What Is an Ecological Civilization and Can We Achieve One—Before It’s Too Late?

Waves over rocks, Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“The climate emergency we’re facing is far worse than most people realize. While it was clearly an essential step for the United States to rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the collective pledges on greenhouse gas emissions from that agreement are woefully insufficient. They would lead to a dangerous temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius this century—and many nations are failing to make even these targets. We are rapidly approaching—if we haven’t already passed—climate tipping points with reinforcing feedback loops that would lead to an unrecognizable and terrifying world.”

Jeremy Lent

The imminent existential crisis wrought by climate change and environmental destruction results from a manufactured perception of scarcity: a viewpoint that feeds an unsustainable “growth economy” rife with needless consumerism and squandering. It’s time to bring “ecology” and the “sacred feminine” to our approach in living on this planet—before the planet rids itself of us, like a dog shakes off a flea. It comes down simply to cause and effect. 

In an article in Yes! Magazine, Jeremy Lent describes a different approach for humanity: the achievement of an ecological civilization. “A society based on natural ecology might seem like a far-off utopia,” he says. “Yet communities everywhere are already creating it.” Given the existential threat of climate change, this is not only a good thing, but a critical thing. The imminent devastation of our life-support systems—from oceans to forests and wetlands—directly reflect our choice to live our lives based on growth and consumerism. 

What we need is a different way of doing things: an economy based on cooperation around natural abundance.

An ecological civilization is both a new and ancient idea, Lent tells us. “Indigenous peoples around the world have organized themselves from time immemorial on life-affirming principles. When Lakota communities, on the land that is now the U.S., invoke Mitakuye Oyasin (“We are all related”) in ceremony, they are referring not just to themselves but to all sentient beings. Buddhist, Taoist, and other philosophical and religious traditions have based much of their spiritual wisdom on the recognition of the deep interconnectedness of all things. And in modern times, a common thread linking progressive movements around the world is the commitment to a society that works for the flourishing of life, rather than against it.”

Lent describes six directives for humans to rejoin the natural world:

  1. Diversity: A system’s health relies on differentiation and integration. Applied to human society, this translates to community self-determination, indigenous rights, restorative justice, and social equity for all communities. This is predicated on an understanding that ecosystems throughout the planet connect and interact as necassary participants in a whole network in which all play a role, from the smallest bacteria to the largest whale. There is no “them and me”; there is only “we,” acting together. “The waste of one organism becomes the sustenance of another. Nature produces a continuous flow where nothing is squandered. Likewise, an ecological civilization, in contrast to our current society built on extracting resources and accumulating waste, would comprise a circular economy with efficient reuse of waste products embedded into processes from the outset.”
  2. Balance: Every part of a system is in a harmonious relationship with the entire system. Applied to human society, this translates to competition and cooperation in balance and an equitable distribution of wealth and power through a global wealth tax and the core principle of fractal flourishing: the well-being of each person is fractally related to the health of the larger world. “An ecological civilization would incorporate government spending and markets, but—as laid out by visionary economist Kate Raworth—would add two critical realms to this framework: households and the commons.” 
  3. Fractal Organization: The small reflects the large, and the health of the whole system requires the flourishing of each part. Applied to human society, this translates to a universal basic income, universal access to social services, education, and cosmopolitanism. “Once we realize the vast benefits of the commons bequeathed to us by our ancestors—along with the egregiously uneven wealth distribution—it transforms our conception of wealth and value. Contrary to the widespread view that an entrepreneur who becomes a billionaire deserves his wealth, the reality is that whatever value he created is a pittance compared to the immense bank of prior knowledge and social practices—the commonwealth—that he took from.”
  4. Life Cycles: Rejenerative and sustainable flourishing into the long-term future. Applied to human society, this translates into steady-state economies, and triple bottom line for corporations. Something here ninahere. “A Rights of Nature declaration, recognizing the inalienable rights of ecosystems and natural entities to persist and thrive, would put the natural world on the same legal standing as humanity, with personhood given to ecosystems and high-functioning mammals, and the crime of ecocide—the destruction of ecosystems—prosecuted by a court with global jurisdiction.”
  5. Subsidiarity: Issues at the lowest level affect health at the top. Applied to human society, this translates to a grassroots self-autonomy and deep democracy in which decision-making occurs at the lowest possible levels through horizontalism and cooperatives. “In Bolivia and Ecuador, traditional ecological principles of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living”) are written into the constitutions…In Europe, large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as the Mondragón Cooperative in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to prosper without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model.” 
  6. Symbiosis: Relationships that work for mutual benefit. When applied to human societies, this translates to fairness and justice, measuring well-being instead of GDP, regenerative economics, and circular energy flows such as permacultures and regenerative agriculture, rights of Nature and personhood for nonhumans 
Tangled roots of eastern cedar trees on Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Such an ecological worldview can only succeed in a culture rooted in gratitude and reciprocity, a culture that follows a “gift economy.” 

