A Review of The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered
Today, the main content of politics is economics, and the main content of economics is technology. If politics cannot be left to the experts, neither can economics and technology. --E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful
It’s important to get out of doors
In the early 2000’s, English plant biologist Nicholas Harberd, who had been conducting lab research on thale cress, a common weed, decided to spend a year observing and writing about a specimen growing wild in a churchyard near his home. This resulted in a book, Seed to Seed: The Secret life of Plants, which, while including the scientific disciplines of biology and genetics, recounts how this experience—in variable weather, dependent on chance and uncontrolled conditions—leads him to many other observations and considerations. Remarkably, Harberd developed a profound, intuitive sense of the interconnectedness of all things within the ecosystem. These insights and his new, holistic grounding for his discipline, he could not have found in the lab where everything was limited by the tightly focused goals of research and the necessity for controlling all conditions.
This year, in The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered (New Society 2011), John Michael Greer, his own understanding of the interconnectedness of all things within the earth ecosystem firmly in place, asks mainstream, neo-classical economists to take the same journey—to get out in the real world and base their economic theories on what they find, rather than on what the mathematics say they ought to find. In particular, he points out that current economic theory and policy is only exacerbating our headlong trajectory into “Nature’s brick wall.”
Calling E. F. Schumacher the "Copernicus" of economic theory, Greer bases his new work on Schumacher's path breaking book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Citing Schumacher's ideas about "intermediate," or "appropriate" technology, which the respected economist developed as a way to help the people of third world countries achieve employment and a reasonably comfortable standard of living, Greer says that using these same ideas might be a sensible approach for Americans in an age of scarcity. He provides an intellectual framework for how to think about economics and brings Schumacher’s groundbreaking work into focus, while clearly explaining what is wrong with neoclassical economic assumptions. Greer also shows how reality-based assumptions--beginning with the acknowledgement that all wealth and life itself depends on earth systems--combined with a study of Schumacher, who based his work on this fact, could lead to more realistic policies and a more comfortable descent down the post-peak slope. The sooner we start transitioning, the better our relationship with the earth economy and the easier our descent will be.
When Wealth of Nature came out, I was looking forward to reading it. I’d read Greer's other two books about the consequences of peak oil, and follow his blog http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/ where he and his readers carry on interesting, quirky, informative discussions. When I got my copy, I eagerly read it through and promptly stumbled into a slough of despond. Somehow I couldn’t think straight about the issues he raises, much less write a quick review. I wasn’t sure why this should be so. The book is eminently worthwhile, and I am, after all, quite aware of the dangers posed by the various kinds of collapse that make up the slow motion catastrophe in which we are immersed. While pondering, I went back through Greer’s earlier books, The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future. I got out Small is Beautiful and reread that, as well. Then I thought about Gandhi for awhile, especially about his much misunderstood idea of using improved village-based textile manufacture to help provide wide employment and bring a measure of prosperity to India’s rural poor. This idea was exactly Schumacher’s point of departure in Small is Beautiful—he recast it in cogent economic terms—and Greer provides a sympathetic discussion.
Gandhi’s reputation is currently undergoing some demythologizing thanks in part to the publication of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography. Some people have always found it easy to disparage what Christopher Hitchens calls the “bucolic sentiment” of the spinning wheel, as opposed to the “universal ambition of Indians to urbanize as soon as the opportunity presents itself.” Yet millions of these recent urbanites are still desperately poor and unemployed, and in the meantime, millions of villagers’ lives are gaining some advantages in part because of programs and small-scale, appropriate tech projects based on Schumacher’s Gandhi-derived ideas. India’s economy may be roaring, but not everyone has taken part—exactly as Gandhi feared. We all desire a comfortable life; but if you don’t have capital or resources for industrial capacity to scale—whether you live in a poor country or on the downslope of the industrial age—you need to figure out something else to do, some other way to achieve some measure of comfort and prosperity.
