Book of the week: “Life Rules” (Part 1)

This week we are presenting the book “Life Rules. Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it” by Ellen LaConte.

According to David Braden, Ellen discusses 9 aspects of “Life’s /Eco/nomic Survival Protocol” that continuously puts life into upward spiral in spite of the geologic history of crises that life has faced. Her analysis is insightful and fascinating.

In this first part, we reproduce a short interview with the author by Robert Jensen:

RJ: I assume you are suggesting that there are many different ways to contribute to making a better world.

EL: I spoke recently to a college Philosophical Society about the book. I told them that it seemed to me that to love wisdom, to be philosophical in the truest sense, meant to be to some degree detached from day-to-day events, from immediate things. Not to be disinterested or unaffected, but less buffeted or influenced and consumed by them. One of the reasons I could synthesize so much of what’s going wrong in the world now is that I’ve had time, as well as the calling and inclination, for it. I could stand back, meditate, read, engage in independent research, wait for understanding to come, question conventional assumptions, including my own, and look almost leisurely for the largest context in which we humans live our lives, which would be the context that should guide how we live our lives and deal with the Critical Mass of crises we presently face. Given how caught up I get in other people’s lives, if I’d been busy organizing, protesting, working full tilt and full time, trying to respond to the needs and input of multiple colleagues, I’d have had less mental space and stamina to do that. I’d never arrived at the simple but elemental understanding that Life rules, we don’t.

RJ: Please explain that title. Do you mean that Life — something bigger than us — rules? Or that we need to follow Life’s rules?

EL: Yes, both. The largest context — the largest high-functioning complex system within which we live our lives — is not the nation, nation-state system or global economic system but Life itself, the whole-earth, emergent and self-maintaining system of natural communities and ecosystems. That system, the ecosphere, teaches us the physical laws, the relationships and behaviors discovered in physics, biology and ecology and exemplified by the so-called “mystical” spiritual teachers, that we have to obey if we want to remain viable as a species. We aren’t the ultimate authority, and none of the systems we’ve created possess ultimate authority. It’s Life that has created the physical conditions that make it possible for us to exist. We depend on Life for our lives. More specifically, we depend on Life as we know it for our lives, for the climate, resources, natural communities, and ecosystems that provide us with what we need to live.

Life has encoded in every other-than-human species a sort of protocol or blueprint of economic rules for survival, a set of behaviors and relationships that allow Life as we know it to live within earth’s means, to be long-term sustainable. In the physical/material realm on this planet, Life calls the shots. Life rules, we don’t. Other species have no choice but to obey those economic rules. We alone have a choice. And lately, as a species living under the influence of a global economy that has, in the vernacular, gone viral, we’ve chosen pridefully and foolishly to break all the rules. The way we live in the present Global Economic Order — capital G, capital E, capital O — isn’t sustainable. It’s pathological. It works at cross purposes to everything small g, e and o — “geo,” everything earthy. In particular, the GEO works at cross purposes to Life.

RJ: That sounds simple, almost simplistic, pointing out that humans live within an ecosphere that is governed physical laws and not limitless. But all around us in the First World is evidence of a society out of balance, apparently seized with the belief that we can defy ecological limits indefinitely.

EL: If you condense the 100,000 years or so that Homo sapiens sapiens, humans like us, have been around into the 24 hours of one day, the Global Economic Order has been in existence for less than a minute. We can live without a GEO, but we can’t live without or apart from Life as we know it. So we have two choices: We can forego our present economic model and choose to learn and obey Life’s economic rules. Or we can choose not to. In which case Life will rule us out, adapt to our trespasses like an apple tree adapting to a lightening strike, and get on with its experiment in creating and sustaining more life just fine without us. Life rules, we don’t.

RJ: You suggest that because of the way the GEO works, we are close to a Critical Mass. What do you mean by that term?

EL: There’s actually a pretty good explanation for the now almost total disconnect between our perception of reality and our actual reality, between our sense as a species of being larger than Life and the inarguable fact that we are dependent on it for our very existence. Actually there are a couple of explanations.

One is money. Since we use money — or its funny-money kin, such as credit and its ever-funnier-money kin like default swaps — to acquire the things we need and want, we don’t provide those things for ourselves, we’ve lost track of where the things we need and want actually come from. We have little or no knowledge of the sources of our provisions or the damage done to living systems by the way we acquire them and the amounts of them we acquire. We’ve put our faith in the economy’s ability to deliver what we need to us, so long as we have enough money. Money has come between us and substantial things — the real goods, resources and ecosystem services that we actually need to live. Money has kept us from seeing the truth of our circumstances, which is that soon there will be insufficient fossil fuels, plastics, clean fresh water, forests, living soil, grains, seafood, congenial and predictable climate, functioning governments. You name it, we’ll run short of it ad infinitum.

Another explanation for our ignorance of the reality of our present circumstances is that most people have never heard of or taken seriously the limiting factor on a finite planet called “carrying capacity” — the number of a species or a collection of species that an ecosystem can support long-term without suffering damage in excess of what the ecosystem itself can repair. In accounting, exceeding carrying capacity is called going bankrupt. That’s where we’re headed environmentally as well as financially right now. But most of us don’t realize that’s where we are yet because in those previous 23 hours and 59 minutes of human history we’ve either had more places — more “New Worlds” to move to, conquer and plunder — or new technologies that would do a better job of plundering the places we were in to provide for us.

We have just recently — in, say, the last 30 seconds of that last most recent minute of human history — hit that point in our global economic assault on living things and living systems both human and natural, that there’s no going back. We have just hit what I call Critical Mass, which is the name I’ve given what others are calling collapse, the tipping point, the long emergency, or bottleneck. It’s my name for our previously latent and slowly unfolding, now rapidly worsening planetary equivalent of HIV/AIDS.

