The Future
by Chris Davis / 6 Nov 1998

When scientists first measured how much of the energy of sunlight was being converted by plants into biomass, they were surprised to find that only something like 1% of incident energy was being used to produce new plant material. They were surprised at how “inefficient” life was. But such “inefficiency” supposes that plants are working to maximize their size and numbers, to reproduce as rapidly as possible. They were supposing that Nature, like a farmer, was trying to maximize the yield of its fields, and the size of its flocks. Is Nature a farmer? If it was, would there be any need for human farmers to cross-breed and select and cultivate in order to produce what the natural world has not produced in 500 million years of evolution? But if plants, as Idle Theory suggests, are trying to minimize effort, the conversion of a mere 1% of incoming solar energy into plant mass indicates a very high degree of “efficiency” of the kind that hundreds of millions of years of evolution might be expected to produce.

If there is any truth to Idle Theory, then laziness is a virtue, not a vice. A disinclination to work is not a disorder, but an indispensable survival trait that evolved with the earliest forms of life. If so, the modern attempt by governments, industrialists, economists, and the like, to keep people busy and “usefully employed” runs entirely contrary to the nature, not only of human beings, but of life itself. This may begin to explain the anomie of modern Western culture.

“The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is one of progressive disenchantment… Translated into everyday life, what does this disenchantment mean? It means that the modern landscape has become a scenario of “mass administration and blatant violence,” a state of affairs now clearly perceived by the man in the street. The alienation and futility that characterized the perceptions of a handful of intellectuals at the beginning of the century have now come to characterize the consciousness of common man at its end. Jobs are stupefying, relationships vapid and transient, the arena of politics absurd. In the vacuum created by the collapse of traditional values, we have hysterical evangelical revivals, mass conversions to the Church of the Reverend Moon, and a general retreat into the oblivion provided by drugs, television, and tranquilizers. We also have a desperate search for therapy, by now a national obsession, as millions of Americans try to reconstruct their lives amidst a pervasive feeling of anomie and cultural disintegration. An age in which depression is a norm is a grim one indeed.” (Morris Berman. The Reenchantment of the World. Bantam 1984)

From the point of view of Idle Theory, modern human society is being organized to work against real human interests, and such cultural disintegration is inevitable. Instead of society being organized to minimize work, it has become organized to maximize work. The mismatch between what people are culturally required to do – to work – and their natural inclination – to play -, results in deepening psychological conflict, breakdown, and disorder.

An intense sense of guilt characterizes modern life. People feel that they ought to be happy, and feel inadequate because they are not. Blaming themselves, they try to reform themselves through counselling, therapies, guidance. And when that fails, they seek oblivion in drugs and TV. The therapies all fail because there is actually nothing wrong with them, and everything wrong with the society in which they find themselves. It is simply not possible for people to live happy lives in a society which is organized as a labour camp. It is no more possible for anyone to live a happy or fulfilled life in modern Western society than it was for the inmates of such camps.

As Idle Theory sees it, the problem began at the outset of the modern epoch when Western society abandoned the goal of Christian salvation of ‘fallen’ humanity – the liberation of humanity from work -, and began to regard human life as already liberated, as a kind of game, and the economy as an arena in which human free agents chose to work manufacturing and trading luxuries and amusements which enhanced their ‘standard of living’. The inevitable result was that, with the goal of liberation from work discarded, human life in Western society became one of increasing rather than decreasing toil. It became ever more stressed, rushed, hurried, and urgent. Technological innovation simply acted to shift obligatory work from the production of necessities to production of luxuries. And the resultant vast absurd productive effort now loots the world’s resources and poisons its seas and its atmosphere.

Underpinning all this is not science, but an irrational post-Christian ideology, which is itself arguably a Christian heresy. Almost all modern economic and political and ethical thinking is built upon this ideology. And it is precisely because this ideology has no basis in science, that science holds out the principal hope for its overthrow. For it requires an explanation of the world which is at least as coherent and general to replace such an ideology. For science and the ideological humanities – ethics, politics, and economics – have always been rigidly separated. The cultural ideologues began to set out their stall in the late 17th century, with Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. The scientists – Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and their successors – pursued entirely separate enquiries. Their science had nothing at all to say about life, human society, ethics, or economics. It has only been in the past century or so that science has even begun to take a grip upon the nature of life.

Seen from Idle Theory, what is most needed by modern Western society are realistic economic theories, which distinguish wants from needs, and whose primary goal is the minimizing of human toil, rather than, as at present, the maximizing of production. With effective economic control, the present obligation for many people to produce luxuries in order to buy necessities would vanish. The overheated modern economy would effectively shut down, and the pollution of the planet, the depletion of resources, and sweated labour would end. It would mean the end of Big Business and the start of Big Idleness. With little work, and a great deal of disposable free time, people would be able to easily acquire the necessities of life. Many people would freely choose to use this disposable time to make and trade luxuries. They would determine their own “standard of living”, either opting for a simple life with few possessions and a great deal of idle time, or a choosing to work for a materially richer existence, with less free time.

Human society evolves. Human technology, in the past few centuries, has broached abundant new energy sources – in coal, gas, oil, hydroelectricity, and nuclear power. Once machines could perform the work of men, slavery became unnecessary, and the medieval social organization of masters and slaves became redundant. Contemporary human society is in transition from a medieval serf culture to an automated culture in which most work is performed by intelligent machine tools, and in which humans themselves will be largely idle. Politically, this has meant the rise of democracies in which everyone had a say, and not just the erstwhile slaveowners. Economically, exponentially multiplying technologies have resulted in a increase in production and trade unprecedented in human history, and equally unprecedented economic puzzles and problems, ranging from unemployment to boom and bust, inflation and stagnation. Socially, it has meant that, since fewer human hands are needed to drive industry, previously high human reproduction rates are unnecessary, and the human families that produced the human workforce redundant. Those religions which asked their adherents to look forward to bliss in an afterlife are being replaced by new religions that reach for bliss right now. War, subjection, and enslavement – the traditional means of increasing wealth for a minority – have become counter-productive.

The scale of contemporary change in human society is so great, and disturbs so many aspects of traditional human life, that it has produced a conservative reaction which seeks to restore traditional life. Since the family has been the centre of human life for millennia, attempts are made to bolster the flagging institution. Since work, from childhood to old age, has been the norm of human life since remotest antiquity, attempts are made to invent new forms of employment. Contemporary conservatism attempts to maintain and restore traditional values, and traditional ways of life, in the face of social, political, and economic forces which destroy all traditions. At the same time, much of contemporary thought is still medieval in character, assuming the values and circumstances of a previous era. A master-slave mentality still permeates political thought and political structures. Human technology has far outstripped human political and ethical and economic thought. This is a time when everything needs to be rethought, when imagination is at a premium, and when everyone can contribute. The impending world is one of a human freedom which has never been experienced in the entirety of human history.



by Chris Davis / 12 May 2001

A forest fire exhibits metabolism: it burns. Such a fire can also grow and develop. And it can reproduce itself, by sending out blazing sparks to ignite new fires. The flame of a fire is a complex, highly organized, recognizable entity. The fire moves as it burns through the forest: it moves. The fire responds to external stimulus: it follows the wind, and is doused by water. And eventually, when it has consumed all the fuel it can, it dwindles and dies. A forest fire thus exhibits many of the components of a living creatures!

