Dancing the Middle Path of Economics — Ecocity Style

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

Dancers by RenoirFirst, it’s helpful to understand that we live in a capital system, not a capitalist system. That system is a subsystem of an economic system made up of the total system of natural economics and human economics entwined in the ecological realities of solar energy, the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. For better elucidation here I’ll call that the total economic system or total economics, italicizing the terms I want to emphasize so we can hone in on the ideas behind the terms as we go.

As the Gaia theorists have amply demonstrated with little if anything to counter their assertions, life plays a role of regulating the entire natural economy plus human economy on Earth, the total economics. Life forms in their billions of species through time and their mind boggling number of individuals, through various negative feedback loops, have regulated oxygen in the atmosphere at levels supportive of life and salinity in the oceans within limits, also amenable to life. It is hard to see this pattern on something as gigantic as the Earth with its towering mountains and endless plains and oceans but that’s mainly because we can’t easily grasp the enormity of time involved in the total evolutionary process. Simply this: given enough time, little things add up – especially if their numbers are as staggering as the time over which they work.

The basic structure of that overall total economics is comprised of two main categories. First there is the natural economics of material and energy on Earth. Second there is human economics made up of two major steps in its evolution. The first of those two steps in human economics is the gift economics of people as they start dealing with surplus at its nearly irreducible minimal, sharing milk with babies and sharing food brought back from the hunt and from fruit picking, the skin prepared for the family blanket, the windbreak for shelter from the wind, rain, snow, and in more equatorial regions, blistering sun and heat.

Then the second step in human economics, evolving from the first step is the capital economics in which a “neutral medium of exchange” becomes dominant, functioning to lubricate and speed exchange and to simplify who owes who what, and what amount of it. Making a chart of those economics, after which I’ll describe capitalism’s and socialism’s fit therein, might produce something like this:


    • Natural economics: the dynamics of the matter and energy of the    universe as expressed on Earth.
      • Human economics (a subsystem of and completely dependent on natural economics): production and distribution of things made and services rendered based on utilization of the matter and energy of the natural economy.
        • Gift economics: production through many means, distribution through gifting of those who gain and/or have gained through earlier production or gifts to others in society, a transition phase historically leading into…
        • Capital economics: production and distribution facilitated enormously by a “neutral medium of exchange” such that capital (money) can be accumulated invested and used to enhance more production and services and distribution of those to human society.

Capitalism: emphasizing private initiative, accumulation for private and family benefit and competing with other capitalists (or socialists) to sell to others in society or give in philanthropy for the common good of all. Capitalism tends to be antagonistic to regulation, exploitative of resources including workers for investors’ gain.

Socialism: emphasizing collective initiative, accumulation for common benefit and cooperating with other socialists (or sometimes capitalists) to sell or distribute by sharing through services and benefits to “the people” for the common good of all. Tends to see regulation as crucial control in the capital economics system (though they wouldn’t call it that).

Capital economics, the second stage in the history of human economics, subdivides into two competing camps as overly briefly described immediately above, though everyone has their favorite and often widely varying definitions of both capitalism and socialism. The end result in terms of distribution is generally that capitalists believe a large spread between poor and rich is good for a vibrant society stimulating through the fear of poverty a strong work ethic including working hard for the company, and the socialists who believe in more “fair” and equal distribution motivated by compassion for all, which the capitalists would say encourages laziness and freeloading of the masses (generally omitting the luxurious laziness of many of their own heirs). Both capitalists and socialists have exploited nature ruthlessly in the past, not only for gain but also out of competing against the other for victory in the capitalist vs. socialist game within the capital system.

But both are changing their ways, if slowly, with the socialists tending to want to regulate exploitation of nature as well as workers more than capitalists and as earlier adapters of “environmental values.” But now with more capitalists joining the environmentalists in “green” and “sustainable” economic ventures, these changes are coming about mostly because evidence of ecological disasters in the future and already happening is become ever more obvious.      

