Fables from the Bees

Fables of the Bees (Video 5 minutes)

Fables from the Bees by Doc Hall

We can learn a lot from bees. Complex and intriguing, the little critters have inspired many human analogies to their habits of life. However, fables about bees may also be highly biased. Bee fables, like the bees themselves, need to be handled carefully.

Start with real bees: honeybees. Hive losses make less news than 12 years ago when Colony Collapse Disorder suddenly appeared. Losses from 2017-18 are not in, but in the past five years annual hive deaths averaged about one-third. Replacing more than a 20% loss is a stretch say beekeepers, but for now, kept honeybees are “holding their own.”

Unless you are close to nature and bees, bee loss is just another story, so what happened? No single pattern of loss manifested. No simple theory explained everything. Wild ideas spiked in beekeeper blogs; none stuck, but domestic and industrial beekeeping practice improved despite many newbies; beekeeping is a growing avocation. Losses were thought to be highest in industrial bees trucked to pollination clients, with honeybees in the wild little affected, although losses in the wild are guesstimates. Trucking bees for pollination services is just one more stress on kept bees.

Diana Cox-Foster tracks beedom nationally. She concludes that four P’s overstress bees: poor nutrition, pesticides, pathogens, and parasites. Each of the P’s has a more detailed story to tell, so beekeepers have to consider all factors affecting bees from almost anywhere in their total environment. That is, beekeepers must become systems thinkers, researchers that observe their own bees’ situation.

Honeybees (and Monarch butterflies) attract news, but they are a tiny fraction of the pollinator species on which ecologies, including us, utterly depend. Although not counted like domestic honeybees, pollinators in the wild are obviously in decline. Pollution weakens them. Human development disrupts or destroys their habitats. But as much as anything, pollinators are victims of our obsolete thinking. Do in pollinators and we do in ourselves. Technology has no magic fix. What should we do?

One fable of the bees is to stop using technology when its hazards outweigh benefits. Stop “developing” so much land. Stop using huge amounts of pesticides and herbicides. Stop cutting so many weeds to beautify landscape. Just stop. We think that stopping is economic suicide, but pollinators are canaries in our economic coalmine.

We pay no heed if we still believe Mandeville’s old Fable of the Bees, a corollary of which is thinking that nature is unlimited and it can patch over anything we do to it. Instead we need a new fable: regenerating nature’s ability to take care of itself.


The Mandeville-Smith Fable of the Bees

The original Fable of the Bees is a long satirical poem by Bernard de Mandeville in 1705. It ends in ethically loaded language:

As soon as it was tied, and cut:

So Vice is beneficial found,

When it’s by Justice lopt and bound;

Nay, where the People would be great,

As necessary to the State,

At Hunger is to make ’em eat.

Bare Virtue can’t make Nations live

In Splendor; they, that would revive

A Golden Age, must be as free,

For Acorns, as for Honesty.”

Mandeville’s pastime was popular satire. Eventually it influenced moral philosophers and economists like Adam Smith. Mandeville argued that individual bees working in their selfish interest collectively built a thriving hive. If bees became altruistic and sharing, no longer busy as bees, their hive would collapse. Selfishness violated Christian ethics, so the Church scolded Mandeville, but he kept rewriting versions of the poem over many years in tracts with titles like: The Grumbling Hive or Knaves Turned Honest and Private Vices, Publik Benefits. Later, post mortem, Mandeville influenced economic thought, notably through Adam Smith (1776).

The Fable of the Bees prompted Smith’s invisible hand argument that all society benefits if individuals act in self-interest through market exchanges – at a local scale or at a global one. That individual bees’ don’t have conscious self-interest is irrelevant; the debates rage on: self-interest vs. common interests; private property vs. common property; individual responsibility vs. collective responsibility; central control vs. local control; competition vs. cooperation. The Fable has even provoked asserting that all economic progress must be greased by corruption.

Three hundred years later Smith’s version of the Fable still emboldens people clinging to economic orthodoxy and riles those questioning it, but much has changed. Trading then was simple; global expansion into the New World seemed unlimited. Smith’s invisible hand logic stirred colonial and industrial expansion. Folk inspired by this fable still struggle to keep growth going, but growth has become its own enemy.

Market exchanges, especially financial ones, have become complex, Catch 22 labyrinths. Expansion threatens world ecology and all life, including human life.

