Life's Ancient Wisdom

Through a largely non-consensual process we humans have created an economic system with characteristics that most resemble those of a cancerous tumor. The challenge before us is to heal ourselves by eliminating the cancer and restore healthy by creating an economic system that mimics the structure and dynamics of a healthy ecosystem.

Ancient Wisdom
  1. Self-organize without central command and control
  2. Be frugal and sharing
  3. Organize around place-based communities
  4. Reward cooperation
  5. Manage your boundaries
  6. Bank on diversity, creative individuality, and shared learning

It turns out that such a system would look rather much like a healthy market economy with an overlay of an ethical culture and a framework of sensible rules established by a democratic government. Nothing radical. Nothing unfamiliar. Just the practice of basic values to which most of us already claim allegiance.

Here in broad brush strokes are some of life’s lessons and their implications for rethinking and restructuring the economic life of human societies.

Lesson 1. Life self-organizes without a central decision maker. Each member organism functions simultaneously as a whole in its own right and as a part of a larger whole. Over and over the paradox is repeated: while life is matter with the freedom to choose, living beings exist only in relation to other living beings. Therefore the freedom of the one, depends on the responsible use of that freedom in relation to the needs of the many.

Human economies can and should function as self-organizing systems in which each individual, family, community, or nation is able to exercise its own freedom of choice mindful of the needs of the whole and no entity has the power to dominate any other.

Lesson 2: Life is frugal and sharing. The amount of free and sustainable energy being constantly supplied to the planet in the form of sunlight places a strict constraint on life’s ability to maintain otherwise inert matter in a living state. Energy and materials are continuously recycled for use and reuse within and between cells, organisms, and species with a minimum of loss.

Human economies can and should be organized to contribute to life’s abundance through the frugal use, equitable sharing, and continuous recycling of available energy and resources to the end of meeting the material, social, and spiritual needs of all their members.

Lesson 3: Life depends on inclusive place-based communities

Each species and organism creates and defines its relationship to other species and organisms and to the resources on which its survival and prosperity depend within a living place-based habitat. As life exists only in relation to other life, species that share a particular habitat organize themselves into inclusive place-based biological communities within which they learn through mutual adaptation to optimize the capture, sharing, use, and storage of the energy sources available to them. As each individual being, species, and biome adapts itself to the most intricate details of its particular physical locale, life’s web establishes a sustainable and balanced dominion over the physical spaces and resources of the planet. With grace, beauty, and consummate skill, each individual finds its place near to those on which it depends for food and to those it feeds in turn.

Human economies can and should be built around inclusive place-based communities, adapted to the conditions of their physical place, adept at the collection and conservation of energy and the recycling of materials to function as largely self-reliant entities, and organized to provide each of their members with a sustainable means of livelihood.

Lesson 4: Life rewards cooperation. Shared spaces create shared destinies and interests—the imperatives of cooperation. While the competitive aspect of life's evolution has dominated Western attention since the studies of Darwin, paradoxically, competition’s most constructive contribution to evolution generally has been to create an imperative for cooperation. As Elisabet Sahtouris observes in "The Biology of Globalization,"  “One can discern in evolution a repeating pattern in which aggressive competition leads to the threat of extinction, which is then avoided by the formation of cooperative alliances.”   

Evolution is, in the most fundamental sense, a progression toward ever greater cooperation.

Human economies can and should acknowledge and reward cooperative behavior toward the efficient use of energy and resources in providing adequate livelihoods for all and enhancing the productive capacities of living capital.

Lesson 5: Life depends on boundaries. Boundaries are ntegral to the processes by which each living organism creates and manages its internal energy flows. Consider the importance of the cell’s outer membrane to its integrity. As Lee Smolin observes in The Life of the Cosmos,

Were there no such barrier, diffusion and heat flows would quickly result in a mixing of the matter and energy between the inside and the outside of the cell, killing it. Instead, the cell is able to control exchanges between its interior and exterior to its own advantage, in order to maintain a high level of internal organization.

For similar reasons, a multi-celled organism must have a skin or other protective covering that establishes a boundary between itself and its environment. Bio-communities are bounded by oceans, mountains, and climatic zones that inhibit intrusions by potentially predatory species. The importance of boundaries holds at every level. Boundaries define life’s individual identities and the borders within which each being builds and maintains the energy flows essential to its existence.

Yet, because life depends on relationships it is never fully self-contained. Thus its borders are permeable—neither totally open nor totally closed. They are also necessarily managed. For example, the cell regulates its energy and material exchanges with its environment both to maintain its internal energy regime and to protect its physical space and being against hostile invaders.

Paradoxically, borders are essential to cooperative and productive exchange with others. A cell without an outer membrane is a dead cell, and since a dead cell is unproductive, it isn't much use in a cooperative alliance. Only by maintaining its own bounded integrity can a cell maintain its own capacity to learn, to store active energy, and to cooperate with other cells in the sharing of energy and information.

Human economies can and should have managed borders at each level of organization from household and community to regional and national levels that allow them to maintain the integrity, coherence, and resource efficiency of their internal productive process and to protect themselves from predators and pathogens.

Lesson 6: Life banks on diversity, creative individuality, and shared learning.

Life knows well the innovative power of self-organizing systems comprised of many individuals continuously creating and testing new abilities in response to changing environmental conditions. The greater the diversity, the greater the potential for further innovation and the greater the resilience of the system in times of stress and crisis. Genetic and cultural diversity are life’s storehouses of intellectual capital and the building blocks from which it melds itself into new and more capable forms.

Life’s story also presents powerful evidence that the desire to learn, innovate, and share beneficial knowledge for the benefit of the whole is integral to its nature. The drive to learn, innovate, and share useful information is inherent in humans as well.

Throughout history our most brilliant scientists, innovators, and teachers were driven not by the promise of financial rewards, but by an inner compulsion to learn, to know, and to share their knowledge. We must presume that in human systems, as in other living systems, withholding useful knowledge for exclusive gain is appropriately regarded as unnatural—a sign of pathology that inhibits efficient system function.

Human economies can and should nurture cultural, social, and economic creativity and diversity and share information within and between place-based economies. These conditions are the key to system resilience and creative transcendence.

Although applying life’s lessons to human economies may seem an idealistic exercise, those lessons are backed by life’s accumulated wisdom of 3.9 billion years. They are not beyond the means of single celled bacteria and neither are they beyond ours. Their application does, however, require a major culture shift and retooling of our institutions.  ...next "Living Economies Design Elements"

Adapted from The Post Corporate World: Life After Capitalism, pp. 120 to 133.