UR Here: Nature's Economy

As the global economy crumbles around us, I have been writing about relocalization as a way toward sustainability, last month expanding on the concept of abundance as the foundation upon which it could work. One more important fundamental concept for a sustainable economy is looking to the natural world as a model, so I’d like to complete my local economy trilogy focusing on nature’s economy.

SaplingThere is a system right before our eyes, right outside our doors that works: nature. Nature knows how to provide for itself, to do so in abundance, and to keep itself going. Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute in Kansas, writer and innovative agriculturalist, is researching how we can develop a sustainable agriculture by using “nature as measure”—actually, an ancient idea that we have forgotten. His basic concept is really quite simple. Nature works on two principles, sunlight and recycling. We’ve developed an industrial agricultural that in large part uses neither—we use oil and chemicals instead. Nature perpetuates itself; industrial agriculture depletes and pollutes nature. Let’s figure out a new method based on a model that we know works, says Jackson.

In brilliant ways, Wes Jackson extends his nature as measure idea beyond agriculture to culture writ large in Becoming Native to This Place. Other authors and thinkers have as well, and they extend the nature-as-model idea to the economy. Wendell Berry is among the most well-known, and Jackson himself even defers to his friend as articulating such ideas before him. Berry is certainly in sync with Jackson on community development, responsible and sustainable agriculture, and the necessity of local economies. And nature-as-model is at the heart of all of it.

“Economy” in its generic sense means, according to Berry in “Two Economies” (from Home Economics), “principles and patterns by which values or powers or necessities are parceled out and exchanged.” In practice, there is a “Great Economy”—which is, in essence, the natural world and the exchanges, processes and mysteries that create and sustain the earth—and the human economy, with a small “e”—our own exchanges and processes that sustain our lives and cultures. Berry insists that our human economy must always remain a subset of the Great Economy. When we try to do nature better by pushing its productive capacities beyond their natural limits, we destroy not only the earth but ourselves.

In “Conservation and Local Economy” (from Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community), Berry says, similar to Jackson, that “the standards are not set by us but by nature. . . . The true source and analogue of our economic life is the economy of plants, which never exceeds natural limits, never grows beyond the power of its place to support it, produces no waste, and enriches and preserves itself by death and decay. We must learn to grow like a tree, not like a fire.” In the tree’s economy, there is creation, return and rebirth (recycling). In the human “fire economy,” there is production, consumption and waste. The essence of Berry’s two-economy argument is that nature really produces no waste (its byproducts are recycled), and almost all that the human economy produces, after its energy is used, is waste.

We need to at least introduce the idea of “return” into our economy. As Berry says, “It is the principle of return that complicates matters, for it requires responsibility, care, of a different and higher order than that required by production and consumption alone, and it calls for methods and economies of a different kind” (“The Use of Energy,” The Unsettling of America). In plainer language, as Bill McKibben says in Deep Economy, “That’s about as basic as it gets: we’re taking too much, not replacing enough.”

And here is where the local community and local economy come in. On a practical level, and in more traditionally economic terms, Robert Thayer, Jr. in LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice says the bioregional economic paradigm is “trading natural values,” which requires us to “use local resources and materials locally; then trade only surpluses.” But Wendell Berry and thinkers like him (including Thayer) suggest something even deeper and more profound: that “care”—for the earth and for each other—can really only happen, or at least happen most effectively, at the local level. Stewardship of the land and responsibility for others require presence in place. So the only way truly to introduce care into an economy—which is the way to introduce return (or recycling) of resources and energy into an economy and to respect the limits of nature—is to do so at a local level.

Once we remain local in our economy, we are more able to practice not only environmental sustainability, but also another important principle of nature’s economy: community. The exchanges that lead to abundance in nature are possible because of biodiversity and the interdependencies that flora, fauna and larger systems practice amongst each other. Civic engagement specialists like Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) speak much of dense networks of engagement as the foundation of social capital. These dense networks happen most effectively when there is, as James S. Coleman calls it in Foundations of Social Theory, social network closure, or social interaction in multiple contexts. In other words, community bonds—care of and responsibility for each other—are much stronger when your neighbor is also your barber is also your fellow church congregant is also your daughter’s friend’s father, etc. So our economic exchanges become much more meaningful, and we build and renew (not destroy) the bonds of community much more readily, when we trade with our fellow community members, with whom we also work, play, worship and create. You can’t do that through an anonymous, detached purchase of a Tickle-Me Elmo made in China ordered through When we trade locally, the economy becomes part of our social network closure, similar to one of the inter-dependencies of a healthy, self-sustaining natural world abundant with biodiversity.

Wendell Berry characterizes the process of nature’s economy as creation-care-and-return. Our human economy is based on production-consumption-waste. The latter destroys, the former burgeons with ongoing life. So we must ask ourselves these questions as we enact our economic lives: Am I building or destroying community? Am I respecting or exceeding the limits of nature? Am I harming or caring for the natural world? When we answer those questions rightly, we will discover that our economic actions are most likely occurring locally. We know how nature makes a field or forest of glorious abundance. And by following those lessons, we can create a local community of abundance.