Living Systems in Evolution
copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris
Sustainability is now widely discussed, at conferences, in the media, among people in the street. Despite heated debates, many people do not have a clear idea of what it means. This is not surprising, since visions of what sustainability might look like are virtually absent from these discussions except among people such as Bioregionalists and Futurists who are not yet widely represented in the population. On the whole, the debates are based on fragmented worldviews that make it difficult to understand the issues holistically.
People do recognize that the discussion of sustainability has to do with changing the way things are and that it is linked to concern for the environment. Many people are afraid it means ecology at the expense of economy -- pitting the survival of endangered species, for example, against jobs and development, as is sometimes phrased "jobs versus spotted owls." It is natural in our culture to think in this way -- that for something or someone to gain, something or someone else must lose. This is because we are accustomed to living in what Hazel Henderson has for decades called a worldwide `win-lose' economy -- the kind of economy we discussed in Chapter 16, where we observed how such an economy would kill a living system. Sustainability, in its essence, is about the necessary shift to a win/win economy that would benefit all humanity as well as the other species on which human life depends.
We have seen that the words ecology and economy are related as design and management of a `household,' and how, in trying to understand the various aspects of human society as parts of a social mechanism, we lost sight of the fact that one cannot separate how our human household is run from how it is organized.
Let's look once more to our physical bodies, seeing their ecology as their organization into interrelated systems -- skeleto-muscular, circulatory, digestive, brain/nervous, perceptual, and so on. By what principles do they manage their economy of food intake, of cellular maintenance, of endocrine, plasma, etc. production, of materials and product distribution, of recycling and elimination of wastes?
We know the nervous system acts as a service government -- a central guidance system collecting information, monitoring the state of affairs everywhere in the body, working closely with endocrine and blood systems to make sure supplies are appropriately distributed, coordinating the tensegrity movements of bone and muscle, the perceptions from eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin, regulating body temperature and emotions. Its jobs are far too numerous and complex to mention or track them all What we can say is that as long as the body is healthy, there is no conflict between its ecology and its economy. It coordinates a win/win economy/ecology in which all parts contribute what they have to offer and all parts benefit equally from the collective economy. No part of a healthy body gains its health at the expense of other parts; there are no such things as rich and poor organs.
If we accept the notion of the living Earth, and the body of humanity as an integral part of it, then we have no choice but to implement a healthy win/win world that can continue indefinitely, which means a sustainable world. As long as you are healthy and avoid accidents, you are sustainable for a natural lifetime . In the same sense, a healthy world is a sustainable world. This whole book has been about sustainability, yet the current debate on the subject warrants some further discussion.
In Earth in The Balance, Al Gore called for "an environmentally responsible pattern of life." He expressed optimism about the fact that most people now see themselves as part of a global civilization, and that most of the world has chosen democracy as the preferred form of political organization and modified free markets as the preferred form of economic organization. Yet he recognizes that the single most difficult relationship is the one between wealthy and poor nations, clearly stating that the wealthy nations will have to write off impoverished nations' debts and assist their sustainable development to make them partners in a balanced, healthy global economy.
This is a clear case of recognition that sustainability implies a balanced economy of equal partners, rather than an economy in which some nations or corporations gain at the expense of others. Gore recognizes that
any such effort will also require the wealthy nations to make a transition themselves that will be in some ways more wrenching than that of the Third World, simply because powerful established patterns will be disrupted...the developed nations must be willing to lead by example; otherwise, the Third World is not likely to consider making the required changes -- even in return for substantial assistance.
Gore thus cuts right to the core of our global crisis. Our win/lose world is a top-heavy world in which seven percent of the people own sixty percent of the land and use eighty percent of the available energy. Its dominant economy has been and still is based on growth that simply cannot continue its path of destroying ecosystems and creating ever-expanding masses of impoverished and desperate people.