But a forest fire might not be said to be self-regulating – it is largely determined by the quantity of fuel available to it. As more fuel becomes available, it burns more fiercely. Also forest fires do not evolve over time. They begin in some tinder-dry forest, perhaps from a lightning strike, the focus of sunlight, or the discharge of static electricity. And then they burn, producing secondary fires, until finally they have exhausted the available timber, baulked by seas, rivers, wastelands, mountains. Forest fires may burn for weeks, even months, but they eventually burn themselves out. They are like some life form which grows and multiplies, and then one by one its offspring die, and it becomes extinct, leaving no further generations.

But not all fires burn with the intensity of forest fires. Slow-burning, cooler, smouldering embers, that show no flame, can slowly eat through dry wood, consuming over hours what a blazing fire might consume in minutes. It is possible to imagine such fires slowly eating their way through a forest, or some fuel source. And because they burn slower and cooler, they burn much longer. Such fires might burn for years, or centuries. And if, in some forest, new plants grew up behind them, such slow fires might be sustained indefinitely by new plant growth. The cooler and more slow-burning the fire, the longer it would burn, compared with hot, quick-burning wildfires.

And it then must be remembered that very, very slow fires burn in every cell of every plant and animal. In this combustion process, glucose and oxygen “burn” to produce carbon dioxide and water, and enough energy to power the continuation of the combustion process, just like in a forest fire. But in cells, the combustion process is slowed into a multitude of stages, at a much lower temperature, so that the energy of combustion (respiration) is released very gradually, through a series of enzyme-catalyzed reactions, rather than all at once.

If glucose is burned in air, it produces carbon dioxide, water, and heat.
C6H12O6 + 602 -> 6CO2 + 6H2O – 686 kcal/mole
But in cells, the reaction synthesizes energy-rich ATP molecules which are used to power the sysnthesis of cell constituents, molecule transport, and muscle contraction.
C6H12O6 + 602 + 36ADP -> 6CO2 + 6H2O + 36ATP

Each bond of ATP represents 7.3 kcal/mole, so 36 ATP molecules represent 263 kcal/mole, a conversion efficiency of 38%. ATP is synthesized in cell mytochondria. When ATP releases its energy (to power muscular contraction or whatever), it breaks one phosphorus bond, and becomes ADP, which is cycled back round to mytochondria to get the phosphorus bond restored to make more ATP. If the reaction of glucose and oxygen were to proceed as it does in air, plants and animals would catch fire or explode. Slowing the reaction by taking it through a series of stages, and using it to synthesize packets of energy in the form of ATP, makes for a kind of slow burn.

The Natural Selection of Fire
Big, hot, blazing forest wildfires multiply and burn themselves out very fast. Small, creeping, cool fires last far longer. The slowest, coolest fires of all may last indefinitely. Life is such slow fire. And it begins to become possible to consider life as being result of the evolution of ever cooler, ever-slower-burning, longer-living fire. With a variety of different fires, those which burn hot and fast lived brief lives, while slower burning fires last longer. Then what is called Life is the product of the evolution of fire to burn ever slower and cooler, and live longer and longer. For paradoxically it is the least energetic, slowest growing, and slowest reproducing processes that gradually come to predominate – because high-energy, fast reproducing processes burn out fast. Somehow, one kind of continuous hot combustion, by degrees, gave rise to the cooler, catalyzed reactions that take place in the cells of living creatures.

In plant life, solar-powered photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen, in the endothermic (heat-requiring) reverse reaction to the combustion of glucose and oxygen. Thus photosynthesis in plant cells continually feeds the glucose-oxygen fires that “burn” within them. A forest of plants is already slowly ablaze, before any forest wildfire overtakes it. And plants which are made largely of cellulose – linked chains of glucose – in turn provide the fuel for grazing animals to burn. Such grazing animals act like forest fires, slowly consuming plants as they grow.

There are plenty of other exothermic (heat-producing) combustion processes apart from that of glucose and oxygen. The first terrestrial combustion processes may have involved neither of these. There does not have to be timber and oxygen for combustion to take place, fires to burn. If so then the first fire was of cataclysmically explosive dimensions, and has been succeeded by successively slower and cooler fires. The first fire was perhaps what we now call the Big Bang, and the stars were secondary slower-burning cooler fires, and terrestrial life is a fire several orders of magnitude slower and cooler. The stars themselves have lifetimes which reflect those of forest fires, with the largest and brightest stars burning out the fastest, the smaller and cooler ones lingering longer, replicating themselves in supernovas whose shock waves create new stars.

From this perspective, life started with the Big Bang, and has continued ever since, in ever cooler, slower-burning fires. There never was an origin of life on this inert and hitherto-lifeless planet, but simply a continuation of the same process. What we call “life”, the plants and animals that inhabit the surface of this planet, are simply slow-burning fires which reflect, rather dimly, their ancestral stars. In this approach, there isn’t really anything special about terrestrial life. It’s just another kind of combustion process. It was not that life started on this planet 600 million years ago, but rather that some 6 million years after the planet had formed, another kind of self-sustaining combustion process got under way. It was not the first, and it won’t be the last.

The Internal Combustion model of Idle Life
Idle Theory’s original model of life was that of a continually-running internal combustion engine which periodically pumped fuel into its own fuel tank. When the engine was pumping fuel into its tank, it revved up, and the frequency of combustion – and engine power output – increased. When the engine idled, the frequency of combustion reduced to whatever power was required to merely turn the engine itself against its own frictional resistance.

In this model of life, the internal combustion engine actually incorporates fire in the combustion of gasoline (refined from crude oil made up of compressed fossil plants) and oxygen in its cylinders. Internal combustion “life” fed not on living forests, but upon subterranean fossilized forests. More deeply, in this conception of life, the engine “died” when the combustion process ceased, and the engine stalled. While the fire exploded in its cylinders, the engine lived – once combustion ceased, the engine died.

In Idle Theory’s energy model of life a living creature works (burns fuel to provide motive power) to acquire more fuel to sustain the process. But it does so in a discontinuous duty cycle – first working to fill itself up with fuel, then idling until falling fuel levels require another bout of refuelling. The most efficient forms of this kind of life were those which did the least work (or idled the most) to keep their motors fueled and running.

Idle life – life that worked the minimum – was in some sense life that burnt the slowest and coolest. Busy life, hard-working life, was life in which combustion frequency was high, and which ran the hottest. Idle life, leisured life, was life in which the combustion frequency was low, and which consequently ran cool. Busy life was fast bright fire, and Idle life was slow cool fire.



“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert Heinlein


by Chris Davis / 16 Nov 1998

Underlying Idle Theory is the incomprehension and disquiet that this writer felt, looking on this industrious world. Technology, as he saw it, was meant to free men from work. The whole point, he felt, of yoking an ox to a plough, was to get the ox to perform the work of turning earth which would otherwise have had to be carried out by men with spades and hoes. And those spades and hoes were themselves tools which enabled men to dig the soil more effectively and speedily than they ever could with bare hands. And if technology in the form of spades, hoes, and yoked oxen, and later powered tractors, served primarily to speed men’s work, to free men from work, then would not the result be, as technology improved, that men would live increasingly more idle and leisured lives, free to do as they wished? And yet this has not happened. Men work just as hard as they ever did. In Western societies, instead of technology bringing leisure, it appears instead to have increased the pace of life, so that it has become ever more frenetic, hurried, leisureless. Why has this happened? Why is that humanity working so hard, when they ought to be hardly working at all?

