Several decades ago, during the USA President’s Commission on Sustainability, evolution biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris was asked to briefly speak. They had been debating at length on whether the commission needed to include economics when the mandate of the commission was just with environmental issues. The crisis was, Sahtouris realized, unecessarily about arbitrarily—or conveniently—separating what was not separate: of economy vs ecology; of using vs participating; of ‘us’ vs ‘them; of humanity vs Nature.
Sahtouris began by first pointing out the entwined etymologies of the words ecology and economy. Both, said Sahtouris share a common etymological root, the ancient Greek word for household: oikos. Economy (oikos + nomos) represents stewardship or management of the household; ecology (oikos + logos) represents the creative organization and relationships of the household.
An important variant of their expression and meaning is to replace ‘household’ with home. Think of what home means to you. If you play with perspective and scope: you can see your home as your house, your community, your town, your watershed, your country, and your planet. ALL of these are, in fact, your home.
Economy, from the Greek oiconomos, means ‘household (home) manager’. The term economy has evolved from ‘the management of household affairs, especially expenses’, the ‘thrifty and efficient use of resources, the frugality of expenditures’ to ‘the structure of economic life in an area or period (an economic system)’: the creative management or stewardship of our home.
Ecology, from German ökologie means the ‘study of habitat’; ecology is currently a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environment and encompasses ‘the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment’: the study of the creative organization of an environment (our home).
Said Sahtouris to the commission: “How can we talk about only one of the most important aspects of running our household without the other? The problem is not whether to integrate economy with ecology but that we have separated them.” The wisdom of Ecosophy brings these two together.
In his 2006 OpenLearn article, Matthew Kurtz—while acknowledging their similar roots, points out their divergent perspectives. He tells us that economy is about ‘use’, while ecology is about ‘relationship’: “Ecology evokes thoughts of energy, diverse re-creation, green landscapes, and research done in lightweight hiking boots, whereas economy tends to get associated with money, mass production, grey industry, and a dismal science conducted in polished black shoes.”
Caricatures aside, Kurtz tells us how these two kissing cousins have led separate yet entangled lives, based on the history of their emergence and use. “In English, the word “economy” is usually traced to a sense of household management from the 16th century. It is then routed through a literature called political economy in the 18th century (Adam Smith, Malthus, etc.), later to be associated with the new field of economics [as in ‘the economy of a nation’ in the 20th century by thinkers such as Veblen],” writes Kurtz. Historians traced the word “ecology” to 1866, when the German biologist-artist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ökologie. “It was translated as “ecology” in the 1870s, but outside academic contexts, the word remained uncommon in English until the 1960s.”
“Economy once meant the careful, efficient management of households and larger human communities to provide for people as well as possible with the least expenditure,” writes Sahtouris. “But industrial competition led to excesses that resulted in a complete perversion of the word. Most economists adopted the Darwinian story of fierce competition in scarcity that Darwin admittedly got from his friend Thomas Malthus.”
This concept of human competition for ‘resources’ in scarcity remains the basis for the framework of most economic systems and philosophies. At its basis is the Cartesian notion that the universe is mechanistic (emulated by Descartes who believed that animals were mechanisms devoid of feeling and had no soul) and that we are separate from the natural world. “No wonder [the founding fathers of science] projected their engineering abilities onto God as ‘Grand Engineer’,” writes Sahtouris. “Unfortunately, there were no “founding mothers of science’ to temper their hubris for a better understanding of life.” According to Sahtouris, elites learned to control society by working to construct society itself as machinery, and teach people that it is machinery, because machinery can be controlled.
Sahtouris contends that in separating economy and ecology, both are failing us now. Economy cannot evolve past its youthful competition stage and ecology is made subservient to economy. Both become mere “resources” for human use.
How We Measure Our Well-Being
“The problem with the GDP and money-based measures of human progress is that they fail to measure those things that really matter in our lives,” writes Mark Anielski in his 2001 paper. “According to the GDP, the more we spend, consume and produce the more the GDP rises. Such a meter of economic progress is fundamentally flawed because it makes no distinction between the production that contributes to genuine improved well-being and activities that degrade our personal, community and environmental conditions,” he added. Robert Kennedy (1968) identified the basic flaws in the GDP and the SNA when he noted: “[the Gross Domestic Product] measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Anielski contends that economists should include natural environment conditions when measuring the conditions of the well-being of a community or nation. “It may be that modern-day economics is out of touch with the physical conditions of well-being and too focused on money values,” writes Anielski, who summarizes several benchmarking initiatives of well-being and Genuine Progress Indicators (GPIs). Some interesting examples follow:
- Statistics Canada System of Environmental and Resource Accounts: a system of natural capital and environmental stock, flow and monetary accounts for natural capital and environmental assets. It was the basis for developing the Alberta GPI Accounts for nonrenewable energy, forests, agriculture, fish and wildlife, air (including greenhouse gas emissions), water, parks and wilderness, toxic and landfill waste, wetlands and peatlands, carbon, and ecosystem health accounts.
