Journeying Home

Latent within each of us lies a knowledge of what home feels like.

Of being at home on this planet. Within a human culture. Inside a body.

To build a viable human future on earth, we need to remember how to become at home in it again.

Filtering by Category: Ecology/Economy

Rules for Living Here -- A Preamble

I lived for a while in Cameroon. I was there ostensibly to do development work. Mostly I think I was just learning how to be a white person in the world with a bit more humility and devouring a random yoga philosophy library I found.

Over my Christmas break, I travelled with a couple of friends to the south-east of the country, where the Central African jungle begins. We stopped in the capital city of Yaoundé for a night on the way. We went out in the afternoon to visit a primate sanctuary, a sprawling, thick forest enclosure a little ways outside of town. It’s a rescue site for baby gorillas and chimps and baboons found scared and alone in the wild when their parents have been killed or kidnapped by poachers. The goal is to raise them in an environment as similar to their wild habitat as possible, until they can be released back into the forest in a safe location. There aren’t any safe locations yet. They have no idea how long it might be until there are. 

Jeo, my dear friend, my travel companion, and my supervisor at the NGO I was working at, had been on staff at this sanctuary for many years. He had worked with the chimpanzees. When we went to visit the chimps, Jeo started legit communicating with one of them, a troubled sweetheart named Max. Max had been Jeo’s personal charge from the time Max was small. It was years since they’d seen each other. One night before we left Kumbo for our trip, Jeo showed me old pictures of Max as we ate dinner together in his living room. I referred at one point to Max as a 'monkey.' Jeo recoiled in real offence: Max is not a monkey! Max is an ape! I snickered a little inside. What was the difference? I would find out.

After visiting the chimps, we strolled over to the gorilla enclosure. The gorillas were in smallish cages while the staff fixed up something in their large enclosure, so we came easily face-to-face. There was a serenity about them that was loud, and profound.

I picked up a bamboo-like twig from the ground. I poked it through the cage bars, waving it at one of the apes. He looked at it for a moment, bemused. And then he grabbed it. Waited a moment. And yanked it, hard, pulling me toward the cage and off balance.

He let go. I stepped back, and waved it near him again. Again he grabbed it, and pulled it hard enough this time that it slipped from my hand. Now he had the twig. Nothing happened. And then slowly, he put the stick back through the cage bars, and waved it at me. I played along. I took the end of the twig in my hand. He pulled me right up to the bars of the cage with it, and then he put out his other hand to me through the bars. I had been playing with a gorilla. And now the gorilla was playing with me.

In a little while, we left to walk back through the park. And at the exit to the gorilla area, we saw a painted sign on a post: with gorilla gone, it read, will there be hope for man?

My jaw dropped physically open. I had traveled halfway around the world to come halfway around a circle that I started tracing in my high school bedroom in Thornhill. It was a line from my favourite book. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I read it at 16, when Matt Zarek gave it to me in high school. I read it again every few years, and my life is still unspooling partly under its influence. As I scanned the haunting sign in the primate sanctuary, just after my close encounter, I remembered in a flash where the line appeared in the plot of the book, and then remembered what came next.

Hope for Gorilla, Hope for Humans

Ishmael unfolds through a series of conversations between a young man and a super-intelligent gorilla named Ishmael. Ishmael observes Western culture from inside an enclosure, and he teaches people from what he sees. In the room where the two have their sessions, there hangs a framed sign upon which is inscribed that passage that I came upon in the wildlife sanctuary: with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla? As the sanctuary staff would be well aware, gorillas are perilously close to extinction. Reading the book, I had understood that passage as a depressing suggestion that the only way for gorillas to escape extinction might be if human beings make ourselves extinct first. If man were gone, the gorillas might have a chance.

Near the book's end, Ishmael inexplicably disappears. The young man arrives in the usual room to find it empty. Heartbroken, he takes down the sign on the wall to bring it home with him as a memento. As he turns it over in his hands, he finds a second inscription on the back: with gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?

What would it mean for humans, the reverse inscription asks us, if, rather, gorillas went extinct first? Standing at the intersection of paths in the primate sanctuary in Cameroon, I was starkly aware of the fact that gorillas are basically family to us. After bonobos and chimps, they are our third-closest cousins. They are emotional; they are intelligent. I knew this deeply now in my body. I can still feel that gorilla's tug, and how sweetly heavy my heart became. And so I thought, maybe the reverse side of Ishmael's poster is really asking this: if we can’t find a way of life that lets our next of kin survive here, then what are we? Is there any hope for us if we are able to let our close family go? 