This question is not addressed by political leaders, or economists, or philosophers, or religious leaders, or even by their political and economic opponents. For them, the whole point of spades and hoes and oxen and tractors was not to reduce the labour of men, but to increase production. If a spade enabled a man to dig a field in half the time it took for him to dig it with bare hands, they had it that a man could dig two fields in the same time, and produce twice the crop. And with yoked oxen he could plough ten fields. And with a tractor he could plough a hundred. And the 99 other men freed from the land could then be set to work to make other goods, of great diversity and in great numbers. Thus men would be supplied not only with food, shelter, but any number of amusements, toys, games, diversions. They would have a wealth, not of leisure time, but of possessions, which is – it was held – what people really wanted. The political goal of contemporary society is full employment in wealth creation. And the harder everyone works, the richer they get. The only serious argument is concerned with the distribution of this pile of goods, with some (the Left) arguing that the social produce should be divided equally, and others (the Right) arguing that with an ever-growing pile of goods even the poorest in an unequal society would be far richer than they would otherwise be.

These two views of the nature and purpose of economic systems are radically different. In the first view, humanity is understood as having to work, and technology in the form of spades, ox-drawn ploughs, tractors and combine harvesters, acts to reduce their work. In the second view, the economy is not driven by necessity, but by a desire not just for food and shelter, but for all the good things in life. In the first view, it is the physical need for food and shelter to sustain their life which obliges men to work. In the second view, it is their psychological disposition, their desire for possessions and pleasures, which powers the economy.

Economic philosophy, in recent centuries, has been written by men who saw the economy in this second way. This view also underpins the principal ethical theory of the age, Utilitarianism, which had men seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – both of which are psychological states. It followed from this psychological account of human life, that if one wanted to understand human nature, one had to understand the workings of the human mind. This belief is so deep that many scientists believe that, if science is ever to explain human life, it will do so by explaining the inner workings of the human brain. This belief also underpins a whole raft of modern political movements which hold that if enough people change themselves, adjust their mentality, the world would be a better place – that all that is required for change is for enough people to want change. The conviction that psychological adjustment is the key to a better world drives the use of psychotropic drugs, and of a whole range of psychotherapies ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis to meditation and yoga. Change the man, and you change society.

Modern economic philosophy is not science. It does not grow from a physical understanding of human life, but from a subjective psychological account. We simply don’t have an economic science which is an extension of physical science – real science. Idle Theory, instead of starting out with a psychological account of human life, begins instead with a physical account of life. It begins with a life which must perform physical work to maintain itself. The role of mind is one of directing that work. Psychological feelings of hunger, or thirst, or cold, arise in response to real physiological conditions – low blood sugar levels, dehydration, heat loss. And because they arise in response to physical states, these psychological events are secondary. They serve simply to prompt an individual to eat, to drink, to find shelter.

This sort of approach to life is relatively new. It is found in ecological studies of the energy flows in biotic systems. It sees life in terms of energy. The idea of energy only emerged in physics in the mid-19th century. It only began to be applied to living organisms in the mid-20th century. Idle Theory is a variant of this approach. The distinctive feature of idle theory is its description of life as alternating between being idle and being busy working to maintain itself.

Although Idle Theory started out as an economic idea, it rapidly became an ethical and political and legal, and even religious idea. The goal of human society was freedom from necessary work, and human society, its moralities, laws, political organizations, religions, and economy, all worked, more or less effectively, towards that end. And since living creatures in general, as opposed to humans in particular, fell under the same imperative of acting to increase idleness, the whole of the natural world of plants and animals came to fall within the province of Idle Theory. The survival of the fittest became the survival of the idlest.

Idle Theory is a way of seeing. In Idle Theory, all life is seen as attempting primarily to stay alive with minimal effort. The first photosynthetic plants discovered how to capture the abundant radiant energy of the sun. The first herbivores discovered an easier life tapping the energy stored in plants. The first predators discovered an idler existence by capturing the energy stored in herbivores. Multicellular life was more idle than unicellular life. Human life is simply another variant form of life, that acts to minimize effort. Human society, the division of labour, tools, ethical codes, laws, and trading systems have all acted to increase human idleness. The subjection of humans by other humans in slavery was, for millenia, the only way in which some people (the slaveowners) could lead an idle life at the expense of others.




by Chris Davis / January 2007

“There is no doubt that if the human race is to have their dearest wish and be free from the dread of mass destruction they could have, as an alternative, what many of them might prefer, namely, the swiftest expansion of material well-being that has ever been within their reach, or even within their dreams. By material well-being I mean not only abundance but a degree of leisure for the masses such as has never before been possible in our mortal struggle for life. The majestic possibilities ought to gleam and be made to gleam before the eyes of the toilers in every land and ought to inspire the actions of all who bear responsibility for their guidance.” (Sir Winston Churchill at the opening of Parliament, November 1953)

It might be remarked that the Idle Theory of Evolution is only a slight variant of modern evolutionary theory (sans Darwin), and that Idle Theory’s ethics is only a variant of Utilitarianism (sans Utility). But Idle Theory’s Economics offers a radically different, and perhaps mysterious, account of economic systems to that set out by Classical and NeoClassical economic theorists.

Probably the principal difference is that, while it is orthodox economic doctrine that the primary purpose of an economy is as far as possible to provide work for everybody, in Idle Theory the primary purpose of an economy is quite the opposite: it is to as far as possible relieve everybody of the need to work. This is an inversion of understanding that is perhaps as great as the change from thinking that the Sun goes round the Earth to thinking that the Earth goes round the Sun. Such an inversion will strike many people as being completely upside down, and entirely contrary to common sense, and with alarming consequences that extend far beyond the confines of economics. And indeed they do.

The Economic Orthodoxy
Orthodox economic thought, Classical or NeoClassical, might be described as being primarily concerned with the generation of Wealth – where what is meant by Wealth is almost exclusively ownership or access to material goods and services of every variety. The rich typically own large villas or mansions on large private estates serviced by maids, chefs, butlers, and gardeners; own a variety of expensive cars, yachts, and private jets; are dressed in the finest clothes; eat the choicest foods; drink the finest wines; live long lives with the best medical care; etcetera, etcetera. By contrast, the poor live in shacks or hovels; travel on foot; dress in cheap clothes; eat bad food; drink contaminated water; and die young with inadequate or non-existent medical care. The rich are held to enjoy a high ‘standard of living’, and the poor a low ‘standard of living’.

And the orthodox political goal of economic growth is to raise standards of living, by increasing available wealth. If there is political dissent over the goals of economic growth, it is almost entirely concerned with the distribution of wealth. Socialist political systems are generally concerned with lifting the poorest members of society out of poverty, providing them with housing, roads, services, education, and medical care, usually at the expense of the richest members of society. In the extreme, socialist political systems aim for an almost exact equality of wealth across society. By contrast, extreme liberal laissez-faire political systems are unconcerned with the distribution of wealth within society, and regard personal wealth as the just reward for enterprise, innovation, and hard work – with the poor usually being dismissed as lazy or feckless. In between these extremes, there are a variety of political systems which try to both reward enterprise with wealth, but also to ensure that the poorest members of society are provided with some sort of ‘safety net’ to keep them from utter destitution.

Regardless of the distribution of wealth within society, socialist or laissez-faire political systems tend to advocate policies of ‘full employment in wealth creation’. The busier people are in creating wealth, the more wealth there is to go round. If the gross national product of a country is regarded as a cake – as it frequently is – then full employment in wealth creation means making a bigger and better cake, regardless of quite how it is sliced up and divided within society.

