Not All Capital is Fungible

There are only two real pools of capital: alternatively natural or human, external or internal, material or informational.

Natural (external, material) capital is the pre-existing wealth of the world, which was not dependent on our organization or existence: the metals we mine, the trees, the fresh water, the fisheries, solar energy, the fossil fuels, the potential for agricultural produce (as a co-location of soil, water, and climate).  Human (internal, informational) capital is the value inherent in technology, skill, organization, understanding, and knowledge.

The traditional notion of capital, the financial kind, is really only a placeholder.  It’s a way of translating between material and informational stores of value, or of conveniently accumulating claims on future value.  As a side effect, it produces the illusion that these other kinds of value are entirely interchangeable.  To some degree they are, but the illusion breaks down under stress, as in times of war, or otherwise externally imposed scarcity.  Money cannot necessarily substitute for clean water if you are stranded in the outback.  No amount of energy can conjure vegetables in the absence of mineral nutrients.  You cannot always halve the time required to attain a body of knowledge by doubling the rate of funding dedicated to it.  Japan could not buy oil at any price by the end of WW II.  No nation could have developed a nuclear weapon during WW I, regardless of the resources they might have dedicated to it.

Material and informational resources are fundamentally different in some ways.  Material resources are inherently finite.  No matter how much we might prefer otherwise, we can only increase our utilization of material goods for so long before we are eventually forced to alter the efficiency with which they are used, or our rate of material re-use.  We have no right to expect 10% annual growth in anything tied to material resources to continue for very long.  Informational resources, in contrast, can potentially continue to grow exponentially for a very, very long time.  There exists a physical upper limit, but it is exceedingly distant compared to the material limits we are subject to.

As a corollary, it is interesting to note that material resources are not subject to destruction in the same way that information is, through the action of entropy.  We can truly “lose” information – as when a species goes extinct, or an ancient library is burned to the ground, but we never really lose aluminum.

Frequently our market crises seem to arise from a foolish and fantastic decoupling of financial capital from the real underlying value of our material resources and knowledge.  Money is not real.  Materials are finite.  If we want growth in wealth long term, it can only come from more and better information, from increased knowledge, from systematic complexity.  This is what biology has been doing for the last four billion years.  We can either follow that tradition, or consume ourselves and our world with lies and entropy.

One thought on “Not All Capital is Fungible”

Leave a Reply