Economy; the Noisy Noisy Child of Ecology: The Human Island (Chapter 15)

Over a year ago, I was referred to an interesting article by Dr. Rob Morrison, Economy and ecology are unevenly match siblings. For a while after, this sat with me as an excellent example of many of the problems that face human activity into the 21st century.

However, I’ve since come to a slightly different conclusion over the relationship between economy and ecology. In my opinion, they are not two children; one larger and clearly the favourite (economy), who pummels the smaller (ecology) into submission, but rather parent birds (ecology) with the ever demanding cuckoo chick (economy) taking far more than its reasonable share of the resources.

All human processes, whether linear of cyclic, rely on the resources-to-consumer chain to stimulate economy. Apart from minerals/water and most renewable energy sources, these resources are ecologically based. All food and non-renewable fossil energy (as material consumer items are made from oil derived hydrocarbons, they are also included here) and some renewable energy (ie. biofuels) are the result of ecological processes.

Hatchling common cuckoos in the process of evicting host eggs and chicks from great reed warbler nests. From Anderson et al. 2009

Without transfer of currency in exchange for consumption of goods and services (which are generally powered by energy) there is no economy as we currently know it. There could very well be humans  without economy (as history demonstrates) and there would certainly be ecology without economy or humans, but economy ceases to exist without transfer of resources – almost entirely resulting from ecology. Plain and simple. It’s for this reason that ecology and economy are not siblings – two halves of the “house”, true, but not siblings; rather a parent child relationship.

It might seem a trivial point to waste few paragraphs arguing over an analogy, but let me explain why I feel it’s important. Ecological services have various limitations to the speed at which they can regenerate resources. Fruit might take a yearly cycle while fossil fuel production may take millions of years to produce. You could plant more fruit, providing more yield in the growing season, but without shipping across hemispheres or storage, there still remains viability issues (ie. how much is too much?). As for fossil fuels – there’s not a lot we can do to change that process apart for returning again to biofuels. Current western economic models need growth to remain viable; growth not only of consumables, but also of consumers (as there are obvious limitations to what one individual can purchase). It’s exponential growth that cannot continuously be matched by space and resource availability.

To simplify the problem, imagine a microbe community in an agar tray. Let’s say that they double in number once an hour. Within 24hrs, 1 microbe will become 8388608 members. It’s easy to see that such exponential growth will quickly deplete the resources available, leading to population collapse. Even if the nutrient rich agar regenerated at a certain rate, maximum population size would maintained by population growth and reduced fitness when resources are being stretched. Eventually it would plateaux at a population size where each member has access to enough resources to persist.

But we’re not mindless microbes. We should want communities that have ample resources, not simply the bare essentials to preserve their existence. We have the choice to want better – but that simply cannot include perpetual growth in a system with finite resources and resource regeneration rates.

We can decide how well resources are divided and the ultimate number of people that we wish to support.

The problem of course comes back to western economic models, which not only require growth (the level of redundancy found in “middlemen” could be suggested as yet another example unviable growth), but worst than this, it also fails to appreciate many of the humanistic values of a healthy society.

As Andrew Mason, from the University of Southern Queensland put it, “The normal measure of an economy, which looks at Gross Domestic Product [GPD] and those sorts of things, Gross National Product, doesn’t really measure our lives, it just measure economic things. So if you go and buy some vegies from the supermarket, that contributes to GPD, so it looks good on the economy. But if you grow vegies in your own backyard, it doesn’t contribute to GPD. So things like car crashes contribute to GPD because, you know, people are employed fixing cars and looking after things and you know the people that go to hospital to be treated; all that contributes to GPD. Whereas going for a walk in the park doesn’t. So they’re trying to work out how to model economics that will more accurately reflect a happy society.”

The cuckoo hatchling that is economy not only has appropriated and displaced other resource users, like the other hatchlings from the nest, it demands resources at a growing rate, eventually running the parent birds of ecology haggard. Everyone loses if the system fails. This has to one of the most important points of The Human Island; endless growth is a primitive societal design which fails to recognise many of the finer points of human culture.

It’s parasitic like the cuckoo and an unsympathetic leveller of population size.

However, there are of course alternatives to this endless churning of a snowball economy, which Mason touches upon. Ultimately we all want to be happy and to provide the best for our children. The internal combustion engine accelerated us into a new phase of plenty, but as I’ve tried to explain throughout The Human Island, no-one can sensibly assume ‘good times’ of this nature can continue on indefinitely. We have already accumulated a large ecological debt which will eventually bite us in the rear and the inertia of recent progress provides a worrisome image for beyond-peak oil.

Yet, if we developed humanistic economic models that, say, instead of focused on resource and financial transfer within and among communities, focused on human health, local diversity (not only biological, but multi-use spaces, transport options, career opportunities; civil-diversity) and innovation, we could transform societies with greater emphasis on care, education, contentment and employment – that is to say that money wouldn’t be the driving force, instead ideal lifestyle, community development and broader level (than just money) prosperity would provide the focus.

As utopian as this sounds, I admit that it would still be far from perfect (but with greater focus on education and innovation, I’d also argue that improvement would accelerate), but it would give greater clarity to true social wealth. We’re in debt in many different ways, both as individuals and as social groups. I know that I personally want more time to be a more interactive father to my son and partner to my fiancée more than I want a new 3D TV. I want to teach my kids how to fish, ride a bike and play various sports more than I want to buy them the newest game consol. I want to actively show my fiancée how much I love her rather than prove it via diamonds and gold.

It’s knowing the wealth that I can achieve in pursuing these goals rather than “chasing the buck” that makes me certain that financial pursuits alone are not wealth. We in fact don’t need all the stuff we think we do. We want them because we’re lead to believe that we do (and don’t underestimate the ‘Jones effect’) and encouraged when we’re told that the economy is doing well. The state of the economy can have little impact at the individual level. For example using that financial stimulus package to buy a second flat screen may have helped the economy, but it could have made more of a personal difference to the interest on your loans (albeit being counter-productive to the economy).

Economy is not the sibling of ecology, it was borne from ecology. It’s a noisy apathetic child that ultimately assumes resources are infinite. Virtues have no financial value, thus the dollar is dumb and we deserve better.

This is chapter fifteen of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “Economy; the Noisy Noisy Child of Ecology: The Human Island (Chapter 15)

    1. Cheers Adelady. I suppose I think mostly in ecological terms, but honestly, how suitable is it? From displacement of endemic resource users, to resource greed – the current western economic structure is little more than a cuckoo hatchling in the nest of ecology.

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