While struggling through this slough, a metaphor with particular resonance for those Midwesterners who have experience with tallgrass prairies during a rainy season, I paid close attention to the news, financial and otherwise. Like Harberd, I went outside—to put in pepper and tomato plants, harvest lettuce and rhubarb, and observe and identify several species of bee pollinating the raspberries. I also went to a work day at the local forest preserve and carried out a small project to re-grade the soil level near the steps to the basement door, so that some of the water from our increasingly severe climate-change-fueled thunderstorms will flow towards the garden, there to soak in, rather than all flowing down the steps, into the drain into the sewer, or, when the drain gets overwhelmed, to seep into the basement. My family, like some municipalities such as Chicago (but not our federal government), is planning for global weirding. A cistern would be useful, so we could store some of the abundant water of spring for the likely dry periods of summer and early fall. The annual vegetables in the new raised bed, unlike the native plants and perennial food plants I’m used to, need a lot of water.
Whose reality is it, anyway?
Thus rebalanced, I reread Wealth of Nature. It wasn’t any cheerier, even though Greer’s voice is friendly and often humorous, sometimes reminding me of a favorite teacher or well-loved uncle. This time through it made sense, and I could imagine how Greer’s ideas would play out. It's useful to have read Greer's other books. The Long Descent lays out the concept of catabolic collapse, or the herky-jerky motions of our civilization's move into a low carbon future. The Ecotechnic Future envisions what life might look like as societies adapt to the post peak oil age. The Wealth of Nature is firmly based in the present, and there is a well-founded sense of urgency. As even Thomas Friedman pointed out recently, “the earth is full and well into overshoot.” As Lyanda Lynn Haupt puts it in Crow Planet, we are clearly in a time of crisis, when “kairos,” “the appointed time,” the time of great changes, breaks in on “chronos,” or “regular, chronological time.” Such is this age of peak oil, over-population, bio-diversity loss and climate change, when old ideas are breaking down, when earth’s systems and our own civilization are in danger, and what we humans choose to do, how we choose to conduct our lives matters, and matters deeply. We are at a major inflection point and our current economic policies clearly do not include a grasp of this reality--consequently, they are beyond unhelpful: they are actively harmful.
Now it’s true that millions of people—permaculturalists, transition towners, organic farmers and ecological gardeners, and low tech and appropriate tech advocates and experimenters—are already living into the future Greer projects. There are multiple organizations devoted to this as well. One reason for my despondency was that, though it’s so completely obvious that our human economy depends on earth systems and resources to function, and we interfere with those systems and deplete those resources at our peril—any gardener knows this deep in his or her bones—many of the people who have real power in this country, and the mainstream economists they depend on, apparently haven’t gotten the message; or if they have, they aren’t letting on. Consequently, those of us attempting to live a low-carbon life, with consideration for natural systems, suffer a profound sense of disconnect every time we hear economists and politicians, business leaders and financiers promoting something like a “return to growth as a way to reinvigorate our floundering economy.“ Are we others crazy? Is the constructed narrative about the nature of reality and the continuing age of abundance that gets pushed through all available channels what’s really going on, and we’re simply delusional? Greer explores this disconnect and lays it open for all to see and consider, which can have the effect of disturbing a concerned person’s hard-earned peace of mind.
No, we aren’t crazy. Yes, the necessity to live within environmental limits is the actual reality as opposed to the virtual reality of the manufactured cultural narrative. Thus I often wonder: Do the powerful proponents of “free markets” and infinite growth ever discuss our declining energy sources and our growing environmental problems (starting with climate change) in low voices, late at night in some bar or hotel lounge after some conference? Do they consider how an attempt to continue an emphasis on growth might get us in more trouble? Do they ever have bad dreams, about being “hip to the sound / of six billion people going down,” as Nick Cave sings in “Go Tell the Women?”
The ecological economy
Greer has a gift for explaining complex subjects in a plain, intelligible way. What makes his voice unique are his talents for lateral thinking, for synthesis, and for presenting the results of his thought in ways that, while not at all dumbed-down, are comprehensible to the general reader (such as myself). This work seems more abstract than the earlier books. The straightforward thesis and argument point out the flawed assumptions on which neoclassical economics is based, how that theory is helping us rush faster towards collapse, and that economic theory should change (with a few practical suggestions of how to do so, and policy-level ideas that might help our economy move toward sustainability).
