Nature Comes First; Nature Bats Last

by Lorna Salzman

A dialogue within the informal Ecology Committee of the US Green Party has been taking place which centers around economic theory and how it could be made to account for nature, the commons and the concept of equity.

From Marxists and libertarians, a frequent assumption appears: that a correct economic theory - one which forces producers to include the externalities of production in the price of their products - will make everything else in society fall into place.

While internalization of full costs, often called Full Cost Pricing, is imperative, I disagree that this will automatically bring about the full spectrum of political and social change that human society needs to survive. In any case I do not believe that economic theory should take precedence over other intellectual responses, important as Full Cost Pricing is. My reasons follow.

Economics and an economic system are entirely human-made, springing full formed (or half cocked) from the human mind. Humans can devise any system they want, like printing paper money or checks to reflect fiscal reserves or debts, but it has no external, objective or scientific basis. It is simply a mechanism to serve other ends; it has no intrinsic value. Such mechanisms will behave in good or bad ways, but when they do falter or behave badly, humans will once again rely on their ingenuity to try and fix things. Neither god nor nature prints money.

As a result, any given economic system is arbitrary. This means it is not a foregone conclusion nor the only one conceivable. It lasts as long as people abide by its rules and accept the consequences. PEOPLE create the system. They can change or abolish it.

In order for any economic system, whether that using paper money or barter, to be legitimate, it has to be accepted by most of society. This means that it is preceded by a POLITICAL system. An economic system cant exist prior to a political system because a political system has to be in place before any human-constructed abstract or arbitrary arrangement can come into being. Social systems such as barter-dependent communities are simply sub-sets of political systems.

So politics precedes economics. And no change in the economic system can be forthcoming unless and until the political system allows it. An economic system is not autonomous. It needs a political framework to operate.

But there is another system which precedes and underpins both of these: the biological system, or rather the ecological framework from which humans and their societies emerge and within which they must conform by adaptation or the formulation of certain rules and conditions. The biosphere is the ultimate external non-arbitrary constraint on human behavior and on human social arrangements, technology notwithstanding. If humans resist adaptation and instead defy, degrade, ignore or shred the components of the biosphere, their societies will surely be destroyed sooner or later, no matter how legitimate or democratic those societies are, and no matter how flexible its economic system. Jared Diamond has written eloquently of numerous societies that extinguished themselves.

Thus, the only true exigencies that exist are those laid down by Nature and the biosphere. These are fixed and the consequences of defying them are dangerous, often lethal. It has taken post-Enlightenment society hundreds of years to learn nature's lessons. And what we now know is that if our political and economic systems do not understand the exigencies of nature and do not adapt and conform to them, those man-made systems will be stressed, shredded or replaced.

So in constructing any economic system, we need legitimacy and acceptance. These can only be found through political means, hopefully through peaceful, equitable and democratic means. But that political system, even if legitimate and democratic, is not then free to defy or ignore the constraints of nature even with the most magnanimous and humane intent. To survive and persist, it must accommodate itself to the ultimate reality: the need to preserve the integrity and evolutionary destiny of the earth's species and ecosystems. Nature Comes First. And Nature Bats Last.

Accordingly, the economic system must also accept this reality, and instead of relying on arbitrary, human-derived theories or philosophies, it must take its lead from the lessons of nature regarding such things as evolutionary history, ecological requirements, interdependence, symbiosis, appropriate scale, biotic/social communities, control of population growth, sustainable populations and consumption, recycling and detoxification of all wastes, and special attention to the global commons of air, oceans, water, soils, and biomes.In this regard it must, out of purely self-interest, imitate as closely as possible natural systems which seek equilibrium in order to maintain their integrity and reproductive future. Our present-day system is badly out of equilibrium, neither sustainable nor equitable, and arguably on the verge of either social collapse or totalitarianism.

The lesson that we need to take away from this is that economics, even the most progressive and equitable, can neither design nor precede an ecological society. If we want a legitimate, democratically accepted and ecologically sound economic system, we must first develop an ecological paradigm and theory, within which our political and economic systems must fit. This is what the Ecology Committee originally proposed to the US Green Party. We need to remind ourselves of it again and again. Economic theory follows democracy, which follows ecology. Any other order would mean tyranny and extinction.

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