It isn’t for ideological reasons that I became a strong advocate for market-based solutions to the world environment crisis. It’s a conviction that grew from years spent investigating the evolutionary and developmental causes of our destructive impact on the planet. This may seem an unusual way to approach this subject, but if as I do you believe that only science can provide answers to big questions (and they don’t come much bigger than this) then science should be your first resort.
Back in the eighties I was becoming increasingly worried about the decline in the world environment due to human activities, so as a keen follower of Darwin, I wanted to understand the evolutionary forces driving it. But when I looked for answers in existing science, I was surprised to find the cupboard bare.
Economists had no answers either- even the leading ones. Smith, Hayek, Keynes, Freidman and others may have been outstanding theorists, but it appeared they had failed to consider the wider context of the economic world they were writing about.
Evolution wasn’t understood in his day and the natural world was still thriving, so one can easily excuse Smith; but for the others this was a critical omission, because if they had, I believe the world would not now be having to endure this disastrous era of environmental decline. So profound was their dereliction that if we were able to ask them this fundamental question about human behaviour: why do we humans destroy the natural world upon which we depend for our survival in the full knowledge of what we do?, I suspect we would be met by a wall of silence.
The concept of economics as an emergent property of ecology, and all that implies for enviro-economic behaviour, never figured in their “umwelt”, as the naturalist Jacob von Uexkull called it - their self-world.
Thus, while economics theories have multiplied exponentially there has remained a conspicuous absence of inquiry into the guiding roles of genes and evolution in our current problems. Smith famously wrote of an ‘invisible hand’ causing markets to settle into mutually beneficial equilibrium; but who since then has asked: why does the invisible hand facilitate the destruction the natural world? If we are to forge a sustainable relationship between economics and ecology it is vital to be able to answer that question, because right now the invisible hand is wreaking havoc.
Given the void of any insightful science or economics, I decided to follow Einstein’s advice to “look deep into Nature” to find out what was going on. It was a fascinating journey, not least because it involved erasing the borders between the sciences- what E O Wilson called “consilience”- to gain the broadest possible perspective. Gradually a startling image emerged, painted in the many vivid colours of genetics, evolution, ecology, anthropology, economics and business. It showed us inhabiting an “economic ecosystem”- a subset almost identical in structure, function and behaviour to natural ecosystems, and comprising the same suite of actors – primary consumers, parasites, predators, omnivores, detritivores, and so forth.
Here we are “species” occupying niches just like any in the natural world, interacting to create similarly complex matrices. It depicted money as its nutrient lifeblood – a universal resource satisfying our needs as it endlessly recirculates.
Crucially, the most conspicuous continuity of all was the driving force behind both systems- a universal imperative to colonise new resources, a primary genetic urge almost as old as life itself, of equal importance to those for sex and survival.
However, two highly significant differences emerged, and in these lay the answers I was looking for: one is that, unlike in ecology we humans aren’t tied to our niches; our economic ecosystem is a virtual one in which we are “avatars” able to slip from one occupation to another as we exhaust resources. The other is that in economies, technology rather than biology generates the evolution of new species, allowing it to develop at lightning speed.
So what does this ecological perspective tell us about our current destructive behaviour and how to mitigate it?
Firstly, it reminds us that there are immensely powerful, ancient genetic forces at work within us, and by extension within economies, that remain far more influential in our lives than most of us would care to admit.
Secondly, that our economic ecosystem evolves at such a rate that the symbiotic synchrony that takes ecology many thousands of years to grow and that ensures near perfect efficiency in the recycling of life-sustaining nutrients, has too little time to develop in economies.
Thus the world suffers from the presence of huge herds of economic “big beasts” preying on natural capital at an accelerating rate and spewing out vast quantities of by-products that choke the seas, pollute the skies, contaminate soil and water, and destroy the biodiversity that the planet depends on to maintain its biological integrity, with little or nothing to counteract this other than some badly failing “men of system”.
The bottom line is that all this happens through markets. Markets lie at the interface between economics and natural resources– they are the pipeline connecting the two ecosystems. Through them pass timber, concrete, metals, soy, palm oil, foodstuffs, crude oil, plastics – all the environmental villains of the piece.
Yet markets themselves are not to blame, nor is capitalism. It is entirely because of the stubbornly neglectful way we have let them operate that they’ve been so instrumental in polluting, degrading, and destroying the natural world. Why? Because unlike in Nature, where any species that degrades its environment pays through diminished viability, economic species have not been made to - it has been free of the painful comebacks that would change their ways.
The jungle is not wild and anarchic as it is often depicted, after all, but ruthlessly disciplined, which is why it is so successful (hence the title of my book). It is we who create anarchy and chaos because we are not made to suffer the environmental consequences of our actions. If we are to create a lasting detente between economics and the natural world we therefore have to impose the strict disciplines of the jungle on markets. Polluters and degraders must be brought face-to-face with their external costs so that they live or die according to their willingness and ability to adapt, while fast-tracking the evolution of greener alternatives by ring-fencing the financial proceeds.
In this new paradigm, the conservation of natural capital, environmental services and biodiversity becomes critical to viability. There is no detriment to free-market capitalism here: the benefits of fair competition and free markets operating on level playing fields continue, but now with respect for the environment that nurtures and supports our species writ large in their DNA.
This is about harnessing the immense, primeval power of the resource-colonising imperative that courses from our genes into markets to protect and restore the natural world by making its conservation more valuable than its destruction.
Only when rainforests are worth more standing than felled, plastics worth more to collect than to discard, carbon worth more locked away than released, and the natural world thrives again, can Nature’s great experiment with homo sapiens be judged a success.
This is the holistic, ecology-inspired economic revolution that is “Ecosystem Economics”. I passionately believe it could transform our entire relationship with the natural world- if only those who govern us could be persuaded to see its profound value and adopt it.
Simon Lamb is the author of Junglenomics: Nature’s Solutions to the world economic crisis: a new paradigm for the 21st century and beyond (www.amazon.com)
The Junglenomics 60-point “Manifesto for an Environment-Saving Economics Revolution” can be found at: https://junglenomics.com