Yet the book is not easily summarized. Any description of an ecological economics, of necessity requires extensive side trips into history, monetary theory, systems theory, physics, organic farming, thermodynamics and ecology. In my experience, thinking about an ecosystem requires non-linear thought, plus experience with and knowledge of an array of plants, animals and insects and their interactions, plus soil, geology, weather, climate, hydrology, time, and change. A conceptual model helps, as does an ethics or philosophy grounded in biophilia, ecosophy, or the land ethic. However, knowledge of the conceptual model is no substitute for the on-the-ground knowledge of the reality, because that reality is too complex to ever be able to intellectualize or understand completely--much must be intuited, while learning all the while. To be an ecologist is to be a generalist, good at pattern recognition and analysis, and to be a practical ecologist, e.g. a land manager or organic gardener, requires synthesis and creativity as well. Greer applies these skills to economics: to be an ecological economist requires that one be generalist. Like its subject matter, the book is nonlinear and discursive--as it must be because dealing with nonlinear systems.
In particular, Greer’s reorganization of the conceptual model of the economy into a tripartite structure is valuable: the primary economy is nature itself, and all the goods and services produced without human intervention; the secondary economy is the human economy, “the conjunction of human labor and natural goods that produces the goods and services that Nature itself doesn’t provide”; and the tertiary economy is that other economy, the one that most often gets talked about in the news, the “circulation of monetary goods and financial services.” For one thing, the model helps the reader understand the role of natural systems as well as natural resources: the primary economy becomes something active and dynamic rather than something infinite yet inert to be plundered or dumped in. The idea of the tertiary economy is very useful because it makes it easy to categorize financial activities. A few years ago, when the stock market began to climb again, and economists said "the economy is improving," I'd say to myself, "which economy?" or even, "whose economy?” since clearly, improving numbers were having little effect in the real world. Now I know why I questioned. When I recently summarized Greer’s explanation to a friend who had studied economics, she said his model makes more sense than the one in her textbook.
Greer is right. Were we to change the fundamental assumptions on which our economics and economic thinking are based, we could manage our descent and learn to live within our economic means, those of the earth systems within which we live. Yet Greer doesn't advocate any "-isms" or political revolutions that will miraculously improve us all--and in that he also follows Schumacher and Gandhi, both of whom had a profound sense that, whatever the system, human nature will still be deeply, irrevocably flawed. No system will make us good. What he advocates instead is a combination of Schumacher's "principle of subsidiary function" ("the most effective arrangement to perform any function whatsoever will always assign that function to the smallest and most local unit that can perform it"), and what he calls "muddling," or arrangements by individuals and small groups to engage in economic activities that provide them with goods and services directly, thus helping to protect them from the "vagaries of the tertiary economy" that is bound to be volatile. Some of these ideas on how to muddle will be familiar to readers of Greer’s other books, but here they are viewed from a different perspective.
Can we make enough necessary changes? Perhaps. As the daily headlines are making clear even now, one way or another we'll have to adjust to our planetary limits. Greer puts the case for making the adjustment in voluntary fashion. His assumption is that it won't come from the top down: our government and the economists that help it run the country are, like most elites, involved in extreme path dependency. So it's the rest of us who are left to work all this out for our selves, our families, and our communities. Rather than trying to move backwards, and return to growth, we could move sideways by deliberately changing the economic assumptions with which we start our economic theories, to include, first of all, nature and then to look at how drastically different these models will be. What was economically viable under the old paradigm may no longer seem so attractive or viable under the new. So far, there’s little sign of this in official policy.
Greer famously does not own a TV. I do, or I should say there is one in my house, which I mostly ignore. One recent evening my husband was watching a baseball game, and I sat down and paid attention to what was on, something I hadn’t done in months. What I saw was completely unremarkable. Seamlessly integrated with the game were multiple attention-catching, aesthetically-beautiful ads for cars, credit cards, lawncare products, telecommunications services, and so on: all the blandishments of consumer culture flung seductively across the airwaves. So many products, so many promises--it was a completely average TV night. Greer talks about the "age just ended." On TV it's still going on, an elaborate, expensive game of pretend. What shall we do?