For years now my real interest has been in plants and the life sciences. This has lead me to better understand the physics and chemistry of life, of the organism, as I attempt to understand the truly awesome and fantastical phenomenon that is life itself. I find it impossible to ignore the links between all of the sciences and it should not be too surprising that what one might learn in biology can have application for our own human species, including the social aspects of our lives, because whether we talk about art and beauty, economics or the institutions we share as humans, all are an outgrowth of our lives and the forces and cycles that govern us. Primary among these is the phenomenon of relationship whether between the various ‘nested’ and interlinked cells in our own bodies or the countless organisms we share this world with, with which we in fact evolved, in both competitive and cooperative ways. John Donne once pronounced in a poem that, ‘No man is an island’ and he meant that quite literally. Our fate and health are all bound to one another whether we like it our not, in relationships which can be mutually beneficial, or, if we choose to ignore and deny them, in mutually destructive ways.
Ecology is the study of a shared community of organisms, its description and how it all fits together, its relationships, ‘eco’ arising from the old greek word for household and logos, which speaks to order, purpose and form. Economy, begins with that same concept of ‘household’ only its suffix comes from the greek word meaning management or distribution and refers to the function of the household, its processes and how it produces, distributes or apportions its resources and products…it refers to the actions whereby the ‘household’ lives, the actions, that characterize its many relationships. In ancient Greece the economy revolved around the household. In their world economic actions were not simply those by which a society achieves material ends, the Greeks also constrained it to those activities which resulted in ‘praiseworthy’ outcomes, those which provided a larger benefit to the household. (Greek society, not perfect, was much like our own, placing women in a subservient role and was dependent upon slavery. Like American democracy, it was exclusive, but capable of being expanded to include all peoples.)
The two concepts remain closely linked though today our understanding of economy includes only those parts of the larger community’s operation, the money economy, that produces material benefit and wealth. Any harm accrued or costs imposed on others is not directly relevant if such costs have been ‘outside’ of the transaction, beyond the responsibility of the buyer and seller’s deal. Leaders have mutually decided to exclude all else. We define our economy in a limited way that serves the production of wealth and its accumulation, making profit the purpose and most relevant factor in economic decision making, placing outside it that which we choose to, that which we under value and take for granted. The two largest examples of this are our exclusion of domestic or women’s work, and the contribution of the environment. To include them would radically change our economic calculations and the very concept of profit.
Profit is what remains after costs are considered. To the degree that costs can be excluded then, profit is increased. This ‘habit’ of exclusion extends throughout society and extends to whole sectors of the human population and beyond, distorting our decision making and the broader social and political structures that govern our lives….Our understanding of economics today exists outside of ethics. Ethics and ethical behavior, if it is to factor into it, must be imposed. That is the responsibility of a society through its political processes. Such decisions lie within the realm of possibility though considerable power is aligned behind our current model and we behave as if they are fixed and unchangeable. (See this PDF to understand how far our economic ideas have strayed from the thinking and goals of the ancient Greeks.) The Greeks rightly recognized the economy as the engine of the ‘household’ and society, the system that, through nature’s largesse and human labor, creates that which sustains us. It is necessary that an economy be regulated through rational decision making. Such a system ‘freed’ of its responsibility to society to move it in a beneficial direction, is more likely to simultaneously squander its world and resources while failing to meet the needs of its people and the many species that comprise it. The Greeks understood that by not limiting the pursuit of luxury the capacity of nature to fulfill its demands would be compromised.
This last year has driven this point home for me as the pandemic and our divisive politics, both plagues on this world, work to drive us apart. These compound the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor, stranding ever more of the middle class on their own as well. We’ve conflated what we want with what we need and released individual greed to pursue its ends freely. I have been studying the topics of evolution, natural selection, random mutation and the role of energy in life, acting as a driving, creative, force behind evolution, increasing complexity and the self-organization of organisms, which in the world of physics are recognized as far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures, taking higher quality energy in, utilizing it in their growth and metabolism, before exhausting it outside of their ‘bodies’. Organisms have the ability to self-catalyze, reproduce and maintain themselves as long as energy flows through them uninterrupted. These phenomenon lend weight to our understanding that life is not a random occurrence, there is something inevitable about it, the underlying physics and chemistry of the universe pushing the process. Organisms are living, self-reinforcing, complex ‘nested’ systems, each composed of successful, dynamic patterns, that repeat in innumerable forms, between very narrow limits. Organisms exist in the ‘moment’ along the energetic cusp between life and death, that sweet spot within which our chemistry and metabolism remain, between sub-critical and supra-critical states, stasis and conflagration. There are countless lessons for us to learn from biology that we can apply to our own lives, because life is not an accident, nor is it a singular miraculous event…it is rooted within and powered by the forces of nature.
We exist within a complex network of organisms, a network of self-sustaining systems, made possible and animated by the flow of energy as it moves from low to high entropy, from order to randomness, sunlight ‘becoming’ living tissue, feeding successive trophic levels, endlessly cycling. All of life exists in this singular moment entirely dependent upon the health and vitality of the whole, the process of which each individual is a part, with a role to play, which effects every living thing and of what will follow. Through our broader economic behavior we have set ourselves outside of this essential process of nature. We cannot know ultimately where this will take life, but we do know, with some confidence, that if we interrupt or compromise it, we put everything at risk.
Natural Selection, Fitness and the Role of Human Social Institutions
In nature natural selection works to select the most ‘fit’ testing and ‘phasing out’ the less fit. It is hard to say precisely which characteristics contribute to an organism’s fitness. Fitness is complex, a product of the whole, a suite of traits or characteristics. Nature is persistent and redundant, but even it has limits when pressed into the margins. It tends to retain that which works. Complexity builds on complexity, success upon success. It is additive, reductive and innovative. Reproduction determines the beginning numbers in this probabilistic experiment. Death ends it, demanding at experiment’s end which was more successful? Between the two lie all of the component parts and combinations of possibility. Death sets a time limit, acts as final arbiter, setting the stage for the next attempt, endlessly, limiting an individuals time to make an impact, a difference, to demonstrate its own fitness. No single individual or group, ultimately, is more valuable than another…it is the whole that matters in any given moment. What matters is the process, the development of the living community, its health, its vitality. Individuals are born, mature, reproduce, contribute to the health and vitality of the whole, or don’t, and die. Either way, they die, yielding to the next generation, the next combination. In doing this the process of refinement, of adaptation and improvement continues. Life recycles and transforms itself endlessly. One’s contribution, if measured at all, is done so by what is added to the health and vitality of the whole. Who or what is most fit is not for us to decide, because our decisions will inevitably be short sighted and biased. This should always be kept in mind when we make decisions. Many may scoff at those who work toward altruistic goals, but acting on behalf of the whole in nature, and self-sacrifice for the greater good, while simultaneously working to maximize your own health and potential, will tend to keep the whole in the best position to evolve and adapt to assure a dynamic and healthy future.
