Uncommon Grace: Biology and Economic Theory

My wife, Alice, and I hold a deed to twenty acres of land in Morgan County, West Virginia. To most people, there is nothing remarkable about this place. But to us, it is extraordinary. I have spent seventeen years exploring the botany of this land: photographing its wild flowers, learning the language of its avian citizens, and capturing its various moods on film and in pixels. Knowing it as I do, I could never think of this place as a resource. It is simply home: the source.

In a society that holds sacred the private ownership of property and economic self interest, it may seem strange that neither my wife nor I consider ourselves property owners. At best, we are squatters or
temporary guardians of something that has inherent value; an evolving biological entity that exists far beyond the realm of economic self interest and monetary valuation systems.

Alice and I share this sacred space with numerous plants and animals—most of them wild, and some of them domesticated. Among the latter: five horses, three dogs, and numerous felines. We do not own these animals any more than they own us; they are not our pets. They are simply animal companions, members of the extended human family, and valued equally with human beings, mushrooms, and copperhead snakes.

Unlike my wife and me, none of these animals have to work for a living. They are not expected to perform tricks for us. They are simply free to be who they are. We do the best we can for them with our limited resources. What we get in return is priceless; something that defies quantification. Whatever it is, it is greater than the sum of its parts but as ethereal as the morning mist that rises from a brook. Yet, it is as real as the soil and sky.

It is impossible to commodify the sacred bonds that exist between the human animal, and the non-human animal—a bond that extents into the landscape that spawned them. To claim ownership of another living being, whether wild forest, or domesticated canine, is to break the sacred bonds and reduce them into commodities—mere objects for use. It is to make them our property and force them into slavery; objects for economic exploitation.

So it is with the land itself.

In an ownership society, the land is valued not as an evolved living biological entity with inherent value and rights, including the fulfillment of its own evolutionary destiny, but as a commodity—a natural resource.

In this unnatural schema, wild forests lose their structural and biological diversity to become pulp for paper mills, and are turned into toilet paper, or packaging for ipods. Diverse forests become tree farms and plantations, monocultures thirsting for toxic chemicals to keep them alive. They are no longer natural, no longer wholly real or authentic. This process of industrial forestry moves the land from the realm of the sacred into that of economic theory; and it is falsely called science. That which has inherent value is thus devolved into mere property, a commodity; divested of its sacredness, a severed part divorced from the whole.

Treated as private property, the wild earth, with its essential ecological processes, dies a death of a thousand cuts, as economic myth and Disneyesque plantations supplant the authentic natural landscape, and the artificial is freely substituted for the real.

Surrounded by the artificial, we live in a time when people can no longer tell the difference between the real and the synthetic; the natural and the unnatural. Sadly, they do not even know what has been lost or that it can never be replaced.

Thus we have a culture which holds that economic self interest is the highest expression of human freedom. It is a paradigm that asserts its superiority over all others, including the public welfare and the wellbeing of the earth. It is the foundation of Adam Smith’s capitalism, as espoused in The Wealth of Nations, and modified many times since.

But freedom that subjugates others is not freedom at all.

Private ownership is a paradigm that values the economic parts of nature—those that can accrue wealth to the land owner, while assigning no value to the parts that are economically unimportant, or the greater public good, including the world’s genetic libraries. Yet, in nature, it is often the non-economic parts that provide the essential ecological functions that make life itself possible. Not just human life—all life.

Here in Morgan County, wild forests provide shade on hot summer afternoons, and diverse habitat for multitudes of species, both plant and animal. Together, the interrelationship formed by these species constitute a dance of life that promotes the dynamic equilibrium of a complex ecosystem—the magnificent Central Appalachian Hardwood and Mixed Mesophytic Forest.

Aided by fungus and precipitation, insects residing in decaying trees move nutrients through the earth, building healthy soil. Forests purify the air and remove pollutants, while also trapping and holding greenhouse gases. Wild forests filter pollutants from streams and rivers, providing pure drinking water to foxes, beetles, and people. All of this, and much, much, more, is provided without cost to us; as a right of citizenship in this world.

Left alone, the wild earth—unlike human constructed systems, is a beautifully self-regulating arrangement in dynamic equilibrium; a system that runs on biological capital, rather than artificial economic arrangements. The management of such systems, which have evolved over billions of years, implies the superiority of man over nature, his dominion over the earth—a dangerous and foolish notion that requires unfathomable hubris, and equal parts stupidity.

Cultures that are based upon reductionism and monoculture fail to perceive the organic whole of life; the interconnectedness of all things, both living and non-living. Economic formulae, no matter how sophisticated and scientific they may appear, are a construct of the human mind—an artificial system of accounting. Nature does not recognize them. They have no validity in the real world. Yet we think they are of overriding importance, the basis of everything we do; man as center of the universe, as in the time of Ptolemy.

In truth, ecology and biology are the natural capital upon which nature works. They are the underpinning of all social and economic paradigms—bar none. Impair and denigrate them and everything in them, including us, is diminished. Damage them excessively, and everything falls, including our precious ownership society.

Ecological integrity is the foundation of planetary health. It is the organizing principle of life. Undermining that integrity for short term profits is to limit all future options in perpetuity, the ultimate incarnation of insensate greed and selfishness. It is the work of foolish and misguided men who are undoing the world; men who cannot conceive of anything larger than themselves, including the public welfare, or the planetary ecology; the world’s only authentic economy.

