Can Our Failing Economic Systems Mimic Ecosystems For Survival?

We are pleased to introduce a brand new post series called “Ecology + Economics” by Dr. Henry Cole. Dr. Cole (or Hank as he likes to be called) is the President at Henry S. Cole & Associates an environmental consulting firm that provides a unique blend of scientific, communications support and advocacy. He has a long and distinguished career as an environmental scientist and leader. Dr. Cole brings a wealth of experience, skill and credentials as a scientist and environmental leader. Through his posts, Dr. Cole plans to present a unique view of today issues – How we can make economic progress while sustaining our environment.

Hank spoke to Ecopreneurist about how economic models need a rethink.

You have put forth the idea that ecosystems offer some valuable lessons — maybe a model – for our human economies. Can you really consider an ecosystem, an economic system?

Absolutely, first, ecosystems and economic systems, while having some differences, are basically the same kind of complex system – lots of players, lots of interactions, the inputs, outputs and flows of energy and materials. The players in both kinds of systems engage in lots of exchanges, competition and cooperation (think bees, honey and pollination). In pre-historical times there was no distinction – humans functioned within a forest or savannah as hunters, gatherers or herders. The divide started with the onset of large-scale agriculture and continued thereafter. By the industrial revolution (e.g. the age of fossil fuels) the divorce was complete.   

But why do you think that ecosystems can teach us a lot about economics?

Wisdom is about learning from the success and failures around you. Let’s face it our own internationally linked economy seems to be so fragile that an entire global system can collapse because a small country like Greece can’t pay its debts to big bank. And where wealth continues to concentrate among the corporate elite and speculative investors while most people are struggling to survive; this economy increasingly fails to meet the basic needs of most people.

On the other hand today’s ecosystems (forests, prairies, desert systems, etc.) have endured for thousands or even millions of years. No, we can’t go back to nature, but we can learn a great deal by studying the attributes which contribute to the systemic resilience and resource efficiency of natural systems.  

What do you mean by resilience?

Resilience is simply the ability of a system to absorb and recover from shocks or to adapt to changes – without losing overall function – without collapse. If you are resilient, you can get over an infection pretty quickly; with some help from the medical community – when a drought or fire hits a forest, many species and individual organisms will survive. Why, because of the enormous biodiversity found in nature!

So what are some of the characteristics of natural systems that we might learn from?

Let’s start with diversity as a critical component of resilience. If you look at an ecosystem you find a myriad of plants, animals, fungi, microbes, etc. – not only are there many species of plants, but there is genetic variability within the same species – the opposite of the drive toward monocultures and monopolistic financial institutions, both of which are founded on the principle of species and genetic purity rather than diversity.

In nature, there are very few monocultures – and for good reason – through the course those systems vulnerable to a virulent disease or insect are (pardon the pun) weeded out. Evolution rewards systems that are resilient, resource efficient and well matched to the external environment. I emphasize the word system, because it’s not just about the individual – but about the system as a whole. Competition in ecosystems creates winners and losers, but the system as a whole becomes more robust and resilient.

Can you say more about the problems with monocultures and monopolies?

So, take a banana plantation – its all banana trees, square miles of bananas, and every tree is a single genotype, a clone! First, the naturally diverse rainforests were wiped out to put in the monoculture. Secondly, Crop monocultures deplete soils of nutrients rapidly and are bonanzas for fungal, bacterial and insects. Thus massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticide (both made from fossil fuels) must be applied – with enormous ecological consequences.

Sounds a bit like our financial system?

That’s exactly right. In fact, the 6 largest U.S. banks (e.g. BOA, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.) hold assets equivalent to more than 60 % of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. They were too big to fail in 2008, and are even more so today. They used bailout money to consolidate their positions – and they held on to their money rather than invest it locally. These kinds of systems drain more resilient locally based economic systems; these like the monoculture are extractive – they take your savings, make a profit, and invest in ways that have proven speculative and vulnerable rather than in the local businesses that create real jobs and strengthen communities.   

Nature doesn’t do it this way. We can think of the wood in a tree as natural capital – organic matter that is returned to the natural “commons” when a leave, branch or tree falls. Think of all the creatures that depend this amazing recycling system – beetles, ants, worms, fungi, bacteria – choppers and decomposers that add humus and nutrients to the soil – benefits for the whole forest! Organic matter (humus) holds and supplies moisture and nutrients to the plant roots; plant roots in return hold the soil against the erosive forces of rain and wind. Different species compete fiercely for limited resources, but they also act collectively to protect the whole. It’s not a winner take all system. No single entity is too big to fail. No bailouts. If a tree falls over, no one may hear it, but a variety of fast growing plants will take advantage of the space, sunlight, water and resources that come available.

What about outsourcing and globalization?

Well every ecosystem engages in trade with the external environment. But on the whole it’s pretty fair trade. Take the hydrological cycle – most terrestrial systems depend on imported water. But the water eventually flows back to the source, the great oceans. As it flows some nutrients flow into the estuaries and coastal water which support an abundance of plant life that replaces the oxygen in the atmosphere consumed by the respiration that takes place in most living cells in order to utilize food. Systems that fail to restore infrastructure continuously won’t stay around for long.  

What can readers expect in coming posts?

 I plan to talk about how ecosystems are quite “place appropriate.”  Arid land ecosystems don’t site humongous bright green irrigated golf courses (ala Las Vegas) in the middle of a desert and the growing wealth gap (inverted pyramid) that is unsustainable; My posts will cover many exciting examples, of local economic development from urban agriculture to renewable energy, credit unions and sustainable forestry. 

Image via Shutterstock

About the Author

Hi there! I am Priti and I specialize in strategy and communications for impact organizations that aim to create social, environmental and economic wealth for all stakeholders. Working from the ground up, I help these do-gooders craft effective programs for community engagement, outreach and profitability. Follow my work covering do-gooders, cleanweb, start-ups and Web 2.0 businesses on Ecopreneurist and at Crowdsourcing Week. I enjoy traveling with my boys, cooking up a gourmet meal from scratch and entertaining! Join my community for Social Entrepreneurs on G+ Follow me on Twitter, on LinkedIn and Google+