Resource use, population growth, the gap between rich and poor are all proceeding along exponential curves heading quickly toward infinity -- and none of them, of course, can reach it. There is no way to have an infinitely large population, to use an infinite amount of resources, etc. So we know things will change. Something will alter the direction of change. The question is only, what will it be? Extinction? Other disasters, such as economic crashes or massive technological breakdowns? Or a sudden awakening and resolve to implement sustainability?
One problem with appealing to national governments to shift toward a more equitable world economy is that multinational corporations are now often richer than many nations and have the power to control them. Paul Hawken points out that lobbying for corporate interests in Washington DC is a multi-billion dollar industry with which no other interests can compete fairly. He reports that during a single legislative session U.S. congressmen take 3,000 corporate financed holidays, illustrating how the U.S. government, not to mention campaign financing, is kept in service to business rather than the other way around.
Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation uses the metaphor of CEOs of businesses and banks as jockeys on multi-national corporation and bank `horses,' beating them on to a finish line now visible as a stone wall they will run into, yet not even turning around when one of their fellows falls. What this metaphor portrays is that corporate businesses and banks, including international development banks that serve corporate interests, are in a competitive race of unsustainable world economy. Lyons' stone wall finish line is consistent with our analysis of the death of a living system pursuing win/lose economics. To illustrate our state of denial about our non-sustainable world, Lyons has also used the metaphor of the Titanic, which its owners, crew and passengers all regarded as such a marvel of modern technology it could not possibly go down. Notably, the film Titanic became a great cultural hit.
In this light it is interesting to consider historian Arnold Toynbee's observation, after studying twenty-one collapsed civilizations, that what they had in common was inflexibility under stress and the concentration of wealth into few hands. We cannot deny the current stress. Will we remain inflexible in maintaining a system that concentrates wealth to the increasing detriment of most humans?
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While human communities were small and in close touch with their ecosystems or bioregions -- as we began to see in the last chapter -- many of them were able to function in good ecological and social health, often quite democratically, sometimes for many centuries. They functioned much like bodies, with divisions of labor and all parts contributing to each other's welfare.
Helena Norberg Hodge has shown how the rural towns of Himalayan Ladakh, sometimes called `Little Tibet' -- with their three-story white-painted houses, beautiful monasteries, irrigated wheat fields and gardens, herds of animals, festivals displaying their music, theater arts, brocades and silver, crops adequate to support their people in good health, with no poverty -- functioned sustainably for many centuries. Buddhists and Muslims lived peacefully together in these communities, with their deep spirituality and strong values.
Despite the considerable property described, the barter economies of these communities were discovered to count as nothing when Ladakh was introduced to the concept of GNP. Only when these barter economies were undermined by the influx of the modern commercial world into this tiny remote country and men were persuaded to leave these communities in order to work for a pittance in cities did the GNP go up. Unfortunately, the result was a great deterioration in the lives of these Ladakhis.
How were the men persuaded into leaving the spiritual beauty, communal harmony and physical bounty of their villages for polluted, congested urban living? As in other parts of the world, roads were built, people were encouraged to stop producing their own food and goods through the import of subsidized grain and other cheap imported goods and the opportunity to earn enough to pay for at least the basic ones.
Motorcycles, TV and videos filled with guns, girls and images of no-work affluence in the West came in to seduce the young men, eroding the economy and the values of rural life. People were told they were backward; that modernization would bring great benefits. Because of the initially subsidized grain, fields were abandoned; school children were systematically taught the values of a market economy, the importance of industrial development.
The living systems of the old communities were thus fragmented beyond repair. Hodge, who lived in Ladakh throughout this modernization process, documents how the happiness of the people plummeted and conflicts erupted as they had to live with difficulty on dreams of a better life that did not materialize for them. As Hodge points out, this single decade of change from peaceful, healthy self-sufficiency to conflict-ridden, miserable dependency reflects in a nutshell the colonial process all over the world, everywhere counted as economic improvement.
