What Would a Down-to-Earth Economy Look Like?
How did we end up with Wall Street when models for a healthy economy are all around us?
by David Korten
posted Jan 17, 2013
Photo by Thomas Hawk.
With proper care and respect, Earth can provide a high quality of life for all people in perpetuity. Yet we devastate productive lands and waters for a quick profit, a few temporary jobs, or a one-time resource fix.
Our current expansion of tar sands oil extraction, deep-sea oil drilling, hydraulic fracturing natural gas extraction, and mountaintop-removal coal mining are but examples of this insanity. These highly profitable choices deepen our economic dependence on rapidly diminishing, nonrenewable fossil-energy reserves, disrupt the generative capacity of Earths living systems, and accelerate climate disruption.
A global economy dependent on this nonsense is already failing and its ultimate collapse is only a matter of time. For a surprisingly long time, we humans have successfully maintained the illusion that we are outside of, superior to, and not subject to the rules of nature. We do so, however, at a huge cost, and payment is coming due.
To secure the health and happiness of future generations, we must embrace life as our defining value, recognize that competition is but a subtext of lifes deeper narrative of cooperation, and restructure our institutions to conform to lifes favored organizing principle of radically decentralized, localized decision making and self-organization. This work begins with recognizing what nature has learned about the organization of complex living systems over billions of years.
Our Original Instructions
Some indigenous people speak of the original instructions. Chief Oren Lyons, of the Onondaga Nation, summarizes the rules in Listening to Natural Law in the anthology Original Instructions:
Our instructions, and Im talking about for all human beings, are to get along with [natures] laws, and support them and work with them. We were told a long time ago that if you do that, life is endless. It just continues on and on in great cycles of regeneration. If you want to tinker with that regeneration, if you want to interrupt it, thats your choice, but the results that come back can be very severe because the laws are absolute.
Decision-making would be local and the system would organize from the bottom up.
Modern neuroscience affirms that the human brain evolved to reward cooperation and service. In other words, nature has hard-wired the original instructions into our brain. Extreme individualism, greed, and violence are pathological and a sign of physical, developmental, cultural, and/or institutional system failure. Caring relationships are the foundation of healthy families, communities, and life itself.
We are living out the consequences of our collective human failure to adhere to the original instructionsthe organizing principles of healthy living systems readily discernible through observation of nature at work. These are the principles by which we must rethink and reorganize human economies.
So how would nature design an economy? An economy is nothing more than a system for allocating resources to productive activitypresumably in support of life. In fact, nature is an economy, with material and information exchange, saving, investment, production, and consumptionall functions we associate with economic activity. Absent human intervention, as Lyons says, It just continues on and on in great cycles of regeneration.
Nature surrounds us with expressions of the organizing principles that make possible lifes exceptional resilience, capacity for adaptation, creative innovation, and vibrant abundance. Earths biosphere and the human body are two magnificent examples.
|Primary performance indicators||Growth, financial returns, flows, and assets||Life’s abundance, health, resilience, and creative potential|
|Primary dynamic||Competition to maximize self-interest||Cooperation to optimize self- and community interest|
|Decision-making power||Global, top-down, centralized, and concentrated||Local, bottom-up, and distributed|
|Time frame||Immediate return||Sustained yield|
|Resource flows||Global, linear, one-time use from mine to dump||Local, circular, perpetual use, zero waste|
|Deficits of concern||Financial||Social and environmental|
|Measure of efficiency||Returns to financial capital||Returns to social and natural capital|
|Growth||Infinite growth of money and material consumption||A stage in life’s endless regenerative cycles of birth, growth, death, and rebirth|
The Economy of the Biosphere
Earths exquisitely complex, resilient, and continuously evolving band of lifethe biospheredemonstrates on a grand scale the creative potential of the distributed intelligence of many trillions of individual self-organizing, choice-making living organisms. Acting in concert, they continuously regenerate soils, rivers, aquifers, fisheries, forests, and grasslands while maintaining climatic balance and the composition of the atmosphere to serve the needs of Earths widely varied life forms. So long as humans honor the original instructions, the biosphere has an extraordinary capacity to optimize the capture, organization, and sharing of Earths energy, water, and nutrients in support of lifeincluding human life.
In nature, species and individuals earn a right to a share in the bounty of the whole as necessary to their sustenance through their contribution to the well-being of the whole. Over the long term, those that contribute prosper, and those that do not contribute expire. The interests of the whole are protected against rogue behavior by natural limits on the ability of any individual or species to monopolize resources beyond its own need to the exclusion of the needs of others.
Individuals and species may compete for territory and sexual dominance, but the amount of territory or number of mates nature allows an individual or species to claim is local, limited, and subject to continuous challenge. Until humans began to create the imperial civilizations characteristic of our most recent 5,000 years, the idea that any species, let alone a few individual members of a species, might claim control of all of Earths living wealth to the exclusion of all others was beyond comprehension.