The formal study of the operation of economic systems, in which goods and services are manufactured and traded, has been an oddly late development within Western laissez-faire societies. And it has also been one which has been subject to a variety of radical changes of approach, which amount almost to fashions, usually associated with single individuals such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, or some other guru. In the 18th century Classical theories of value of economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the like, the exchange value or price of goods was generally regarded as being a function of the time and effort taken to manufacture or otherwise acquire them. This is usually known as the Labour Theory of Value (where ‘value’ means ‘exchange value’)

“If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days or two hours labour, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s labour.” (Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. B.I, Ch 6.)

One consequence of this theory was highlighted by Karl Marx in the 19th century, who pointed out that if goods exchanged at their costs of production, then it followed that the labour employed in the production of goods would also be sold at its cost of production, and that wages must therefore tend to fall to subsistence levels that simply kept labourers alive. However, at more or less the same time as Marx was writing, another group of economic thinkers, the NeoClassical theorists, who included Jevons, Walras, Menger, and others, began to suppose that the price of goods was not so much determined by their cost of production, but instead by their value in use, or their utility – the pleasure or satisfaction derived from their use. Neither school of theorists, however, had a very good explanation for profit – the tendency for goods to be sold at prices higher than their cost of production. At present, profit is generally explained as being the compensation for the risks taken by entrepreneurs in making and selling goods in volatile markets. Others have said that it was simply the consequence of naked greed. Profit was, and has remained, something of a dirty word.

Idle Theory
At the foundations of both Classical and Neoclassical economic thought there lies the largely unstated assumption that the time needed to perform work is the everyday datum of human life – that everyone is in some sense given a lifetime, to freely dispose of as they will. And if they are able to freely dispose of this time, it follows that such a lifetime is a lifetime of leisure. And indeed Neoclassical economic thinkers have frequently stated this quite explicitly, asserting that when work is performed, leisure is foregone.

It is this assumption that Idle Theory rejects. The simple fact is that a human lifetime is no sort of gift at all. Humans have to work to survive. They have to grow food, haul water, build houses, weave garments, without which they would starve or freeze to death. And because they must work, on pain of death, there is no sense in which their lives can be described as lives of leisure. On the contrary, given that many societies have historically had one sabbath day of leisure a week, it would be more accurate to describe such societies as 1/7th leisured, rather than entirely leisured. To this it might be added that it is around work, rather than leisure, that human life revolves. As children they are taught the skills needed for a life of work, which as adults they perform, and from which they retire in frail old age.

And so the true reality of human life is that it is made up not solely of leisure, but partly of leisure and partly of work, and is thus inherently dual in its nature. And the fundamental dimension of this part-busy, part-idle life is the degree to which it is idle (or conversely and symmetrically, busy). And this degree of idleness is one that can range from a minimum of zero idleness – a life of unremitting toil completely devoid of leisure – to a maximum of perfect or unit idleness – a life of complete leisure completely devoid of toil. In addition, it may be added that a life of zero idleness, or continual work, is a life lived at the threshold of death. For if living should get any harder, and more work needs to be done to survive, there will not be enough hours in a day to do it. Conversely, the more idle a life anyone lives, the greater their cushion against the prospect of death. In times of difficulty, which a busy man might not survive, a relatively idle man merely finds himself working harder.

And also, it must be pointed out that in work, an individual is constrained to some particular necessary activity – ploughing fields, drawing water -, and it is only in their idle time or leisure time that they can freely choose between a range of leisure activities which are theoretically infinite in number. And so work corresponds to complete constraint, and leisure to complete freedom. Or, more starkly, leisure corresponds with life, and work with death. And this introduces an ethical dimension. Work and leisure are not interchangeable. Men who naturally prefer life over death must also prefer leisure over work. And this, in real life, they regularly do.

The primary economic problem is not the production and distribution of wealth as it is ordinarily understood, but the emancipation of humanity from toil, and their liberation into a life of the highest degree of leisure. Given such leisure, people may well choose to forego leisure in the manufacture and exchange of luxuries and amusements, which are valued for the pleasure or satisfaction that they afford. But this Neoclassical luxury economy is entirely secondary in nature, and dependent on the amount of leisure available in society. If no leisure, then no luxuries.

The Origin of Money and Profit
The economic goals of humanity, as described by Idle Theory, are thus in direct contradiction of the economic goals of humanity as set out by modern economic orthodoxy. Instead of seeking to keep everybody busy working to create wealth, Idle Theory seeks to keep everybody as idle and leisured as possible, while allowing that in their leisure time they may choose to make and trade amusements and luxuries.

In what ways may individuals reduce their work, and increase their idleness? One principal way is through the use of tools that speed or otherwise assist them in their work. For example, if in the course of their work, someone is required to carry 100 large fruits from one place to another in a return journey that takes 10 minutes, then if only one can be held in each hand, it will take 50 journeys and 500 minutes to move them all. But if a bag can used, which will hold 20 fruit, then only 5 journeys and 50 minutes will be needed to move all the fruit. Thus, in this case a bag will save 450 minutes of work. And in this saving lies the value of the bag in use. Of course, it will take some time to manufacture such a bag, but even if it costs 50 minutes of effort to make a crude bag, and it disintegrates after 5 trips, the net saving of time will still be 400 minutes.

In this manner, a small outlay of time – the cost of making the bag – will yield a larger return in the time it saves in carrying fruit – the value of the bag -. And what is true of bags will also be true of ropes, knives, hammers, spades, and every other variety of useful, time-saving tool. And if someone makes such a bag, but does not use it, but a second person desires to use it for the same task, then the first may sell the bag to the second at some price, which may take the form of a promise by the buyer to work for some period of time for the seller. At what price should the bag be exchanged? Its cost to the seller was the 50 minutes it took to make it, and any lower price than this would result in a net loss of time for the seller. The value of the bag to the buyer is the 450 minutes of work it will save in carrying fruit, and any price higher than this will result in a net loss of time to the buyer. But at some price in between these two extremes, both buyer and seller will gain approximately equally from the transaction, and it will be on some such equitable price that they will settle.

In this manner, both buyer and seller profit from the transaction, even though the bag has been sold at a price – say 150 minutes – which is over three times its cost. And herein lies a robust and simple justification of the origin and necessity of profit in exchange. If the phenomenon of profit has regularly appeared inexplicable, and therefore reprehensible, it is because the Classical economic theorists recognised only the cost, and not the value of some commodity. Thus while Adam Smith could see the cost to the hunter of killing a deer, he could not see the value to its buyer of its flesh as food, nor its skin as clothing. And the value of some item of food is that it provides the energy required to power continued life for some period of time.

The monetary unit of such exchanges need not, of course, be unreliable promises of work. If a fruit, or a knife, or a piece of metal are customarily bought with some amount of work, then conversely these commodities can buy the same amount of work, and be used as monetary units. But fruit rot, and knives are large, and so it much more likely that highly divisible metal bars come to be used as money, and in the longer term non-rusting metals such as gold. It is possible to explore the logic of such economic systems by building computer simulation models of them, using imaginary tool costs and values. It is also possible to consider them analytically. Using such models it is possible to begin to build a theoretical understanding of the behaviour of such economic systems, and the various malaises that can afflict them.

The Dual Nature of Economic Systems
As men make and trade useful time-saving tools in a primary, idleness-generating economy, and thereby increase their idleness, they begin to have long periods of time in which they have nothing to do. But in such idle time they can invent and play games, create art and music and poetry and literature. And as they come to make things like bats and balls and sculptures and paintings, these also may be exchanged for money, in exactly the same way as useful tools. And thus a secondary, idleness-using economy may come into existence, in which luxuries and amusements are manufactured and exchanged. And such a secondary economy is the economy described by Neoclassical economic theorists. And should any economy attain perfect idleness, so that the primary economy ceased to exist, the resulting secondary economy would be perfectly well described by modern Neoclassical economic theory.