In an article in Emergence Magazine, Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass uses the serviceberry as symbol of the ethic of gratitude and reciprocity that lies at the heart of a gift economy and how we can learn from Indigenous wisdom and ecological systems to reimagine currencies of exchange. “Gratitude and reciprocity are the currency of a gift economy,” says Kimmerer. “They have the remarkable property of multiplying with every exchange.” Like love. Kimmerer starts her article with her experience in berry picking along with the birds—especially the robin, her namesake—to consider the gifts of Nature: “There is no mathematics of worthiness that reckons I deserve [the berries] in any way. And yet here they are—along with the sun and the air and the birds and the rain… You could call them natural resources or ecosystem services, but the Robins and I know them as gifts. We both sing gratitude with our mouths full.”

Illustration by Christelle Enault

Kimmerer tells us that “Gratitude is so much more than a polite thank you. It is the thread that connects us in a deep relationship, simultaneously physical and spiritual, as our bodies are fed and spirits nourished by the sense of belonging, which is the most vital of foods. Gratitude creates a sense of abundance, the knowing that you have what you need. In that climate of sufficiency, our hunger for more abates and we take only what we need, in respect for the generosity of the giver.”

“Gratitude,” says Kimmerer, “is the intuitive first response…And if our first response is gratitude, then our second is reciprocity: to give a gift in return. What could I give these plants in return for their generosity?” It could be anything from weeding or water or a song of thanks or it could be donating to a local land trust to save more habitat or making art that invites others into the web of reciprocity. 

A gift mentality is a powerful influence of behaviour, says Kimmerer. “…if we acknowledged that everything we consume is the gift of Mother Earth, we would take better care of what we are given. Mistreating a gift has emotional and ethical gravity as well as ecological resonance…How we think ripples out to how we behave. If we view these berries, or that coal or forest, as an object, as property, it can be exploited as a commodity in a market economy. We know the consequences of that.”

Kimmerer provides the example of an anthropologist’s experience with a hunter-gatherer community in the Brazilian rainforest: “A hunter had brought home a sizable kill, far too much to be eaten by his family. The researcher asked how he would store the excess. Smoking and drying technologies were well known; storing was possible. The hunter was puzzled by the question—store the meat? Why would he do that? Instead, he sent out an invitation to a feast, and soon the neighboring families were gathered around his fire, until every last morsel was consumed. This seemed like maladaptive behavior to the anthropologist, who asked again: given the uncertainty of meat in the forest, why didn’t he store the meat for himself, which is what the economic system of his home culture would predict. ‘Store my meat? I store my meat in the belly of my brother,’ replied the hunter.”

“In a gift economy, wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away. In fact, status is determined not by how much one accumulates, but by how much one gives away. The currency in a gift economy is relationship, which is expressed as gratitude, as interdependence and the ongoing cycles of reciprocity. A gift economy nurtures the community bonds which enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is ‘we’ rather than ‘I,’ as all flourishing is mutual.”

“The currency of exchange is gratitude and relationship rather than money,” says Kimmerer. “It includes a system of social and moral agreements for indirect reciprocity. So, the hunter who shared the feast with you could well anticipate that you would share from a full fishnet or offer your labor in repairing a boat.” In a world where Nature is not considered a commodity or private property but as a gift, “there are ethical constraints on the accumulation of abundance that is not yours.” 