However, atop the ideological bedrock of the invisible hand, “free markets” still reign supreme over a tangle of algorithmic finance whose soulless logic locks us into payday loans, commodity competition death spirals, near-hopeless debt, and advertising fueled entertainment. Monetary elites ride ornate carriages, but cash oozing out of debtor penury greases their rickety mechanisms. Shut off that grease and the machine begins to seize up, as with the subprime mortgage crash of 2008. A growing crowd of critics is peeling the clothes off this emperor.

For example, economist Duncan Foley calls Smith’s invisible hand, Adam’s Fallacy, a theology of neatly quantified policies and backward-looking politics with no future beyond perpetuating growth. David Harvey thinks the system has become a Ponzi scheme that will crash in unpayable debt, to be replaced by local economies and intentional communities. Social critic Patrick Deneen thinks that both free market economics and liberal societies are near collapse because they depend on individualistic values that inhibit social cohesion – living closer to nature, relying on each other for survival. And the millennials are piling on.

A victim of its own success, the system demands rethinking.

Critics classify the Fable’s failures in two big, sloppy categories: economic inequality and environmental deterioration. Inequality inflames people when they realize they’ve been screwed. Environmental degradation threatens all of us, but is more dimly sensed because market myopia blinds us to it. Pollinator depletion is a case in point. (Honey is cheap; how can anything be wrong?) We must abandon Mandeville and Smith’s Fable.


Better Bee Stories

We tend to see in bees what we want to see. Bee analogies have spiced admonitions for collaboration and illustrated descriptions of systems self-adapting to change. But all the bee fables possible to concoct are incomplete. No system is perfect or lasts forever. If anything, the lesson from the bees is to never be complacent; never stop learning.

But applying this lesson from the bees would mean organizing for learning before other objectives. We’d have to dispel the Mandeville-Smith Fable that keeps hanging around.

For example, if we think alternative energy is a magic bullet, perhaps huge amounts of alternative energy will let economic growth continue. Not likely; many other factors limit it. If we had unlimited energy, we’d probably squander it as usual, ignoring our other perils, encroaching on nature being only one.

Long-term survival depends on squeezing total consumption until nature can regenerate – plus reducing the toxicity of that consumption on the quality of all life, including ours. That mandate clashes with Smith’s Fable, that market growth ideology is the only game possible on the planet. “Cycles of decadence” from similar assumptions of superiority by prior civilization hastened their collapse.

We have to aquire a new, far less human centered worldview. We have too much confidence in our technical superiority and too little fear of our behavioral weaknesses.

No perfect system is possible, but visualizing any alternatives implies huge shifts in values and thinking. Psychologically, we have to be optimistic. Not being optimistic is to be hopeless. Awareness of human emotional make up has to be one wisdom guiding us.

Many of us are depressed running endless rat races to nowhere in our endless growth system. Perhaps a different reason for optimism would be transforming hectic, on-the-run lives into living lightly, locally, and peacefully. However, living lightly presumes abiding by a system of values other than being market and profit driven.

This kind of living would value nature as a whole – not economic expansion; not technical advance; not monetary gain (that’s so last century). No single point objectives, ignoring consequences. No rewards for efficiency that degrades nature. Better bee fables would ask nature what it thinks of our plans instead of counting on how much we can extract from nature.

Better bee fables would recognize that we depend on all nature, including pollinators. Give nature space to live, like enough flora for pollinators to feed on. We would realize that many of our improvements in efficiency don’t improve the quality of human lives, much less the quality of all life. They just burn more resources. We have to concentrate on what’s critical to the quality of our lives.


From New Values to New Action

Many people in many places are actually starting to do differently, members of the New Economy Coalition to name just a few. Nearly all struggle to escape the Mandeville-Smith Fable. We’re immersed in it. Any change that makes a smidgeon of improvement to the environment seems huge if we try to reconcile it with market expansion ideology. What to do?

When making decisions, great or small, probe whether an action will further imbalance nature, or will it help nature regenerate and rebalance. Just becoming more observant of nature is necessary, but most of us need a crutch to help heal us off expansionary thinking. The Compression Institute has a template to prompt questions from a different point of view.

If you have a company, can you create your own test bed for new thinking? Pick a community that wants to localize. With them, think through what must be done to become regenerative, building up both the local ecology and the community’s social cohesion.

You may surprise yourself by finding opportunities to serve people qualitatively, not just by selling them something in historical business fashion. Are you interested? We’d love to hear from you. We’d like your help building up our template for new thinking.

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