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Revisiting the Image of Limited Good. On Sustainability, Thermodynamics, and the Illusion of Creating Wealth

By Paul Trawick and Alf Hornborg.


Two worldviews are now contending for cultural dominance: the open-system model long promoted by economists, here called the “image of unlimited good,” and a more traditional closed-system view, Foster’s “image of limited good,” still widely found among peasant societies today. The former rests on the assumption that people “create” wealth, an illusion that conflates the properties of wealth’s real and virtual forms while ignoring the economy’s extreme reliance on fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that as “growth” occurs in such a system, it fundamentally destroys; thus the net sum cannot be positive, and the system is not expanding but steadily running down. The latter rests on the assumption that most of the “goods” valued by people in life are scarce, being derived from finite raw materials through the expenditure of human labor and extrasomatic energy. Such goods are therefore “subtractable,” their limited supply forming a commons that must somehow be shared. Based on an ethnological argument centering on the successful management of scarce water for irrigation, a shift toward the closed-system worldview is shown to be necessary if people are to act collectively to limit their expanding consumption, a change already widely underway, particularly in the global South.

How to Cite:

Paul Trawick and Alf Hornborg, Revisiting the Image of Limited Good: On Sustainability, Thermodynamics, and the Illusion of Creating Wealth. Current Anthropology, Volume 56, Number 1, February 2015, pp.1-27.



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