In the secondary economy, the value of luxuries and amusements lies not in any work time that they save, but in the pleasure which they afford to their owners. In many ways, all such amusements simply provide ways of disposing of idle time. A book takes hours or days to read. A movie takes an hour or two to watch. A game of cricket may last for days. A painting or a sculpture may be closely examined for hours. Such a secondary economy might be regarded as acting in a completely opposite sense to a primary economy, disposing of idle time rather than producing it. It is perhaps helpful to think of a primary economy as being akin to a supply of pure fresh water into a household, which is subsequently used in drinking, washing, cooking, and a thousand other ways, before finally being disposed of as waste water through drains.

In some ways, this analogy with pure and waste water may be more apt than it might otherwise seem, in that it suggests that just as the supply of pure water should be kept separate from the waste water drainage, so also the primary idleness-generating economy should equally be kept separate from the secondary idleness-using economy. The two economies, primary and secondary, ought furthermore to be of entirely different characters. The primary economy is a matter of profound seriousness, and of cold calculation, and absolute necessity, and also – as far as possible – entirely equitable in its distribution of the idle time it generates. The secondary economy ought, by contrast, to be convivial, playful, optional, and inequitable.

The primary economy ought to be equitable in that everybody in society has an equal stake in it, and an equal claim to an idle time that is the foundation of their existence as free agents. But if, in their idle time, some people choose to busy themselves making and selling luxuries and amusements, while others opt to do nothing but sit and talk, then there can be no requirement or necessity for the industrious former to share their wealth with the indolent latter. Or, put another way, nobody ought to get rich, in the ordinary conventional sense, by making and selling the necessities of life; but anyone may get rich by making and selling luxuries and amusements.

The Modern Dragon Economy
In the ideal progress of society, an innovative and dynamic primary economy would act to steadily increase social idleness, progressively and gradually emancipating its members from toil. And as the idleness of society rose, a separate playful and convivial secondary economy would gradually emerge to fill idle time with amusements and diversions and pastimes.

But, in the present day, both primary and secondary economies are entirely confused together with one another. And the result is neither equitable nor convivial. The principal problem would seem to be that in present day economies, a great many luxuries and amusements, which properly belong in a secondary economy, are sold so as to acquire the necessities of life generated in the primary economy. There are artists and authors and musicians who earn their daily crust through their art. This means that it has become a matter of necessity for people to make and sell luxuries. And it never ought to be necessary to perform such unnecessary work. If such a thing is happening, it is most likely because monopoly producers of the necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) are selling them at such high prices that they are obliging consumers to work far harder than they would if prices were reduced through competition to something approaching costs of production. While monopolies exist, and prices remain sky high, the result is that a great deal of social idle time ends up in the pockets of monopolists, who spend it buying the luxuries and amusements that others are obliged to make, in what is called a ‘trickle-down economy’. The result is a society with idle and super-rich people at one end, and toiling poor people at the other, and a great many people in the middle trying desperately to move from poverty to wealth by any means possible.

In this kind of ‘dragon’ economy, in which pretty much everybody is dragooned into work, almost all social idle time is converted into luxuries and amusements. Dragon economies generate a wide range of consumer choice, but very little time in which to choose what to do. And an economic system which should be liberating people from work is instead forcing them to work, and sometimes to work harder and harder. And one result of this is that as the primary economy grows, and generates more idle time, this idle time is simply converted into yet more luxuries and amusements. And so economic growth, which should be increasing social idleness, instead results in the ever-increasing production of luxury consumer goods. And this vast, overheated economic engine chews its way through natural resources, forests, oil and gas reserves, and spews out wastes and toxins, at an ever-increasing pace.

And since ultimately, according to Idle Theory, a society’s survival demands that it seek to be as idle as possible, it follows that the harder a society is perversely working, the nearer it approaches disintegration and collapse. In seeking ‘full employment in wealth creation’ our political and economic orthodoxies have set the ship of state on course for the rocks. What is really needed is to reverse course, and throttle back our overheated, overstressed, overworking economies. If that were done, then if present day advanced economies are nominally (rather than actually) over 80% idle (this is a wild guess), then over 80% of the work now being done, in the obligatory production of luxuries, would cease. Most factories would cease production, cease consuming resources, and cease generating wastes. Real human idleness, as experienced by humanity, would leap from its present approximate one day a week (14%) to perhaps something like six days a week (86%). There would be less choice, but far more choosing.

However, given an almost universal economic orthodoxy which regards full employment in wealth creation as being benign rather than malign, it is unlikely that any such step will be taken. But if there is a single iota of truth in the economic vision of Idle Theory, then it follows that our economic orthodoxy is fundamentally mistaken about the nature of economic systems, and that we do not have a realistic economic science, and thus have little or no real control over economic events. So most likely our vast, overheated, overworking economies will simply keep barreling on, making life worse and worse for everyone, rich and poor alike, until they finally hit the rocks.

Idle Theory’s fundamental dualism of busy and idle time results in a dualistic vision of economic systems. They are regarded as made up of primary economies which produce idle time, and a secondary economies (or trading systems) that consume idle time. A primary economy is a matter of necessity, in which an approximate equality of outcome is sought, and in which goods are valued in terms of the time labour cost of making them, and their time value in the labour that they save. A secondary economy is, or ought to be, a matter of pleasure, in which there is no requirement for an equality of outcome, and in which goods are valued according to the pleasure they provide, or the time that they waste. These two economies, which are entirely different, and indeed opposite in nature, ought properly to be separated from each other. And it is when they become enmeshed together that economic maladies of one sort break out.

And Idle Theory’s vision may be helpful in clarifying the modern left-right divide between those who, on the one hand, seek a regulated economy that produces complete social equality, and those who, on the other hand, believe that the economy should be allowed to take its own course, throwing up winners and losers. The main problem here is that the two sides of this argument are generally arguing over the same single economy. If the economy is divided in two, then the primary economy is one that should be regulated to produce equality (left), and the secondary economy is one that should be entirely unregulated (right). Left and right should learn to stop arguing over these apples and oranges: they are completely different things.

Idle Theory doesn’t at present propose ways of regulating economic systems. In the absence of a fully developed economic science, such regulatory devices are going to be rather hard to find. What is needed is a complete economic theory, of which Idle Theory is, at best, another single small foundation stone. In many ways, the principal conclusion of Idle Theory is that we really don’t know very much about the behaviour of economic systems, despite the best and honest efforts of over 200 years of economic thinkers. We are, quite simply, ignorant.

A further conclusion of Idle Theory is that nobody is to blame for our present state of affairs. In their ignorance, men blunder around doing stupid and often murderous things. They are forever acting out of a partial understanding of the world, and one whose partiality and incompleteness and uncertainty frequently drives them to become paradoxically dogmatic. It seems to be almost a law of nature that, the less mankind knows about something, the more obtusely dogmatic they become about it. And so none of the foregoing is intended to point any finger of blame at anyone whatsoever. Our greatest problem is not human greed, or lust for power, or anything else. Our greatest problem is human ignorance.

Finally, it might be added that it was in constructing this rather perverse and upside down view of economic systems that Idle Theory was born. Everything else – the physics, the theory of evolution, the ethics, the politics, the law, and the religion – were simply a series of afterthoughts to its peculiar economic vision. I searched the libraries for this vision, but never found it. And so I concluded that it was in some sense my duty to myself try to set out its strange and paradoxical perspectives.

