Economics as if Nature Mattered

In order to do “economics as if people mattered” (E. F. Schumacher), we had better start at least one step upstream of people: with nature.

Whatever words you want to put around the processes — extraction, production, value-adding, etc. — the inescapable fact is that economics, especially in the sense of property or real goods, is about people taking what they find in creation and doing something with or to it that they consider valuable.

(This suggests another question further upstream, as to where creation comes from and what responsibilities might inhere in the giving and receiving, but that’s a topic for another day.)

For now, let’s focus on a few assertions about nature the way nature works that might help us think about how we work with nature:

  • Nature is almost unimaginably varied, complex, and interconnected. The ancient metaphor of the web is a good one; from a spider’s-eye view, it’s impossible to see the results of our actions in one corner of the web in their full expression in other corners.
  • Nature abhors a monoculture. Industry likes to scale sameness: the bigger and samer, the better. Nature never does that. Instead, it produces infinite imperfect copies, usually with great respect for the particularity of place. Nature doesn’t grow all apples exactly the same size and weight by choice; it’s only as a result of industrial culture that we might see that as “natural” at the grocery store.
  • Nature is resilient — within very exacting tolerances. Sometimes limits can be transgressed: a drought hits the land, or a person lifts a car. But resiliency implies an allowance for recovery. If you lifted a car, you can bet you’d be pretty sore and tired after the adrenaline wore off.
  • Just because we can’t precisely see, feel, or measure a limit does not mean that no limit exists. In fact, those might be the severest limits of all.