Human beings, as organisms, are driven to survive. Human society through its various social, governmental and economic institutions provide the means and resources by which a human population living in proximity and relationship to one another, survives, by providing individuals with opportunities to meet their own needs for food, water, shelter, health and purpose in a supportive relationship with others. Humans do this often via elaborate social agreements. This is largely the purpose of human economies and governments, providing relatively stable and accessible structures for each of us to utilize to meet our needs. Whether a democracy, which places a priority on equity and egalitarianism, or the singular rule of a despot or monarch, each puts in place social and economic structures which essentially assign value to individuals based on its own set of ‘rules’. Anarchy alone relies on no set of such ‘shared’ rules, instead leaving each individual to their own, managing their way utilizing their limited individual abilities while following their own personal code which can vary across the spectrum. Under anarchy survival becomes a singular and personal issue, its members immediately dependent upon one’s own abilities and relationships. Communities, under anarchy, are more unstable, subject to an individual’s charisma and the member’s ability to make and keep such agreements that may benefit them. Under anarchy relationships will form, advantage and disadvantage be gained or lost, and will always be tentative. Under such a system the ‘strong’ will dominate the ‘weak’, the ‘weak’ may join into arrangements with the ‘strong’…until they lose favor or advantage. This may seem natural to some, but it is a more primitive, less evolved social state. After all, many other species have developed mutually beneficial social structures. With our more developed brains and capacities for thought one would think us more capable.
Political Systems: Round and Square Pegs in Nature
A fascist political system utilizes policies that enshrine and defend the power of elites, develop around a ‘strongman’ leader in particular and most benefit those who serve him. It is dependent upon the strength of an individual charismatic leader and all of the rest who must be willing to commit themselves to a position ‘below’ their leaders, their ‘betters’. It views society hierarchically, championing the view that elites are deservedly and necessarily superior to the masses who should serve them. It is simply a matter of the strong, taking charge. They recognize a stark division between the weak and strong, the valued and waste. Without their ‘strong’ hand society they believe would degenerate into chaos. The masses accept this tradeoff.
An oligarchy is similar in that it is hierarchical and reserves power for elites, putting a system in place that builds legal structures that reinforce the effective rule by the wealthy, who have ‘naturally’ ‘risen’ to the top, in order to meet their demands and subjugate others. It is classist and seeks to assure continuity of leadership across generations, consolidating and preserving wealth and power with it. Both of these systems strictly limit the rights and power of the masses reserving them for elites.
All such hierarchical forms of government recognize distinct social classes and tend to be rigid. Having said that, political systems are dynamic and exist more as ideals than as fixed and stable institutions, subject to change as individuals and groups press their advantage. They are, after all, creations of the human mind, which work to impose their own ‘idea’ of society from an incomplete and often self-serving understanding of the natural world. As such, political and economic structures depend on mutual agreement, social contracts, agreements which are widely accepted…enforcement becomes necessary when such agreements are less commonly held amongst the members. Human behavior and nature are not fixed and certainly is not limited to one particular ideology.
The various political systems value their members differently. Democracy, with its basic idea of egalitarianism and equality, is not hierarchical, and so is ultimately, incompatible with fascism and oligarchic structures. Fascism and oligarchies do not value or recognize equality across its citizenry. It recognizes and rewards based on class, on how well they serve elites. In these non-democratic societies some social, ethnic, and racial groups may be ‘locked’ into inferior social positions, castes, without opportunities or the means to improve their condition/position. Their status tend to be generational…though in our own country, their are exceptions, common enough to be offered as examples for hope, but their relative ‘rarity’, ultimately proving the rule. When you have a society in which a significant portion of the population remains in poverty across generations, whatever the stated goals of a government may be, it is hierarchical and non-democratic. A democracy cannot be egalitarian for some while excluding others. That is an imperfect democracy or some blend of more repressive form of government.
White supremacy/racial dominance, xenophobia, misogyny and other divisive ideologies are repressive tactics that elites may employ to help maintain this differential in status and power. They work to reinforce the injustice by enlisting those citizens committed to the power structure, those of the recognized dominant group across the country, whose own positions may be tentative, to impose through violence and prejudice the positions of lower castes. They will do so in the false belief that it will some how benefit themselves. In fact both groups are undervalued and the conflict itself obscures what is really going on, that the ‘system’, the government and economy are themselves creating, or at least, supporting the problem. None of us can, on our own, provide for ourselves and families without the support of these systems, these social structures and their supporting ‘agreements’, without drastically reduced levels of consumption, length and quality of life…no matter how hard we work. Societies serve human needs which would otherwise be impossible to meet and may preserve conditions which are disastrous to those who remain outside of its protections.
The social, political and economic constructs that we establish and maintain are of our own making, not a direct product of nature, but fabrications of our collective thinking. Fascism, socialism and democracy are not practiced by other species. The collective and individual behavior of other species are intimately connected to their fitness, their success. Fish school, zebras herd, birds flock and wolves form packs…because it serves them to do so. They didn’t have a discussion and put it to vote or form a cabal and impose it on the rest. We form social contracts, and adopt many of our behaviors, because it serves us. Such social structures have limited success, provide some degree of security for a population, enabling individuals to ‘succeed’ and reproduce. The difference, in this process for us the human species, is an out growth of our capacity for abstract thought, our understanding of the world and our place in it. Plants and other animal species have evolved, following long established patterns, within prescribed limits. We have the ability to consciously see these pattern and adopt alternative behaviors to attain individual ‘success’…in the short term.
Success, in nature, is never absolute. Our ideas of a society are still evolving as are our expectations, what it delivers to us as individuals. What once represented a successful pattern, may no longer today. Societies are subject to their own form of evolutionary pressures. We also possess the ability to misinterpret patterns, or settle for one that only gets us part of the way to our goals allowing us to focus on the shorter term which may be detrimental in some ways to others and ourselves. The ‘bar’ changes. We are thinking organisms capable of learning. With this capacity comes a like ability for confusion and obfuscation because right and truth are not always clear and obvious. Our understanding of our situation changes over time and with it the social agreements and political structures we operate under. They are not absolute. Nature, through its many cycles, processes and ‘players’ tends to work toward fitness and health. Its path in many ways is simpler, though in no way knowable to us. When as a people we misunderstand nature around us, and our role in it, we can adopt such social structures that work counter both to it and our own well being, while remaining confident in their correctness. Species evolve as do the social behaviors that they share…so do we, but not necessarily continuously from moment to moment, especially if our thinking is closed. Evolution occurs over multiple generations. Plateaus may be reached and evolution stalled until precipitating events occur. Because our brains give us the ability to develop and evolve our thought patterns, does not meat that we all will, but social evolution does occur, coalescing around innovative and insightful ideas. It takes time. Anyone individual possesses limited ability to adapt and grow. Repressing evolutionary change, promoting selfish and destructive ends, cannot lead to long term success for any species.
Societies, like species are built upon the gains/changes that preceded them. We are dependent upon our knowledge of history and our recognition of our social, political and economic advances and the wrongs suffered, our accumulated personal histories and what we make of them. The process is dependent upon the value we recognize in ourselves, others and the processes that support life. This is good and necessary. When we have an economy, social and political structures that fail to do this, fail to evolve, withholding opportunity from lower class members and denying them social support, so that people are less able to transition along with an evolving society, people are left truly on their own, and society devolves….Under such conditions people will find whatever means they can to survive.
