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Imposing the Constraints of Physical Reality

Early in my own career, I had the opportunity to work briefly with a helicopter-based flight simulator. This was not a stationary simulator with a simulated visual environment as one might imagine, but rather a real helicopter that had its control system interfaced to an analogue computer that implemented the dynamic equations of the aircraft to be simulated.  When a pilot “flew” the helicopter, usually at quite a low altitude, the vehicle responded with the dynamics of the aircraft programmed on the analogue computer and not the dynamics of the helicopter itself.  One might say that the real helicopter’s dynamics were modified to match those of the aircraft being simulated.  I don’t recall the actual aircraft that were simulated, but I know that the helicopter could behave, in the 1 to 2 degrees of freedom, like a large airliner or like a light plane.

As I have commented a number of times in this column, we have established an international economic system which does not factor in the use of environmental capital (such as the consumption of resources or the disposal of wastes) as a cost.  All of us are thus able to dump waste products into our soils, water, and air without paying the cost of doing so, other than the direct costs of the actual dumping.  The costs-in terms of health impacts, contribution to global warming and climate change, and the reduction in water and soil quality-do not enter into the economic equation.  If we are ever to achieve a sustainable economy, meaning one that can continue, we are going to have to reverse this situation and factor these costs into our economy.

The impact of resource consumption and waste disposal is typically not felt in the present.  If we add carbon and other pollutants to the atmosphere today, the implications in terms of additional health care costs and other aspects of environmental degradation, will be felt years and even decades hence.  We could think of this in terms of system dynamics and say that we have a plant with a very slow response time; unfortunately, however, our model of the economy ignores this plant dynamic altogether.

If we consider this in the context of our helicopter simulator, we can think of our unsustainable economy like the helicopter without the modified dynamics.  If I move the stick forward, the helicopter responds immediately, and I have the illusion of a free and easy motion.  But, if I train on this helicopter and then transfer to a large commercial aircraft, the differences in dynamical behavior will be striking; if I were to act and react as if I am still flying the helicopter, disaster is only a matter of time.

Now, suppose that I add the modified plant dynamics for a large plane in the simulator.  The helicopter now behaves like the large plane, and I can transfer my learning from the simulator to the real aircraft.  Suppose we could do the same with our economy.  Suppose that the economy had a built-in simulator that reflected the dynamics of real world processes, so that as I moved the levers and controls of economic activity, I felt the feedback of the natural world?  Could we train ourselves to act differently and start building a sustainable economy?