Economy of ecology: Should we rethink our capitalist views?

I know, I know… me and my extracts from other people’s essays. Interesting stuff though, and sure, some might dismiss “the commons” as an environmentalist/hippy type of concept, but who can argue with this gem of wisdom:

“To understand nature in its genuine quality as a commons opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in our biological as well as in our social life.”

So please read on, dear ISSers, and see whether you feel, as I do, that the commons and the viewpoints below could very much inform what we are trying to create.

Natural anticapitalism

A new economy can become a realistic alternative if we can challenge the mainstream biological view that sees life as an endless process of optimization. A new picture of life indeed is overdue – particularly in biology itself. Here, in fact, the Hobbsean paradigm of “war of all against all” is being overcome. The biological view of the organic world – and the picture of man within it – is changing from the idea of a battlefield between antagonistic survival-machines to that of an interplay of agents with goals and meanings. The organism starts to be seen as a subject who interprets external stimuli and genetic influences rather than being causally governed by them, and who negotiates his existence with others under conditions of limited competition and “weak causality.”

This shift in the axioms of “biological liberalism” leads to an emerging picture of the organic world as one in which freedom evolves. This is particularly evident in the following issues:

  1. Efficiency: The biosphere is not efficient. Warm-blooded animals consume over 97 percent of their energy only to maintain their metabolism. Photosynthesis achieves a ridiculous efficiency rate of 7 percent. Fish, amphibians and insects have to lay millions of eggs only to allow for the survival of very few offspring. Instead of being efficient, nature is highly redundant. It compensates for possible loss through incredible wastefulness. Natural processes are not parsimonious but rather based on generosity and waste. The biosphere indeed is based on donation, but it is not reciprocal: the foundation of all biological work – solar energy – falls as a gift from heaven.
  2. Growth: The biosphere does not grow. The quantity of biomass does not increase. The throughput does not expand – nature is running a steady-state- economy – that is, an economy where all relevant factors remain constant toward one another. Also, the number of species does not necessarily increase. It rises in some epochs and falls in others. The only dimension that really grows is the diversity of experiences: ways of feeling, modes of expression, variations of appearance, novelties of patterns and forms. Therefore, nature does not gain weight, but rather depth.
  3. Competition: It has never been possible to prove that a new species arose from competition for a resource alone. Species are rather born by chance: they develop through unexpected mutations and the isolation of a group from the remainder of the population through new symbioses and cooperations (as our body cells have done, for example). Competition alone, e.g., for a limited nutrient, causes biological monotony: the dominance of relatively few species over an ecosystem.
  4. Scarcity: The basic energetic resource of nature, sunlight, exists in abundance. A second crucial resource – the number of ecological relationships and new niches – has no upper limit. A high number of species and a variety of relations among them do not lead to sharper competition and dominance of a “fitter” species, but rather to a proliferation of relationships among species and thus to an increase in freedom, which is at the same time also an increase of mutual dependencies. The more that is wasted, the bigger the common wealth becomes. In ecosystems where only a few nutrients are freely available, as in the tropical rainforest, this limitation brings forth more niches and thus a higher overall diversity. This is the result of an increase of symbioses and reduced competition. Scarcity on a biological level does not lead to displacement, but to diversification.
  5. Property: There is no notion of property in the biosphere. An individual does not even possess his own body. Its matter changes permanently and continuously as it is replaced by oxygen, CO2, and other inputs of energy and matter. But it is not only the physical dimension of self that is made possible through communion with other elements, it is the symbolic as well: language is brought forth by the community of speakers who are using it. Habits in a species are acquired by sharing them. In any of these dimensions the wilderness of the natural world – which has become, and not been made, and which cannot be exclusively possessed by anybody – is necessary for the individual to develop its innermost identity. Individuality – physical and social/symbolic – thus can only emerge through a biological and symbol-based commons.

Commons as relations of the living

A thorough analysis of the economy of ecology can yield a powerful methodology of the commons. Natural processes are able to define a blueprint to transform our treatment of the embodied, material aspect of our existence into a culture of being alive. The term “commons” provides the binding element between the natural and the social or cultural worlds. To understand nature in its genuine quality as a commons opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in our biological as well as in our social life.

If nature actually is a commons, it follows that the only possible way to achieve a productive relationship with it will be an economy of the commons. The self-realization of Homo sapiens can be best achieved in a system of common goods because such a culture – and thus any household or market system – is the species- specific realization of our own particular embodiment of being alive within a common system of other living subjects.

Although the deliberations that have led us to this point stem from a thorough analysis of biology, their results are not biologistic – but rather the opposite. The thorough analysis here has revealed that the organic realm is the paradigm for the evolution of freedom. Therefore, even if we determine that the commons is the basic law of nature, the necessities resulting from that basic law are non-deterministic – contrary to the prevailing ideas of optimization and growth. The basic idea of the commons is rather grounded on an intricate understanding of embodied freedom and its relationship to the whole: the individual receives her options of self-realization through the prospering of the life/social systems she belongs to. To organize a community between humans and/or nonhuman agents according to the principles of the commons always means to increase individual freedom by enlarging the community’s freedom. (See Table 1).

Table 1: Existential Consequences of Various Modes of Householding

Neoliberalism Darwinism Commons (ecological & social together)
concentration displacement diversity
dependency resource dependency freedom-in-relatedness
fragmentation sequential optimization integration
customers survivors subject-in-community
local vs. global local local and global (holistically integrated)
sustainability = victory sustainability = victory sustainability = relationship & commitment
patents mechanisms of predation and defense open source
winners monopolize most resources winners transmit most genes winners are interwoven most deeply with the community
efficiency efficiency diversity of expressions
monopoly dominance self-expression as culture
egos in hostile environment species under selection pressure constant recreation of community
separation participation