If these institutions do not serve our more universal needs, we must understand what needs they do serve, what is impeding them from fulfilling these broader social goals. An economic system that disproportionately values ‘taking’, the production of profit and awards it inequitably, favoring elites at the top of the hierarchy, will fail to provide that which supports the system over the longer term and lead to its decline. Such systems are not sustainable and require considerable effort, force, to maintain…requiring that a significant portion of the wealth created by society be used to maintain its injustices. It is not a natural outcome. In nature systems, populations and communities must be responsive, sensitive to their surroundings in order to adapt and remain within healthy limits. Outside of these chaotic changes can occur. Such continued failures will lead to the collapse of a society, a collapse which if severe enough could have worldwide effects.
Unemployment and the Role of Work in Society
Today in the US unemployment, unofficially, is as high as 26%, just over one of four working age Americans are out of work or significantly ‘underemployed’. This is far higher than the conservative ‘official’ numbers, the more ‘reasonable’ numbers used by our government to help justify its policies and calls for cutbacks and austerity. The ‘official’ rate fails to include people who have stopped looking, because there aren’t any jobs; because those jobs available are so far below them in terms of pay, status or even challenge, that they become discouraged and give up; or because, people are staying home to take care of children, the available limited jobs not paying enough for them to afford childcare. This larger unemployment figure also includes the people working at grossly lower pay than they earned in their previous jobs, pay which now doesn’t afford them to meet their needs, yet the official unemployment count records them as ‘employed’. Conservative politicians use these biased ‘official’ numbers to support their argument that the economy is recovering or strong and social supports are unnecessary and possibly even detrimental to the economy.
Millions of Americans work full time yet qualify for various public support programs, because they are unable to meet their needs. Progressive and liberal leaders unable, or unwilling, to adopt the ‘structural’ economic changes which are needed, fall back to fighting for a minimal social support network, which at best will only provide to those willing and capable of following and competing all of the required steps, a process that can be and is often intended to be degrading, to maintain some minimal level of health, while awaiting or working toward a real job. Conservatives argue continuously that such supports further ‘weaken’ these lazy people, that they work as disincentives to their accepting available work or from getting the training they may need to go out and get a job, a job that in reality…does not exist. Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, desire alone does not create opportunity, nor does hard work assure success. Such controls and limits lie in the ‘hands’ of the wider society and political decision makers. The ‘system’ determines the rules of play and ‘structural’ changes are required.
There were approximately 182 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 65, working age, in 2019. 132 million more were younger or older than this prime working age and thus dependent upon them either directly or indirectly for their health and well being. This latter group is not used in determining employment figures. 26% of those of working age are unable to participate fully in our economy, compromising their health and security and the economy as well because of their inability to participate and contribute. That amounts to over 47 million working age Americans. Such high un- underemployment damages the whole economy putting more businesses at risk and limiting their ability to retain their employees. It is a ‘positive’ feedback loop, higher unemployment dragging the wider economy down more.
It is not that people don’t want to work. Work is how we support ourselves and a way by which we can contribute to the larger society. We gain value from that as individuals. Work, if it is meaningful, can add meaning to our lives, beyond the income which allows us to meet our needs…but, when we are unable to secure such work, we are robbed of something essential to our lives. In such cases society has failed us. When work is denied to us, when it is mean or undignified, when it fails to let us reach and fulfill our basic goals and needs as human beings, society should be re-examining it, then restructuring and redefining it, not laying the blame on the un- and underemployed. Work is created by society and is essential to our purpose as human beings. Work must be more than earning our employers’ a profit. Profit cannot be the soul driver of work. When jobs do not pay a livable wage and they exact a cost from the larger community and the natural world, then we should reconsider what we are doing or at minimum step in to mitigate the damage and aid those in need. Without adequate work people are unable to secure food, shelter, their health and a future. Why do we so strictly cleve to a system that is failing us and so many citizens?
Our economy today creates ‘work’ that is too often demeaning. What is the value of work that pays you at a level below that which you require to meet your needs? To sacrifice your health? Menial service jobs, work that requires back breaking labor at low wages with inadequate benefits and protections, such jobs tell people where they rank in the hierarchy and are consistent with a classist society. These jobs are virtually impossible to build out of as every cent goes into one’s survival. This is their intent. What is a person caught in such a system to think? a system that relegates to them low social rank and value based largely on birth and family history? Such work makes a joke of the ‘American Dream’, reducing it to myth that serves only the needs of the well to do. The disparity in pay for work across the country, a disparity that rewards a few with thousands of times the income it pays others, is a slap in the face for millions, yet the well to do claim that theirs is ‘earned’ and if the poor would only buckle down and work harder as they have done…they would better their position. What they actually want is for the poor to surrender, resign themselves to their inferior position and quietly go on playing their role. Do the menial, underpaid work. Suffer in silence. The chasm which so disproportionately values the time of the wealthy, over that of too many others, is built into our law and our economy. This is what I mean when I say that ‘structural’ changes are needed. At best, this myth of equal opportunity, is a cruel tease. To expect such an economy to do otherwise is ridiculous, much like asking a brick factory to tomorrow start producing computers. It can’t do it.
Large employers receive all kinds of benefits by virtue of their size while small businesses, which collectively are a key component of any healthy economy, are left to fend for themselves. Owners of small businesses are not the members of the owners ‘class’ of which I write here. Large companies can often receive supports, bailouts and enticements from cities and regions to relocate or stay, putting local communities at risk as they attempt to out bid others via tax incentives. Loyalty is bought then lost when a better offer is made elsewhere, resulting in a loss of community capital and opportunity. This kind of ‘success’ in nature is destructive, as it requires local sacrifice for limited individual profit. It ignores equity, commitment and responsibility. Such expectation are not ‘socialist’ but simple requirements of health and vitality. Success that requires the regular sacrifice of those who receive none or only very limited rewards can only lead to destruction, under funded programs, deferred maintenance of valuable infrastructure, whether we are defining it in a natural community or an economic system. Staking employee health and survival on a system that does not give them what they require over the long term, is extortion. In nature such ‘behavior’ would be short lived because it is not sustainable. Any profit that comes from such a system, at the expense of itself, contributes to a decline of economic health.
Where Does This Leave People?
If the ‘carrot’ dangled in front of us is a joke, what are people to do? Our society claims to recognize ‘hard work’, and to value its members, but people routinely and quite literally, break their backs, and sacrifice their futures, to survive today while being denied the most basic levels of health and security. They are fulfilling their role while society fails them. Civil unrest and crime increases, not because all people lack ambition, “all’ people don’t share any such thing, but far too many do share their conditions, being consistently denied that which they require and society ‘promises’…that which they see others enjoy. Civil unrest and crime are products of the disparity that exists in a society. The wonder would be that crime would go away under such conditions, that people would passively accept their condition in spite of its inherent unfairness. Public demonstrations and civil disobedience are a natural consequence of an unjust system. Mainstream insistence otherwise requires a massive amount of denial.
