"Every man ... lives by exchanging"
"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"
"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 ... 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."
"Energy flows and conversions sustain and delimit the lives of all organisms"
Vaclav Smil, World History and Energy, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ENERGY
"We live in a universe that is always changing, full of matter that is always moving."
"I mean, really, what's the point? ... who gives a crap ... it still doesn't change the fact that I don't own a car."
Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller's Day Off
"What we believe about the fundamental nature of reality affects how we look at the world and how we choose to live our lives. We should work to get it right."
Sean Carroll, The Big Picture
"What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? How else can we put ourselves in harmonious relation with the great verities and consolations of the infinite and the eternal? And I avow my faith that we are marching towards better days. Humanity will not be cast down. We are going on swinging bravely forward along the grand high road and already behind the distant mountains is the promise of the sun."
Winston Churchill, Liberalism and the Social Problem (1909)
"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
"... the truth is more beautiful than your wildest dreams."
Neil Turok, Director Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, The Universe Within
"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 -- is on an unknown journey.
In a practical way that reflects known universal physical laws, this journey fuels, drives, and organizes our planet, our sun, our galaxy, every green 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. We are open systems.
The ultimate origin of this property of our universe -- dissipation of energy through the emergence and persistence of far-from-equilibrium complexity -- is unknown. Finely-tuned 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's open systems, and now through the marketplace and culture.
Manifested locally, here on Earth, this practical reality explains pretty much everything.
We are phase states of the universe on our way home -- whatever that may mean to us.
- Our bodies are complexly organized energy and matter of the universe. As open systems, 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.
- 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 and governance.
- Humans have figured out how to capture, store, harness, and deliberately direct surplus energy to enable individual conscious goals beyond survival and replication. The Age of Built Information is upon us now.
- 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. It has also amplified the feedback of human actions on our own mediating system: Earth's processes.
- A Second Work of Life has emerged from the harnessed surplus of persistence alone: alternatives, choices. This Second Work is the source of both the worst wasteful excesses, as well as many of the most wonderful, joyous, amazing things to experience, love, and share while we are alive in a body on this planet.
- Balancing The Second Work of Life created by access to surplus (the possibilities of a human-built world) with The First Work of Life (human nature and instincts, persistence and replication) 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 beyond 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 all life to the larger universe.
One of the most enduring cultural references to exchange and food is the "To Market" rhyme. The rhyme was first alluded to in John Florio's Italian-English 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 TRANSPARENT exchange, consumption, cost, price, valuation, intention, and action in the energy and information 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.
Laws, Customs and good Ordinances
Set down for BAKERS
In making, sizing and selling all sorts of lawful Breads, which by the Laws are vendible unto his Majesties Subjects in the Commonwealth retailing the same:
Ratified and allowed by his Majesties most Honourable Privy-Council, as hereafter followeth."
Extract from the Assize of Bread, 1671, University Of Durham, Archives and Special Collections
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 source and valuation transparency.
"they must make and bake farthing white bread, half peny white, peny white, half penywheaten, peny wheaten bread, peny household, and two peny household loaves"
All bakers were bound to "keep and observe this order in the weight of their breads."
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 stakes were too high. The assigned value of the penny bun was assured by the application 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. Bakers were apprenticed for seven years to learn the art and science of their craft or "mystery," and were required to "sign" each loaf to personally guarantee its contents were as promised. This early market branding pledged bakers who were "skillfull in the good making and true sizing of all sorts of bread" as guaranteed by "his own mark and seal upon all sorts of his mans bread ... "
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 citizen 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. The term "Bakers Dozen" came from the 13th unit thrown in when the customer paid for a dozen to ensure compliance. Throughout history, even in other cultures, bakers who cheated were publicly punished.
A hungry person with limited resources could feel confident about exchanging a penny for bread, because the exchange was transparent, trustworthy, and fair throughout the land.
People didn't necessarily consider why they needed bread, but only that they were hungry and needed to eat.
As it turns out, our relationship with bread leads us to larger truths about exchange and life.
"Let us now consider, for a little while, how wonderfully we stand upon this world."
Michael Faraday, The Forces of Matter
Like bread, every single thing in this famous photo has its origins in a universe that existed before the earth.
A gas station corn dog is as "natural" as a thousand-year-old redwood tree, in terms of the physical laws of nature.
"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 believe 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, information, valuation, consumption, and transparent 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.