From Economic Strife to Ecologic Thrive

Longji Rice Terraces, China

Longji Rice Terraces, China

Turn on the TV, check out the news, there’s reports of growth needed but in question, threatening our well-being. There are droughts and hunger, floods and destruction. It seems naïve to the point of absurdity to talk of a real abundance that is ecological.

Potato fields in the Ecuadorian Andes
Potato Fields in the Ecuadorian Andes

At the same time, we have always relied on our surrounding environments to get what we need and want; and the wealth of a country has been seen as being not only economic/financial or social and cultural, but also natural and biological: only a country with the right mix of high resource availability was seen as rich.
If there are not enough resources – not least food – to power an economy and feed a people, power is hard to gain (but too much could be just as detrimental as too little).

Now, with global demand for resources having risen tremendously due to population growth and economic development, competition for raw materials and fossil fuels has been on the rise. Even agricultural land has become an object of speculation as food prices have gone up and caused unrest, at least partly contributing to the “Arab Spring” of 2011.

The future seems clear – and dark: There is only so much to go around, meaning that the merry wheel of strife for supremacy will go into another few rounds. So, even if climate change or other environmental issues should not throw a wrench into the machinery of “modern,” “developed” economies, nations will have to compete – if not resort to the extension of politics (and competition) by other means: war.

Or so the usual story goes – and it’s no wonder, given where we get our advice: economics.

Economics, after all, is the discipline dealing with the allocation of scarce resources. The most bucks for your bang, whether that’s financial capital, labor power, oil, or natural resources.
The inputs, the raw materials, are all coming into the system from their reservoirs outside, just as waste is going out there again. Resources can be used more efficiently or in the production of goods with higher monetary return, but not really created themselves. (Never mind the talk of oil production, for example: It is extraction, not production.)

No wonder, then, that economics does not know anything but zero-sum games around scarcity (and even in abundance), and falls into the easy competitive mode.

It does not understand the ecology of happiness – that there is and has to be enough, that there are productive and creative ways that work with and even build productive (cultural) ecosystems, and that there are more purposes than monetary profit alone.

The grass is greener on the other side… unless you find ways of growing your own well.

Type III
From Stuart McMillen's "Type III Ecosystem" Cartoon

Ecology as a scientific discipline only studies how species interact with their environments. As a side effect, though, it finds how species form ecosystems that are more productive and richer in life, each representing a resource for others.

It’s a strife, too – “nature red in tooth and claw.” Or at least, people with a worldview informed by economics like to describe it as such.

That struggle for existence does not result in collapse so much as in a shift between dynamic equilibria, though. It is not usually destructive, but rather ends up being creative, resulting in a dynamic, shifting stability.

Looking at human history, we may well have been the cause of many a species’ extinction, we certainly have changed our environments tremendously, and many a society has failed and fallen.

There is a good chance many groups in many a place will fail in the future, too – but there are human beings eking out an existence, and there have been great civilizations, just about anywhere on Earth it has been possible to extract and/or create enough.

The Amazon before 1492 seems to have been not “pristine forest, [but] cultural parkland,” managed so as to sustain great human numbers – by also sustaining its ecological functioning. Chinese civilization has radically altered what species there are in the region, even what the very terrain looks like – and it has been around for thousands of years.

Longji Rice Terraces, China
Longji Rice Terraces, China

The rise and fall of civilizations, and the continuous existence of indigenous groups the world over, have been the result of their success (or failure) not only to extract resources from a given environment, but also to shape that environment to provide enough, more, or even more than enough…

… and in creating functioning cultural landscapes and/or the ways of (making a) living that fit in well with their natural and human-made environments, we can also create more diversity (as we had done with cultivated varieties of food plants), more resources, more stable and productive foundations for our lives and happiness.

In a world of billions of people looking for a better life, it’s high time we took our cue from the ecological approach (again).

We all try to live affluently off the same resources and destroying the ecosystems that give us not just the raw materials but even the conditions we need for our lives, we are all sure to fail.

We work on creating more and consuming less, living and making a living in ways that fit in with their ecological contexts and the requirements for our own truly good lives, creating rather than drawing down the ecological capital that is the foundation for our flourishing, we will see how far we can get in this story of our own writing

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