So I’ve had this post done for quite some time but between packing (as I mentioned before we’re moving) and writing for my other blog ( Words Written On A Blank Page), I didn’t have time to add the links and pictures until now.
As I pointed out in my previous post, nature provides a template–indeed the only non-theoretical template–that we can use to model and to design our culture. So what are some possible ways that we can utilize a natural model? Well, for one example, let’s take economies and government. These systems seem very distant from the natural world. After all, they are controlled by people and are the realm of people. But ecosystems have their own economies and governing forces that show a better way to design. The trick is to find general patterns in nature’s governance and economy without minimizing the amazing diversity found within.
GK Chesterton in his book The Outline of Sanity proposes a different way of doing business from the Capitalist or Communist models that are typically given as the extreme measures we must take to save our economic system from ruin; the notion that either the government must regulate or the market must and that there is no other choice. Chesterton proposed the problem with these systems was one of scale, not whether or not they were communal or individually driven. Our government and our economic systems tend towards bigness and centralization, when the sane model according to Chesterton is a small, local, and decentralized economy and government.
What’s interesting is that nature’s economy and government functions in this same decentralized and mostly localized way. Natural economies are small, and nature is governed by local, on the ground, relationships between its species. Communities are forged through these interactions and in healthy ecosystems, a balance is achieved. Nature provides for territories (private property) and shared resources (communal living and common space). It never aims to completely eradicate one or the other. Though nature is in constant flux, there is a “sweet spot” in a ecosystem where resources and use of those resources are in balance, where needs and provisions to fulfill those needs achieve an relative equilibrium.
Centralization of Industry and resources contrary to the opinions of some is not due to the freedoms of the market but instead it is simply a direct consequence of how our society has deemed to design things. When Adam Smith wrote Wealth of the Nations his community existed under the ideals of Scottish Common Sense Realism, a philosophy that stated what they thought was obvious in economics, “every knows you don’t screw your neighbor.” And most didn’t. But more importantly transactions were largely between neighbors and friends. They were local, face to face transactions. These transactions are important in an economic system because as will be demonstrated, they lead to a desire to do good in that system and also lead to a sustainable use of natural resources.
Following is Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist, speaking on the importance of social influence and cheating. The more indirect an economic transaction, his research shows, the more likely people are to cheat. Ariely gives an example near the end of this video on how interaction with a person who has perceived ties to a community can influence whether others around them cheat or not. This has I think huge implications on how communities structure their economic endeavors and it also points to methods that nature itself uses to self regulate.
It is nature’s tendency to decentralize power whether that be economic (nature’s resources) or governance. But all of this is through a community living together, figuring the way to allocate these resources properly. These face to face transactions in nature tend to lead to the sustainable management of ecosystems. Significant here is that current ethnological studies point to the same thing in human communities that achieve environmental and resource sustainability. See for example Elinor Ostrom’s work on sustainable communities.
In her work, Ostrom critiques Garret Harding’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” this idea that if there is a shared resource between a community the trend will tend towards exploitation of that resource instead of sustainable use. In nature, the commons is typically integrated into overlapping territories, ecological systems, and domains. Typically these domains are regulated by numerous factors such as weather, soil type, resource availability, and time of year. In human cultures language, culture, ethnicity, and political boundaries also come into play. Ostrom argues and backs this argument up with several compelling studies of cultures using common natural resources, that the most effective strategy for sustainable use is “the voluntary effort (of users) to produce public good.” Resources that are governed according to Ostrom by the face to face interactions of community members with local checks and balances tend to be better managed than those legislated by distant governments or private entities. Here Ostrom discusses her work as it applies to sustainability:
Here is a much longer video, entitled beyond markets and states. This is well worth it if you have the time:
Though she cites a few cases to the contrary, generally centralized management from distant lawmakers has proved ineffective in her studies to sustainably manage these systems. Whether or not the land was privately owned, government owned, or simply common space did not seem to matter, but the important thing was who managed the resource. Local governance of a resource much better then large, distant management.
Following Ostrom and Ariely we might guess that these top down approaches to governance limit people from making their own decisions about these resources and therefore, devalue the resource in a community’s eyes. If a community is not connected directly to their natural resources through management and use, then the community will attempt to cheat those resources by stretching their limits beyond their capacity and hence collapse the ecological system that is the foundation of their economic system. As Ariely points out the connection to the transaction prevents the cheat. As resources become less integral to a community, the system becomes unstable and mismanagement of those resources goes up. Because of this lawmakers try to stabilize the system through top-down approaches to management, but as we have seen in Ostrom’s work this type of approach is ineffective because it doesn’t create a sustainable system as nature gives witness to.
Creating systems that are not only human scale but are also natural scale, breaking economies and governments into more manageable parts as nature does, then seems the most logical path to take. This would in effect lead to more face to face interactions, more community involvement with each other and more involvement with local natural resources. Local technologies and local agriculture also become very important in this type of economy and proper management of resources is a given, because if local checks and balances are not followed, then communities will see the results of their errors quickly and directly. Realizing that economy and government are issues that usually people have very strong entrenched views and also that one person’s observations of natural systems can somewhat be slanted towards one’s own economic and political preferences, I’m wondering what you think. Is this a proper modeling of nature and if so, how can we reduce both government and economic systems to create a sustainable economy and even counter resource scarcity for both human and natural systems?