The Economy of the Body
The human body is a more intimate demonstration of the creative power of lifes organizing principles. The individual human body comprises tens of trillions of individual living cells, each a decision-making entity with the ability to manage and maintain its own health and integrity under changing and often stressful circumstances. At the same time, each cell faithfully discharges its responsibility to serve the needs of the entire body on which its own health and integrity depend.
Working together, these cells create and maintain a self-organizing human organism with the potential to achieve extraordinary feats of physical grace and intellectual acuity far beyond the capability of any individual cell on its own.
Each decision-making, resource-sharing cell is integral to a larger whole of which no part or system can exist on its own. Together they create regulatory mechanisms internal to the whole that work to assure that no part asserts dominance over the others or monopolizes the bodys stores of energy, nutrients, and water for its exclusive use. Resources are shared based on need.
All the while, the bodys cells self-organize to fight off a vast variety of viruses, cancer cells, and harmful bacteria, adapt to changing temperatures and energy needs and variations in the bodys food and water intake, heal damaged tissues, and collect and provide sensory data to our conscious mind essential to our conscious choice making.
Another of the many impressive expressions of the bodys capacity to self-organize is the process by which our cells continuously regenerate while maintaining the bodys integrity as a unified organism. The cells lining the human stomach have a turnover of only five days. Red blood cells are replaced every 120 days or so. The surface of the skin recycles every two weeks. The cells of the body are constantly reproducing, growing, and dying.
A Human Economy Based on Nature
If nature were in charge of creating an enduring human economy, she would surely apply the same principles she applies in natural systems. Her goal would be a global system of bioregional living economies that secure a healthy, happy, productive life for every person on the planet in symbiotic balance with the non-human systems on which we humans depend for breathable air, drinkable water, fertile soils, timber, fish, grasslands, and climate stability. Each bioregional economy would meet its own needs for energy, water, nutrients, and mineral resources through sustained local capture, circular flow, utilization, and repurposing. Decision making would be local and the system would organize from the bottom up. Diversity and redundancy would support local adaptation and resilience.
To Change Our Direction, It’s Time to Follow Nature’s Lead
It takes humility to recognize that what weve called progress isnt always for the better. Sometimes natures original idea was a better one.
This should be our goal and vision. With the biosphere as our systems model, we would design our economic institutions and rules to align with natures rules and organizing principles. We would replace GDP as the primary measure of economic performance with a new system of living system indicators that assess economic performance against the outcomes we actually wanthealthy, happy people and healthy, resilient natural systems. These indicators might be based on Bhutans Gross National Happiness Index. We would redirect the time, talent, and money we currently devote to growing GDP, material consumption, securities bubbles, and Wall Street bonuses to producing the outcomes we really want.
We would favor local, cooperative ownership and control. Organizing from the bottom up in support of bioregional self-reliance, our economic institutions would support local decision-making in response to local needs and opportunities. Cultural and biological diversity and sharing within and between local communities would support local and global resilience and facilitate life-serving system innovation.
The result would be an economy based on a love of life that honors the original instructions and conforms to the organizing principles of nature, real markets, and true democracy. The challenge is epic in its proportion and long overdue.
We are Earths children; she is our mother. We must honor and care for her as she loves and cares for us. Together we can forge an integral partnership grounded in the learning and deep wisdom of her 3.8 billion-year experience in nurturing lifes expanding capacities for intelligent self-organization, creative innovation, and self-reflective consciousness.
April 8, 2014 at 10:04 pm
David Korten is one of my favorite wise people. His writings spark some of my favorite conversations. I am delighted to find an article by him here that I hadn’t read.
I yearn for more influence from people who study systems in nature that we can emulate to solve huge environmental ills. One that keeps echoing in my mind is a sewage system that is no longer an expense or hazard. It is pumped into a living filter. The filter includes thriving, edible plants, and the effluent is potable water. If I could live this life all over again, I might want to choose to study and design biomimicry systems.
I cling to the findings that cooperation outlasts “Extreme individualism, greed, and violence”.
The table is a precious piece. Thanks for sharing its wisdom. Social and natural capital, and regenerative cycles especially resonate in me. They spotlight nature’s lesson: concentrated assets attracts predators; part of the circular resource flow.
April 9, 2014 at 2:09 am
I’m so glad you found it here! This is my favorite part of blogging the connection with like minded kindred spirits and our collective ability to find share and therefore encounter so much more good inspiring stuff than any of us could do alone.
I love that humans are finally catching on to the natural cycles model and starting to integrate with the larger systems of which we are all parts.
If you haven’t yet read Mycelium Running by Stametz I think you will love it. He is focused on fungi but the same idea of integration and circular function is demonstrated throughout the book.
I believe a group from Findhorn actually did design a sewage treatment system like that for the city of Boston. I know smaller versions had been in use for some time but that Boston project was considered the scale breakthrough and by now it should have spread to other cities as well. Its been years ago that I first read about it.