The salient point is that Life and only Life can teach us how to live eco-logically, within Earth’s means. If we learn what Life teaches us and create lifeways that mimic Life’s ways, we can survive this round of Critical Mass we’ve induced and manage to avoid inducing it again. Janine Benyus wrote a book called Biomimicry that reported on and inspired a movement to copy, for example, the ways other species and living systems produce what they need sustainably. You could call what I’m suggesting in Life Rules radical or full-bore biomimicry.

RJ: Given how detached most of the contemporary world is from understanding, let alone mimicking, the natural world, is this realistic?

Adopting Life’s rules will require, of course, a huge transformation of the ways we think about our place in the community of living things and the ways we live. My book offers three chapters of examples of what we can do and some communities are already doing, if in a very preliminary way. We’ll need to revise what education is for, what needs to get taught and where, when and how learning needs to occur. I would suggest again that Life is the primary teacher, its economic, production, consumption, relational and organizational rules the curriculum. The particular ecosystems — the geographic places — we live in and are presently destroying are the classrooms. And as Post-Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg proposed in Powerdown, the most important and hardest lesson we will need to learn as a species is self-limitation. Where material consumption is concerned, “less is best” will absolutely have to replace “wars for more” as our collective ethical prime directive.

The good news is, if we take our cues from Life, if we decide to transform our ways of living and providing for ourselves, we don’t need governments as we know them or any sort of global agreement or institutions to begin and to succeed. Sustainability is by nature a grassroots undertaking. Both the learning and the mimicking can, and must, be engaged in particular places with the natural and human communities that live in those places. Life’s a collection of local phenomena, a community of communities, as John Cobb and Herman Daly propose in their books, for example, For the Common Good. If we need a goad to transformation, there’s this one: If we don’t choose to transform ourselves and our lifeways, Life will force us to. Life rules, we don’t, and Life will not hesitate to rule harshly and even rule us out.

RJ: Does that mean we have ugly times ahead of us?

While there’s no reason to believe we will engage in this transformation willingly or that there will not be violence on the way to Life-likeness, a lot of communities around the country and in other countries have already begun to explore and experiment with aspects of Life’s Protocol for Economic Survival, though they don’t have my name for it yet. The relocalization, Transition Town, post-carbon,, local currency, slow food, ecozoic and new economics movements, for example, all teach and apply one or more of Life’s lessons. Paul Hawken’s team at the WiserEarth website is creating a data base of information about organizations involved in movements like these. They’ve accounted for around 125,000 and think there may be twice that many. Hawken suggests we think of these organizations and their members as anti-bodies helping healing the planet’s immune system of this AIDS-like, economically induced disease I call Critical Mass. These organizations and movements represent a starting point.

But a viable treatment plan for this virulent, life-threatening, economically-induced syndrome of crises cannot engage in just one or two or even three of the 5Ds, and cannot engage in them scattershot or only to a degree that doesn’t upset business as usual. Eco-logic requires that we incorporate, integrate, and practice all of Life’s rules, that we stop behaving as if we were larger than or apart from Life and become constructive participants in it.

RJ: It seems clear that the kind of change you describe as necessary is not possible within capitalism and that capitalism is a serious impediment to such change. Earlier you said we have to “forego our present economic model,” but not all the movements and experiments you mention are anti-capitalist. How do you negotiate that?

EL: I kept religion, politics, parties, personalities and “ism” analysis pretty much out of the book in order not to allow any of those divisive topics to set up straw figures and distract readers from the central point: By present economic methods and models, we are living beyond earth’s means. I suggest in the book that unregulated, growth-dependent capitalism only appears to succeed because it has been enabled by the mechanisms of globalism to have the whole earth at its disposal and by the machinations of the Powers to make grab-and-get/pillage-and-plunder its operating principles. Once it has been globalized, the one thing a capitalist economy can’t be is not-global. And as a globalized phenomenon, it cannot help but exceed earth’s means of supporting it. It is the globalization of the capitalist — and, I would add, colonialist — industrial economy that is doing-in Life as we know it. And as I also suggest in the book, the system is too big not to fail since the resource base — or, to retrieve my HIV/AIDS analogy, the host planet — it depends on is finite. When AIDS sufficiently ravages a human patient’s body, the virus dies along with the patient. Consequently, along with ecosystems, species, human and natural communities, human lives, quality of life, and Life as we know it — the global capitalist economy itself is in its terminal stages.

Taking on capitalism head on would have gotten up the backs of too many potential readers. And while they might waste time arguing the merits of capitalism or arguing the possibility of no-growth capitalism, they cannot successfully argue the merits of a globalized economic system of any kind. Globalized bartering or socialism or communism would equally challenge the earth’s human and natural communities and the biosphere’s functioning. Kirkpatrick Sale and E.F. Schumacher had it right: Scale matters and where sustainability is an issue, which in the matter of human survival it is, small is not only beautiful but self-limiting, survivable, and sustainable.

So, no, not all the movements and examples I mention in the book are anti-capitalist. The measure of an experiment’s success is not that it is anti-capitalist but that it works in harmony with living systems, and in the ways that living systems work. An experiment need not be in and of itself the cure for Critical Mass but is exemplary of one or more elements of Life’s Economic Protocol for Survival, which as I’ve said, would lead us to integrate and obey all of Life’s rules. Doing that would automatically move us away from capitalism as we know it and probably from any conceivable model of capital as an economic end-all and be-all. Provisions themselves are what we need to live, not the funny-money with which we presently purchase them if we are lucky enough to have any.”

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