Nature’s Business Model vs. Human Business Models (5 minute video)
Nature Is Our Landlord
by Doc Hall
Do you own a house? Two or more houses? If so, do you hold the title to your house, or does a financial institution hold it? If you are in hock, you don’t really own it yet.
Do you own motor vehicles? Same question: who holds the titles?
What does ownership mean? For a long time in the United States, we assumed that as many people as possible should own their own home because they would have pride in it as well as equity. They would take care of it to boost its value, or at least not to let it decline. However, speaking as a former official in a financial institution, I can aver that sometimes mortgage holders are more concerned about declining house values than mortgagees. The opposite concern is mortgage holders churning mortgages, flipping houses in an up market just to make money.
Stuff happens. Owners can wind up with a house they can’t afford to keep up. Or if the house deteriorates, the owner may not care; too many other problems. A renter has less incentive to care for a house, or so we think, but that is not always the case either. Arguments between landlords and renters about upkeep responsibilities are ever with us. The assumptions we make about such matters center on money motivation – the domain of business models.
Beyond Money Models
Suppose nature is our landlord, everybody’s landlord, expecting care and attention in ways other than money, because nature’s business model is not about money. The less we “develop” nature, the better she may like us as “renters.” Renter may be a poor analogy, but perhaps it can help lead those of us imbued with a monetary mindset toward a different perspective.
So what is “nature’s business model,” that is, what does it try to do? First nothing exclusively “owns” any territory. A mass of diverse stuff occupies every patch. Animals mark their preferred turf in various ways, but they like it because all the other life within it makes it easier for them to thrive.
Nature captures energy to maximize biomass per unit of area, given the conditions. Then nature attempts to better those conditions to increase biomass density in that area (with carbon uptake and moisture retention). This process can alter water cycles and temperature cycles. (Like, if you have shade trees, your house takes less energy to heat and cool.)
Within that little ecosystem, each organism needs only enough energy to power its own metabolism plus that needed to fulfil its complete life cycle, during which it attempts to adapt to changing conditions and better sustain future replicas of itself. To do this the organisms learn to become more symbiotic – a mass of combined life, not totally independent beings.
After attaining a high level of biomass density, nature does not absorb more and more energy trying to grow bigger. Instead, it is a shifting balance merely striving to endure, to survive.
Mankind’s systems of consumption disrupt nature, thermally, mechanically, and chemically. Driven off balance, perhaps almost totally destroyed, nature tries to adapt and recover – in some form. It can never go back to a former state, but until conditions become too harsh for any kind of life, some form of life will try to occupy that space. (Tree roots bust up a sidewalk and grass starts growing out of the cracks.)
Ultimately, we have to live with nature’s “business model.” Ultimately, human life depends on it, just as all other life depends on it – all life depending on other life. So, ultimately what do we do when we “conquer nature?” We disrupt nature faster than it can adapt, and now the human economy appears to be changing faster than most of humanity can adapt too.
Expansionary Business Models
A capitalist economy is based on ownership and trading (assets and markets). Define property as that which owners can buy, sell, or use as they please. To start this, mark off “unclaimed” land (nature) and assign ownership. Create money to “develop” this asset, and sell for a profit, or gain. Real estate development still works about the same way. If individuals own property in common, they must agree on what to do with it. A socialist economy differs mostly by how ownership and gains are distributed. Given command of a lot of energy and technology, all human economies disrupt nature far more than is needed just for humans as an animal species to survive.
Once rolling, human transactional economies use money as their guiding compass. Take in more than you spend. This is expansionary. When an individual business, or an overall economy is shrinking, not expanding, we go into crisis, wondering how we can stimulate expansion again. At bottom, all this is powered by surplus energy. If “the lights go out” it stops, and now we have become so used to plentiful energy that we don’t know what to do without it. We’re vulnerable.
This system of thought centers on endless gain, assuming that the future will pay for past “investment.” Innovations lead to new problems that we never had before, like password tollgates and cybersecurity. Dealing with them creates new expansionary demand.
To keep this system going, we consume ever more physical stuff. We not only expand the human population, we dream up new wants to satisfy that did not exist before. This is often called innovation, much celebrated. Innovations extend human capabilities like speed of travel, conveniences to reduce physical human work, distances we can communicate, and novel ways to dress ourselves and entertain ourselves – ever expanding our awesome coolness.
But to keep exploiting and encroaching on nature’s business model, we have to regard nature as a set of objects to be exploited: extracted, converted, traded, used, and disposed of. Nature is seen as both our storehouse of fresh supplies and our trash pit. We see it that way when our business models recognize only the human costs of exploitation, assigning no value to nature not being disturbed, but only if it must be remediated. And that we ignore if pressure to expand sparks commodity races to garner as much stuff as possible at the lowest cost possible, as measured by this system. Excess can be reduce by more local, circular economies of reuse and recycling, but doing so does not stop motivation for expansion, our urge to find new wants to satisfy to keep the system going.
Shutting Off Endless Expansion
To make such a huge shift, we need to think differently and generate economic systems based on different premises. No matter how we think, such a shift might not be easy, but were we motivated differently, we would take up that challenge gladly. Of the myriad ways to think differently, one is to think about how we can pay the rent to nature as our landlord.
To start, we have to learn what nature around us wants, and it isn’t money. Most of us (including me) know too little about nature to do a great job paying nature its dues. We need eco-literacy. Nature is a complex landlord. We can mean well, taking actions symbolic to us, but still not be effective because we don’t see the leverage point by which we can aid nature to take care of itself – or heal itself.
The current neoliberal economic system has no lack of critics, some environmental, and many more social, voicing grievances about social and economic injustices. Many activists cannot separate the two. Minority communities, indigenous ones in particular, see depredation of their surroundings as destroying their culture and way of life. (Locate mines, landfills, car shredders, and big parking lots where NIMBY protests won’t be publicized. Avoid a stink in nice neighborhoods; it depresses property values.)
A few of many social inequity critiques of neoliberal economics are:
- Trickle down isn’t working; income disparities are huge.
- Asset inflation: Winners pile up gains; losers “can’t afford housing.”
- Markets are not perfect; more information creates a big edge for manipulators.
- Boom-bust volatility is sometimes extreme; few people can “plan for retirement.”
- Profitability fosters a narrow, short-term perspective.
But the neoliberal flaws that could sink the future of mankind are beyond all these. First, trying to monetize nature’s services to us is flawed logic. It tries to pay rent to nature on human terms rather than on nature’s terms, and it values only the parts of nature now known to benefit us.
The second flaw is bigger, presuming that eternal expansion has to continue to keep the system going when it obviously has to stop soon – well short of eternity. When stuck inside the logic of the system one may remain totally blind to this assumption. Think outside the system, and it becomes obvious. Compression Thinking guidelines are intended to be a guide toward this very different pattern of thought.
The essence of Compression Thinking is learning to see what we physically do, and beyond that, what we physically do to nature, not obscured by monetary interpretations of it. Create our future possibilities from a very different mindset, one that sees yourself and mankind in a symbiotic relationship with nature.
I can hear the objections now. What happens to our jobs and how are we going to pay for all this? Those are not answerable using prevailing economic thought. And that’s why we need Compression Thinking.