With Power, Responsibility

Through Ishmael's voice, Quinn returns over and over to the Bible, that grand repository of Western cultural myth. He questions our common reading of the passage in Genesis in which God gives humankind dominion over the Earth. Quinn says that we’ve taken this to mean the Earth is ours to rule over, and to do with what we will. He suggests (demands) a different reading: instead of control over, Quinn wants to read dominion as responsibility for.

We are the only species on Earth, so far as we know, to enjoy the power of conscious thought. And we take this to be proof of our right to rule over the planet. We understand the Biblical creation story, Quinn thinks, as a process in which everything leads up to the arrival of humankind, the crowning achievement. But we could re-read this part of our mythology too. The creation story roughly summarizes what we now call evolution. And we know now that evolution isn't complete. We could read the founding story of our culture as telling us not that we should rule the Earth because we are its final product, but rather that we need to use our powers to take good care of it, because everyone else is coming up behind us.

If life goes on after the sixth and seventh days of the creation myth, then we are not the only species to evolve into consciousness. We are just the first. If everyone else is evolving along behind us, then the world is not ours to rule. It is ours to guard. Our gift and our curse is to be the first species with enough sophistication that we could choose to lay waste to the world. Our responsibility, Quinn insists, is to use our power to hold space for everyone else coming up behind us.

They are right behind us. They are right behind us. Across the bars of that cage -- a short expanse of metal that spans an enormous gap in power -- I felt I was communicating with a peer. Aren’t we better than this? Some days, when I look at the way of life we’ve chosen, it hurts because of its injustice. Today, it hurts because it’s just so dumb. You don’t eliminate the conditions that make life possible for family. And everything here is family.

We are better than this. We are better than this. Why can't we stop doing this? On one level, this is a searing, imponderable, metaphysical question. But on another level, it is an answerable anthropological one: what cultural factors condition us to understand this as the only choice? And on a third level, more practical still, it is an economic question, now rhetorical again: well, so then why don't we just stop? The third way invites us to set out in search, with boy-scout eagerness, of other ways of organizing ourselves here on this planet. Over the next two posts, we are going to ask and answer the question in both the anthropological and the economic way. We’re going to identify some basic planks of our Western worldview that pit us against the possibility of life here, and we'll see what it might look like to change them.

In the first of them, we'll dip deeper into the well of Quinn’s Ishmael. In the second, we'll draw from the ecological thought of the great urban theorist, Jane Jacobs. We’re going to see how eminently possible it is to build an economy that co-operates with the rest of life, and we'll unearth some of the mostly-unseen beliefs we have chosen to hold that make it seem impossible. Because it is not impossible. This is a thing we can do, and all of us who live here on Earth will be better off for it if we do it.

It is time for us to grow up a little further, and to accept the responsibilities that come with the great gift we have been given. When we grow into the better version of ourselves, there will be hope for gorilla. And once there is hope for gorilla, there will be hope again for us.

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.”


“That’s correct.”

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?”

“How so?”


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.”

Ishmael nodded.

“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.”

“I agree.”

“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.”[1]

-- 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.”[2]


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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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."[6] 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.


[1]  Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books, 1992, pp. 25-26.

[2] 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.

[3] Quinn, Ishmael, p. 129.

[4] 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.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Strassler (1996), 352/5.89.

Rules for Living Here #2 -- Thinking like a Forest

What is an economy? Is it something to do with money and bond markets? Is it that abstract national machine that just hopefully gives you a job somehow?  Is it something impossibly complex, something that condescending experts struggle to dumb down on the nightly news?

Here, we take a different view, one that you’ll hopefully find to be as accessible as it is heretical. Here, the economy is not just about money and jobs. It is the collection of our productive relationships with the natural world. Everything we eat, drink, work on, play with, or transform has its origin in natural resources. Here, the economy is the web of relationships through which we sustain ourselves in nature, and hopefully, when it’s working well, the economy is how we play a part in sustaining the rest of nature too.

Here, the economy might be complex, but it needn’t be complicated. Here, we're going to try to bring economic theory back into contact with its real-world base. As we do, we'll be able to study it in the same way that the early scientists marvelled at nature: we will make sense of it by finding patterns. Here, with some luck, economics might start to feel poetic. 

