Economics Is Ecology

by Lorna Salzman

Raymond E. Grizzle's Thinking of Biology article, "Environmentalism should include human ecological needs" (BioScience 44: 263-268), was quite puzzling. Grizzle made numerous generalizations about humans—where vast differentials exist between groups or nations in the impact and influence on the environment, such as rich versus poor, corporations versus individuals, and communities versus the state—and about environmental activists and groups. He also inferred false parallels between human utilization of the environment and that of nonhuman species, and the corresponding impact on ecosystems.

While few anywhere along the environmental spectrum would contest the right of humans to use nature for survival (a truism too obvious to stress), there are diverse interlocking socially derived aspects of such use, the prime one being economics. In nature, economics is ecology—the observed organization and distribution of energy sources as utilized by individuals, species, biotic communities, and ecosystems, with adaptation being the currency and survival the objective. With humans, there is an artificially constructed system of monetary exchange and, most importantly, the objective of profit (at least under capitalism and most of the global economy today). The value of money, or profit, seldom reflects the innate value of anything except what people want it to reflect; not only can its value be adjusted in any direction at any time but, as the ecological crisis of the planet clearly indicates, it never reflects the innate value of the natural resources or ecosystems utilized in order to make profits.

This dissonance in the human economy is, in fact, at the root of the global ecological crisis. And, as is becoming increasingly clear, production, consumption, and profit not only do not lead to adaptation and survival but actually make them less likely, hardly a successful evolutionary strategy.

Humans could theoretically be accepted as equals to other species in ecosystems but first they would have to agree to abide by the same ecological and evolutionary rules of behavior governing nonhuman species and ecosystems. These rules include serious population control, a completely biodegradable steady-state economy and technology, toxin- and toxic-waste-free production and disposal systems, restraint in consumption to minimize the individual's quantities of excretion and pollution, minimization of conflict, and the resort to aggression only for self-defense or the defense of the extended family. An economics that does not exhibit these features does not exist in nature; on the contrary, these rules in effect comprise the natural economy (hence the word ecology) that existed in preindustrial and subsistence cultures, few of which exist today.

Grizzle seems unfamiliar with some of the more radical—or rather conservative—ecophilosophies under debate today, which not only do not eschew human participation in ecosystems but are in fact seeking practical, ecologically sound, and sustainable ways for the human species and its communities to exist within nature. The bioregional movement, for example, continues to develop concrete ideas about the reinhabitation of the earth not in some fuzzy romantic utopia but within geographical areas and within ecological bounds not only to preserve nonhuman nature but to enhance human relationships that have been seriously disrupted by the mass culture of industrialism and over-consumptlon.

Other branches of the environmental movement have taken on giant adversaries not to preserve spotted owls but the human species. These branches include the anti-nuclear power movement, a movement that could be accused of being strongly prohuman inasmuch as human beings are far more vulnerable to radiation than plants and other animals. And there is the movement to eliminate toxic synthetic chemicals, which do not harm plant species but most assuredly harm humans. It is arguable that the production of radioactivity and synthetic chemicals are the two most dangerous societally engendered technologies and as such are the greatest barriers to the reintegration of humanity into nature.

Grizzle's blanket statement that "ecological theory...has been virtually ignored by environmentalists, leading to an incomplete view of nature that is not capable of providing a basis for the longterm success of environmentalism" is so false that one wonders where he has been since the international Green movement and radical environmental movements in the West arose in the late 1960s. Even the most casual reading and research of environmental literature would reveal dozens of theses, newsletters, and articles in periodicals, as well as books and collections of essays on not just the environmental crisis but on ways of resolving it. If the author wants to familiarize himself with the thinkers and writers who have spent their working lives trying to implement what he is exhorting them to do, I can provide him a list.

Source: BioScience, Vol. 44, No. 8, September 1994, pg. 514.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.