A Capital Idea Part 121: Nutrition is Good for you; Tons of Money, not so much
Based on a conversation on my friend Poor Richard's blog site, I had another idea about the relationship between money and the environment. Thus, I will take one more attempt to capture this relationship here.
We don't put any limits on wealth in our human economy; perhaps this is where the economic system we humans have created, has gone wrong. The system is engineered in such a way, in fact, that wealth makes more wealth possible. It becomes a race to the top, with only a lucky few succeeding. During that race, the contestants must step on, derogate or ignore their fellow human beings. This is a hypercompetitive model (more on that in a soon to be written post). In terms of biology, it resembles Darwinian competition, which is a part of evolution, but only plays a small role in ecology. If our purpose as human beings is to put the rest of humanity, "out of business," so to speak -- in other words, "Let them die," as libertarians are so fond of saying -- then our system is well-designed. However, if our purpose is to have a relatively happy and harmonious society, in which people's potential and thus progress is maximized -- what Poor Richard and I have decide to call "Utopia Light" since a true utopia is not really possible -- we need a very different economic system, one which addresses our economic needs as an ecosystem addresses the needs of its participants through a beautifully choreographed set of interactions in which cooperation and interdependence wins out over competition and independence.
The question that prompted the idea for this post, in fact, was "What in the environment is the equivalent of money?" The person who asked this question is somebody I didn't know, but apparently, he could not come up with any equivalence. (By the way, this is a person who believes that a moneyless society is possible and that there should be no money. While I think that may be possible ultimately, I think we are still a long way from that and for the sake of cultural sanity, we do need some sort of markers to indicate our rights to resources. To think otherwise at this point, seems naive to me. ) However, it only took me a few seconds to come up with such an equivalence. Money is a claim on resources. Resources in "the natural world" would be food -- or nutrition, if you prefer -- and necessities such as space to live and grow in, oxygen if you are an animal, or carbon dioxide if you are a plant. Money would be like saying "This is my space; please let me live here" or something to that effect. Territorialism would be pretty much the natural world equivalent of claiming "I have this much money in the bank." Both plants and animals engage in territorialism, in various forms. Some species are more territorial, like capitalists, while others are more sociable and sharing, like socialists, but all creatures need a certain amount of room and resources to survive and grow.
The economy -- that is, economic activity -- consists of the exchange of resources, essentially. In the human economy, this means people buying and selling things, where money changes hands. In "the natural world," the equivalent of economic activity means the exchange of nutrients, the sharing of space, and so forth in the context of the organism's local environment. Thus, economic activity in "the natural world," is all local, unlike human economic activity, although the ripple effects of ecological activity spread throughout the world. Plants gather nutrients from their local soil, in the region of their root system, and carbon dioxide from the air that tickles their leaves, while animals search for suitable food and shelter in their local surroundings, and absorb oxygen from the air around them. They do not need to, nor do they attempt to, ship massive quantities of nutrients from around the world -- far more than they would ever need -- to be stored in special containers where the contents will either be used to wipe out their fellow life-forms in the ultimate act of shortsighted selfishness, eventually rot unused, or both. Such profound gluttony is a peculiar trait of some misanthropic humans, but not of creatures in a natural system. Only an economic system based upon a limitless wealth and endless competition model can make such behavior possible. Plants or animals may store food or nutrients in their bodies, or in special caches as squirrels do for their winter sustenance, but they only store what they might reasonably need.
Thus, the most important implication of the money/nutrient use analogy is the following: In an ecological system, every organism's use of resources is limited. Sharing and moderation prevail in the natural environment. There is no worldwide gluttony, because any organism only needs or can use a certain amount of resources. However, in the human economy, gluttony is encouraged. Resources from around the world are gathered, by those who are willing and able, and hoarded so they cannot be used by others. This would be the equivalent of one, or a few, fish in the sea, eating up all the other fish. That just could not happen in a natural ecology, but it is more or less what happens in the human economy. True, "the little people" usually have some income, and most don't starve to death (although starvation rates are distressingly high in some parts of the world). However, the large majority of our resources are concentrated in the fins of a few "big fish." An economic system built this way would quickly collapse and hopefully, start over again with a better foundation. I suspect that the same will happen with our economic system sooner or later (probably sooner) if we don't manage to reform it.
Furthermore, we are talking about human beings here, not different types of organisms. Human beings share a certain biological, cultural, psychological and spiritual equivalency. The United States was ostensibly founded on the principle of equal rights and opportunity for all. This does not guarantee equivalent outcomes, but the fact that we are all human beings and basically similar in fundamental ways, means that huge wealth disparities, or other huge disparities in treatment, are fundamentally unfair and should be anathema to us, rather than extreme wealth compared to one's fellow citizens being something to be celebrated. In other words, we should cooperate much as social animals -- since we are the most social of animals -- in "the natural world" cooperate, and share our resources in an equitable manner. The way to do that is to build an economic system which mirrors the balance and fair sharing and exchange of resources, that is seen in a health ecology. There are no "Killer Whale" human beings and no "Amoeba" human beings; we are all Homo Sapiens human beings.