Let’s hear it from Jane Jacobs, the urban theorist who will guide us through this next step of our exploration: “lots of things that seem impossible to comprehend become more understandable if we identify the basic pattern and watch what it produces through repetition."[1] 

We can study economics in this way because an economy, as Jacobs proudly and counter-intuitively insists, is a natural system. It is every bit as natural, she attests, as how a spider spins its web. We are animals, and economy is just a word for how we relate in daily life with our physical world. 

If it seems hard to believe, that might be because, as Jacobs tells us, it's been a long time since economists have presented their field of study in this way. She praises Adam Smith, the very first economist, as an astute observer of human patterns. But she laments that “[t]he theorists after Smith retreated into their own heads instead of engaging ever more deeply with the real world.”[2] As a result, economic principles have grown abstract, hard to relate to, and out of touch with the way that everything else alive works.

That's kind of a problem. Because, as we've seen in the last two posts in this series, there are ultimate rules and limits in the natural world. We aren't exempt from them. If economies are natural systems, as Jacobs insists they are, then our economies are subject to those rules, too. That means that when an economy contravenes those rules, it sets itself up for failure. It also means that when it follows them, it sets itself up to flourish.

In a brilliant book, entitled The Nature of Economies, Jane Jacobs lays out her understanding of how our modern Western economies depart from nature’s logic, to their detriment and to ours. And she explains how we might get back: by observing the economy of a forest, or how a forest thinks. 

Here, we'll learn from her approach. We'll take three principles of conventional economics. We'll see how Jacobs traces them through ecological systems. And we'll watch her compare them to the way our own modern economies express them instead. By the end, with luck, we'll have a starting sense of what it would look like to have a whole other kind of economy, one more in line with the rest of life. In fact, if we're successful, it ought to feel quite natural.

Forest Logic


An economy, principally, makes things. It turns one thing into another, and then passes them back and forth among us. A farmer turns soil and seeds and water -- three natural resources -- into wheat. He sells some of that wheat to a baker, who combines it with salt and water, and turns it into bread. And so on. Production is the basis of economic development. We develop one thing we are given, into something else we need.

When we watch a whole bunch of these interactions unfolding together, Jane tells us, a natural pattern is seen: generalities differentiate into particulars. A tree trunk divides into branches. Each of those branches divide into smaller branches, and each of those into smaller branches still. Human lungs work this way. Blood vessels and veins run this way. Once created, each particular then becomes a new generality, and differentiates itself into new particulars in turn. It’s a basic fractal pattern, and you can see it everywhere. 

Every development also mixes and merges with other separate but parallel developments. The growth of tree branches is fed by the production of UV light in the sun, and by the production of carbon dioxide in animals' lungs, and so on. Jacobs calls these parallel tracks co-developments. Each of us is dependent for daily life upon an enormous web of co-developments. This web, Jacobs says, is a habitat. A living, breathing, evolving, overlapping web. This is how nature produces.

In economies, you can observe the principle of differentiation at work as well. Iron is mined from the earth, and filtered to become solid iron ore. That iron ore is developed into steel. Steel is melted down and re-formed into car panels and kitchen sinks. Co-developments produce rear view mirrors, cushions, and tail lights, and a car is produced. It is, Jacobs tells us, “an open-ended process, generating complexity and diversity.”[3]

Except for one catch. In our economies, it isn’t all that open-ended. Almost invariably, after three or four transformations, it stops. What new generality does a car become? Sometimes the steel is salvaged. The mirror, the seats, and the tail light are likely destined for landfill. But nature doesn’t have any landfills. There are no dead ends. Each differentiation, without fail, becomes a new generality. What our culture calls garbage and pollution are simply those things that cannot be recycled back into the system in a practical way. From nature’s view, that’s uneconomic. Our landfills are monuments to the dysfunction of our economies -- at least by comparison with the efficiency of everything else alive.

There’s an even deeper inefficiency in our culture's dead-end economics than the fact of pollution. (Deeper, that is, than the obvious fact that given enough time we will literally suffocate in our own garbage.) Let's recall how each process of development relies upon and blends with parallel co-developments, each of which in turn comes from an enormously complex, distinct line of development of its own stretching back through time. Multiply this by millions. This is what development in an ecosystem looks like. Our single-use, disposable products, by contrast, constrain the creative process. When something is thrown into a landfill, its line of development ends. The enormous genetic or mechanical differentiation that produced it is lost to the system forever.

When nothing is lost from the system, though, the resulting complexity and diversity are staggering. Open-ended development permits the maximum possible number of relationships and interactions -- the most complex and diverse possible economy. A diverse economy, like a diverse ecosystem, is resilient. It is capable of weathering shocks. A diverse and integrated system is creative, responsive, and strong.


