The economy of living nature and its principles

Excerpted from Andreas Weber:

“Nature, understood as a creative process of interacting, embodied subjects, can serve as a model for an economic concept of the commons. Basic structures and principles of “natural commoning” – self-organising, dynamic, creative – have been the basis of biospherical evolution. I argue that the principles of (self-) organization in nature provide a template for any commons economy. These principles include:

1. General principles, local rules

Every patch of living earth functions by the same ecological principles – but still each is a unique individual realisation of these principles. In a temperate forest, for example, there are different rules for flourishing than in an arid desert. Each ecosystem is the sum of many rules, interactions and streams of matter, which share common principles but are locally unique.

2. Interbeing: balance of individuality and the whole

The primeval biological principle is, as naturalist John Muir put it: “Everything is hitched to everything else.”5 In the ecological commons a multitude of different individuals and diverse species stand in various relationships to one another – competition and cooperation, partnership and predatory hostility, productivity and destruction. All those relations, however, follow one higher principle: Only behaviour that allows for the productivity of the whole ecosystem over the long term and that does not interrupt its capacities of self-production, will survive and expand. The individual is able to realize itself only if the whole can realize itself. Ecological freedom obeys this basic necessity. The deeper the connections in the system, the more creative niches it will afford for its individual members.

New species can alter the equilibrium of an existing system, opening up novel opportunities for growth and innovation. On the other hand, if the set of ecological relationships changes for some reason, individuals of a certain species may have access to fewer and fewer resources and eventually go extinct. Keystone species – e.g., large herbivores in temperate grasslands – provide an anchor down the equilibrium for a whole landscape. Large herbivores need savannas to thrive – which, in turn, must be grazed to remain intact.

3. Strict non-dualism: there are no commons without commoners

Living beings not only use the commons provided by nature, they are physically and relationally a part of them. The individual’s existence and the commons as a system are mutually interdependent. The quality, health and beauty of this system is based on a precarious balance that has to be negotiated from moment to moment. Individual organisms cannot have too much autonomy lest they destabilize the commons by letting free riders over-exploit the system (e.g., pests like crown-of-thorns starfish disease in tropical coral reefs). But conversely, the system cannot impose overly strict or hostile controls lest it interfere with the natural processes of the system (e.g., heavy use of fertilizers or pesticides disrupting natural processes). Or consider how animals transported to far-off islands such as the Galapogos can alter whole ecosystems and start a new territorial narrative of biological history. The simple lesson here is: We cannot separate the individual from the whole. They are both parts of one bigger picture.

4. Material resources are linked to (immaterial) meaning and sense

Throughout natural history, ecosystems have developed multiple patterns of dynamic balance that lead to extraordinary refinement and high levels of aesthetic beauty. The forms and beings of nature amount to ingenious solutions for maintaining delicate balances in a complex system. The beauty of living things stems from the fact that they are embodied solutions of individual-existence-in-connection. It is why most humans experience feelings of belonging and connection with other living systems.

5. Reciprocity: Loss at individual level affects the whole and vice versa

All systems have a “balance level” of health. If disruptions or damage force the individual, community or species to experience too much stress, then the resilience of the whole will weaken. The “balance level“ is not a fixed threshold, but more of a zone for absorbing what Varela and Maturana call “disruptive perturbation.“6 Stress that exceeds the structural resilience of the system means that the system cannot produce a “surplus of meaning“7 – i.e., it cannot provide its gifts on other parts of the ecosystem. The degree of tolerable stress can be very difficult to observe and even more difficult to predict.

A second important point is that the existence of a “balance level “does not mean static equilibrium or “homeostasis“; it is a dynamic negotiation among the system’s elements about exactly how far it can stretch to accommodate the stress. Tolerable stress, which includes minor and major catastrophes, can actually be a stimulation as long as it remains within ecotone levels (an ecotone is the patchy fringe between two or more specific areas). Beyond that, disruptions can become devastating for the whole, eventually destroying it. On the larger system level, this destruction will lead to a new equilibrium, but not with the same players as before.

6. Property: No copyright – copyleft is always rewarded

Nothing in nature can be exclusively owned or controlled; everything is open source. The quintessence of the organic realm is not the selfish gene but the openly available source code of genetic information that can be used by all. The genes being patented today by bio-corporations are non-rival and non-exclusive in a biological sense. That is the only way they may generate biological and experiential novelty. DNA has been able to branch into so many species only because all sorts of organisms could use its code, tinker with it and derive combinations that were meaningful and useful to them. This is also the way Homo sapiens came about: Nature was playing around with open source code. Some 20 percent of our genome alone consists of former viral genes that have been creatively recycled.

7. Resource trade as gift exchange

As there is no property in nature – there is no waste. All waste products literally are food for some other member of the ecological community. At death every individual offers itself as a gift to be feasted upon by others, in the same way it received the gift of sunlight to sustain its existence. There remains a largely unexplored connection between giving and taking in ecosystems in which “loss” is the precondition for generativity.

A thorough analysis of the economy of ecosystems can yield powerful guidelines for new types of enlivened economy – an economy based on commons. We should look to natural processes – as expressions of the natural history of freedom – to guide our thinking about how to transform the embodied, material aspect of our existence into a culture of being alive. The term “commons” provides a conceptual binding that can help us conjoin the natural and social/cultural worlds and make them more compatible (if not synergistic). To understand nature as an authentic, aboriginal commons also opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in both a biological and social sense.”

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