Infinite growth is the rule – but with rigorous regulation

Here’s something that at first glance looks worrisome. All life forms try to grow their numbers geometrically, This iron clad rule of evolution is countered by another iron clad rule: growth of any species is constantly being reigned in by competitors with similar diets and from predators wanting to eat them up personally, one individual at a time, from tigers to bears, polio to small pox. In natural economics terms that’s natural regulation and it works exquisitely for maintaining a pretty wonderful world of high biodiversity and lots of fascinating action between species and between them and the environment they help design and build, if unconsciously designed and built in the terms of the kind of consciousness humans possess.

Dorian Sagan and his mother (earlier the wife of popular astronomer Carl Sagan) Lynn Margulis put it this way in natural economics terms:

The three to thirty million species of protoctists… [various single celled organisms] fungi, animals and plants and the entire bacterial continuum of gene-exchanging microbes together with their physical surroundings prevent the rampant exponential growth of populations: simply put, Gaia is Darwin’s natural selector. All of these organisms have a tendency for population explosion. That this enormous population potential fails to be reached is Darwin’s lesson. There are checks upon growth throughout the life cycle of all organisms. Gaia, the sum of the interacting organisms of the biosphere, checks growth and therefore acts as the natural selector.

(From the Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, Island Press, Washington, DC, 1993, p. 352.)

In my early words in this article Gaia related to that total living system Sagan and Margulis describe partially in the above quote and the worrisome aspect of it is that the tendency to grow infinitely has crossed over from the reproductive and self-preserving patterns in evolution of individuals striving to grow into an ever more democratic populace on Earth insisting on infinite growth in their numbers embracing an economic system that also insists on infinite growth. Well, it is the evolutionary rule, on the individual level, says natural economics.

But that’s ignoring the regulating, that is the natural selecting process, described in the quote. It is a profound observation of the way natural economics works. Remembering that human economics is a subset of nature’s economics we should realize that we’d better take the earlier lesson of life over the last 3 billion plus years to heart – and if we don’t, it is at our peril.

For those of us in the ecocity movement who believe cars are a pervasive menace, analogies to automobiles are a bit uncomfortable, but useful: the capitalist version of capital economics is like promoting and building cars with nice powerful engines but no breaks. All forward motion ever faster and no regulation to control growth ignores the frequent need to slow down, stop, and even proceed in reverse as appropriate to circumstances. From nature over billions of years we should learn the value of both growth and regulation that keeps growth under control in nature as breaks keep speed under control in cars. In natural economics terms that means there is never unchecked matter/energy growth on Earth that can happen at all, much less be healthy and enduring, despite the individual’s healthy impulse to grow and thrive.

But there is plenty of change within that system as evolution demonstrates in its magnificent diversity, and that can create ever-different worlds of endless fascination, the stage set for humanity’s theater of exuberant, fulfilling life. In fact, that dance of growth and regulation in evolution is probably exactly where the dynamic leading to maximum biodiversity on the Earth ultimately comes from.

As something of a relevant aside here, I should mention that San Francisco bioregional theorist Peter Berg back in the 1970s tried floating a term he thought would clarify how one should go about economics, building and living in a way in sync with the patterns of healthy evolution as they play out in our local or regional “bioregions,” landscapes of generally clearly developed relationships determined by geographic features, climate, soils and dominant or “keystone” species. He said we should pay attention to “figures of regulation.” I tried that unfamiliar term on people in my world of ecocity activism in the 1970s to considerable ridicule and scorn. He experienced the same reaction, for such are the problems of introducing new terms. But we were both right, he in leading and myself in following his good meaning. He said a “figure” is a sequence in dancing that clearly expresses something in the whole dance, something like a sentence in a story. “Regulation,” he said, is that which controls the welling up in the dancer of energy to do and direct the dance. The regulation is the feedback from the environment that helps in clear communication of the dance, the reality check of understanding and acceptance, and if really successful, the honoring of the dance itself and the dancer by the society around him or her. Maybe it is time to reintroduce that terminology. To me it seem highly insightful and accurate as an assessment of many sorts of processes from dancing to writing zoning regulations to shape ecocities.