How to unplug from the grid
by Gaia Vince / 03 December 2008

“I aven’t paid an electricity bill since 1970,” says Richard Perez with noticeable glee. He can afford to be smug. While most of us fretted over soaring utility bills this year, he barely noticed. Nor is he particularly concerned about forecast price hikes of 30 to 50 per cent in 2009. Perez, a renewable-energy researcher at the University at Albany, State University of New York, lives “off-grid” – unconnected to the power grid and the water, gas and sewerage supplies that most of us rely on. He generates his own electricity, sources his own water and manages his own waste disposal – and prefers it that way. “There are times when the grid blacks out,” he says. “I like the security of having my own electricity company.”

Perez is not alone. Once the preserve of mavericks, hippies and survivalists, there are now approximately 200,000 off-grid households in the US, a figure that Perez says has been increasing by a third every year for the past decade. In addition, nearly 30,000 grid-connected US households supplement their supply with renewables, according to the non-profit Interstate Renewable Energy Council. In the UK there are around 40,000 off-grid homes: the number has also risen in recent years due to escalating house prices and now to more expensive home loans, both of which have driven buyers far from conventional utility networks in search of properties they can afford.

For people who live off-grid, self-sufficiency means guilt-free energy consumption and peace of mind. “It feels brilliant to use clean, free energy that’s not from fossil fuels,” says Suzanne Galant, a writer who lives off-grid in rural Wales. “And if something goes wrong, we can fix it ourselves.” Now even urbanites are seeing the appeal of generating some if not all of their own power needs. So is energy freedom an eco pipe-dream or the ultimate good life?

Whether you live in town or the middle of nowhere, the first consideration for any wannabe off-gridder is to calculate how much energy it takes to run your home and whether it is feasible to replace this with alternative sources of power where you live. The good news is that the energy you require is likely to be a fraction of what you presently use, says Tony Brown, head engineer at the UK’s Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Powys. The average UK household uses around 4500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually, plus some 18,000 kWh of gas for cooking, hot water and domestic heating. In the US the figure varies considerably from region to region. For example, households in New York City use around 4700 kWh a year, whereas those in Dallas use 16,100 kWh: there are a lot of air conditioners in Texas. In chillier regions where people use gas for heating and cooking, on the other hand, they can burn up an extra 28,000 kWh or so per household.

It would be a struggle to generate this much energy from renewables alone, so an important first step is to dramatically reduce wasted energy. This may be less fun than installing shiny new energy-generating gadgets, but it is almost as effective in cutting your reliance on fossil fuels and the grid. The biggest energy savings will come from properly insulating your home to minimise heat loss. That done, you’ll need to work out what is eating up the rest of the power you consume. The easiest way to do this is to buy an energy monitor that can provide a live display of your total energy consumption or that of individual appliances (see “What’s guzzling the juice?”). This will help you focus on reducing consumption to the bare minimum, not just by switching to low-energy light bulbs and energy-efficient white goods, but also by turning unused appliances right off rather than leaving them in standby mode. With a bit of effort and investment, you should be able to get by on a few hundred kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

Now you are ready to start replacing this with home-grown energy. Some 80 per cent of off-gridders rely on the sun to do this, with good reason: it blasts our planet with enough free energy every hour to power the world for a year and you don’t need to live in the middle of nowhere to get it. The simplest way to tap into this is to use a solar collector for your domestic heating or hot water. In the summer, solar thermal devices installed on a south-facing roof or wall (north-facing in the southern hemisphere) could provide all your hot-water needs. Even in winter, solar collectors can make a worthwhile dent in heating bills, even if the water needs top-up heating from the grid or from a stove that runs on logs, wood pellets or other biomass. The sun blasts our planet with free energy and you don’t need to live in the middle of nowhere to get it

For electricity generation, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are also a good option. They convert the sun’s rays into direct-current electricity with up to 20 per cent efficiency, and most are guaranteed to retain at least 80 per cent of their original efficiency after 25 years. A 2-square-metre panel rated to give 1 kW per square metre in peak conditions could provide up to 1500 kWh per year in the UK. In more southerly and reliably sunny latitudes – somewhere like Texas, say – it would probably provide 2000 kWh per year.

With enough solar panels it is possible to cover all your electricity needs with PV, year round; the downside is that it requires a significant investment up front. Installing 8 square metres of PV panels, enough to sustain a family of four in the UK, plus storage batteries and accessories such as inverters to convert DC into alternating current, can cost tens of thousands of pounds and will take up more space than is available to most urban households. Until the cost comes down substantially, switching to a grid supplier that gets its energy from renewables may be a more realistic alternative – although it will not free you from the risk of supply interruptions.

Outside towns and cities, though, there are more options. If you have access to a nearby river or stream with a reliable flow, hydro is an excellent, cheap source of power, and flow rate is usually greater in winter when you need more power. Galant’s home, a five-bedroom house in the second-wettest part of Europe, is powered by a fast-flowing mountain stream that drives a turbine, plus solar water heating and PV panels. All this reliably supplies her with around 5500 kWh per year. “If you came to my house, you wouldn’t know it was off-grid,” she says. “It’s always lovely and warm and there’s always plenty of hot water.”

Anyone who has an exposed windy hillside can exploit wind power. Tony Marmont, an off-grid pioneer from Loughborough, in the English Midlands, gets 40,000 to 50,000 kWh per year from his two 25 kW turbines. People with a lot of land can benefit from a ground source heat pump, which works in the same way as a refrigerator, using electricity to transfer heat from a cool space (the ground, in this case) to a warm one (the house). A typical installation, with 500 metres of underground piping, will stabilise the temperature of a well-insulated home, keeping further heating or cooling requirements to a minimum. If, like Marmont, you have a lake to store the pipes, so much the better: it saves the trouble of digging up the lawn.

Being completely off-grid, however, does mean you need to store excess energy for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Most off-gridders use bulky, expensive lead-acid batteries for this purpose. These can store electricity only for a couple of days and their performance degrades over time, but for now they are the best available option. A few pioneers, like Marmont, use excess electricity to produce hydrogen by electrolysing water; the gas is then stored in tanks and used to power fuel cells when needed. This allows electricity generated in summer to be used in winter, but it is prohibitively expensive for most: a system like Marmont’s will set you back around £1 million. What’s more, the hydrogen tanks take up a lot of space.

For most of us, the energy-storage issue is a major stumbling block to going completely off-grid. And it’s one reason why, for most people, it’s not yet worth pulling the plug. Cost is likely to be another show-stopper – though not for those who live in really remote locations. “If you live more than a quarter of a mile from the grid, then installing your own systems works out considerably cheaper than connecting to the grid,” says Otto van Geet of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Perez, for example, was told it would cost him $280,000 to be connected, which made the decision to install $25,000-worth of PV panels an easy one. Both of these barriers are coming down, albeit slowly. Engineers are working on reducing the size and cost of renewable-energy installations, while fuel-cell and battery manufacturers are trying to increase power output and storage life. The cost of generating and storing your own energy will fall as the commercial and domestic generation market grows and as new technologies emerge: thin-film PV panels, for instance, are cheaper to make than existing PV cells, which use crystalline silicon. For many, the transition is becoming easier and less costly as newly built houses are increasingly offered for sale with some of the infrastructure for renewables, such as inverters for PV panels, already installed.