The colonial process has been and is always essentially the same -- the mining or monoculture farming of indigenous lands by outside owners using local labor for a market economy destroys self-sufficient, independent and secure community, whether the lands are seized outright or bought cheaply. Removing the men to provide a work force leaves women and children with more work and a ruptured society ever more dependent on cash. The old community rules and values cannot be sustained, population is no longer controllable. Later, this destruction is compounded by urbanization and industrialization, which makes people totally dependent for their livelihood on paid work and impersonal institutions, such as credit banks, supermarkets, hospitals, etc.
In her interviews with African village women, population expert Perdita Huston found that grandmothers were socially and economically better off in intact tribal societies than were their granddaughters in modern economies. In Ladakh, the downward change has happened in a single generation. In Africa, the process has been going on longer. But in any case, the majority of people of these formerly healthy living systems end up poor or destitute on barren land or in urban slums. They have become part of a world economy in which they serve as cheap labor and market outlets if they are lucky. Increasingly, they are left out of even these slim benefits, desperately poor in huge urban slums, on the edge of starvation throughout their lives, many never reaching adulthood.
According to world futurist Rashmi Mayur and TV documentaries, many millions of children in Bangladesh and India under the age of ten are enslaved up to nineteen hours a day, seven days a week in factories making goods for export to the U.S. Making consumers conscious of these conditions has created a groundswell of protest -- exactly what is needed to change them.
A historic1994 Atlantic Monthly cover story by Robert Kaplan -- illustrated by a world on fire -- documented the devastating reality of desperate poverty imposed on peoples in Africa, Asia and South America. Kaplan points out that to believe things are still well in the world one must ignore three-fourths of it. If we see the situation realistically, we know it is entirely unsustainable, causing enormous and unnecessary human misery.
We are, in fact, in the same desperate situation bacterial colonialism led to a few billion years ago. Yet the nucleated cells they devised as sustainable solutions have survived and flourished some two billion years in a myriad evolved forms. They are so sustainable that no other kind of cell was ever needed to replace or improve on them. The same cooperative communal solutions they found are open to us.
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It is clear, then, that money is driving out world -- that money, not the good life Bacon foresaw, has become the whole rationale for our economies. We measure the health of our economies only by the amount of money flowing in them -- the GNP. Can we not see there is something wrong with this measure? Terrible oil spills increase the GNP due to the money flowing in to clean them up; increasing expenditures on other human and environmental remediation do the same.
Hazel Henderson has asked us for decades why money should be the measure of our social health, while we ignore the real costs of destroying nature and lives, as well as the real assets of all the creative unpaid labor volunteered to raise and maintain families and communities around the world. Her Quality of Life Indicator scales were pioneering efforts many have followed, though they remain to be seriously applied to national and corporate economies, as they must be to measure our progress toward a sustainable world.
How did the concentration of wealth become so dominant a force in what we call democracies? Since wealth is generally defined in terms of money, let us look further at money. Belgian banker Bernard Lietaer has pointed out that money is simply an agreement on the value of some medium of exchange used to facilitate relations among the producers and consumers of an economy. In an equitable democratic society, representative government would issue or withdraw money from the economy only to balance these relations. Such a government would be guided by the interests of the entire citizenry in determining how to balance the economy. This was the general idea held by the founding fathers of the United States, who warned against implementing a debt-money system, known to be detrimental to all but the lenders since ancient times. For this reason the U.S. Constitution was written to make Congress the only body that could coin money.
Jacques Jaikaran raises the interesting question of why the United States Congress gave its constitutional right to issue money away to a private banking system with the public-sounding name Federal Reserve Bank at its core, forcing the government itself to borrow money at interest. He describes how the debt-money system implemented by these banks functions to funnel money and property from the poor to the rich, thus fostering the process of a win/lose world that is fundamentally unsustainable.
Money is concentrating with unprecedented speed in the hands of a small world elite, as it does in the hands of one player of every game of Monopoly. We are all caught in this giant monopoly game, which cannot go on much longer, by reason of impossible exponential curves. Something, we can be sure, will soon break or shift dramatically.
