Economy & ecology, home and heart


I’ve been a reader of Satish Kumar’s blog for a while now, and the current situation has reminded me of a post from last year, in which he examined “the relationship between Economy and Ecology. Just like Nature and Nativity, Economy and Ecology come from the same Greek root – oikos meaning home, nomos meaning management, and logos meaning knowledge”.


The level of related meaning suggests that we cannot manage our homes without some degree of understanding – both what we are doing within it, and how it impacts on the external elements with which it – and we – come into contact.

In a period of turmoil – in environmental, social and religious terms as well as purely financial – it feels increasingly as though we are attempting to manage a runaway train, with no understanding of the message that we are out of control. Rather than attempting to stop the train, we are throwing more track down in front of it, in a cartoon-like display of frantic fire-fighting. Will we realise we’ve gone over the cliff when it’s too late to turn back, when we have the awful moment of realisation that the world has dropped out from beneath our feet and we’re running on thin air, and there’s nothing more to do but face the camera with a rueful shrug and plummet into the abyss? Or will we recognise that we need to make some fundamental changes to what we are doing to address the situation, and save ourselves?

Have we mortgaged our future for a cheap rush of consumer satisfaction? It seems increasingly obvious that the current economic model is not sustainable: the jenga tower of resold debt and speculative derivative gambling is tumbling, resources are starting to run low, and the negative, destructive impacts of our energy addiction is poisoning our children. Here in the developed world, we live in a bloated and – both financially and morally -bankrupt society, and there is little if no recognition at government level, nor amongst senior business, financial and institutional figures, that there is a need for fundamental change.

Greed, growth and increased consumption are not clever evolutionary or economic steps, nor do we have some sort of fundamental, inherent right to consume FMCGs and processed food at the current astonishing rate.  Rights are not inherent at birth, nor are they a fact of existence. Rights come into existence as a result of human interactions and agreements, and are codified and given weight by the guarantees and sanctions of legislation. The UN Convention on Human Rights, the over-arching text on which most states and individuals would concur in terms of civil and political rights attempts to guarantee such basics as rights to self-determination, equality, privacy, liberty, freedom of thought, movement expression and association. The later Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights for individuals and nations include rights of entitlement to wages that support a basic standard of living, equal pay and opportunities, and rights to own, trade and dispose of property freely, not to be deprived of means of subsistence. Considering those terms, it is perhaps unsurprising that this Covenant has never been ratified: it would present a major barrier in the exploitation of third world labour and resources for the greedy developed world. It is interesting to note, though, that nowhere in these two declarations is there any mention of a right of consumption. It is also interesting to note that in certain developed countries, some of these basic civil and political rights are being eroded. Our freedom is not measured by how much we are able to consume, it is measured in terms of those rights. As we start to lose rights in terms of privacy, freedom of thought, movement, expression and association, increased ability to consume is inadequate compensation.

There are those who would argue that, from an evolutionary perspective, survival of the fittest is defined by those who can acquire, secure and consume the most resources. It is ‘natural’ to be competitive, and it is therefore ‘right’ to strive for a continual increase in the amount we can acquire, secure and consume. In a competitive world, with an exploding population, it is ‘right’ and ‘natural’ that those who do not have the economic power to acquire, secure and consume resources should fail. Even though they never get the opportunity to do so? Are we really no more than acquisitive hungry monkeys? Or, do we have these highly developed pre-frontal lobes that allow us to reason, to take control of our impulses and wants and self-regulate so that we take and use what we need, rather than what we want? Is it a clever evolutionary step to strip our territory of all the resources that can sustan us, or is it more sensible to manage our own behaviour and resources to secure our long-term genetic survival?  Is it a clever evolutionary step to gorge ourselves on the oversupply of convenience foods stuffed with chemical additives, sugars, salts and starches which we know have negative long-term health impacts, or should we move away from these back to a simpler, slower, whole-food approach to nutrition that is less ruinous to our health and to the environment, that requires less intensive farming and minimal processing, that requires a greater degree of integration and understanding between consumer and producer? Is it a clever evolutionary step to create vast social divisions, insurmoutable levels of exclusion and hatred, and then hope that disease, famine and war will address the resultant over-population problems, or is it more sensible to work to implement social, cultural and reproductive rights for all women, acting on the evidence from the developed world that improving social conditions, economic opportunities, education and life expectancy and reducing infant mortality actually lowers birth rates to sustainable levels?