When many things are produced, and the total size of the system expands, we can say that it has grown. We talk about growth in our economies constantly. But the conversation sits atop a fundamental problem: as we rush to keep growing, we are using up our basic inputs for growth -- our natural resources -- far faster than they can replenish themselves. And yet growth is a fundamental feature of life on Earth. Are there other ways we could do it?

Any economic or ecological system, Jacobs writes, is a kind of energy conduit. It takes in a certain amount of energy at the beginning, transforms it into new things, and then sends energy out the other end. A lot of growth can happen from relatively few resources if, inside the conduit, those resources are efficiently used.

In our usual economic theory, she tells us, we try to grow by increasing our outputs from the system. We want to sell exports in large quantities all around the world. We celebrate large-scale industries, like food processors, or car manufacturers, or tech giants. When we try to grow through increasing our exports, we're focusing on transforming inputs and sending them out the other end of the system as quickly as possible. It's a short trip through the energy conduit.

Natural systems work in the opposite way. Jacobs gives us the example of the tropical rainforest, home to some of the most explosive growth on Earth. You might expect that the rainforest grows as it does because it's blessed with abundant inputs -- lots of rain, rich soils. That's the way we'd see it in our usual economic thinking -- a short, straight path from input to output. But Jacobs tells us that the rainforest works entirely differently.

The rainforest, in fact, gets so much rain that its soils are made terribly poor. All the rain leaches minerals from the soil, making it hard and dry. If a patch is cleared for agriculture, crop yields dwindle after just a couple of years. What rainforests do, Jacobs says, is extend their use of inputs for as long as possible before they leave the system. They build a very long conduit.

Following rainstorms, they generate short bursts of growth. As emerging plants proceed through their life cycles, they drop dying leaves onto the forest floor. Those leaves start to decay, laying down a longer-term, slow-release source of nutrients for larger trees. After the next big rainfall, the enriched soil can support an even bigger burst of growth. As the cycle continues, the ground cover thickens. Small bugs and mushrooms make their homes among the fallen leaves, attracting animals, whose manure adds to the compost pile. Soil bacteria thrive on the decaying matter, and they create more soil nutrients in their wake. As the  ground cover grows and grows, it stretches out the value of the starting stock of nutrients in the soil. 

The rainforest grows so well not because it is blessed with abundant inputs, but because it makes efficient use of the inputs it has. Every bit of soil nutrition is gathered up and distributed multiple times through the network before it has a chance to leach out through the ground. Instead of short, direct conduits from input to output, it builds long ones, stretched out over many overlapping processes of co-development. Most of the value is contained in the conduit itself. Cut down the rainforest, and you've got very little left. The rainforest places its focus on retaining inputs, and it grows both explosively and sustainably.

Could we do the same in our economies? If we're drawn to those large-scale exporters because they provide a lot of jobs, could we create jobs by increasing the number of connections inside each of our systems instead? Could we build a long conduit? Could we pass the same resources back and forth to one another, each adding a little bit as we go?

Indeed, we could. In standard economics, it's called adding value, and it's highly prized. But we don't prioritize it. It always just seems easier to pull more inputs out of the ground and funnel them through a short conduit than it does to build a real local web of activity. If that's so, it's just because we don't place any inherent or formal value on our natural resources. We treat them as though they were unlimited. But they aren't, and we're shooting them through short conduits at a foolish rate. Meanwhile, those dense, local webs we're neglecting are what make an economy resilient, creative, and more equitable and fair.

So what might it look like if a town grew like a forest? Imagine a fertile plot of land somewhere in Southern Ontario. In our conventional thinking, the best way to use that piece of land would be to plop an export plant down on top of it. Import a bunch of materials, and make one product in large quantities. Turn the inputs into outputs, and send them on their way. If it does well, it could attract a few thousand jobs. Through those workers' salaries, we could support a few hundred others in home construction, haircuts, restaurants, and more. That's one option.

If we thought like a forest, we'd start out by asking how many different uses we could draw from this single plot of land instead. We'd be looking for the maximum number of interactions and co-developments, to keep the value that's present in that land cycling through the system as long as possible before it leaves. For starters, we could grow food on it -- but not just one single crop of wheat to cut and put on a train to somewhere else. That's short-conduit thinking. We could start out growing corn and beans and squash, all together in a single row. They work in tandem to feed each other, making maximum use of soil nutrients and water.[4] The corn and beans could supply a Mexican restaurant in town. The squash could be saved for the winter, to help the farmers' market run year-round. Another row could be used to grow flowers, supporting a local florist's shop, and feeding in to wedding and funeral services.