But to get back to what we may learn directly from evolution and the patterns of nature’s economics

So now enter humans with their recently enlarged brains and supple hands and mouths for making things and communicating through language (probably getting really cooking about 200,000 years ago). Then consciousness along with language, human-style, enters the equations of natural plus human economics. Based on the desire to expand exponentially, not only in numbers but in power to “consume” per person recently (say in the last 20,000 years ago), we have stripped away the evolutionary history-long constraints of the negative feedback loops of the old usual predation as we subdued predators or out-competed them to extinction and conquered diseases, leading to modern times in which we even are destroying the negative feedback loops of too much CO2 and methane in the atmosphere – temporarily! Greed, as an unregulated natural effect of the cause of the evolutionary growth dynamic, now appears as the gift economy morphs into the capital economy and reasonable controls (regulation) are lost sight of as people are imagining limitless possibilities, which is not so unreasonable given what appeared at the time – a few thousand years ago – a limitless planet with infinite possibilities including resources to be exploited.

Limits of the mass/energy Earth

The other thing to bear in mind about our larger total economics is that the mass (matter on Earth) energy (99.97% of it useable to life and life’s processes is from the sun) is that the Earth even though enormous is finite and the though the sun’s energy is also enormous, it arrives in a rather diffuse condition and needs concentration before being available for most human economic uses other than simply heating in the “solar passive” mode. In the case of food and fiber (wool and cotton to lumber, paper, clothing) it’s all based on chlorophyll in plant leaves. In the case of fossil fuels, it’s all the result of chlorophyll creating vast deposits of organic matter rich in carbon that has slipped under ground – been “sequestered” – and concentrated in various sediments, to yield coal, tars, oil and gas.

Looking at what nature’s economics offers us in terms of minerals comes this chilling quote from the textbook “Human Geography – Landscapes of Human Activities” (edited by Jerome Fellmann, Arthur Getis and Judith Getis, Brown & Benchmark Publishers, Madison, Wisconsin and other cities, 1997, p. 284).

The extractive industries depend on the exploitation of minerals unevenly distributed in amounts and concentrations determined by past geological events, not contemporary market demand. In physically workable and economically usable deposits, minerals constitute only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s crust – far less than 1%. That industrialization has proceeded so rapidly and cheaply is the direct result of an earlier ready availability of rich and accessible deposits of the requisite materials. Economics grew fat by skimming the cream. It has been suggested that should some catastrophe occur to return human cultural levels to a preindustrial state, it would be extremely unlikely that humankind ever again could move along the road of industrialization with the resources left at its disposal.

So the “mineral reality” and diffuse solar energy availability delivering almost all of its services to humanity via leaves of plants are the overall basics we have to deal with in an economics for a healthy future. Back to this article’s first sentence: human economics today are all about capital, is a capital system, not capitalist. Capitalism is a set of policies and daily life habits in exchanges of things and services involving money that range along a continuum of extremism toward moderation in a mixed capitalist/socialist capital economics, then tending toward another pole of extreme socialism. There is natural capital in the product of material plus energy – mass from the litho- hydro- and atmospheres and energy of sunshine, with biology playing a role familiar to economic theory in transforming resources to products and services. But there is an economy generally overlooked by most economists but identified and explained by Victor Polanyi, gift economics as he and sociologist Marcel Mauss first described in the early 20th century. Mauss was first with this insight but anthropologist David Graeber from Yale perhaps describes it all most tersely in an article available on the Internet titled “Give it Away.”

Almost everything that “economic science” had to say on the subject of economic history turned out to be entirely untrue. The universal assumption of free market enthusiasts, then as now, was that what essentially drives human beings is a desire to maximize their pleasures, comforts and material possessions (their “utility”), and that all significant human interactions can thus be analyzed in market terms. In the beginning, goes this version there was barter… The problem was, as Mauss was quick to note, there is no reason to believe a society based on barter has ever existed. Instead, what anthropologists were discovering were societies where economic life was based on utterly different principles, and most objects moved back and forth as gifts – and almost everything we would call economic behavior was based on a pretense of pure generosity and a refusal to calculate exactly who had given what to whom.

In gift economics (my italics, RR) Mauss argued, exchanges do not have the impersonal qualities of the capitalist marketplace: in fact, even when objects of great value change hands, what really matters is the relationship between the people; exchange is about creating friendships or working out rivalries, or obligations, and only incidentally about moving around valuable goods.

