Economy is Ecology: A Quick Primer on Bacon, Jenga, and Human Survival
So we all know by now that we're headed for extinction, right? Perhaps it's not the most pleasant place to start. But the road to the beautiful and the true runs only through the real. So let's just get it out there.
Polar ice caps are melting; glaciers are receding. The fabled Northwest Passage is becoming real. Ninety-seven per cent of climate scientists agree that Alberta isn't burning because God wanted to roast marshmallows, and that Buffalo doesn't get buried in stories of snow because Santa had to sneeze. This climate change business is a thing that is happening already, and those scientists say that it's happening mostly because of our industrial economy: that is, because of how we've chosen to live.
How were we supposed to know? Three hundred years ago, this seemed like a great idea, right? We were just experimenting, weren't we? Trying whatever way we could find to make a little extra cheddar, and running with what worked? I mean, sheep's wool was a nice living, for a while. Crossing oceans on wind power, that was getting tedious. At first blush, it would've been hard to argue with the sticky black dinosaur juice.
But now, more and more, we do know better. We know because our planet, Mama Dear, is telling us. Faster and faster. That she can't sustain this very much longer. That she won't sustain us for very much longer. She says that our industrial economy is unsustainable. Let's break down that buzzword. I like Michael Pollan's version: sooner or later, this thing must collapse.
It can be hard to admit you've been wrong in an argument of an hour or two, let alone an experiment of two or three hundred years. But really, given what's at stake, you have to wonder - why can't we stop?
There are all kinds of complex ways we could try to understand it. But I like it best from Louis CK.
(Disclaimer - Louis will make fun of Christians here, whom I'm not intending to single out. Since Western culture has major influence from Judeo-Christian values, the joke works on anyone who subscribes to the dominant culture here.)
Cool. So hit that music button just below, and let's ride on through to the finish.
In answer to our question - why we can't stop destroying our planet - Louis says: we can't stop destroying the planet because we need bacon.
Let's say 'bacon' is a stand-in for, I don't know, cars, central heating, the opera, philosophy, and also bacon. All the comforts and pleasures of modern life. We can't stop because we want bacon. But is that really it? We couldn't settle for just a little less bacon plus continued life on earth?
Well, it's even more stark in real life than in Louis' bit. Our political leaders tell us: not only do we need more jobs so we can enjoy more bacon, but if we don't keep producing more and more bacon, we'll lose those jobs altogether. It's a competitive world, they tell us! Jobs and growth! Jobs and growth! We need to go faster and faster, like Louis says, but just to keep up. And so the real-life version is better satire than the stand-up: getting the bacon isn't just for the joy of bacon, but for our very survival. We need to make more bacon just to afford our basic needs. We need to keep destroying the planet in order to survive.
Luxuries are necessities! Destruction is survival! Head spinning yet? These Orwellian riddles are whispered beneath the nightly news.
And it gets funnier. Our penchant for bacon isn't just undermining the health of the planet - it's even undermining our ability to make more bacon. How? Most of the things we buy and sell don't look much like natural resources anymore, but everything still begins there. The basic primary elements - soil, water, air, sunlight - turn into trees and plants and animals and oil and minerals and metals, which become lumber and food and cloth fibres, and plastic and pharmaceuticals and robots and wall paint. The chair you're sitting in. The computer you're reading on. The cell phone at your side. Chemists are smart, but they aren't magicians. We still can't create something from nothing. It all begins from natural resources. The very thoughts in your head, the muscle action in your fingers, are made of chemicals you got from your food, which your food got from the soil. Everything starts in the raw materials of the earth. These are the raw materials we're depleting faster than they can reproduce, or polluting beyond the point of usefulness. They are the foundation of life here.
We strip that foundation in order to build the tower ever higher. And so our economy is a giant game of Jenga. We race to build our tower taller, pulling out the planks we stand upon to get there. But as any eight-year-old Jenga player knows, sooner or later, the thing must collapse. Louis CK helps us see the satire in how the industrial economy destroys the basis of life, but the bigger satire is in how the industrial economy destroys the basis of the industrial economy. We have an economic autoimmune disease. So are we maybe ready to admit we lost that three-hundred-year argument yet?
When we wonder if there might be a better way, we are shouted down as naive or utopian. Making any other choice, we are told, would contradict the iron laws of economics. This is Stephen Harper patting you on the head and tight-lipped-grinning benignly, saying: this is why we can't have nice things. Not clean air and water. Not indigenous peoples' rights. Not libraries or a living wage. Necessities are luxuries, and Daddy knows best.
Except we're starting to see that the iron laws of economics contradict the iron laws of biological life, which is why we are fucked. There is a logical flaw at the heart of our economic system, and it is this: we have built our economy in direct opposition to the rules of living here.
Now, consider the following two premises for building an economy - one of which our culture has chosen, and one of which would work:
- The rules of nature are for us to overcome.
- The rules of nature are the starting point.
The main thing we need to do is fix this wrinkle at the centre of the system we live by: we've chosen a faulty premise. To put it in Louis' delicate phrasing, we need to start off from eating the shit on the ground, rather than starting from bacon. Or, we need an economy that invests in good soil and good food first, rather than what we do now, which is mortgage those to make and sell things that can never ultimately sustain us. A sustainable economy solidifies and strengthens the foundations of life as it grows. It does not strip-mine them for bacon.
After we correct that faulty premise and replace it with a more functional one, we need to start figuring out how to manifest it into a lived reality and expand it. How could we build a whole life rooted in the rules of the natural world? Deep ecology writer Daniel Quinn says that when we wanted to learn how to fly through the air, the laws of aerodynamics became relevant. And if we decide we want to live peaceably on Earth, then it's time to start learning the laws that govern successful life here. That study is called ecology. And, hopefully in a light-hearted and lilting way, that's part of what we'll mess around with here in the ecology/economy thread.
We'll figure out how we might take a shaky Jenga tower and turn it into a well-grounded pyramid instead. There is enormous creative space available for doing this, and there are thrilling possibilities already developed. Our sole limitation is that whatever we build must function in line with the rules of how to live here. It's not a choice between the current situation and our hunter-gatherer past. That's a false dichotomy. We can even still have bacon. We get to choose, so long as we can stand together, with great courage, against those few at the top of the tower still insisting on making a killing off of a dying way of life.
Those crashes you might hear in the not-too-distant future are the sound of Mama Earth calling us home. And all we need to do, really, is remember what the house rules are -- the rules of nature, of life on earth -- and make them a part of us again. The sooner we get started, the gentler will be our return, back down to Earth, from these dizzying heights.
So then - what are those rules? Cliffhanger! We'll scope them out in future posts. Seeyathen.