I am not an economist. There are nevertheless observations to be made about the way the human economy works which appear rather plain, and yet never arise in conversation among mainstream economists. In fact, it is only recently in the face of the glaring problems of climate change and income inequality that the field of economics has stepped forward to admit that MAYBE they were wrong about exponential growth, after all.
Armed with little more than a pair of eyes and common sense, many of us already understood this. There is the natural world of trees and forests and animals and seas and bees, and then there is the conceptual human economy with its compound interest rates, hedges and derivatives; and it seems that never the twain shall meet. (actually, they do meet in an idea called natural capital; but this article is not about that).
Even a casual observer might conclude that most of the fiat wealth being generated and accumulated today is born of activities and products that are not exactly essential to human survival and happiness. Having achieved an unprecedented level of creature comfort, we still find ourselves unsatisfied and wanting more. It is a slavish pursuit chained to the narratives of history, evolution, progress, and linear time, which are still among our most sacred cultural cows. But it’s becoming quite obvious that these perennial devotions are driving us down a road to nowhere. Every attempt to clamp down on uncertainty and more rigidly inscribe our future in stone leads us further away from the dream of mutually-assured protection.
On one level it makes perfect sense. This is what happens when you construct a society , however consciously or unconsciously, on conceptual models that fail to accurately describe the reality in which they are being applied. Any conflicts that exist between them will eventually reveal themselves in the form of systemic failures. And that is happening to us all, right now. Wars of aggression, racketeering, intellectual property battles, copyright claims, trademark infringements, patent infringements, food scarcity, propaganda, subliminal marketing, cutthroat competition, worker subjugation, wage theft, cybercrime, racial injustice, exploitation, price-fixing, cartels, price-gouging, organized crime, monopolies, cronyism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, lobbying, corporate externalities, protectionism, trade deals, no-bid contracts, closed door meetings, tax havens, and political kickbacks. It is a dark irony that all these individual pursuits of security are precisely what is driving us toward a world in which we are all becoming biologically ever more vulnerable.
And sitting quietly by like a lace backdrop to all this human travail, is that insufferably beguiling mystery we call nature.
That picture may be the real crux of our condition, especially in the west. At some point we turned our back on the real world of nature and entered a mostly symbolic one. Except of course that just about everything significant we’ve ever invented and claimed for our own in pursuit of security, from fire, to the wheel to air flight and medicine, already had an analog in nature. We just decided not to acknowledge this on our balance sheets and in our patents.
We’ve been able to get away with it because we’ve been treating mother earth as something that should be seen and not heard. If nature were given a voice in the legal system, our entire civilization might be indicted for mass infringement. Instead, she is now trying us in the court of survival.
Monkey On Our Back
There is perhaps no more perfect metaphor for our situation than this. In full view of a monkey, a banana (or other treat) is placed inside the hollow of a tree (or anthill) whose opening is a size smaller than the monkey’s closed fist. The monkey immediately moves to get the banana when the coast is clear, easily slipping his extended hand into the hole, only to find that once it closes around the treat, it can no longer be removed from the opening without losing a grip on it. The perplexed monkey, shot through with fear and adrenaline, will sooner be killed by a predator than let go.
Why, in spite of our intellectual understanding of our impact on the environment, do we not act swiftly and decisively in response? Is it because like the monkey, our brains lack the capacity to clearly perceive the reality of the problem? Is it because we are absorbed in individual acts of self-interest?
When we end each fiscal year with a net loss in trees and species and arctic sea ice, in all seriousness, where is the value in the trillions of paper profits? Is there in fact, any value in it at all? As hard as it is to believe, the answer appears to be no. No net value. Makes one wonder what all the striving and fighting is for, doesn’t it?
You see, if life as represented in the interdependencies of nature is the only working model we have for a sustainable economy, and it is without doubt, then any economy that is not designed to be absolutely subordinate to nature and its limits must inevitably derive its profits from death and decay. With one glance at the world today, the fact of this reality should be made clear.
The modern human economic enterprise promulgated by the western world is therefore a fraud; a process of entropy, not real growth. It is a process of converting real natural wealth (the forests, seas, mineral resources, animal herds, etc) into the people that theoretical human growth economies thrive on. It then turns those people into profits through subjugation and exploitation. Not a second thought is given to plying innocent minds with propaganda aimed at selling crappy food, violent toys, and keeping hordes of disenfranchised young people rolling off the assembly line of American culture and into wars of aggression for profit. And this trend only intensifies with our wholesale destruction of the natural world. We live in a death-based economy.
And so, the ultimate tragedy is that the great piles of wealth resulting from all this exploitation and death isn’t real. It has been converted from a dynamic, living, actual state to a static, dead, and conceptual one, largely with our flag-waving support. And it is far from being solely a modern phenomenon. History is littered with civilizations destroyed not by militant neighbors and terrorists, immigrants and ideologies, but by the destruction of natural environments. Ask the people of Easter Island what the value of their statues are on the open market. There are none left to offer their opinions.
The process of converting a living planet into static wealth is of course a process of killing it for profit, power and prestige. Perhaps that fact even lurks somewhere in the English idiom “making a killing”. After all… to make a killing is to make a lot of money in a very short time, with very little effort. And fittingly, it even implies an immoral criminal element. One of the easiest ways to make a killing is to extract it directly from nature and claim it for yourself. It’s the trap of least resistance.
The conversion of wealth from an actual to a conceptual state is as deplorably easy as shooting elephants from a helicopter and watching them fall to the ground, or disposing toxic waste by dumping it into a river and allowing it to destroy habitat downstream for miles. To leverage entropy is to simply release the order nature has worked hard to build up in various forms over millennia. It’s the low hanging fruit of human progress.
In stark contrast, the biosphere follows a model of wealth-building that is radically different from the bubble of economic theory we live in. It’s an immeasurably multidimensional model that is hardly a model at all, really, but reality itself. The story of life is a miraculous tale of simple chemistry embarking on a long and unlikely journey toward greater and greater states of complex order and connectedness. The very opposite of entropy. Biological life is the only anti-entropic force in the known universe. It takes millions of years to generate the amount of stored and living wealth represented by nature, but it only takes an instant to release it, as simply as felling a tree with an axe.
Obviously, there is a piper to pay for all the freeloading we’ve been doing. The longer we persist in generating static wealth through killing, the more the price of converting our static wealth back into ecosystem will exceed the monetary value extracted from it in the first place. Put another way, it takes much more energy to move a boulder up a hill than it does to roll it down. Yes, nature has it’s own form of compound interest, you might say, and it’s not generated with the touch of a button on a computer screen. It has real physical consequences, and the ultimate cost for default.
This appears to be the root of our predicament. If we stepped back a few paces and approached our problems as a matter of physics and energy, using the example of nature as a model, we might find ourselves with a dispassionate transpersonal ground for clear action. We might learn to marry our economic system directly to nature’s model of sustainability, and move from a degenerative death-based economy, to a net regenerative economy of life. Yes, that steady-state economy may end up moving at a much slower pace, but what would that matter to a species simply interested in sticking around for the long haul?
Of course, it won’t happen so long as the heart and mind remain a closed fist.