Our current system remains intact and in place because a powerful portion of the well to do still see such a system as a benefit to themselves…and due to the allegiance of its committed followers and supporters, the accepting members of society. Its ‘soldiers’ and defenders amongst the non-elites, closely link their own success and security with this self-serving and destructive story of a mean world, a creation that is incomplete and an intentionally misleading interpretation of the larger world around us. It is based on a fearful and limited view of nature. Its defenders using some portion of their accumulated wealth and power to defend and maintain this status quo, while those without have little to counter with other than their voices and bodies. Until they are broken and dispirited, people will resist. Such action is a healthy response to their situation.
Meanwhile the wealthy, and the insecure members of the middle, are willing to sacrifice entire populations, classes and groups of people, insisting that any failure is that of the individual, that the economy and our legal, political and economic systems are if not fair and just, at least what they can and should be…the lower classes being a threat who would attempt to topple the entire system and place themselves above them. In actuality these are intentionally repressive structures, created and put in place to maintain an otherwise unjustifiable difference in wealth and power. This ‘story’ of the lower classes, of the inferior, is just that a story promoted to reinforce the positions of the wealthy and powerful. Many other citizens, less committed to the ‘lie’, never-the-less, are quietly complicit, fearful that to so oppose the powers that be, may put themselves outside as well, at risk. In a system that relies so much on fear to maintain the status quo, this should be expected.
The poor, minority populations, the disenfranchised, the at risk immigrant population, our young struggling under burdens of debt, are commonly frustrated and denied the futures promised to so many others, too often including eve basic human rights, which those in more protected classes take for granted and seek to hold for themselves as if they were rare commodities. Many elites scoff at the very idea of basic human rights so committed to the ideas of human struggle, competition and power they hold. In our economic system work is offered as a possible way out, a way to secure one’s future and attain these rights for oneself and one’s family. So when we deny others the possibility of work, or the work that we do offer is demeaning, poorly rewarded and those who do it are dismissed as less than us, we are frustrating our own efforts to build a stronger country and economy, destabilizing our own futures, while diminishing the lives of others…but elites don’t see it this way. The differences between haves and have not, they believe, are inevitable and better they grab the power for themselves than that others take it from them. But nature doesn’t work this way and it need not for us. Work deserves adequate and fair compensation. If it does not compensate its workers so, one must question the need for the work at all or look at the operation of the business and how it compensates its owners. To underpay workers and pocket the additional profit is a form of extortion. The workers are squeezed between their need for survival and the owner’s reluctance to fairly compensate them. Such systems are inherently unjust.
Defending the System and Blaming the Victim: Unemployment as a Tool of Our Economy
Admonitions from elites and the right that those people occupying society’s lower tiers are lazy and just need to work harder, that they getting what they deserve, are self serving lies and promise more of the same. Workers who struggle with poverty and survival are stymied by a system that is structured against them. The wealthy hold power over the resources and capital of a country, without which, new, better paying jobs cannot be created, unless one moves to operate outside of the legal economy. In our economy unemployment serves a ‘useful’ role.
Unemployment has a dampening effect on employee pay and benefits. As unemployment rises, pay levels tend to drop, often leaving employed workers feeling less secure, worried that they will lose their jobs to the desperate unemployed…and businesses too often take advantage of this by reaping greater profits. Its a convoluted and slippery slope. Falling wages decrease the disposable income of families throughout a community, reducing customer demand, which provides further downward pressure on sales, prices…and wages, ultimately damaging many businesses, especially smaller ones. A contracting economy squeezes from both ends. Governments utilize a variety of measures to effect unemployment levels to purposefully dampen wage increases and inflation, to ‘cool down’ an overheated economy. Leaders argue endlessly against increasing employment beyond certain levels or over increasing a minimum wage that would subtract from their profits. Rising employment levels and wages can work against the viability of certain businesses which can remain profitable only at the expense of their workers. Too often the economy hovers around the lower levels of performance as our political focus remains on producing profits while minimizing costs. Workers are often left in the periphery at the mercy of the profit takers.
But What Does This Do To the ‘Health’ of Businesses?
Economies must remain dynamic, reinventing themselves, investing capital in new, more appropriate technologies, into their workforce in order to remain competitive and viable…much as a healthy biotic community must. As economic health or resilience becomes more marginal, competitiveness must rely on other ‘forces’, political and military, to maintain their dominance. Advantages can be gained or maintained via written law, signed trade treaties, exclusive contracts or by military threat. These actions redefine the economic board on which the game of business is played…but they don’t make the business anymore ‘healthy’. A ‘weaker’ player is thus given advantages they would not otherwise have. Again resources are drawn upon to maintain an ‘unhealthy’ system or economy, taking resources that would be better spent as a direct reinvestment in the economy and workforce. Defaulting to the use of such ‘props’, delays necessary changes to an economy and the infrastructure that supports it. It lulls players into a state of privileged complacency in which the leader/owners in an economy expect to maintain their profitability without making the effort and investments necessary to maintain health and vitality. Purpose, efficacy and efficiency are sacrificed in favor of gross profit extraction.
A healthy economy requires systemic thinking which considers all of the factors involved, beginning and ending with a business’ mission, its purpose, the products and services it produces for sale. It examines and strengthens every link in its chain of production and distribution. It carefully weighs its costs, all of its costs, including those it puts on society at large against its profits, its net contribution to society and the world. It keeps in mind always that an economy exists to fill the needs of the people. Society in return recognizes the value of their contribution through what it is willing to pay for its products and services. Today this ‘equation’ has been stood on its head, want and need created by the businesses not by the people who have been reduced into consumers of a company’s products. Workers have been reduced into a cost the goal of which is to be minimized. Life, in this case, human lives, has been redefined to meet the needs for an extractive process, the people being ‘mined’ by business. Public good in this process has been reduced to a secondary result, rather than a central purpose. The two are in opposition to one another. The reality is that a capable workforce is still essential to retain business and maintain economic ‘health’. Such a workforce must be healthy to contribute. A workforce that is considered to be disposable sends a clear message to its members, undermining loyalty and commitment and works to impede an economy, With profit alone driving the system, it is all liable to falling apart.
To utilize another more familiar metaphor, businesses are engaged in ‘team sports’ and, like any team, will have trouble reaching its goals if players are excluded from full participation, if they are used cavalierly, unfairly compensated and subject to easy replacement. The ‘players’ have rights in the ‘game’, which if ignored, diminish play. A team relies upon its component parts and how well they ‘mesh’. Internal conflicts have consequences. The ‘team’ then falls apart. A team must also abide by a set of shared rules followed by one’s competitors, or the wider game falls apart. If the rules cannot be counted on agreements cannot be made and play cannot proceed. To be successful any team must agree to a basic set of rules and so a level of cooperation both between and inside teams is required for a high standard of play to occur. Much has been discussed elsewhere about business ethics. In business, as in sport and nature, if basic rules of ‘play’ are not followed, operation is undermined. Without the ability to conduct business, any business will fail. Business should then be played as a competitive sport, with all of the cooperation it implies.
A healthy business could take the ‘team’ model one step further and look to the example of a healthy organism, prioritizing its health and in so doing optimizing its resilience and adaptability. Old practices, technologies and product lines, even organizational structures, which have become inefficient, ineffective, wasteful or destructive should be cast aside, releasing a business to more smoothly transition to producing new product lines more effectively in a manner more supportive of the overall economy and the natural environment upon which it all depends. Workers/players should be considered indispensable members of the team retained and treated respectfully or be released and supported in their move to positions with a better fit. The business, like any organism will best succeed when it fulfills its obligations to the community and sees to the health of its many participants.