I would argue that a more co-operative model is a fitter way to survive, a recognition that we are all a part of the same tribe, and that we are all in the same boat – we sail the seas of space on the same planetary vessel, and if it founders, we all go down with it. In that scenario, it won’t matter how many millions of dollars you have in your bank: it’s not the sort of crisis that you can buy your way out of. By that token, we should start to distance ourselves from the current financial/economic model and adopt a more egalitarian, compassionate, inclusive and sustainable approach to the overall management of our home – this planet.

What does this mean? I think that this means, by and large, that our governments should stop trying to prop up the failing banks and businesses that got us into this mess in the first place, and focus their efforts on stimulating areas of the economy that will reap long-term benefits. Yes, I think more banks should go to the wall, and yes, I think that, for example, at least one of the big car manufacturers should be allowed to fold rather than be propped up artificially with taxpayers money. To do so would be consistent, after all, with the capitalistic proposition put forward by Adam Smith, and it would be consistent with the evolutionary model as well – survival of the fittest, not survival of the fattest.

And yes, I do appreciate the impact that this would have on countless individuals, those employed directly by the collapsed entities AND those employed in both vertically and horizontally integrated businesses. I don’t deny that such a measure would be drastic and painful in the short term, but where there is good historical evidence that suggests recessions and depressions trigger massive social change (Industrial Revolution, Great Depression & FDR), and we recognise that there is a need for vast social change, it might be prudent to take the pain and let it happen.

I read an article somewhere recently (and I apologise for not being able to give the appropriate credits) where someone said that they found it hard to feel sorry for Chinese workers losing their jobs (because the demand for Chinese manufactured goods has gone through the floor) when there was so much unemployment and hardship caused locally by the availability of cheap Chinese imports. I found this attitude hard to comprehend. Surely, a more appropriate and compassionate response is one borne out of understanding such hardships and recognising them as a bond that links us, a shared experience of our common humanity, rather than a vengeful satisfaction that they should suffer too? I think the same goes for all the big manufacturing entities currently experiencing pain. Those of us involved in the ‘green’ movement should not sit back and think that these individuals are suffering a well-deserved come-uppance for their involvement in an unhealthy industry. Instead, there should be compassion and understanding for a plight any one of us could experience – the pain of rejection, the fear of loss, the dread of being unable to feed and clothe and shelter one’s family.

The Chinese worker in question still had an ancestral pig farm in the grim remote province of Sichuan to fall back on – it would make no money, but it would feed him and his family. Such options are not available to all those in the urban, industrialised developed world, who have lost contact with rural roots, nor is the land available to all who might want it.  The puts an onerous requirement on us to address and mitigate the suffering that allowing the current model to fall away would generate. We could and should extend the hand of mutual aid to those who might otherwise fall by the wayside, recognising a wider familial and tribal boundary than we have done before. We should look to even out the peaks and troughs of the haves and have-nots to a more equal, balanced stability. And we should shift our stimulus activities into businesses, enterprises and initiatives that are more people-intensive than resource-intensive, that are labour-using rather than labour-saving, that work to propagate and nurture the earth that propagates and nurtures us, rather than stripping it of everything that gives it value.


We should make sure our inquisitive, acquisitive brains start to work towards constructive, sustainable solutions to the current crisis, rather than just blindly laying more track in front of the runaway train of consumption we’re riding into the abyss. What do you want to do?

(photo credits: greek villa, David Geddes (Picasa). Bedu Woman and child, Hugo (Flickr). Tree – Vista Sample)


One Response to “Economy & ecology, home and heart”

  1. Interesting blog, I’ll try and spread the word.

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