When it does, will the people of the world effectively demand a different and truly democratic economy that does not destroy the living systems of nature and people within nature? There is at present a trend toward equity money in place of debt money, to keep the system going longer. Equity money means more people in upper classes will share ownership of businesses including banks, but this does not solve the problem of vast numbers of poor people who will be as disenfranchised as ever, if not more so.
More promising is a big groundswell of alternative currencies around the world, from the computer tracked Local Economic Trading Systems (LETS) pioneered in Canada by Michael Linton, the Mexican Tlaloc and U.S. Ithaca Hours trading notes now copied by many U.S. communities, to airline frequent flyer miles and volunteer community services hours in U.S. states as well as in Japan's elder care trading system. Lietaer calls these the growing Yin economy that is coming to balance our monetary Yang economy. It is instructive to note that local communities across the United States survived the Great Depression beginning with the stock market crash of 1929 with exactly these kinds of local barter currencies -- later stopped as `inefficient,' though legal. Now the world's people -- in the U.S., Australia, Mexico, Europe, Asia and elsewhere are implementing them before disaster strikes. Perhaps we are becoming more intelligent as a species.
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Let us try to understand a few more sustainability issues we hear a lot about. One of them is population. In Chapter 16, overpopulation in poor countries was attributed to poverty and family insecurity. We saw it as the reaction of insecure people whose self-sufficient community has been destroyed, their only remaining security lying in having enough children to hire out in wage slavery and to care for them in old age. In some places, such as Indonesia, missionaries actually encouraged huge population growth to increase the labor force.
Did modern medicine create the problem of overpopulation by saving so many lives? It is true that colonizers brought diseases to which natives had no resistance and which thus decimated whole populations. It is also true that modern medicine has worked to combat such diseases, which may compensate for the lives lost before the medicines existed, but it is not an adequate explanation of overpopulation. Dramatic increases in food supplies when people are used as labor to produce food in quantity for markets has also been cited as cause for overpopulation, yet the very countries producing food for export, as we have also seen, are those with the highest starvation levels. Wherever people die at high rates is where we find them replaced in ever greater numbers.
Certainly urbanization, sanitation, technology and agricultural monoculture did increase the world's human population. Before these mixed blessings of colonialism, overpopulation was rare. Traditional communities with subsistence lifestyles consciously regulated their population size. Indigenous and traditional peoples survived for many thousands of years without overpopulating because the people of these societies knew their bioregions, understood well how many people their land could support. If populations grew greater or less than optimal, they adjusted social practices, such as how long nursing mothers were off limits to men, how many husbands or wives could be had, how many people remained celibate in spiritual life. Most such societies also had knowledge of herbal birth control and in some cases selected infanticide was practiced.
Overpopulation, like other social problems, occurs when communities in sound ecological balance with their surrounding world are destroyed and that balance is lost.
Population discussions must address the problem of resource overconsumption in rich countries, rather than focusing only on numbers of people. In fact, the reason we worry at all about population size is because the consumption of resources has become unsustainable. This raises the question of whether a bigger population problem arises when many people live on few resources or when few people live on many resources.
The IPAT formula (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) of Paul and Ann Ehrlich, showed us that the resource drain of Americans is far greater than that of Bangladeshis. The average American uses somewhere between forty and seventy times the resources of a person in a poor country such as Bangladesh. Multiplying the U.S. population by the conservative figure of forty means the U.S. population pressure is that of over ten billion poor people! This is very important to consider when deciding who is `overpopulating' the Earth. It is abundantly clear that all the world's people can never live as Americans do today. Thus the reduction of consumption is more pressing than the reduction of numbers, making the Voluntary Simplicity movement we mentioned in Chapter 18 very important.
Another major sustainability issue is pollution. Looking back again at Gaian evolution, we recall that humans are not the first creatures to threaten their own and others' extinction by way of resource depletion and pollution. In considerable detail, we followed the ancient bacteria as they survived similar crises by reorganizing themselves and their living systems repeatedly.