Much of the justification for high income earning owners, CEO’s and shareholders is based on their risk taking, part of which is making those management decisions involving workforce, product lines, suppliers, distribution, technology and reinvestment. If a business focuses too heavily on profit, in exclusion of everything else, it becomes rigid, unresponsive and suffers, becoming ever more ‘out of step’ with the world around it and its role in the community, compromising all. The equation in business is too often skewed to profit earned by owners. A healthy business, like any organism, must remain responsive to its environment. A single issue strategy of the pursuit of profit is limiting and damaging to all involved in the longer run. At some point, such a business will fail to meet its obligations to its workforce and community and so will fail to keep the system healthy, resilient and functioning. A business will become just a vehicle from which to extract profit, ultimately destroying its value.
Americans need to have a better understanding of economics, how economic systems function at the community, national and global level. Like any organism a ‘healthy’ business and economy will work to effect the health of all players, because success is not singular. A business provides a service to all concerned while earning a profit for its owners. This is the owner’s reward for the service rendered to the larger community. When the community and workforce receive inadequate compensation they are in the position of making do and filling this gap themselves, while the business, unencumbered, moves ahead, their profits ‘earned’ as a result of their denied responsibilities.
Where Has This Left Us?
The chronically unemployed don’t have deep pocketed relatives and friends who can help them out. No rich uncles. Nor do the communities in which they live. States cannot spend that which they don’t have so when the economy is impaired and tax revenues are down, it is up to the feds. The bill always comes due. Spurned workers and communities are simply left on their own. The un- and under-employed are members of society whom are denied the opportunity to participate and contribute in positive and supportive roles. They are stressed with few economic and legal options. Strength is gained through including them, giving them a positive, supportive, role rather than denying them and casting them aside on their own! Unable to work, to contribute, anyone will become a drag on the rest. Without the social supports that the Republicans relish cutting, these Americans are trapped in poverty and the economy’s lower rungs, while the wider economy is compromised in terms of ‘growing’ its way out of this trap.
Owners and shareholders of corporations are required, by federal law. to be compensated first. Businesses are not required to ‘fairly’ compensate their workers, that is left up to them, generally pitting the ‘weaker’ single employee against the more powerful company, unless a union is recognized to stand in and work upon their behalf. Unions, in doing this, somewhat balance the power when negotiating working conditions, compensation and benefits. Their effectiveness at doing so is why so many businesses and their lobbyists have worked for laws that restrict labor unions. There are no such laws that so limit and regulate businesses from forming such associations that work on their behalf and only minimal controls on the lobbyists they employ to influence lawmakers. Their ability to influence the process through spending money has been equated by the Supreme Court with free speech and the fact the rich can do so more strongly, the courts have so far not questioned. Such a decision is equal to saying that the wealthy, the strong, have greater rights than the rest of us. Local communities often find themselves in a similar position, ‘hat in hand’, making compromises with businesses to attract or retain them in order to finance the wider social needs of the community, social needs many businesses claim are not their responsibility at all as if they exist separate and above the people they dominate. These are not decisions made by god, but human and political ones. The same people determine how large their compensation, their share, will be, cutting in to what is left for the workers, who are the actual creators of the wealth and profit. Lost in this almost entirely are any negative environmental impacts a business’ activity may have at all.
Regulatory laws, are ostensibly intended to protect workers and the public from egregious violations of the ‘pact’ between a business and them. Regulations are often crafted today by the businesses themselves or are eliminated as being unfairly restrictive of business and the ‘free market’. Regulations often act as limits on what a business may do, inside of which they are free to operate. In many cases, however, regulation of polluting and resource extracting businesses, can be characterized more as a licensing process, permitting a company’s polluting, without penalty up to actionable limits. These can actually protect a businesses more than the people and resources they are purported to serve. Other regulations guard against employers unnecessarily putting their workers into unsafe working conditions in an attempt to limit injuries or to provide them with training that will also safeguard the wider public. Businesses often fight against all of these, their ‘right’ to profit recognized as being greater than the public right to health, safety and access to places of recognized natural beauty.
While the regulators go about their work other government programs subsidize the creation of public infrastructure whose primary purpose is to allow the profitable extraction of resources, such as is done for timber companies, while others prevent small landowners from blocking access to minerals below the surface of their own land, recognizing the ‘right’ of extractive businesses over those who seek only to control their own land and preserve its condition. We could reset our priorities and restructure the rules within which our capitalist, free-market businesses operate, but we don’t. All economies are directed, limited and supported by laws, contracts and agreements. This is no less true for our so called ‘free market’ economy than it is for a regulated economy that would seek to harness the power of business in a manner supportive of life.
The distinction is in the goals and priorities of the economy. Corporations do not want an unregulated economy. Today American businesses generally want a stable structure that will not impede their ability to profit, but will actively support them in doing so, over time, giving them the confidence to make longer term contracts and investments. This is a hugely significant ‘gift’ of a society to bestow on its businesses and rightly, with it, should come the obligation of businesses to contribute to the health and well being of the society. An unstable economic landscape undermines this. Laws and regulations could just as easily be written to support broader social and environmental goals in an attempt to utilize the economy to restructure the society. Remember that an economy is a social construct and represents a society’s intention, and ability, to fulfill the social and health requirements of its population. Such a change would transform the world of business and society, however, business would still be free to operate within the structures laid out for it. Profits could still be made, but would not come as a result of sacrificing the health of citizens and the living world upon which all are dependent.
The problem today is, again, that most all of society’s other needs and requirements have been subsumed beneath the over ridding goal of profit. Business leaders have been working directly with political decision makers from the beginning, wielding their influence, even drafting legislation and regulations that meet their expectations. Big businesses’ relationships with society have become grossly out of balance and an economy’s public purpose has been truncated. We common citizens find ourselves in the very unpowerful position of asking for assistance, while businesses and politicians continue to call for public patience, that the ‘invisible hand’, an invention of capitalist theorists, pundits and apologists, claim will fairly distribute businesses largesse, if given time and sufficient freedom, despite the ever growing evidence to the contrary. More effective regulations would change the level of the business playing field, require that they fulfill their social obligations before counting their profits. In short an economy’s broader purpose would be given teeth and people would have some assurance that as participating members they would receive a level of security they do not have today. Our current economic system of rules and regulations actually inhibit the healthy functioning of an economy…intentionally. The results will not change miraculously. We cannot continue on in this way and expect a different outcome.
What We Could Do!
We could be wiser and work on transitioning, adapting to, rather than fending off and blocking change. Profit is prioritized over the environment, the workforce and community. Employees receive limited protections as right to profit remains enshrined in law. Law in these cases inhibits healthy changes to a system that puts the environment and life under greater threat. Protections of workers, community and the wider environment are thus limited. Taking such actions that would shift priorities are often ‘viewed’ as unrealistic or even destructive themselves in a tail wagging the dog kind of logic. The proponents of unregulated business are being disingenuous.
