human being -- every breath they take, food they eat, thing they build, or life they bring into the world.
Carl Sagan famously said "We are stardust," but we are more than the materials of the universe: we are expressions of its journey. Our lives contribute to the journey of the universe by dissipating thermal energy to maintain our very-far-from-equilibrium systems. We do this, first and foremost, by capturing and transforming energy from our environment: by eating.
The ultimate origin of this property of our universe -- dissipation of energy through the emergence and persistence of far-from-equilibrium complexity -- is unknown. Conditions that set complexity into motion -- small densities and irregularities in the early universe -- are not understood.
This practical reality is the origin of everything we know and love, and is mediated through the Earth, and now through the marketplace and culture.
Manifested locally, here on Earth, this practical reality explains pretty much everything.
- Our bodies are complexly organized energy and matter of the universe. We collect, transform, and convert energy from the universe to persist in a far-from-equilibrium state, and to change the world that changes us. This feedback is our economy, and we all have our rations.
- The First Work of Life -- to persist -- is enabled in every conceivable way by energy liberated by Earth's systems, and its continual transformation and conversion throughout the biotic and built world, including the marketplace.
- Humans have figured out how to capture, store, harness, and deliberately direct surplus energy to enable individual conscious goals beyond survival and replication.
- The human capacity to store and harness surplus energy to enable cultural evolution that has outpaced biological evolution is unprecedented in the known universe. Parasites and plants fantastically harness the energy of other living systems, but without alternative uses beyond persistence. A parasite does not choose a complex alternative use of its host's energy, or have complex goals to enable. There is no surplus because it remains too energetically costly to earn one. In short: a parasite has no opportunity cost.
- This human capacity to direct a surplus has created the built world and all knowledge, and, for some, a multitude of built-world alternatives that our organic brains haven't yet caught up to dealing with. Decisions about how to allocate our supra-survival resources is the Second Work of Life, built on The First.
- The Second Work of Life enabled by harnessed surplus is the source of both the worst wasteful excesses, as well as many of the most wonderful, joyous, amazing things to enjoy, experience, and share while we are alive in a body on this planet.
- Balancing The Second Work of Life created by access to surplus with The First Work of Life is the challenge of civilization, and of every individual.
- The planet mediates the energy of the universe -- the work of stars -- and so does the market and culture, and so do we.
- “We are the cosmos made conscious" (Brian Cox). We are made of the universe by its laws under local conditions on Earth. We are conscious in the universe, and able to direct its powers and properties. It is the most wondrous economy and opportunity we can imagine.
- Human life is distinguished from all other known forms by our capacity to manage the energy of the universe for purposes and ends in excess of our own far-from-equilibrium organization to express and animate what matters most to us. We do this through a finite interval in a perishable form on a planet we share with others.
What Does Pennybun Have to Do With This?
Pennybun presumes we are metabolic organisms: we need to eat, and that this fundamental requirement of all life is the origin and foundation of all human exchange and advancement. Metabolic function regulates life systems and cycles, and connects life to the larger universe.
Surplus energy has enhanced and complicated this relationship by creating alternatives to subsistence living. Surplus matters. It introduces increasingly complex alternatives to energy uses without undoing the natural limits of life (so far), and affects everything from an individual life to global governance.
One of the most enduring cultural references to exchange and food is the "To Market" rhyme. The rhyme was first alluded to in an Italian dictionary in 1598, but was probably in use well before then. It has many variations, but the sing-song "To market, to market" is familiar worldwide, and the rhyme was first recorded in its complete form in 1805 as:
To market, to market to buy a penny bun,
Home again, home again. Market is done.
A penny bun was a small loaf of bread, and the desired item on the most well known to-do and shopping list in Western culture. A penny bun is a symbol for exchange, consumption, cost, price, valuation, intention, action, and transparency in the energy economy that is life.
Bread is the most ancient prepared human food, with evidence of primitive bread baking dating back at least 30,000 years, and has long been a universal symbol of life and means.
The history of penny bread dates from at least the 13th century, and its story holds meaning for modern consumption choices beyond medieval England, and here is why.
A penny bun transparently declared its terms of exchange with its name: a small loaf of life-sustaining energy that contained one penny's worth of grain at the day's posted rate.
The rate was determined by the quality of the grain and the success of the local harvest. For hundreds of years the size of the loaf changed according to the local price of flour, but the price of the loaf did not change. It was always a penny for a penny's worth of flour plus a standard fee for the baker. This way, even a consumer with just a half-penny or penny could buy daily bread. These controls were not perfect and were often controversial, but were an attempt to maintain social order through management of a crucial resource. Over the years, the rhyme has included other goods: a fat hog or hen, a plum bun or cake, meat to put in the pot, but none of these had penny bun's unique price and source transparency.
The most essential thing about the penny bun exchange was that it reflected the reality of things, the true conditions and costs, the way things really were. There was almost no possibility of anyone being tricked or misled or manipulated without grave consequences. The energy stakes were too high. The assigned value of the penny bun was assured by rigorous use of empirical data that was in the public domain. Individual consumer choice was empowered with as much reliable, real-time public information that could be known.
Centuries after the introduction of penny bread, there was a Victorian-era joke about a man sending his dog into a bakery every morning to buy a penny bun for him. One day the baker decided to see what would happen if he gave the dog a half-penny bun instead of a penny bun in exchange for the penny. The dog left the bakery, and returned with a policeman, with the punchline being that every creature knew the worth of a penny bun, and that cheating or tricking the customer was a punishable crime, which was true. Maintaining public trust in the strict relationship between cost, valuation, and pricing of bread was one of the highest duties of town officials.
A hungry person with limited resources could have confidence in the pennybun, and peace of mind about exchanging a scarce penny for bread, because the system of energy exchange was considered transparent and trustworthy.
It's not always easy to have the same confidence and peace of mind with our modern consumption choices and exchanges as the penny bun consumer might have had. Truths and terms necessary for the valuations that should guide our allocation choices are often obscured or distorted, and rarely as transparent as those of the penny bun exchange.
Today, the cost is far more complex because we have so much more to want than a plum bun or a fat hen: a seemingly infinite array of wants laying claim to our resources, but our pennies, days, attention, and energy remain finite individually and collectively. We must assign values based not only on the market, but on their benefits to what we say is important to us.
Every single thing in this famous photo has its origins in the universe. Nothing on these shelves was created without energy from the universe. This seems obvious, but there is an impression that man has the power to create food or plastic or chemicals from nothing. A corn dog from a gas station mini-mart is organized on Earth, but its energy is not created on earth.
"For nothing can ever change the sum of things;
there is no hiding-place, nothing outside,
no source-place where another power might rise"
Lucretious, On the Nature of Things
I think allocating endowed and earned resources in a way that supports what matters most to us is the hard and wonderful work of life,
enabled by the miracle of life
which is energy from the universe transformed by stars, Earth, and us.
Pennybun is where I share what I learn from others about energy, valuation, consumption, and exchange.
John Powell. The aassize of bread. Together with sundry good and needful ordinances for bakers, brewers, inholders, victualers, vinters, and butchers. London : William Stansby, 1630
London : Robert Wyer, ca. 1540. Facsimilie reprint, London : W.E. Ashbee, 1869.
Here begynneth the boke named the assyse of breade, what it ought to weye after the pryce of a quarter of wheete.