We also saw that species living now can exist only because the Earth spent billions of years burying atmospheric carbon in forests and underground. We noted that cutting and burning these forests and fossil fuels reverses the planet's system for keeping atmospheric conditions and climate conducive to species health. It is not a sustainable way to live. It is the way of an immature species that gobbles up all available resources, like the weeds that take over land along our highways or in abandoned fields, where we have destroyed mature ecosystems.
Technological production is natural to the human species, but must be reevaluated and revised in a goal-setting context of healthy survival. We have discussed the ability of mature ecosystems to clean up considerable human pollution, if they remain healthy. Destruction of forests, seashores, water tables, ozone layer, etc. make it impossible for the Earth to perform that cleanup. But perhaps it would be wise for us to reconsider the whole notion of pollution and cleanup.
Earthlife as described in this book is fundamentally and necessarily based on recycling. Because the need to recycle our human products, lest they choke us out of existence, has become so urgent, a new branch of biological science is finally looking at nature's recyclers. It has now been estimated that sixty percent of all species are `recyclers.' While this new science at last vindicates the vultures, worms and microbes we have looked down on for so long, it is actually misleading. The natural world is not divided into producers and recyclers; all species are both to varying degrees.
In a mature, balanced ecosystem, there is no waste or pollution, no special cleanup required. The principle of mutual consistency suggests that a healthy species insures its survival by putting out only quality material. Quality material is something useful to others. It is only our industrial culture -- immature from an ecological/evolutionary perspective -- that creates polluting wastes and must then clean up. But it is becoming increasingly evident that adding more technology to clean up ever increasing wastes is a losing battle and cannot lead us to sustainability.
Paul Hawken urges us to go back to the drawing boards and redesign all our products so that they are either consumable or recyclable. It is not a matter of saving the environment, he says, but of saving business. Hawken proposes that if companies producing non-consumables were only allowed to lease them, and not to sell them, ultimately being responsible for their disposal at great expense, they would quickly redesign them to be recyclable.
With the considerable knowledge of living systems and their dynamic ecological balance we now have available, it is up to us to work with life for life -- eliminating waste as a concept and as a reality. Positive efforts are already reflected the growth of Industrial Ecology as a field. The 3M company is an early pioneer in developing new designs to eliminate waste; some car companies are following suit, especially quickly in Germany. Interface Carpets implemented massive savings through recycling. Green industrial parks where each industry's wastes feed another industry, as in Kalundborg, Sweden, are becoming important models for the rest of the world.
In Chile, a study showed that more energy could be saved through energy efficiency measures than would be produced by six new dams being built on the Bio Bio River, yet the project continues. Meanwhile, a few oil companies, such as Sunoco and BP-Amoco are taking steps toward the inevitable phase-out of the oil economy, investing in solar energy and other alternatives, requesting pollution taxes for the entire industry, etc.
Eliminating waste is more generally about reducing our impact on the planet -- giving up the wasteful consumer lifestyle in which we define ourselves by unnecessary accumulations of goods, rather than by human values. It is also about implementing accountability for restorative behavior and using renewable or permanent energy sources to make what we do need, as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute effectively demonstrates can be done.
In Davis, California, energy consumption has already been halved by the sound energy/ecology practices of its citizens over the past few decades. Davis boasts as many bicycles as people, streets now ell shaded by the thousands of trees they planted themselves, farmers' markets year round, various cooperative housing projects. Most important is the recognition that living with energy efficiency and working with nature provides people with a better life. The furniture in the Davis City Hall had to be rearranged to permit greater citizen participation. When people feel needed and are able to make a difference, they become governors by choice, and they learn to govern well.
The city of Curitiba, Brazil -- widely known as the world's first eco-city -- has carried the Davis experiment to new heights, as documented by Bill McKibben, who also showed us how much of the Adirondack mountains of the U.S. have been reforested and how the state of Kerala in India has pioneered rural sustainability in a culture now almost one hundred percent literate, with fine health care and education systems while it remains materially very simple.
For all that is not yet being done toward sustainability, we are becoming very aware as a whole world culture that it is the only way to gain a healthy future and we see more and more pioneering efforts in that direction.