Many businesses want a regulated public and a system openly supportive of their priorities. They argue that restricting their profitable operation will create burdensome costs and any cost is viewed as a negative. They enforce this with threats to withdraw, leaving local economies and workers in a weaker position…and strictly limit any benefits when they stay. Extending the logic of this, their argument goes that working on behalf of life and the health of the planet is antithetical to ‘good’ business practice. Ethics, is short, have no place in business and the operation of an economy. That is a separate ‘sphere’. This is a doomsday approach to business, one that will sooner or later result in a loss of resilience, an inability to adapt and economic collapse,. This is the opposite of evolutionary fitness and will just as surely bring down our species as such an inability would any other species. We are not special.
A modern American business routinely seeks to reduce its costs, cutting employees, reducing their benefits and pay, compromising their working conditions which might add cost to a business’ operation whenever possible, demanding public investment which goes to meeting their operational needs, whenever they can. It is common for businesses to argue that as their operation becomes more profitable, they will share that with their workers and communities, but such assurances are not binding and can be denied later as expectations for profit increase. Such businesses fail to acknowledge their larger role in a healthy community and even the longer term health of the business and economy itself. Businesses too often become simply ‘profit machines’ and when their own operations become threatened by these practices, seek and receive government assistance taking even more from a public they themselves deny responsibility for. These refusals to recognize their larger social role and obligation, undermine much of their justification for existing in the first place. Where is the public benefit?
When cuts within a business are required they come from labor or are borne by the environment, the neighbors living nearby, or wider community, all of whom have limited means to claim injury. Owners and shareholders are protected by fiduciary law…by simple position alone in a company, owner/shareholders are ‘owed’ whatever profit a company produces and such profits are determined quarterly by the company itself. Any responsibility ‘owed’ to society has been legally whittled away. Communities often prostrate themselves as they compete for businesses of stature who promise to provide jobs to locate within them, assuaging residents who will settle for short term survival over longer term security and well being…because what other choice do they have? Many larger businesses demand loyalty from their employees and their communities while denying the same to them. The system is broken as it has been skewed heavily to fulfill the ever increasing profit demands of a small in number owner class. You cannot have a democratic system of government for long when your economy refuses to honor and acknowledge the value of its workers and the communities within which they reside. An economic ‘bill of rights’ regarding workers, the community and nature, clearly laying out the responsibilities of businesses, must be defined and implemented.
Businesses themselves can be trapped in these closed stagnant cycles of their own creation, without sufficient reinvestment to maintain their longer term health. It should come as a surprise to no one then that the wider economy will suffer as well when both labor and the ‘health’ of a given company are consistently second to the goal of delivering higher profits and earnings to its owners and shareholders. Businesses are commonly ‘milked’ for whatever they can offer before being shut down and written off as a tax loss, by owners, leaving communities with nothing. Such companies simply move on to the next potentially lucrative ‘target’. There is an entire ‘industry’ which has grown within the financial sector which in fact does this, buying companies, adding little back in terms of investment while running them into the ground. Others buy and trade making vast sums on tiny upticks in value before selling them off, again adding nothing into the company that remains, profit being the entire motivation.
We could change this. The particular biases in our model are fixable. The capitalist economy can be ‘retuned’ to improve the overall health of the system, while maintaining its private ownership, strengthening the wider economy, improving the position and security of workers while delivering a fair return to owners/shareholders. Businesses could be required to recognize place and the essential nature of health, of its workers, its communities and the living world around us. All of these are placed in a secondary position in our current economy. A healthy economy must acknowledge all of the costs of its operation, do a ‘fuller’ accounting, to mitigate its negative impacts on local communities and the environment, instead of setting these aside to meet an unrestrained appetite for profit. Our present economy in an ongoing effort to deny these responsibilities has further burdened us with a system that relies so heavily upon litigation for individuals and communities to seek redress. Businesses that practice an extractive profit model could be required to compensate their communities and workers before awarding themselves large salaries and compensatory packages. Profit is a great motivator, but unchecked it supports irresponsible ‘behavior’ putting the costs and consequences it denies upon those lest able to do anything about it. We currently have an economic system that is skewed out of balance while it eats away at our shared future.
Our economy during this tRump/pandemic year of 2020 continues to struggle, unemployment, homelessness and theft are increasing. Property crimes are on the rise everywhere. Thieves follow ubiquitous delivery vehicles, stealing items from porches, an almost routine practice today. Others are adopting increasingly risky practices, motivated and emboldened by our times, acting in broad daylight and in a manner hard to imagine a year ago given even more ‘permission’ to do so by the behavior of leaders who openly ignore the laws which would limit their behavior. People, with extremely limited options, will do what they can to survive and will continue to do so as long as the economy is not providing living wage jobs for them and social supports remain non-existent or insufficient.
Calls for an increase in law enforcement will increase the burden on local communities, as shrinking revenues are drawn from other programs, programs the wealthy don’t utilize and pay an ever decreasing portion of their incomes to support, placing a greater burden on the rest who are in a weaker financial position. What else are the new and generational poor to do? It is not a matter of the poor’s ‘character’, but one of survival. Everything the right is blaming on the left, BLM, Antifa, and socialists in general, is exacerbated by society’s refusal to fulfill its duties and obligations, ignoring people and place in the pursuit of profit.
A Brief Description/Analysis of Our Economy
It would be an interesting exercise to produce an ‘economic bill of rights’ that is consistent with our constitution and the spirit of our Declaration of Independence. Such a document could also rely upon the biology of the organism and the biotic community, an idea that is at the base of this entire treatise.
1, An economy is to a society what an organism’s metabolism is to itself, or more accurately, what its combined metabolisms are for an intact biotic community, it is that by which it lives, grows and reproduces. The ‘health’ of an economy is a measure of society’s health. An economy is the dynamic that exists between the members and goes to defining their relationships. To the degree to which it is in balance with society it is healthy. A healthy economy supports the health of its individual citizens, members, which remain in relationship with one another. Relationship is defined in part the roles members play in the community, by how each contributes to the health of others and the overall health of the community. Balance is maintained by limiting one’s consumption and through promoting the health of others.
2, Money is our medium of exchange, a human abstraction, intended to represent value that makes possible a system of trade in a structured and somewhat stable way. Everything within an economy is assigned a money value for purposes of trade, labor, resources, the ‘costs’ of doing business and the value added to the product or service being traded. Money makes possible a greatly expedited process of trade as value does not have to be established for each and every transaction by those involved in the transaction. To the degree that these values can be ‘fixed’ over time by the process of the ‘market’, another abstraction, this is possible as it removes most of the bargaining from a transaction. Sellers have a price and buyers must either accept it or not. This also makes possible investment planning, giving owners/investors the ability to better anticipate future gains or losses on their investment. By being able to anticipate their costs they are in a better position to predict their profit. This gives them a huge incentive to increase their control over any costs they will incur in the process.
