Rules for Living Here #1 -- Economics as if It Mattered at All
"On the basis of my history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?"
I blinked and told him I didn’t know.
“Of course you do. My subject is: captivity.”
I sat there for a minute, then I said, “I’m trying to figure out what that has to do with saving the world.”
Ishmael thought for a moment. “Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?”
“Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”
“And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world.”
“Yes, that’s so.”
“Why don’t you stop?”
I shrugged. “Frankly, we don’t know how.”
“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”
“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”
“So. You are captives -- and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it? -- your captivity and the captivity of the world.
“Yes, that’s so. I’ve just never thought of it that way.”
“And you yourself are a captive in a personal way, are you not?”
I said: “I have an impression of being a captive, but I can’t explain why I have this impression.”
“A few years ago — you must have been a child at the time, so you may not remember it — many young people of this country had the same impression. They made an ingenious and disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately failed, because they were unable to find the bars of the cage. If you can’t discover what’s keeping you in, the will to get out soon becomes confused and ineffectual.”
“Yes, that’s the sense I have of it.”
“But again, how does this relate to saving the world?”
“The world is not going to survive for very much longer as humanity’s captive. Does that need explication?”
“No. At least not to me.”
“I think there are many among you who would be glad to release the world from captivity.”
“What prevents them from doing this?”
“I don’t know.”
“This is what prevents them: They’re unable to find the bars of the cage.”
-- excerpted from Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
Deep ecologist Daniel Quinn tells us that the Western cultural experience includes three pivotal moments of paradigm-shifting shock. Moments when what we thought we knew about life turned out to be very, very wrong. He calls them the dirty tricks the gods played on us.
The first shock occurred when we found out that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Instead, it was a regular hunk of rock -- if perhaps a biologically blessed one -- hurtling around the sun with the rest of them. The second shock came when we learned that our species did not emerge fully-formed from nothingness, standing in upright glory. Rather, our ancestors were monkeys, and before that, slime.
The theories of heliocentrism and evolution, respectively, were bitterly resisted in their time. But we had the choice, as anyone who goes through a traumatic moment, to find our way eventually to an empowered relationship with hard newfound truths. For many of us, these two insights are now sources of wonderment and delight. Heliocentrism was a step in our understanding that we are a small part of a vast universe. Evolution gave us the elegant notion that life was self-organizing, and the inspiring one that we could transform for the better.
Today, in our lifetime, the third and final dirty trick of the gods is being revealed. We have believed, Quinn argues, that the world was made for humans, and that we were made to rule it. He traces this belief back to our Biblical mythology, as he does for the first two. The Genesis creation story culminates in the arrival of humanity. And then the Bible promises us dominion over the Earth.
It's an old notion, but the presumption of human dominance has a place in our ideas still. Free-market economic theory is shot through with it, and it shows up in our more dogmatic moments in science as well. The third great lesson, Quinn explains, is this: we are not sovereign upon this Earth. There are laws of living here, to which we are bound like everyone else.
Climate change reveals the new truth to us most starkly. Facing it, we now know that the planet that hosts us is not a docile sandbox for us to play in. It has its own demands and its own agenda. If crossed, it will resist, rise up, and be rid of us, and then go on for billions of years beyond us without a second thought. If we are to survive here, Quinn argues, our notion of dominion over this planet has got to go.
As with the earlier paradigm shifts Quinn describes, the current revelation is bitterly resisted in certain quarters. Identities and livelihoods have been built upon the premise of human omnipotence and exceptionalism. But just as before, we can emerge with strength and power from this little cultural death. We can embrace a world that is reaching out to embrace us, that wants us to be a part of it (again).
If we do choose to jettison our faith in a unique status for ourselves, we will be able to delight instead in the experience of being an integrated part of something greater. Indeed, haven't our ancient myths always promised us that it is so? Only now we find out that the greater thing is visible, and palpable, and everywhere right here before us. It is the whole living world. This third truth is an invitation to re-join the living community, for the most miraculous collaboration we will ever know.
But in order to participate in this community, we have to start to obey the rules. The rules of living here. That’s the ticket, and the catch.
The Rules of Living Here
Quinn boils down the rules of life on Earth to a single precept, which he calls the law of limited competition. In essence, it says that you cannot to take more than you need to live well. You cannot aggrandize your species at the expense of others. Everything that lives here must place a premium on the success of the whole community. Everything that lives here must operate equally as an individual and as part of a whole. The law may seem simple, but it is fundamental. As is our practice in the ecology thread, we'll begin with this basic ecological observation, and build the wider social world back up atop it.