Another part of the field could go to cattle grazing. That would generate a new input of manure for enhancing the outputs of rest of the field. Dairy cows could produce milk, providing work for a local cheesemaker, and supplying a pizza shop. The whey, a by-product of cheesemaking, could be sold off to a pig farmer down the way to supplement the diet of her pigs. Still another part of the field could be used for windmills, generating repair work for a local mechanic. If enough other people did the same, a small regional plant could go up to supply spare parts for the windmills, or even build them from scratch. The web can keep growing, thickening, and developing from there. If other local people start to take the same approach, the potential for co-development grows exponentially.

Both the car plant and the mixed-use farm generate a large number of jobs from the same plot of land. But one of them -- the car plant -- does so through a short conduit, rapidly cycling materials through. The other -- the mixed-use farm -- accomplishes it by multiplying the number of uses for each material, generating a complex, diversified local web.

Would it work, we must ask, for a modern high-tech city too? Absolutely. Cities are shining examples of dense, local webs of co-development. A single busy restaurant might contract the services of a local accountant, lawyer, interior designer, and marketing specialist, on top of their own staff and suppliers. When governments try to encourage further growth in cities, oftentimes they try to entice a large multinational corporation, like a technology firm or a pharmaceutical company, to set up a local office or plant. Instead, they could choose to support the growth and development of what already exists in the system.

To attract a large exporter, governments might spend revenue on subsidies and tax breaks. To encourage interconnections instead, that revenue could be spent on local infrastructure: building transit to help citizens quickly reach each other, providing affordable child care to facilitate working life for parents, or supporting public parks and the arts to help everyone feel energized and refreshed. Just like in the rural example, it's a choice between investing in one large set of outputs, or priming the whole ecosystem to make maximum use of the inputs that it already has.

With a focus on attracting exporters, a city or town might have the potential to grow richer in less time. But with the diversified, input-stretching approach, the city or town's economy will be more reliable, durable, sustainable, and creative. Forests opt for stability and for balance. And they think for the long term. They'll always choose the second way. Given the choice, I think most people would too.


All organisms need to re-fuel themselves in order to survive. When you eat, you generate at least enough energy to acquire your next meal. This is self-refueling. In a business, you need to make enough money selling a product to purchase the materials for the next one. And in a whole economy, money is made to import goods by exporting goods to other places. In order to stay in balance, it tries to earn enough through exports to be able to purchase all the imports it needs. 

As we’ve seen, in our conventional economies, we tend to focus on the export side of the equation. There's a certain logic to it. But when it comes to self-refueling, by forest standards, that's a pretty risky approach. Because if the big exporter moves away, the city runs out of fuel.

A city that leans heavily on big export industries isn't behaving like a self-refueling organism, Jacobs tells us. It's behaving like a machine, waiting to be powered by something outside itself. "Somebody has to refill its tank for it," Jacobs writes, "and if nobody does, the machine stands still.”[5] When the big U.S. auto-makers declined, Detroit fell into trouble. It couldn't refuel itself when the big exporters moved away. We see this pattern, painfully, over and over again.

Jacobs takes us back to the forest model to imagine another way. Not only do forests make maximum use of their inputs, and recycle them when they're through, but the inputs that they do rely on are very simple, very few, and very dependably available. How? They make much of what they need themselves. Each plant is like a little chemical laboratory, re-organizing and synthesizing inputs to produce what else it needs. Varied species’ functions overlap to enrich the resource base for all. If you want to be less dependent on large-scale export, Jacobs tells us, you focus on the other end of the equation: you reduce your dependence on imports. You make more of what you need for yourself. And as you grow your own local ecosystem, you end up generating exports anyway from within. This is how an economy can fuel itself.

Jacobs shows us how this works through a lovely story of the early economy of San Francisco. The city began as a gold rush town. Merchants popped up to sell provisions to prospectors. As the economy matured and diversified, merchants started importing luxury goods from the cities of the East. One grocer, named Cutting, started bringing in jams and preserves from a Boston warehouse. He realized he could reap a bigger profit if he made the jams and preserves himself instead. So he went out to some of the farms on the outskirts of town and persuaded a handful of cattle ranchers to plant peach, pear, cherry, plum and apricot trees. Today, of course, the area is a hugely successful fruit-producing region. But that’s a co-development story for another day.