3, Money can also act as an ‘amplifier’. If all people have at their disposal an equal amount of money, our ‘voices’ are the same. The economy can be thought of as a ‘translator’ that expresses the ‘voices’ of its participants. As some become richer, by possessing money that the economic system has distributed to them…their ‘voice’ becomes louder and they are able to effect the economy directly through their purchases and investments. Because an economy is a ‘closed system’, all of the parts and players exist together, shifts in ‘wealth’ directly effect the economy itself. As a portion of an economy becomes more wealthy, another becomes poorer and this shifts what the economy produces for sale. As the income disparity increases more luxury items are produced because increased wealth shifts overall spending toward luxury goods as demand for them increases. Luxury goods will increase in price as wealth increases. Investments will tend toward luxury goods as profit margins will shrink for essential goods as buyers, larger in number, are less able to pay. This will put essential items under pressure to be of less quality and less diversity as both of these things tend to increase price. Profit margins on essentials then become smaller. Reinvestments into production of essentials must be adequate to maintain minimum production levels and quality lest unrest amongst the insecure majority be such that it demands change, improvement in their conditions,
4, Money also acts to amplify the ‘voice’ of those holding it indirectly on the economy through political decision making allowing the wealthy to influence it through the laws and regulations that govern the conduct of business. Free Speech should be limited to one equal voice per person. Money violates the dictum of one vote, one person, in a democracy. To equate money with free speech is to support oligarchy, rule by the wealthy, over democracy.
5, Profit is a gift, measured or claimed after all costs of an economic transaction are accounted for. Profit is not guaranteed. Nature has an ‘economy’ by which it apportions its resources, shares its benefits and accumulates its ‘wealth’ in the form a healthy and complex environment. Nature reinvests its profits back into itself increasing its biomass, diversity, complexity and health, preparing itself, as a whole, for whatever might come next. ‘Profit’ acquired through depriving others of what they need or require, is a ‘taking’, not a profit, and is not supportable over any but the shortest term. In the limited, abstract, human economy, profits are inflated artificially, by redrawing the lines, reducing the world, Health is what suffers, of the individual and the society as a whole as that which it requires is taken for the short term gain of the powerful few, compromising the health of the many, of the world and of life itself.
6, Capital exists independent of a business transaction and contain both its market value and its inherent value. Investment capital represents accumulated wealth held separate from income, it is drawn from accumulated profit. Capital often contains value that the economy fails to recognize. This ‘ignored value’ is often essential to the health of the living world as it is valueless when separated from the whole when it becomes no longer able to provide it, such as a natural landscapes ability to detoxify pollutants, or coal and a standing forest are reduced and no longer serve to sequester carbon, thus allowing the Earth’s warming. This value must be accounted for when assessing cost or true pricing, failing to account for such costs, will allow for the over production of goods at nature’s expense and all will suffer.
7, Costs are what is lost in a transaction or process. They represent sacrifice. In a healthy economy costs must be offset, compensated, to ensure that health is protected and with it an economy’s sustainability, its ability to continue on uncompromised. When this does not happen within an economic transaction a ‘taking’ occurs.
8, Waste represents a failure of a system, a failure of accounting, of inclusion within a transaction. Nature does not waste. What may appear to be waste is a longer term cycling. Nature has a complex system of trophic levels that captures spent materials at every level, bringing them back into the productive cycle. Nature has built this complexity into itself over millions and billions of years. We are breaking this self-maintaining networks down in a handful of human generations. An economy that permits waste is biased in favor of profit and works against its own long term health which will degenerate over time
9, An given community, region and the world itself is of limited capacity. It can produce only so much ‘profit’. Nature continuously reinvests into itself where we continuously extract profit and reinvest only in those things that promise a high rate of return on investment. Because we chronically undervalue much of the larger world, its communities and individuals, we compromise their long term health and do so at our own expense, in terms of survival. Nature works toward building in terms of both its total biomass and its complexity. We instead seek to consume and maintain only those things we see of direct value, failing to recognize wholistic quality of the system itself. We thus put ourselves in peril across many fronts.
The Republican Strategy of Fixing Our Economic System: Basing Life on Our Ability to Maximize the Extraction of Profit…the Core of Our Problem.
We all need to understand that everyone, the rich and the poor, are so because of the social ‘contracts’ that exist in our society, those structures which distribute the wealth produced by a society. We ‘decide’ through these structures how many and who will be poor, how many will be rich and the gap between them. We are all compensated for our contribution and the ‘rules’ guiding and setting those levels, are up to society through political processes. The same goes for our increasingly compromised natural world and the cycles upon which we all ultimately depend.
The only option most conservatives and Republicans are willing to consider is an economy that is open to less and less regulation, a ‘solution’ that rests entirely on an expanding economy that produces ever more profit…at greater cost to those excluded. In this scenario the wealthy spend and invest in ways that are purported to grow the economy more creating more jobs. One of the problems is that this puts all of our futures into the hands of the wealthy and makes us absolutely dependent upon their willingness to compensate us fairly. History does not support a positive outcome for us in this scenario. The gap between rich and poor grows and the rich continue to complain about the poor’s allegedly poor work ethic, when the reality shows the opposite, the poor doing what they must to provide for themselves and their families in spite of earning poverty level wages, while the wealthy claim an ever larger piece of the profits while contributing relatively little to the value added of their product or service. Yet another example of blaming others for the ‘crimes’ one commits oneself. Compensation and supports are grossly out of balance.
We ignore how a healthy economy functions in the process. Profit is a ‘natural’ product of an economic system, but it is limited. It is that portion that remains of any value added, after meeting the costs of operation of production and distribution. Denial of those costs results in an underpaid, insecure and unhealthy workforce, communities with individuals unable to meet their needs and a polluted and compromised natural environment. In short it undermines life and the ‘health’ of the businesses themselves and is thus unsustainable. We have thus far refused as a society to seriously consider substantive changes, changes that would make a real difference. This will continue until we as a people recognize the inherent value of all people, all life. We need to understand that if we are to expect individuals to behave responsibly, to participate and contribute through their work and their communities, that we must remember and honor our obligation to each other, a necessity of any civil society. Only then can we reset the rules that guide and limit business, provide them with a ‘template’ within which they are free to operate, only then will their equation for success be redefined to include us, society and the world of nature on a level with their demand for profit. Yes, to profit, but only after meeting obligations!
Work is a necessity to advance the goals of any society. Societies direct that work to attain their larger goals. This is not ‘socialism’, any economy does this. This does not happen via a ‘free’ and random process. It does not happen under anarchy or a libertarian society that makes no effort to guide or direct the economy, the collective work of the larger group. ‘The invisible hand’ of capitalism has demonstrated its inadequacies when operating with rules and regulations that shield business from such obligations. To be successful business/society must follow the rules that promote its overall health and fitness…just like nature. Today we are still clinging to a hierarchical system that is passing, whose defenders still insist on its methods and priorities, despite the fact that society is moving beyond it, in terms of both need and expectation. The supporters of the old paradigm are seeking to appropriate the language of the new more democratic paradigm while stripping it of its meaning. Democracy, equality and equity are anathema to them and their self-serving goals. Their ‘right’ to profit and its amount, they justify via their position to so claim, by their position to make and effect such decisions. It is a ‘right by might’ justification. They then appropriate vocabulary specific to democracy and use it in an attempt to confuse and win over support from those who would not otherwise be their allies.