Ecological literacy, understanding how nature works, must necessarily supersede economic self interest in favor of the collective good, the organic whole. The world was not made to be exploited, to be divided into parcels and privatized. Contrary to popular belief, human beings are not masters of the earth. We are subject to the same immutable natural law as yeast cells. We were blessed with a few short years in paradise, and the gift of consciousness of our place in the cosmos.

If we are, indeed, rational beings, we have a moral obligation to defend our place from those who would defile and exploit it. Our allegiance is to the earth and to one another, not to monetary systems that exploit and cheapen life for profit.

Like all economic systems that are not based upon real science, or an appropriate land ethic, the concept of property rights and private ownership are misguided and ultimately self-destructive constructs. The public welfare and the ecological integrity of the earth exceed all economic self interests in importance. Economics are based upon self-serving, false premises, whereas ecology is real.

There are dire consequences to ignoring reality, for substituting the artificial for the natural. The earth will never conform to our views of her. The needs of the greater biological community outweigh the wants of the self-interested few, looking to make a fast buck.

It is a sad and foolish notion that nature must conform to man and his prideful economic constructs. The world operates on natural capital—biological processes from which humankind evolved. That understanding must be the guiding principle in all that we do. Unlike the mythos promoted by economics, ecological literacy encourages a healthy sense of belonging to something much larger than the sum of its parts, the greater biological community; it promotes a healthy sense of the sacred.

Conservationist David Brower once stated: “Economics is a form of brain damage.” I could not agree more. We need to develop a holistic world view in place of that which was born of hubris and economic self interest. That view will not be born of capitalism, or any repressive religious theology. It can only come from healthful interaction with the organic world, in the big outside.

Henry Thoreau astutely observed, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” As in indigenous cultures around the world, Thoreau’s world view was not anthropocentric (man-centered), it was biocentric (earth-centered); holistic and whole. That is a world view we can live with.

The most precious things in life are those that cannot be commodified, and hence, owned. Like twenty acres in a place we call West Virginia—beauty, grace, elegance, and tranquility cannot be bought and sold, or traded on Wall Street. These qualities are a gift unto the world provided without cost. We should freely enjoy them in ways that are non-consumptive, and therefore, non-destructive. We should give thanks for the natural wealth the world possesses and leave it for others to enjoy, long after we have departed this life.

As Edward Abbey, an anarchist, once lamented, “The earth belongs to everyone, and to no one.” We are simply citizens of the greater biological community, distinguished only by our capacity for destruction and self deception.

Charles Sullivan is a Master Naturalist, community activist, and free-lance writer residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. . Read other articles by Charles.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. sheldon g said on October 22nd, 2007 at 7:31am #

    great article…..

  2. Russ Wellen said on October 22nd, 2007 at 10:03am #

    I think many land owners secretly admire your values toward the land. Thanks for that inspiring essay.

  3. Angie Tibbs said on October 28th, 2007 at 2:54am #

    This is a very timely and important article from Charles Sullivan who makes a habit of writing timely and important articles. Thank you, Charles, for urging us to pause and take a serious look at what man is, and has been, doing to this planet we call home.

    We have a huge responsiblity to the earth — its vegetation, animals, and fellow humans, and we have failed miserably in keeping it safe and sustainable.

    Instead of cherishing and protecting the beauty, majesty, and wonder of Planet Earth, we have all but destroyed it.

    Reprehensible describes the decapitation of peaks in the Appalachain Mountain range, especially in West Virginia, so that greedy mining companies can easily access low-sulfur coal reserves. Left over rock and dirt are dumped into adjacent valleys, destroying streams, vegetation, wild life habitation, forcing animals to flee, and oftentimes, because of noise, explosions, and dust, humans have had no alternative but to leave their towns and their homes which have become valueless.

    Reprehensible also describes the destruction of Belize’s Macal River Valley, an eco-terrorist act carried out by Fortis, a Canadian company based in Newfoundland. Despite begging, petitions, demonstrations, disruption of shareholder meetings, the project went ahead, thanks to the 3-2 decision rendered by the UK Privy Council. Thisa panel of three, who had all the facts before them, ruled in favour of the plan, even though the Macal River Valley is one of the few biologically rich and diverse areas left in Central America, that it is home to several endangered species (the jaguar, tapir, and the last 200 scarlet macaws in Belize). Profit and greed win again!

    Even beautiful Scotland has fallen prey to greed. I was shocked to hear that permission was recently granted to a foreign company by the Highland Council to allow a huge expansion of Glensanda, the largest quarry in Europe, approving the extraction of an extra 400 million tonnes of aggregate. This permission also allows for the removal of a mountain peak, the Mam and Lochan Lag A Mhaim, and not a whimper was heard from government to a proposal that will, in essence, destroy forever a virgin wilderness, contaminate loch waters, destroy vegetation, and the peaceful co-existence of man, animal, and plant life. This ugly assault on the Scotish wilderness can be seen from many of the neighbouring highlands and islands, thus destroying the majestic beauty that is the life blood of Scotland’s tourist industry.

    Greed is ugly. It is criminal. Those who allow the destruction of Planet Earth are, themselves, criminal.

    I’ve cited three examples; there are countless others, each as devastating to the environment as those I’ve mentioned.

    Once mountain peaks and rain forests are destroyed, once streams are buried under rubble, there is no turning back. The damage has been done, and a chain reaction occurs wherein plant life is wiped out, animals are forced to flee their natural habitat, and humans often have no alternative but to follow.

    How long can we allow this rape of the earth and its once plentiful resources to continue? What will this planet look like in ten or twenty years from now? What will be left for those who come after us? And how can we justify to future generations the mess that is left for them?