- The Nova Scotia GPI: involves the construction of roughly 20 individual genuine progress indicators to account for sustainable development in Nova Scotia. The 20 GPI accounts cover aspects of economic, social and environmental well-being. Components that are unique to the Nova Scotia GPI include time-use accounts, ecological footprint analysis and transportation accounts.
- The Ecological Footprint (EF): developed by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees (1996), the EF is an important aggregate indicator of the effects of economic decisions on the environment. EF analysis can be compared to the natural carrying capacity (based on arable land available) of the country or region of analysis. Thus it is possible to assess whether a populace is living beyond or within the carrying capacity of the land they occupy, or whether they are living off the natural capital of other nations or regions. EF is a powerful tool for assessing the sustainability and self-reliance of a community.
While admirable in their attempt to incorporate of a wider set of values to measure overall well-being, these indices remain ‘capital’-based and represent use-based rather than being-based. Even the EF model treats Nature and natural aspects of environment as “resources”, to be used and ecosystems as “services” to be exploited by wise stewards. I noted that not one of these indices concerns itself with the notion of spiritual well-being, and natural well-being (the well-being of simply being in Nature).
These tools will also fail to enlighten us toward true well-being until we shift our worldview alongside them. Until we want to, is what I’m saying. Remember the horse to water proverb…
Most economic-based indices of national “well-being” remain bound to a faulty narrative of resource exploitation, production, and growth driven by subtle protectionist and competitive notions. These notions are borne from an androcentric worldview with its tribal need to dominate, out-compete, triumph-over, technologize and so on. They still abide by the notion of separateness.
Charles Eisenstein asks: what would a mass society look like if it saw nature not as an object of domination and a source of resources but as a sacred mother, intelligent and alive? What would development look like if traditional worldviews were seen not as relics of a superstitious past to be transcended but as carriers of vital information about how to live on this planet? What would technology look like conceived as a servant of nature’s healing from the last five thousand years of damage?
This is nothing new and it isn’t ancient either. In 1895 Henry Cowles studied “plant societies” and ecological succession in the sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan. While his colleagues argued dynamic plant societies driven by competition, Cowles boldly experimented with concepts of cooperation and adaptation, exploring new associations and reciprocal relationships among plants in natural succession to form communities in dynamic equilibrium. Frederic Clements would later consider plant communities to behave as “complex organisms”. Viktor Schauberger and Goethe before him and Lynn Margulis after him, were either ignored, not taken seriously or ridiculed for their notions of evolutionary synergy and natural cooperatives.
Thankfully, this notion of cooperation is finding a resurgence in the scientific community such as Aachen University, University of British Columbia and the Max Planck Society and in the current scientific works of forest ecologist Susanne Simard, Peter Wohlleben; as well as in the proven companion planting strategies such as the “three sisters planting method” created by the Iroquois. Celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood chose for her 2016 reading list in the New York Times four books that celebrate “the elemental spirits”, among them my own “Water Is…” (Pixl Press).
“Perhaps this [cooperative approach in ecology] would also make for a better vision of the economy,” Kurtz suggests. To embrace “a fluid community built upon diverse forms of association, forms that require experiments in institutional change.”
Arne “Naess used the term [Ecosophy] to refer to any articulated philosophy of life in harmony with ecocentric values,” writes Alan Rike Drengson of The Trumpeter Journal of Ecosophy.
“Ecosophy (oikos + sofia = wise home) can not only unite our separate categories of economics, ecology, finance, politics and governance, but can also unite science and spirituality, and bring human values into the entire human enterprise,” writes Sahtouris. “In its core focus on wisdom, [ecosophy] must especially draw upon the feminine concerns of well-being, with caring and sharing as long promoted by, for example, Hazel Henderson and Riane Eisler.”
Anielski, Mark. 2001. “Measuring the sustainability of nations: the genuine progress indicator system of sustainable well-being accounts”. The Fourth Biennial Conference of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics: Ecological Sustainability of the Global Market Place. August 2001, Montreal, Quebec. Online: http://www.anielski.com/Documents/Sustainability%20of%20Nations.pdf
Eisenstein, Charles. 2014. “Development in the Ecological Age.” Kosmos Journal. Spring-Summer Issue.
Kurtz, Matthew. 2006. “Economy and ecology”. OpenLearn, June 30th, 2006 issue. Online: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/society/politics-policy-people/geography/economy-and-ecology
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is… The Meaning of Water”. Pixl Press. Vancouver, British Columbia. 584 pp.
Sahtouris, Elisabet. 2014. “Ecosophy: Nature’s Guide to a Better World”. Kosmos Journal. Spring-Summer Issue.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.