Cutting’s preserve-making initiative was a hit. Other merchants started to follow his lead. Some started canning beans and peas, which before then had been imported from the East as well. The little industry grew, and as it did, the balance of San Francisco's imports shifted. Fewer jams were brought in, but a lot more sugar and empty glass jars. And so someone started up a glass jar-making factory in town. A few others started bringing in sheets of tin to make cans. By the 1930s, canned and dried fruits and vegetables were the second-largest industry in the city, and tin cans and other tin goods were the fifth-largest. Other import replacements took place simultaneously in other industries -- co-developments -- and eventually demand grew large enough to justify a local glass-making factory and a tin-rolling mill.

Substituting local production for imports, San Francisco powered much of its own growth from a sleepy gold-rush town into a major metropolis. In time, it could export its home-grown products to other places, earning more money for imports. And because those exporters had grown up from within, enmeshed in co-developments with other local producers, they were rooted in a dense, interconnected web of local production. That web could function as a unit to provide San Franciscans with much of their own needs.. If one of the exporters went suddenly out of business, the economy as a whole would stand a good chance at adapting, recovering, and correcting, as would the individuals within it. As in a forest, the diversity, creativity, and resilience of the system would be its strength.

In our conventional economics, this sort of local approach is sometimes scoffed at. The rule has long been to let each area specialize in making one sort of thing, so that each thing is made most efficiently. It's called economies of scale: the higher the scale, the more economical. But viewed through the lens of self-refueling, the conventional approach is suspect. Depending on trade for much of your employment or to fulfill your basic needs sets your economy upon a shaky branch. A thoroughly globalized economy, whatever its theoretical appeal, is deeply at odds with the pattern in nature.

Against economies of scale, Jacobs argues for economies of location. Learning from forests, she says, economies should seek the maximum number of productive relationships at every single geographic node. Some trade is perfectly fine, but the more an economic system depends on export and trade for its basic health, the more it sacrifices its own resilience, and its own creativity.

Choosing Resilience

There is one way in which a human economic system differs from a forest ecology, a way in which they can't be made quite equivalent. Unlike every other life form, humans have a choice. We can choose to participate in the forms of production and exchange that have been honed through evolution, or we can choose to contradict them.

An economy, like a forest, is a self-organizing system, except for the humans who populate it. We organize one another. We organize together. We organize our systems in the ways that we choose. And so we need to make a choice. We  can choose to organize our economies so that they co-operate with the wisdom of living systems. We can choose to preserve what Jacobs calls “the double nature of fitness for survival:” the freedom to act as an individual, and the sacred responsibility of preserving the health of the habitat for everyone else.[6]

The limits such a choice would impose upon us are not so restrictive. A million forms of life are possible within them. And diversity may reign. Beautiful, insightful forms of living are cropping up all around the edges of our conventional economy, and in my own opinion, many of them promise much happier, much richer lives than we have now. Not to mention the added perk of continued human survival. We’ll start to explore some of them in future posts on this thread, partly just to share these great ideas, and partly, of course, to tease out how they exemplify and express newly emerging philosophies of human life. 

All we need to do is ensure that we begin to live once again in symbiosis with the rest of the living world. When we do, the actions of any one of us will contribute positively to the whole. It may sound utopian. But look around. See the patterns. The whole world lives this way, except for some of us. For everyone else, it is basic, commonplace, and obvious. It is how we travelled most of the way through time to where we are. We need only remember what we once knew, and build forward from there.

[U]niversal natural principles limit what we can do economically and how we can do it. Trying to evade overriding principles of development is economically futile. But those principles are solid foundations for economies.
— Jane Jacobs [7]

Audio Credits:

  1. Branches Break - Gogo Penguin (4:23)
  2. Initiate - Gogo Penguin (4:47)
  3. GBFISYSIH - Gogo Penguin (3:22)
  4. Everloving - Moby (3:26)
  5. Ce Matin La - AIR (3:39)
  6. Protest - Gogo Penguin (4:45)


[1] Jacbos, Jane. The Nature of Economies. New York: Vintage Books, 2001, pp. 22-23.

[2] Ibid., p. 107.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

[4] This agricultural technique was developed by the Maya people, and is still used in various parts of Mexico and Central America. It is known as milpa.

[5] Jacobs, The Nature of Economies., p. 68.

[6] Ibid., pp. 119-132.

[7] Ibid., p. 8.