Karl Polanyi his 1944 book, The Great Transformation – The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time elaborates, and as far as I’m concerned, convincingly. From simplest gifting of milk to the baby to elaborate gifting that remains mainly in the memories of those involved in such exchanges, to the final gifting of the once-baby to the aging but wise old ones, reciprocity and prolonged relationship is the true dynamic. Such economics were only largely supplanted by capital economics lubricated by money only when the complexity of material product, specialization of production and vast array of services appeared. Presto! – and in historic terms it did happen very rapidly: capital economics, not capitalism. But all this should not obscure the connection, if blurry in our eyes, of human economics with natural economics. Note for example that animals were engaged in gift economics many of millions of years before humans showed up: birds, for example, building nests for young and bringing home bugs, seeds and carrion for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

From Jesus and Carnegie to Siddhartha Buddha and Ecocities

Both the capitalists and the socialists – considered as general categories here along that continuum from private, competitive and unregulated to public, cooperative and regulated – are caught up in what I call “exaggerated gamesmanship.” Each fights the other while refusing to note the immense degree of benefit the opposite side contributes, the better to draw lines of battle, the more heroic the risk and agreed upon honor in victory. Both capitalist and socialist benefit from the emotional rush enjoyed by the sports fan and the finality of what some call “finite games,” games with set agreed upon rules, like the rules of business, governance, sport and war. They celebrate clear winners and have an opportunity for sad sympathy with losers, deep feelings all around – then on to the next game in an endless cycle of games exaggerated for the most excitement or potential profit, up to and including becoming the star, that is, extremely right (as in correct), rich, powerful or famous, or in the socialists’ case, member of the victorious side that got elected, won the revolution or prevailed in some other sort of clearly drawn conflict and clear conclusion, being more than just comfortable, being important as part of something larger than the self, or just plain large and glorious nation, race or religion. For so is the human desire to be exuberantly right, correct, ultimately virtuous, holding the keys to the truth, etc., etc.

In other words these lined up competitors in economic games don’t want to dance as in Peter Berg’s “figures of regulation” – give and take for mutual pleasure in a dance of beautiful agreement – but to be like boxers and knock the other one out – for some idea of final best, spoils to the victor, vanquished lying on the ground as if dead.

Meantime engaged as they are in conflict, they give far too little attention and importance to the real economics of sun shining on plants using chlorophyll to power all life on the planet and manage the climate system, even much of the geology of the planet in the Gaia style, becoming ever clearer since Valdimir Vernadsky and in the train of learners with open eyes and receptive ears and a sense of healthy reasoning from available evidence and experience that includes Tielhard de Chardin and Paolo Soleri, with contributors from Darwin and Wallace to Margulis and people like myself trying to advance down that road. The planet’s life system is in danger and fighting between economic theory advocates stressing the virtue of their position and looking for faults in the other distracts and hence prevents seriously addressing the crucial issues. The fighting between economic theorists is a largely if not totally contrived battle. We need a sense of proportion about it all.

What would Buddha say? We already know which side Jesus is on: he’d say, “Share, damn it all!” Well Buddha would be much more moderate and say, “I say it is the Middle Path, the path with heart where mind and spirit meet,” or something similar.

Defending that Middle Path, for example, the cops and fire fighters aren’t Communists using public money for services; they are just doing the management job needed. The same for the military. What if they had to make money on the job doing their job? Lacking public support, mostly from taxes and loans (investments in victory, benefits of the peace later) the only way they could make a living would be to use their tools of the trade to be constantly killing, stealing and pillaging someone. Not a healthy arrangement; ask any historic people who lived in lands where all civic-minded-if-compromised authority evaporated and the land was ruled by marauding bandit armies and war lords.

Conversely, appropriating all property for the collective and leaving no initiative to the individual… How would that work?! Talk about a deadly boring world: meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting trying to decide what we all want to do for reapportionment of everything, getting permission for any individual action. Never being able to just do something on your own. That’s a condition ripe for manipulative psychological tyrants gone political up to “Dictatorships of the Proletariat” and right wing real tyrants. An exaggerated socialism – everything shared – is a game theory as dogmatically unrealistic and abuse-prone as the exaggerated capitalism that sees 30% of the wealth in the hands of 1% of the population.