Two white cedars entangled on the shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“The question of abundance highlights the striking difference between the market economies which have come to dominate the globe and the ancient gift economies which preceded them,” says Kimmerer: 

“In a market economy, where the underlying principles are scarcity and maximizing return on investment, the meat is private property, accumulated for the well-being of the hunter or exchanged for currency. The greatest status and success comes from possession. Food security is assured by private accumulation. In contrast, gift economies arise from the abundance of gifts from the Earth, which are owned by no one and therefore shared. Sharing engenders relationships of good will and bonds that ensure you will be invited to the feast when your neighbor is fortunate. Security is ensured by the nurturing of bonds of reciprocity.”

The latter case is in fact how the natural world operates. Returning to her example of the serviceberry, Kimmerer argues, “In summer, when the boughs are laden, Serviceberry produces an abundance of sugar. Does it hoard that energy for itself? No, it invites the birds to a feast. Come my relatives, fill your bellies, say the Serviceberries. Are they not storing their meat in the bellies of their brothers and sisters—the Jays, the Thrashers, and the Robins?”

“Isn’t this an economy?” challenges Kimmerer. “A system of distribution of goods and services that meets the needs of the community? The currency of this economic system is energy, which flows through it, and materials, which cycle among the producers and the consumers. It is a system for redistribution of wealth, an exchange of goods and services. Each member has an abundance of something, which they offer to others. The abundance of berries goes to the birds—for, what use does the tree have of berries other than as a way to make relationships with birds?”

“Continued fealty to economies based on competition for manufactured scarcity, rather than cooperation around natural abundance, is now causing us to face the danger of producing real scarcity, evident in growing shortages of food and clean water, breathable air, and fertile soil. Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer

In Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein reflects on the economy of ecosystems to give us a prognosis that flows with optimism, wholeness and clarity: “In nature, headlong growth and all-out competition are features of immature ecosystems, followed by complex interdependency, symbiosis, cooperation, and the cycling of resources. The next stage of human economy will parallel what we are beginning to understand about nature. It will call forth the gifts of each of us; it will emphasize cooperation over competition; it will encourage circulation over hoarding; and it will be cyclical, not linear. Money may not disappear anytime soon, but it will serve a diminished role even as it takes on more of the properties of the gift. The economy will shrink, and our lives will grow.”

Water flowing around iced rocks in Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In my books “Water Is…” and The Ecology of Story, I discuss the natural succession and evolution of ecological relationship and ecosystems that include humanity:

Competition is a natural adaptive remnant of uncertainty and insecurity and forms the basis of a capitalist economy that encourages monopolization and hostile takeovers. Competition results from an initial antagonistic reaction to a perception of limited resources. It is a natural reaction based on distrust—of both the environment and of the “other”—both aspects of “self” separated from “self.” The greed for more than is sustainable reflects a fear of failure and a sense of being separate, which ultimately perpetuates actions dominated by self-interest in a phenomenon described as “the Tragedy of the Commons.” Competition naturally gives way to creative cooperation as trust in both “self ” and the “other” develops and is encouraged through continued interaction. “Communities with many co-operators and altruists do better than groups dominated by narrow and selfish thinking,”writes Alain Ruche, strategist for the Secretary General of the European Union External Service. Ruche adds that a biological predisposition to cooperate appears to be independent of culture, relying instead on other factors, such as “the long-lasting intimacy of strangers,” suggested by Dr. Lynn Margulis.

Examples of creative cooperatives exist throughout the world, offering an alternative to the traditional model of competition. Creative cooperatives are changing the world, Ruche tells us. These creatives, while being community-oriented with an awareness of planet-wide issues, honour and embody feminine values (such as empathy, solidarity, spiritual and personal development, and relationships). Mechanisms include reciprocity, trust, communication, fairness, and a group-sense of belonging.”

Nina Munteanu, Water Is…The Meaning of Water

Foggy shore of small bay on Otonabee River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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