I’ve been contemplating the methane clathrates and trying to work out how to capture the released methane and use it instead of allowing it to trigger runaway warming. Apparently there are methane eating microbes but they require tungsten which is rare, and its leaking too fast on the east Siberian shelf so it hits atmosphere a few minutes after leaving the ground which leaves no time for the critters to eat it.
April 9, 2014 at 11:06 am
I like to think that natural cycles are so strong that they take care of us, and don’t let us, in general, go too far astray. Thus, the larger systems survive.
Mycelium Running looks like an interesting read. I had not seen it before you mentioned it. It makes me think of the fake meat that is being made from mushroom-type stuff growing in a lab. I have been interested in balancing our appreciation of antifungals like garlic and coconut oil, and the medicinal properties of fungus, aka mushrooms. Our biosystem likewise requires mushrooms that help decompose “dead” wood. I look forward to getting the book and soaking into it, or eating it up, pun intended.
I looked up Findhorn. Yes, their wastewater treatment is similar to what I had read about. The one I had read about was more of a park-like atmosphere.
I find that I must limit myself to occasional visits to your blog, or else I would have too little time to meet my responsibilities. You offer a wealth of fascinating topics and conversation.
I had heard of something like methane clathrate on another planet; Mars comes to mind. I didn’t realize that it is here, too. I am glad that India, Japan and Korea (leaders of the future) are working on this option. I hope they are using safe technology for the mining.
Thank you for giving me so much to think about. I look forward to my next visits with you.
April 9, 2014 at 11:07 am
Note: do you check your spam? my last comment might have been filtered out by Akismet because I included links. 😦
April 10, 2014 at 4:04 am
For some reason it left it in waiting for approval status. I just noticed that and approved it. Usually once I approve a comment from someone it automatically approves their newer comments.
I’ve been a bit slow in checking blog stuff because I’m fighting an irksome relapse/flare. I usually wait to reply to comments until I’m thinking clearly since I feel like I’m making sense while feverish but it doesn’t always look that way to anyone reading it;-)
April 11, 2014 at 8:08 pm
Yes, the system does approve my comments instantly, but when comments contain links, it filters them out, just to be sure.
I am so sorry you have been fighting a relapse/flare. I appreciate your effort to communicate clearly. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.
April 10, 2014 at 4:19 am
I believe some of the systems are made to be fully integrated into the landscape tho probably the earliest ones were not. I had forgotten that the Mycelium Running book was full of food related fungi info because I can’t eat mushrooms anymore:-) but it does have some great stuff on co-growing regular vegetables with different mushrooms and which ones performed better when grown together. That synergistic relationship between organisms in biological systems is imho what makes nature so very much more efficient and resilient compared to human engineering.
Thank you for the compliment! I was actually wondering if my keeping a blog was frivolous or if it actually served a purpose/was useful to anyone. I love the way the Universe hears our internal questions and then provides external answers:-)
I’m only able to read a bit at a time so haven’t to limit my exploring of blogs as well-especially those like yours where both interesting information and discussion occur. I miss being young and diving into those days long philosophical discussions that seem to be the hallmark of college for those of us not inclined to binge drinking and public nudity;-)
I think we end up doing something similar on blogs but can break it down into typed chunks in stolen moments between the responsibilities now that we don’t have endless hours to whike away avoiding our actual homework; -)
April 11, 2014 at 8:55 pm
Yes, I saw the mention of companion planting. 🙂 I thought of that yesterday as I got outside and walked in the back yard for the first time since last summer. It was great! We had 2 large food gardens, but one is filling up with wild berry bushes, and the other was repeatedly mowed by a woodchuck last summer.
We have lots of downed trees every year. I think of dead trees and mushrooms as growing companions. Our wood chips often grow mushrooms. I look forward to reading about whether mushrooms have other ways to grow in and benefit food gardens.
I am glad to channel the Universe’s voice to you 🙂
How interesting for you to correlate long philosophical discussions in college with disinclination for binge drinking and public nudity. I tried to argue with contrary examples but couldn’t. We are so stodgy 😮 I can easily understand our aversion to binge drinking: our sober thoughts are too fascinating to impair. I think the public nudity correlated with the binge drinking.
Avoiding homework is one thing I can argue with you about, I found homework to be the best part of college. I probably spent 2-3 times more time on homework than most people. When it was time to choose courses for the next semester, I went to the student book store to see which books interested me, and then chose the professors who taught those classes. I chose classes that required papers over ones that graded based on exams, when possible. When I dug up resources for my papers, I wandered off on tangents (that’s a nice thing about paper publications: I flipped pages to see other articles that expanded my horizon). Small classes that were discussion time were heaven.
I repeatedly re-read your words, “I’m only able to read a bit at a time,” wondering how you could post so much content nearly every day.
You mentioned connecting with like-minded kindred spirits here. I am amazed that WordPress blogs are such happy places of respectful, interesting people. Nearly everyone here is driven to write, and writes beautifully. I can’t follow enough blogs closely enough. What a great place to be! Thanks for being part of it.
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