Thursday, March 21, 2019

Economies Are Warped Reflections of Ecosystems

If ecosystems are what the planet is made of, then economies are the funhouse mirrors that wildly distort the principles the two have in common. A diversity of species fill all the niches in a natural ecosystem. Humans fill most of those roles in urban ecosystems. Humans fill all of those roles in economies.

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. The elimination of apex predators, parasites, and competing species do not leave voids. Those niches are filled by human equivalents. This becomes abundantly clear in urban ecosystems, but we do not think of it that way. We prefer to think we are civilized, that we can somehow rise above the laws of nature, that in fact we do not even need natural systems to flourish. Should we regress to the village living in fear of lions, to an era before medications rendered disease merely a chapter in history books? No, of course not, but the marvels of our modern age have conveniently allowed us to imagine we are now immune to ecology.

We have further complicated matters by overlaying economics on top of nature, failing to acknowledge that economies are themselves a type of ecosystem, in which all the niches are filled by people. The currency of nature is energy. That energy is parceled out into three basic categories: organismal growth (metabolic), movement (kinetic), and rest (potential). The currency of economies is money. It, too, has several functions, including growth (interest and investment), movement (the marketplace), and rest (savings, retirement). The ideal form of economics would operate much like a natural ecosystem in terms of energy flow, but this is not what is happening. The predatory lenders, the parasitic scam artists, the diseases of poverty and addiction, among many other villains, derail economies time and time again. Capitalism and socialism alike are prone to rampant corruption, resulting in the hoarding of wealth (financial currency) that starves the system.

The energy of nature is requisite, finite, and circulates freely. The currency of man is arbitrary in the value it assigns to objects and resources, and it does not flow as freely as it should. "Precious metals" and "precious stones" are only so because we say they are. Nature assigns equal value to all of its components. Our human economies now look at everything from land to certain categories of humans in terms of whether they can produce financial profit. This is in direct conflict with natural laws and so we see deforestation, desertification, poverty, climate change, endangered species, pollution, invasive species, mass incarceration, and racism and genocide. These are just the intolerable conditions that come immediately and randomly to mind. You can probably add to the list.

Our final failure lies in a stunning denial of the fact that no matter what we do, we answer to the whims of planet Earth. We started to see the effects of our economic practices on nature shortly after the Industrial Revolution, but now that we are in the digital age, we believe that technology can save us. Computers and cell phones still rely on the extraction of natural resources, which leads not only to pollution with the disposal of the outmoded generation of products, but to ruthless competition to harvest materials for the components, among other complications we conveniently turn our heads away from.

Ultimately, the future of nature comes down to the willingness of Homo sapiens to exercise restraint, in our sheer numbers, and in our economic impact. Every species dreams of being in our shoes, able to eliminate mortality factors, eliminate competitors, reproduce astronomically, and thoroughly dominate the landscape. It is an impossible "success" story, however, when you erode the foundation of your castle. We will adapt and truly evolve only if we recognize value beyond financial profit. The marketplace is artificial. The Earth is not.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Big, Urgent Things


The Green New Deal proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Democrats is an ambitious plan for a revolution in energy, agriculture, but it might benefit from a complementary "retrolution" that brings citizens together through more localized economies. We still need technology to keep advancing, but it should be focused more specifically on areas of critical concern.

Necessary Social Change

What we need most desperately are social changes. We need to rebuild trust in each other. Distrust, to the point where we now assume the worst about anyone we have not met personally, drives the divide in this nation, fuels the proliferation of firearms, and erodes the fabric of historically beneficial institutions like churches and children's organizations.

We also need to question the accepted meanings of words used by politicians to galvanize or provoke us. Prosperity and wealth, for example, are currently viewed strictly through economic and financial lenses. The result is that we see everything, and everyone, as potential for making money for corporations. Land, if it cannot be "developed," is deemed worthless. Species which cannot feed us or otherwise work for us, are considered disposable. This has to stop. Even as human life is labeled "priceless," our soldiers are expendable products of the military-industrial complex.

Ok, so what about the other issues we face, like climate change, the future of energy, and our growing population?

Develop Alternative Fuels For Transportation

So far, our technology and innovation is lagging here. Electric cars may be the goal in the immediate future, but if the original energy source is still a coal-fired power plants, then are we really making progress? Solar and wind need to feed our car batteries as well as our homes and businesses. Why should this be such a grave concern, beyond the obvious carbon emissions? Look at how much our economy depends on delivery today. Not only are we transporting ourselves, we are transporting others as Uber and Lyft drivers, transporting food from restaurants, and transporting durable goods, all to individual households. The proliferation of delivery services is using a great deal of fuel.

Scale Down Almost Everything

Think about it. Scaling down everything from agriculture and banking to our own living spaces and appetites would do wonders for the world. There are signs of hope beyond the "tiny house" movement. Community gardens are sprouting in many cities. Many neighborhoods have a farmer's market where one can buy direct from local farmers. Some restaurants are serving more modest portions to cut down on food waste, an epidemic problem in the U.S. Credit unions are becoming an attractive alternative to big banks. Young people are demanding walkable neighborhoods where they can live, work, shop, and recreate without a long commute. The village is the new city, or will be soon.

Create a Reciprocal Power Grid

We should have this already. Surely the technology exists, but as long as utility companies value profit above all else, any progress on a reciprocal grid is unlikely. The good news is that there are rural electrical cooperatives where this could be tried experimentally. Again, the smaller the scale, the better it is likely to work. Every business and home that wants one could purchase solar panels or a modest wind turbine (even a bird-friendly design). Any excess power would be diverted to a substation. At times when producing energy is not feasible, or personal demand is greater, the energy would flow from substation back to the business or home. Seems plausible from my armchair, anyway.

Begin a Dialogue on Human Population Growth

Start the conversation, that is all that we can ask. Ok, maybe stop insisting that it is a woman's purpose or "duty" to bear children. The social pressure on women to produce babies is overwhelming, disrespectful, stressful, and no one's business but the woman's. We are fed with political- and media-generated hype that the economy will die if we do not feed the labor force. Baloney. What the business world fears is not a lack of producers, but a dearth of consumers. More jobs are being automated, while others are outsourced overseas. That is not likely to change. Here again is another reason to return to mom-and-pop enterprise, local, small-scale businesses that can be held accountable, that will reward you for loyalty, and that are an integral part of the community. Corporations may want more and more people, but we passed the carrying capacity of the planet some time ago.

The Retrolution is Possible
Nostalgia is not what should lead us to a plan for a better future, but we can take lessons from bygone eras while our elders are still around to teach us what worked and what did not. Meanwhile, let us stop aspiring to gratuitous material wealth. The combined effect of individuals living more frugally would have great impact on every major problem associated with our currently overindulgent consumer culture. A meaningful life stems more from personal relationships, involvement in community, travel, adventures in nature, physical activity, and spiritual reflection, than from financial excess....or is that just me?