In Quinn's view, we humans don't obey the law. We don't limit our competition: we wage war unrestrained. He shows us three ways. First, when there is something we want to eat, we deny our competitors access to all of it. The lion may fend off hyenas from a gazelle it is eating, but when we want beef, we will fence off an entire herd.[1.1]
Second, Quinn says, when another living thing wants to eat our food, we take active steps to exterminate it. Before planting crops, for instance, we spray poison onto the soil to kill everything that lives inside it. There is a genocide in the subsoil every spring. In the forest, plants eat from a paradisiacal subterranean buffet, laid out by the presence and processes of teeming billions of living things. But our food crops subsist on the meagre rations of fertilizer we put down after having cleared the whole table. In fealty to the law, the lion hunts for gazelles whenever it is hungry, but it will not chase down a cheetah to try to save itself more gazelles.
Third, when a competitor wants to take our food, we not only fence off or exterminate that competitor, but we proceed to exterminate its food too. This practice usually goes by the anodyne epithet of habitat destruction. But viewed through the lens of limited competition, it looks like juvenile sandbox politics of the gravest kind. We will raze the homes and harvest of everything alive in an area where we want to grow our food. We will clear-cut a swath of forest to reveal a patch of soil, and then clear-cut another just to get our trucks to and from it.
The law of limited competition is not pacifism. Everything that lives here lives off of something else that dies. But always within limits. The lion takes a gazelle for its dinner, but it does not lay claim to all gazelles. Nor does the law demand self-sacrifice. Everything that lives here protects itself from harm. Plants absorb nutrients from air and sun and soil, but then chemically re-combine them to make poison in their veins. When bitten, they bite back. But they do not secrete gases far and wide. They do not hunt and exterminate predators en masse.
The law states that you may compete to the best of your abilities, but that you may not interfere with the efforts of other species to obtain their food as well. It ensures the health of the community as a whole. You may compete, Quinn says, “but you may not wage war.”
If everyone contravened the law as we do, the natural world would turn into the nightmarish vision we've sometimes projected onto it: a constant, brutal war of all against all. In time, Quinn says, that war would resolve itself, with one species remaining at each level of the food chain. Only the strongest would survive.
But that's not what it's like, because that would be a terribly perilous situation. A small number of species means a small pool of options for adapting to change. Each species remaining might be strong, but they stand a lesser chance of surviving as a community. Diversity is nature's rule because it breeds resilience, or the ability to withstand shocks. The law of limited competition maintains balance between the strength of the individual and the strength of the whole ecosystem.
Biodiversity is why the planet will outlast us if we kill ourselves off. Biodiversity is why Nature, the personification of this system entire, is stronger than humankind. When humans take more than we need, it is a selfish act, but on a much grander scale than the interpersonal. Breaking the law of limited competition, we are sucking out the basis of strength of the community entire. This is why, unless we change, we have to go.
If we seem to have made it pretty far in contravention of the law, Quinn insists that it's a fallacy, premised upon the long delays of geological time. He explains by analogy to the laws of aerodynamics. If you jump off a cliff, for a while, you could be sure that you’re flying. But all along, the ground was really rushing up to meet you. Sooner or later, you look down, and it registers. Now, at long last, Western culture is close enough to the ground that large numbers of people are noticing. The question is not whether this is so. It is whether we will dither until we splatter on the ground, or try to sprout wings and fly.
Limited Competition in Social Life
As we consider our options, we should remember that it's not only a question of our species versus the rest of life. What we began doing to the earth to obtain our daily bread, we eventually started doing to one another as well. We have competition within our species, and there, too, we break the limited-competition law.
We do not simply seek food and defend ourselves. For thousands of years, some human cultures have tried to force their way of life upon others. In some cultures, we build long-term systems of daily violence to craft and enforce hierarchies of value. And when our hierarchies are challenged by people demanding justice, we respond to one another just as we have to microscopic bugs in search of food: we wage war.
In so doing, we have criminally reduced the diversity of cultural ideas. Now, as the one most forcefully competitive lifestyle -- Western culture -- runs into trouble, we find ourselves lacking resilience. With a great crash coming, we can scarcely conceive of other ways to be.