In the meantime, one way to beat the problem of how to store surplus power and make good on your investment is to stay connected to the grid – or connect if you are already off-grid – and sell what you don’t use to a utility company. It may not be the energy freedom you had in mind, but it does means that the grid effectively becomes your battery – there when you need more electricity, and able to take your excess power. The return you will receive for this varies widely, but Germany has already shown that such a system can work. There, homeowners selling back renewably generated power are guaranteed to get four times the market rate charged to consumers for electricity. As a result, Germany has a thriving market in domestically generated energy, with 200 times the solar electricity output of the UK. The UK is planning to bring in a similar “feed-in tariff” system in 2009, although it is not yet clear what sort of price power-generating homeowners can expect. In the US, California and New Jersey are leading the way with feed-in tariffs in the range of 8 to 31 cents per kWh, depending on the contract and the time of day when the power was generated. Most other states have a long way to go.

There is no doubt that being off-grid has its problems and it is not always the cheapest way to get your energy. Even so, pioneers like Galant, Marmont and Perez have proved that it can be done, and without giving up a 21st-century lifestyle. “I’ve got five computers, two laser scanners, two fridge-freezers, a microwave, a convection oven, vacuum cleaners – you name it,” says Perez. “There’s an external beam antenna on the roof for the cellphone and a bidirectional satellite for internet connection. I’ve got 70 kWh stored in batteries that could last me five days. I have too much electricity.” Too much electricity and no more bills. That’s got to be worth aiming for.

by Chris Davis / 18 Dec 1998

Idle Theory is a slowly expanding way of seeing. A lot of the essays on this website deal with the remote past, both in those parts concerned with the theory of evolution, but also those which deal with early human life. In many ways, Idle Theory as it presently stands has yet to arrive at the present day, and the modern human circumstance. This makes it difficult for any conclusions to be drawn. But some tentative lines can be sketched out. One of these is that human religious value systems look like they took shape in the remotest antiquity, long before any modern religion had appeared. They are survival values. They are values which got humanity through many difficult times. They are wholly practical in character. They are the values of low idleness societies – societies in which life was one of near-continuous work simply to survive. In modern (and by “modern” is meant of the last 500 years or so) Western society, human idleness has risen sharply, largely thanks to technological innovations – steam engines, internal combustion engines, nuclear power, computers. This has tended to render the ancient values redundant, and has brought the rise of a liberalism which sets out to overthrow ancient taboos and restrictions. There is, as a result, a deep collision taking place between conservatism and liberalism. The collision is more apparent than real.

Probably the most pressing modern problem is to understand the nature of economic systems. Almost all current problems are economic in character: we can put astronauts on the moon, but we can’t feed and clothe our own people. There remain enormous disparities in wealth across the planet, and these seem to widen rather than narrow. Usually, these disparities get put down to “greed” or “human nature” (by which is meant greed). But, as Idle Theory sees it, economic systems have their own logic, in which greed plays a minimal role. As Idle Theory sees it, the inherent purpose of the economy is to free people from work, and as such “unemployment” is what economies ought to generate. In the view of Idle Theory, almost all the economic theory generated over the past 200-300 years makes the over-optimistic assumption that human life is largely idle, and that wealth is created by setting people to work.

Idle Theory’s economic model is an attempt to construct another understanding of economic systems – of values, prices, profits, etc. But it is very simple, and almost entirely undeveloped. But it offers an outline way of looking at economies, not seeing them as generating “wealth”, but instead freeing people from work, providing them with the leisure in which to do what they want to do rather than what they must do. The modern economic problem is that technological innovation has freed people from the production of necessities – only to oblige them to produce luxuries. The result is that modern Western culture is no more idle and leisured now than it has ever been.

I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the human future. If we can understand, and then control, our economic systems, it seems perfectly possible that there could be a human future of leisure for everybody, in which luxuries are manufactured and traded because people want to, and not – as at present – because they have to. In that time, the vast engine of industry will more or less shut down and in shutting down, it will cease to pollute the world. The immense pressure for everyone to somehow find work will vanish, and with it all the stress-related psychological and physical disorders that attend work and the search for gainful employment. At the same time, the necessity to rob, cheat, steal (which is a form of gainful employment) will also dwindle. In that idle world, life will become 99% play.

I have no idea what such a world would be like, because I don’t live in such a world. I have no idea what people would do in such a world. Since there are perfectly good explanations why some people rob and cheat in our present condition, I see no reason to suppose that such people would continue to behave that way in an idle world. There are no Bad Guys in Idle Theory: there are only ignorant busy people. But the absence of any realistic understanding of the nature of economic systems at present is cause for pessimism in itself: economic chaos is set to continue, for the time being. And war will accompany that chaos. And since now, as for the past 3000+ years, weapons development remains paramount, next to no effort will be put into improving the human state. And human numbers are rising towards unsustainable levels.




by Chris Davis / September 2003

The only wealth I’ll ever have is the profound and sweet freedom to sit idly by some river and gaze across its eddies and ripples on the sliding water to the far green shore, to pick up and study a few worn pebbles and leaves, to stroll along the bank and catch the scent of nameless flowers.

It’s not the river and the pebbles and the flowers and trees that make up this wealth. No. It’s just as sweet a freedom to gaze across some parking lot filled with cars and trucks, pick up and study some discarded hub cap, and smell the odour of oil and gasoline. The sweet freedom is to be able to choose to gaze, to pick things up, to study, to stroll around, to do this or that or the other. It is the freedom to do what one wants to do. It is the freedom to do nothing at all. It is the freedom to just be.

But human life – this interval between birth and death – has never entirely consisted of such freedom. Instead it has almost always been one of choiceless toil: to sow and reap plants, to shepherd flocks, to grind and bake and eat bread, to haul water, to spin wool and weave cloth and sew garments. There was little time to sit by rivers watching the water slip by. If that sweet freedom was ever experienced, it was mostly on public holidays on which all work was forbidden.

All that work, all the sowing and reaping, the grinding and hauling, the chopping and hammering, only ever had as its goal the sweet freedom to choose what to do. It was never that Sunday was just a day on which to recover from the far more important and meaningful working week. No, that idle sabbath day was the reward and purpose of the working week. Everything else, everything that is ordinarily called “wealth”, is only icing on the cake of this fundamental freedom to choose. All those fast cars, elegant clothes, fine houses, landscaped gardens, swimming pools and tennis courts, are a mere thin veneer upon the substantive mass of that primary freedom – like the mantle of vegetation upon the vast sphere of this planet.

And all these things are anyway the product of idle time. A society that has no idle time can produce no luxuries. For all luxuries are made from idle time foregone in work to make them. And all these luxuries require idle time for their enjoyment. What point a tennis court, if there is no time to play the game. All these things provide a wider range of choice: that instead of porridge every day, we can eat bread or fish or lamb rogon josh or Kentucky fried chicken. But an ever-increasing range of choice is not the same as an ever-increasing ability to choose. And it is the ability to choose, not the range of possible choices, that matters. Freedom does not consist in the ability to choose from a wide range of products on a supermarket shelf: freedom is the ability to continually choose.

A country is rich to the extent that its people are able to freely choose how to dispose of their time, not to the extent that they have the widest range of choice of toys and amusements. And indeed, to the extent that wealth is identified with wider choice, any increase in the range of choice only comes with a decrease in the ability to choose. For all these various delights and pleasures are only ever bought by surrendering the freedom to choose, by setting idle hands to work to make them. And therefore it must be the primary purpose of any society, not to increase the range of choice open to its members, but instead to expand their ability to choose, by shortening the working week, and correspondingly expanding the idle weekend. If, on extensive idle weekends, some people choose to busy themselves making and trading toys and amusements, so let them – if that is what they choose to do. And if any society abandons the pursuit of idleness, and instead sets up some other ambition, it will inevitably become busier and busier, poorer and poorer, until it can no longer sustain itself, and disintegrates and dies.