Earth in the Balance

What about getting along with nature’s economics? Once again Buddha’s opinion rules if we want a happy, healthy planet: the Middle Path. Like all other species we have to grow to reach our limits as all other species do but realize in our heads where those limits are since we are in this way different from all other species heretofore and extant: we exterminated, or almost so, all of our serious predators from saber tooth tigers and cave bears to polio and small pox. There are no others on the planet to check our growth, our appetite, our excesses, our numbers but ourselves. So we must do in the mind what the ecology of the biosphere has done for life on the planet in its ecological system for the approximately 3.5 billion years since God, and/or evolution, or His Evolution landed some complex chemical reactions here and said, “Let there be life.”

All else shrinks to details, details around those grand economics. The restraint of competitors everywhere, honored by capitalist jargon as what keeps the economy lively and healthy (while individual capitalists hope to get as close to monopoly as possible, change the rules, fudge, whatever), has to be internalized in our minds to us restraining us, which is something new in the universe. In economics terms that restraint is called regulation. The co-appearance of our lithe brains, and hands and our sharp focus eyes and supple mouths (language) is new to the universe (here on this planet anyway) so why not recognize we now have to invent a new kind of economics appropriate to both us and the rest of our living universe?

Economically speaking this is probably the grand experiment in seeing if we can survive on a more or less healthy planet. We know we humans have exterminated thousands of species already but not to cry over spilt milk, let us pass “go” not collecting too much money and change the game of monopoly forever, or socialism forever, for instead of imagined victory, instead imagine our evermore healthy planet. Economically we can’t be shy about being who we are anymore than the lion really could lie down with the lamb and hope to be alive a week later. We need to take and deliver, get and give, with the new laws of the middle path in mind, take the food and do-dads we create so we can enjoy other than Hawaiian climates and experience our own remarkable God-like creativity, but do it in balance with nature, both us and nature surviving and thriving.

I like saying there is no reason cities can’t build soils and preserve biodiversity, even restore species to thriving that are now on the brink, not just for the particular species sake and not for our sake in “finding new miracle cures for us,” but for us in the sense of fulfilling our most likely (nobody is really sure of this) role as creators extraordinaire on this here planet. We humans can be us, they the other life forms can be them, but together we are another all-life-inclusive us, potentially, we the healthy. In this, designing our cities, towns and villages present an infinite game of keeping the game going in health potentially forever, not an exaggerated game but one of moderation and inclusiveness, give and take without end.

Buddha’s Middle Path

I ran across Buddha’s Middle Path reading up on Bhutan before I went there last May and June. Of course I read about it all in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha as so many questing college age kids did long, long ago, but I was about to meet and live a month with people profoundly influenced by the prophet and nationally/locally celebrated as beautiful spiritual leader. The story goes something like this: he was born a prince and as such spoiled in the usual royal tradition. He asked himself what was this obviously sheltered life he was leading all about when he knew in his heart of hearts there was much more to life than luxury and fun food and he was not just plain curious but had some yearnings one might call compassion for others and therefore a desire to meet whoever they were, outside his fragrant flower garland walls.

So he renounced his wealth and station in life and walked out the gate into poverty, negation of the flesh and pleasures. But wait a minute. Not only was that not so fun ultimately but not so meaningful either as he was missing those given-at-birth rights to enjoying the flesh, the mind, the society of sharing everything wonderful about life as well as everything real about the problems in life. Thus he decided to experience both in harmony, the Middle Path. That’s the path of the endless dance of give and take, with a subtheme of acceptance, the dancing to keep the dance going, not to have a final victory as in the finite games of sports heroes and fans and politicians that adopt a philosophy or economics that has to have an adversary posited as an enemy to be defeated. That’s positing the enemy-ness, the exaggerated competition that does not give back when dancing, that ignores the subtle pressure of a squeeze of the hand or the slight pull of the waist with the other hand, to signal changes, then swing the other way temporarily lead by the partner, all to the music. That’s the difference between exaggerated gamesmanship and sharing the changes with a dance partner, also to share the pleasure of movement, the fullness of feeling the body saturated in sound.

Long live the fullness of capital economics, aka “figures of regulation?” We need capitalists. We need socialists. They must learn to dance.

Side note: check out “Finite and Infinite Games” by James Carse. Of course you all know ecocities are one of the good things we can create, experience and master in such a dance, that which composes more music for further dance.


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