Out of the Cage
Some of those who build these hierarchies and mete out the attacks have had their methods of moral validation. They see a world ungoverned, open for the taking by the strongest. Last year, economic theorist Yanis Varoufakis came face-to-face with this logic, and he wrote a book about his encounter.
Varoufakis served as Finance Minister of Greece during a critical stretch of the Greek debt crisis. He received a strong referendum mandate from the Greek people to reject the European Union austerity programs that he felt were strangling the Greek economy. Varoufakis relates how top International Monetary Fund officials told him in high-stakes meetings that they agreed with his analysis -- that the austerity programs would not help the Greek people -- but that he would be forced to accept them anyway. The IMF and the Eurozone had their own political imperatives, and Greece would be sacrificed for more powerful states' competitive success.
Varoufakis' book is entitled, The Weak Suffer What They Must? As he explains, the title comes from a passage of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, in The Peloponnesian War. In the passage, the Athenian army arrives onto the shores of the small island of Melos. The Melians had chosen to remain neutral in the great war between Athens and Sparta. The Athenians were not pleased. They wanted total control, and they had arrived to destroy the Melians. Thucydides writes that the Melians presented the generals with an argument in their defence: humans should not be used as a means to an end, but rather, are an end in themselves. And the Athenian generals responded, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. Melos was not spared.
To the end of his book title, Varoufakis appends a question mark not found in the original. The purpose of the question mark, he explains, is to underscore what he believes was Thucydides' intent in telling the Melian story. Thucydides was an Athenian. He recounts this story of his own generals' ruthlessness. He does this, Varoufakis believes, in order to invite the reader to question the generals' actions and motives. Varoufakis references this story in his title because wants his own readers to do the same.
We have a choice, Varoufakis is insisting. The weak, as he tried to show through his time in office, have a choice to rise up. And the strong, as he discovered in the corridors of power, are not compelled in their actions. They make their choice as well. Today, in the West and in all cultures that accept our economic model, we are making the choice of Athens. It can feel, as the Athenian generals assert in their defence, that this is just "as the world goes." The strong take what they can. But maybe, Varoufakis tells us, it isn't just how the world goes. Maybe it's a belief that Western culture has chosen. Something we can choose to lay down, before the screaming, undeniable evidence arriving now, in climate change, to contradict it.
We have a choice, Daniel Quinn insists. We are not fated by our nature to destroy this world. Any species that chose to contravene the law of limited competition, he says, would end up just as our culture has. We are only the first species, so far as we know, that has even had the choice to go against the laws of living here.
Numberless human cultures have made different choices in the past 10,000 years and prior. Some of them are hunter-gatherers, some are agriculturists; some are nomadic, some settled. There is no one right way of life. Nature revels in diversity. The only rule, Quinn tells us, is that our actions preserve the diversity and integrity of the whole community of life. Within the boundaries of limited competition, the options for human life remain enormous.
If we feel trapped, as though we really couldn't choose another way, then Quinn tells us we need to find the bars of the cage. The fallacy of our sovereignty over other forms of life, he tells us, is one of them, and perhaps the final one.
Into the Woods
So let's go and explore some other options. In our next post, we'll be guided by the brilliant theorist Jane Jacobs. She'll give us our most grounded answer yet to the question posed by the split title of this thread -- how can ecology and economics be one? We'll unpack Jane's radical assertion that an economy is a natural thing. That it can live well within the laws of nature, that in fact it thrives when it does so. As she teaches us a whole new kind of economics, Jane Jacobs show us what it means to think like a forest.
Will her ideas be practical for the madness of modern life, or only for a fantasy mass return to tents and log cabins? They are absolutely functional for modern life. Jacobs was not a forester, or an ecologist. Her field was urban planning.
 Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books, 1992, pp. 25-26.
 We might protest that the herd is meant to feed many people who live far away, and so it is reasonable to protect a large number of animals from competition at once. But that reasoning doesn't not help the fox and the wolf that live beside the ranch. Unlike our highly centralized economic systems, natural systems seek equilibrium at every scale. They tend not to create imbalances in any one place for the sake of balance on a higher plane.
 Quinn, Ishmael, p. 129.
 New York Public Library. “Live from the NYPL: Yanis Varoufakis | Noam Chomsky.” New York Public Library. Online video clip. New York Public Library. 26 April 2016. Accessed 10 August 2016. Link.
 Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Strassler (1996), 352/5.89.