Ecology: from Greek oikos ‘house’ + -logy.
Economics: from Greek oikos ‘house’ in the form oikonomika referring to household management.
It is a monumental irony that these terms, with their entourage of cognitive and practical meanings in mortal combat for our present and future world, have grown from the same root. The most basic conflict of our time, that of economic growth vs. ecological integrity, is driven by a common desire and demand to maintain the safety and comfort of our home.1
In the most simple and naïve consideration, there should be no conflict at all. We all want the same things: sufficiency of sustenance, safety and health, human companionship and a sense of connection with and comprehension of the activities of the world beyond our direct powers of intervention. And yet, how to meet these goals and maintain the comfort of our home is anything but clear in our hugely complex world; a world where it is possible to live and breathe the air, eat food and all the rest while never giving a moments thought to the primary sources of any of it; a world where all that one has seems to come from economic activity and not from the ecological processes which underlie and sustain all living existence.
Learning to navigate the Byzantine mazes of the economic world has become an all-consuming occupation. For those who give it their fullest attention, there is little room left in either the hours of the day or the neurons of the brain to consider other, and I would say, deeper meanings. Those who do not give the economic world full attention can only be marginally effective in it; will not be in control of its machinations and be generally at the mercy of it. This is exactly the same thing that can be said of someone going into true wild-lands: fail to give full attention and be only marginally capable of survival.2
But there are major differences between the primacy of the ecological order compared to the economic order. Ecologies are foundational. It is the interdependent relationships of hundreds, thousands, even millions of species along with the integration of their activities within physical/chemical cycles that allow complex living things to exist on the earth. Atmospheric oxygen, fresh water, fertile soils, consistencies of climate and weather and many other vital consistencies are the products of functioning ecosystems. The failure to understand this is one of the consequences of being drawn deeply into the economic designs that seem to more directly impact the safety and comfort of our home.
Economies have changed dramatically and rapidly in human history. There is no standard economics associated with the human species the way there is a pattern of family group/community, characteristic of the vast majority of human societies both in the whole of human history and present today. Indeed, the primate pattern of social organization almost certainly has millions of years of history in hominids.
The designs of how humans have arranged the distribution and exchange of goods and services, and the devices to facilitate such exchanges, are in no way fixed in our biology or our culture. The predominate present structures are as accidental as the accepted cut of a business suit – and yet we cling to them both with the same tenacity, prejudice and rigidity. We can conceive of no other way than to live in the flow of present economic process and so, as a society, we trivialize the ecological processes that are the very basis of a living planet.
If the designs for methods of exchange are changed, patterns of advantage will necessarily be shifted. This fact creates powerful forces that argue for maintaining the status quo: the most advantaged usually have the greatest access to the devices of coercion and so can often convince even the non-advantaged of the ‘primacy’ and necessity of the existing methods. We are seeing this today in spades.
While initially mind boggling, it is still ultimately understandable. Our daily classical and instrumental conditioning around money-based exchanges is relentless. That the tokens of exchange should become as real, even more real, than the food we eat, than the warmth of a home on a cold morning, is easily comprehended when we realize that we have been trained to this “reality” from the first purchase of a candy, from the first ‘saving up’ to get a lusted-for toy, to the social and emotional response of significant others to an increase in salary.
A properly trained pigeon or rat will die still pushing a food delivery bar that has ceased to deliver; it is a common device in film (and reality) to have a character gathering up piles of money as the fires (lava, tsunami, meteor, etc.) approach. What is not often seen clearly is that many of us try to gather up piles of money while letting the fires of personal relationship, physical, societal and ecological destruction rage. It has come to be that humans are so vast a source of impact that almost 100% of the direct influences on humans come from human generated situations and materials; and human economics is a major part of human generated impact.
Economics is what we believe it is. Change the belief and economics changes. ‘The law of the jungle’ was never about a real jungle, but is the consequence of the human adaptation generating exponential increases in energy availability, exponential increases in both the amounts and variety of materials from which we make exponentially more things. What we call ‘the jungle’ is really a human response to vast excess, the violence created by the attempts to control it. Real jungles are quite orderly places, albeit dangerous to the uninformed.
It has been the belief that such increases represent an absolute positive; it has come to be the instrumental belief that such “growth” is more important than life. There is no rational argument against such a view since such a belief, in practice, is a monstrous madness and has become murder on a scale without precedent in earth’s bloody history.
There is no equality to the contest of economics against ecology. One is insanity and the other is the earth’s native biology. I hope enough of us realize it before we so damage ecosystems that extinction events begin to cascade. But while the ecology will absolutely trump economics in the long run, as a system for organizing human action in today’s moment it is powerful.
The struggle to support present economic systems, maintaining ‘economic growth,’ is driven by the same impulse that motivates the eco-activists; the difference is in what is seem as home. Economics allows and creates a parochial view. The economics’ notion of home is a brick and mortar construction with an assignable value and tradable status, fungible to a degree and with specific uses in the economic environment. Being conditioned to the narrow view of value and having Pavlovian responses to the sight and sound of money, most people more easily adapt to, at least, a version of economic thought. The ecological view of home is the life sustaining conditions of the planetary surface. Economic activity can damage the ecology; ecological preservation can inhibit economic activity.
In purporting to be the sober arbiter of messy human habits, economics leaves out the actual origin of both the habits and the substrate upon which our very existence depends. It is now time to begin to know better, time to take what we have learned and use it. We are one species among millions. We have great and terrible powers that must be brought under some effective control or human actions will so compromise biophysical systems that maintaining vital environmental stabilities will be in doubt. Understanding ecological realities should inhibit economics; it always has done – until now when we are told that economic realities are more important than life itself.
This is a struggle at its beginning, and yet it is nearly over. It is time for revolution, but of a new sort, one that we do not even realize, that will burst upon us of a sudden. It cannot come soon enough.
- This is, of course, a fool’s contest – really no contest at all. The ecology of the earth stabilized following the total freezing of the earth’s surface 700 or 800 million years ago, stabilized following the great Permian extinction and will stabilize after the human industrial extinction to which we presently contribute. That our species, with the hugely powerful uninhibited adaptation of Consciousness Order, can bring so much of the living world to an end is terribly distressing to those who, using the very same consciousness, can see it. But it will be evolutionary judgment functioning as it always has for 4 billion years. [↩]
- Saying that one is aware of ecological issues because one goes camping, hunting or boating is like saying that I know about economic issues because I go and buy something at the mall. [↩]