Economics subset ecologyLife on Earth began about 3.5 thousand million years ago. Species started evolving in a slow progression of trial and error as they adapted in their increasing variety to the changing ecosystems in which they lived.

Just three million years ago early man stood on two feet. And only about a hundred and fifty thousand years ago homo sapiens, our direct ancestors who thought and felt like us, first walked on Africa’s soil.

Their cleverness, enhanced by complex communication skills and technological dexterity, has made them the dominant species on the planet. So dominant that many people believe they have become independent of nature itself.

Ecosystems under our onslaught

Western civilization’s relationship to nature has its roots in spiritual and scientific premises which sought to manage and control nature. The Judeo-Christian heritage taught adherents to have “dominion over the Earth and all its creatures”. Early scientists like Descartes and his 17th Century philosopher and inventor colleagues saw nature and living systems as machines, to break into parts and examine like clocks, the better to understand and manipulate.

This was understandable, considering the vastness of wilderness and billions fewer people then. Now our species has become so numerous and so successful at manipulating nature to our needs and desires that ecosystems everywhere are reeling under the onslaught from a highly intelligent, highly numerous species driven by a socio-economic ideology that believes it can operate above and beyond the laws of nature. This is a fallacy.

Humankind’s pride in its impressive accomplishments is reasonable, but somewhat immature for a species that has in evolutionary terms only been around for the blink of an eye. So we’re in for some lessons to live and work within nature’s limits.

Learning to live within nature’s limits

The biggest lesson we need to learn is that our 250 year old industrial economy is based on and exists within a much larger system of intimately linked biophysical elements that have taken billions of years to co-evolve. Until recently we could ‘externalize’ onto the environment the negative effects of our production and consumption. No more. Our impact is too great.

Some of the first contemporary studies that showed how as a species we are overshooting the ability of ecosystems to support us were ‘The Limits to Growth’ by Donella Meadows et al, in the 1970s, and its sequel two decades later ‘Beyond the Limits’ . Another landmark book was ‘Factor Four: doubling wealth, halving resource use “ by Ernst Weizsacker and Amory Lovins.

‘Steady-state’ economics – an approach which explores how to design and run economies that don’t rely on ever-expanding growth is being pioneered by US economist Hermann Daly and colleagues. There is also mounting doubt of the value to people and planet of measuring GDP – gross domestic product. Other measures such as the UN Human Development Index are being put forward as more useful alternatives because they also take into account human and environmental well-being.

Regenerating lasting prosperity

A swing away from the ‘bling’ values of conspicuous over-consumption is growing. This is partly due to the recession (and so out of necessity), and partly from a desire to regain the more fundamental values of human interconnectedness. Also, people are realizing again the value of local production and consumption, keeping money within local communities, and building community social and economic self-reliance in line with nature’s age-old principles.

This is not to denigrate large-scale capitalist business models as a whole, though they need serious rethinking to return to reality, and equity. Their function in society has provided an important and useful service, but generally they are designed to suck up money into the upper strata, as the widening gap between those who have and those who have not continues to prove.

The new trends are far healthier and lead to a better quality of life than one that is alienated and individualistic, where people are reduced to being ‘consumers’. It also allows ecosystems to regenerate, laying the groundwork for prosperity of a far more caring and lasting kind.