The social, political, economic and natural worlds cannot be separated. They function as a whole, within the context of the environment, the living world. If we want a just, egalitarian, society, that does not support an elite at the expense of the many, if we expect to evolve as a society beyond today, our politics and economy must support us. If we want a healthy, vital, natural world with its systems and cycles intact, continuing to support us, we must do what we can to support it and discontinue those activities that compromise and diminish it. We do not do this today. Language and actions must be congruent, consistent, if we are to move ahead. We can’t fabricate reality from words alone. Communication is difficult enough without manipulative and disingenuous actors. If work is worth doing it is worth fairly compensating. If we truly value the members of our communities and society then we must treat each other respectfully and in such a way that affords everyone the security and opportunities they need to live healthy, substantial and honorable lives. None of these things can be denied people in a just, democratic society.
Nature and Society: A Correction
Today we humans have this violent, lop sided, unjust view of the natural world, a world of cruelty. of constant struggle to survive, in which one species seems to live only to consume another…but that is only a piece of it. We often fail to recognize the miracle of everyday life and the absolutely cooperative, mutualistic, aspects of it that make it possible. We too often take our truncated and violent interpretation as a model for human behavior and society. Life is, however, a success story. The very existence of a single living cell and complex organism is a direct outcome of the everyday ‘miracle’ accounted for by the flow of energy through these far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures we recognize as living organisms. The flow of energy through them makes possible each life in an unbroken string of moments. This animating flow, in a real sense, causes the organism to resonate, enabling, organizing and working to maintain its processes and structures. Among other things this results in an extremely well coordinated and coherent flow of countless and often complex chemical reactions within every organism, almost perfectly. We consume energy in an appropriate form, metabolize it and use it to sustain ourselves all while remaining ‘true’ to our structures, to ourselves. We live within a larger world of like structures, organisms, plant and animal, both consuming and contributing to the health of the larger community and world, each playing a role in maintaining its overall sustainability. Organisms do this because it is part of their ‘nature’, which is tied directly to the matter and structures that make them up and the flow of energy through them. Individuals are all part of a larger whole and ‘work’ toward sustaining its larger self. Independence is meaningless outside of the context of life.
The Human Experiment, Our Brains, Thought and Social Behaviors
Humans are still a relatively short lived experiment in the much larger story of evolution. We are different in terms of our capacities, our consciousness, our abilities to adapt, but in all other ways we remain an integral part of the larger living Earth family. We are not finished products, not the crowning jewel of life or even god’s singular perfect invention. Every new species goes through a process of adaptation and change, after once arriving, fitting itself to available niches in the larger Earth community. This is a relatively long, multi-generational process. Failure to do this leads to a very limited population living in a limited niche, even extinction. Each species begins from a different ‘starting point’ and can a have widely variable impact on the larger living community. A species predator that is too successful will too rapidly bring declines of prey species that will no longer support it, resulting in die-offs of the new predator just as will too prolific of a a herbivore species as it consumes the plants upon which it depends without alternatives. As a relatively new species of arguably only 200,000 years, .0044% of the Earth’s existence, (the Earth formed around 4.5 billion years ago) we are a mere blink of the eye in terms of the Earth itself and the beginnings of life….We, obviously, have much to learn.
Learning is something our species would seem to be best prepared for with our brains and capacities, but instead we have been using them to accomplish lesser goals and dismissing what every other species has hard wired into their being, their success strategy as a species. No other species has demonstrated our capacity to dominate others and this is a good thing in a system in which each plays essential and necessary roles, for if they had, they would have long since gone extinct. With our human brains we have the capacity to move beyond the merely reactive responses of so called lower species…so why don’t we?
We are capable of choice, of self-reflection, abstract thought and communication to remarkable levels. We can form associations which are much broader and specialized than those of other species which are generally limited to matrilineal groups, to family, sometimes simple proximity, relying on their ability to provide ‘mutual defense’ and to secure a regular source of sustenance. Ours can be much broader and include the social structures I’ve described above. No other species does this. As I said before theirs are more genetically ‘wired in’ or instinctual such as those based on imprinting. In the plant world we’re finding physical communication avenues via root connections between genetically related individuals or via the intermediation of mycorrhizal root associations which allow sharing of water and nutrients and the signaling of one another so that individuals can prepare for insect or disease attacks, at least to the degree that they can, modifying their metabolisms with hormonal and biochemical reactants. Our more social systems of survival are less direct, but more varied and can ‘backfire’.
Evolving and ‘Solving’ the Economy and Poverty
We have an economic system that produces a huge disparity between rich and poor. If we want to reduce the size of our population living in poverty, we would implement changes to the system that produces the disparity first, rather than the bandaid of a social safety net. A social safety net will inevitably lag behind need and become a political football kicked back and forth while people suffer because of an out of balance and unjust economy. It is not necessary that we throw our current economic system out, only that we retune it so that it distributes profit and wealth more equitably, that we realign it producing what we need with less waste, at a level respectful of the larger environment. That it recognize place and home. This is entirely doable.
We have the capacity to evolve human society in ways entirely compatible with the health of the wider living Earth community, yet we too often choose to squander it. We have the opportunity to study and understand, to celebrate this wondrous place and our role in it, in ways no other species can, but instead we seem content to utilize our present capacities to create social, political and economic structures that amplify our power over a world we see as competitors and prey, resources for our use, to seek narrow simple advantage, to seek profit, to consume and horde for oneself. Such a path is anathema to nature and health.
The hallmarks of health are resilience and adaptability, the living of life harmoniously. An individual, however long its life may continue, to the degree that it resonates truly, that it fully manifests, is ‘measured’ by its contribution, its being and becoming and, in death, does so purposefully, with dignity. Life will always be a process, not something to be attained and held, static until one’s death. We argue and fight to secure our position over others and compare ourselves to the dominant carnivores of a bio-region, forgetting completely the role of all of the other species, and too often other humans, without which we would perish, upon whom we are absolutely dependent. We are failing in this experiment of consciousness, willfully ignorant, effectively working rapidly toward our own extinction, many of us having actively contributed to the problem or simply adhering to other institutions of belief that see this limited dying future as a foregone conclusion, fate, instead of a weakness, a squandering of potential, a colossal missed opportunity, not inevitable at all. Hundreds of thousands of other species have found success and prospered for millions of years…there is no reason why we can’t if we can get our collective heads out of the sand. A long life does not assure that an individual’s has been well lived, that is reserved for those lived with a broader purpose, a life measured by its contribution, fidelity to life itself, perhaps measured by joy. Every organism dies and does so necessarily. It can never be simple length that determines value, never power over or gross consumption…never death’s avoidance. That is simply another name for delaying, for waiting. Life is engagement. We have these amazing brains, brains that set us apart, but what have we accomplished so far? Our challenge should be to utilize them fully to add in a positive manner to the ever unfolding story of evolution, and the ongoing story of life.
For an enlightening look into the etymology of the related words ecology and economy check this website. Our present understanding of what an economy is has lost much of what it once carried and we are suffering the consequences now.
Others are writing on the disconnect between our economy today and our health and well being, the fact that our economic growth, our GDP, has little to do with improving the average person’s quality of life. Here’s an article from the Huffington Post. Here’s a link to British economist Kate Raworth’s website who wrote the book, “Doughnut Economics”, 2017.