Chris Davis
email : author [at] idletheor [dot] .info

by Chris Davis / 2 Mar 1998

Physicists have been curiously reluctant to produce a physical model of life. It is not possible to flick through a physics textbook and find a chapter on Life Processes appended to those concerned with the Kinetic Theory of matter, or Thermodynamics, or Newton’s laws of motion. The omission may be purely an accident of history, that the study of life became, very early on, the province of naturalists, biologists, ecologists, and more recently geneticists. Physicists, with enough on their hands already, were perhaps content to leave the matter in their hands. Yet one strange result is that, despite constant complaints that the life sciences are reductionist and mechanistic, there exists no mechanistic description of life. There isn’t even agreement as to what constitutes Life. Thus the Idle Life model will not be found in any physics textbook. Although its description of life adopts the terminology of physics, it is no part of the formal edifice of physics.

The Idle Life model attempts to mirror the behaviour of real life. It has a metabolism that acquires and expends and stores energy. It can grow and reproduce. It can die. Given such a model of life, it becomes possible to construct populations of theoretical idle lifeforms, that correspond to plants, grazers, predators, and simulate variation and natural selection, and to do so knowing that the unfolding scene is not physically implausible. Without some sort of model, such theoretical explorations are impossible. The Idle Life model is a simple, idealised model of life. There are probably no real living creatures which are so simple. But a great many real living creatures appear to behave in roughly the manner it describes. And that is enough to begin with. Idle Theory is only concerned with the broadest behaviour of life, not with particular details.

Life. In Idle Theory, life is treated in terms of energy. In Idle Theory, living creatures are understood to be constantly decaying and constantly repairing themselves. This is physical work. And in order to repair themselves they have to extract fuel and raw materials from their surrounding environment. This also is physical work. In physical discussions of life, living creatures are quite ordinarily described as having a power income and a power expenditure . But these incomes and expenditures are usually implicitly continuous. In Idle Theory power income and expenditure are discontinuous or intermittent.

The only reason that life manages to keep functioning is because the amount of energy expended in maintenance and food capture over some period of time is less than the amount of energy stored in the food it can acquire from its environment over that period of time. The creatures can only stay alive because they can acquire energy faster than they expend it. And if life can acquire energy faster than it expends it, then life need only work part-time acquiring energy. The rest of the time it is idle. In Idle Theory, life alternates between busy and idle states.

Two assumptions underlie the Idle Life model.
1. The creatures are assumed to work continuously at maintaining or replacing their constituent components. This work is regarded as a continual background activity, the intensity of which depends upon the ease or severity of the environment in which these components exist – temperature, salinity, acidity, etc.
2. The creatures work intermittently to acquire from their environment the energy needed to power their maintenance work.

One argument for such intermittency lies in a the intermittent availability of energy in the environment: plants can only acquire solar energy during daylight hours, and many animals require daylight by which to find food. Another argument is that even if energy is continuously available in the environment, the creatures are likely to be able to meet their energy requirements in a relatively short time. Included in the assumption of intermittent work is an assumption that the creatures have a constant sustainable work rate. This is a simplification. But it reflects the important truth that, although creatures may be able to increase their work rates by an order of magnitude, they cannot sustain such work rates for long.

A further argument for intermittency is that if the creatures simply worked continuously, at whatever rate required, to acquire energy to power self-maintenance, they would have no need to store energy. But in the natural world, creatures typically maintain substantial energy stores, in the form of sugars, fats, starches.

Given these assumptions, it is possible to write some simple equations:
Assume some lifeform continuously works at a rate Pm repairing itself. Assume that it is able to work at a rate Pe to acquire energy to power repair.

When it works to acquire energy, it acquires a power income of Pi. The power income, Pi, that the creature gets for its expenditures is dependent on the energy density of its environent. In an energy-rich environment, Pi will be larger than in an energy-poor environment.

At equilibrium, it alternates between being busy acquiring energy for Tbusy time, and being idle for Tidle time, and its energy store level cycles between a maximum and a minimum. At equilibrium, over unit time period, energy expended = energy received.

Energy received = Pi.Tbusy
Energy expended = Pe.Tbusy+ Pm
So Pi.T busy = Pe.Tbusy+ Pm
and T busy = Pm / (Pi – Pe)

and I = 1 – ( Pm / (Pi – Pe)) ( 1 )
where I is Idleness or Tidle/unit time, and 0 <= I < 1.

A variant of this equation is:
I = 1 – ( Pm / Pe(G – 1)) ( 2 )
where G is the energy gain per unit expended, and Pi = G.Pe

Given these assumptions, the Idleness of a lfeform is independent of the length of the cycle. It makes no difference whether it maintains its store at a high mean level, or allows its store to cycle more slowly from a high level to a low level.

The power consumption of this lifeform over the cycle is given by:
(1 – I).Pi ( 3 )
Idle time need not be devoted to inactivity. A life form can work during idle time to acquire an energy surplus. The power surplus or work capacity of the life form is:
I.(Pi – Pe) ( 4 )
Where a creature is growing in size, or reproducing, the extra power expenditure for reproduction, Pr is added to maintenance power expenditure, and (1) becomes
I = 1 – ((Pm + Pr) / (Pi – Pe)) ( 5 )

Living creatures operate in the range 0 to 1 idleness. 0 (0r 0%) idleness means working all the time. 1 (or 100%) idleness means they are idle all the time. In practice, 100% or perfect idleness cannot be achieved, because no combination of non-zero values of Pm, Pr, Pe, and Pi can produce I = 1. Zero idleness, by contrast can be very easily achieved. Inert matter might be construed as perfectly idle, since (Pm, (Pr and (Pe are zero, and I = 1.

The creatures die when their energy stores empty, and no further maintenance work or energy-acquisition work can be done, and the unmaintained creatures disintegrate.

Taking Pm and Pe as constant, then as Pi rises, idleness approaches 1. In this circumstance a creature spends next to no time meeting its maintenance energy needs. But as Pi falls, idleness falls, and continues to fall until idleness reaches zero. At this point, a creature is spending all its time working to meet its maintenance energy needs. If Pi falls further, the creature becomes unable to meet its maintenance energy needs, because it can work no harder. In this circumstance, it loses energy, and its energy store empties. Thus zero idleness (I = 0) is the threshold of death for any lifeform. In Idle Theory, reaching zero idleness is therefore usually taken to entail death, even though there will be an interval while energy stores are finally depleted.

All solutions of the equation I = 1 – ( Pm / (Pi – Pe)) with values greater than zero and less than 1 correspond to life. All other values (I 1) correspond to death. In practice, these absurd values convert to zero idleness.

Reaching zero idleness is the only way that any life form in Idle Theory ever dies:

Death by starvation results when the power income, Pi, falls because there is less energy available in the environment, and idleness is reduced to zero.

Death by disease entails increasing maintenance power, Pm, to include feeding parasitic bacteria, which results in idleness falling to zero.

Accidental damage may result in the stored energy rapidly being lost – effectively increasing Pm -, or by disabling the lifeform so that it is able to do less work to get food – reducing Pe -. Again, if the damage is sufficient, idleness may fall to zero. Old age entails an increasing inability to work to acquire food – Pe steadily falls -. At some point, idleness reaches zero.

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