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The agricultural industry is also beginning to shift its unsustainable practices. Let's look at its story.
Hi-tech monocultures, intended to solve world hunger, have been disastrous in many parts of the world -- the World Bank admitting its failure in funding the making of deserts where they had intended gardens. While the affluent world can eat whatever they want from anywhere in the world year round, arable land is being destroyed and eroded by unsustainable practices and ever larger non-affluent populations are ever hungrier.
Physicist Vandana Shiva documented the Green Revolution in India, tracing the development of nitrates-dependent agriculture to the need to maintain the production and profits of nitrate explosives factories after the second World War. Nitrate dependent crops were deliberately bred for this much touted Green Revolution. The resulting yields of rice per hectare, for example, were shown to be far greater than those using traditional methods -- but the measures were misleading because they ignored the fact that the same hectares were not only producing rice traditionally, but fish, pigs, vegetables, fruit, fertilizer and mulch on soil and in water that remained healthy with no chemical input. None of that was counted in the comparison. In fact, Green Revolution fields over wide areas of India became salt deserts, as the World Bank acknowledged.
Hi-tech agriculture was sold to us with other misleading statistics. We were told, as one success story, that a single U.S. farmer at the turn of the century could feed only four people, while with hi-tech agriculture he could feed seventy or eighty or more people. Such statistics ignored the veritable army of people and resources producing the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, the rapidly obsolete heavy machinery, the fuels and irrigation systems, the genetically engineered sterile seed that must be bought annually.
In fact, the natural farmer at the turn of the century produced ten calories of food energy for every one calorie of energy input and kept his soil and water table healthy, while the present-day farmer puts at least ten calories of energy into his farm for every one calorie of food he gets out. Meanwhile his land is increasingly impoverished, thus destroying the very basis of his livelihood. Hi-tech agriculture must be counted enormously inefficient and energy wasteful.
It is also argued that hi-tech agriculture is necessary to produce the sheer volume of food required by today's populations. The case of India above belies this, as do the production figures of restored traditional techniques. In the Philippines, one of the countries where hi-tech Green Revolution techniques were pioneered, the restoration of traditional organic rice-growing methods proved superior in quantity of production. Bill Mollison's Permaculture techniques, which can feed many people on very small plots of ground, adapted much indigenous and traditional knowledge, is now taught in over seventy countries and the program cannot train teachers fast enough to meet the demand.
A century ago, a British agricultural expert toured India to see how he could best advise Indian farmers to improve their agricultural practices. His conclusion, reported in The Ecologist magazine, was that the Indian farmers had more to offer English farmers in the way of advice, because they knew so much about soil composition and health, pest control, water management, crop breeding, and all other aspects of agriculture. They were highly knowledgeable and productive, failing only when they lacked access to natural resources.
Oswaldo Rivera and Alan Kolata have reported on the restoration of the ancient (400 to 1,000 A.D.) pre-Inca waru waru or chinampa-type agriculture in the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. It increased local annual production from the norm of 2.5 tons per hectare to 40 tons in only five years with no chemical fertilizer or pesticides and very little work beyond filling the ditches between soil mounds through sluice gates annually and planting seeds without plowing. In this system nature creates its own fertilizers, the canals becoming a nutrient sump for nitrogen and phosphorus through colonization by fish, birds and water plants. The system's automatic irrigation is also a form of climate-control that prevents freezing in winter. The usual crops were varieties of potatoes, grains such as maize, quinoa and amaranth, legumes, etc. Now winter wheat, barley, oats, turnips and other vegetables have been added, including even lettuce at 2,300 meters altitude.
Few indigenous peoples of the Americas used plows, which are a major cause of soil erosion. All over North and South America, not to mention other parts of the world, indigenous agricultural peoples without the urban social organization of the Inca were equally sophisticated in smaller scale agricultural practices, as Darrell Posey and others have documented and as mentioned in the previous chapter. Each culture understood, through scientific researches over centuries of time, how to breed and grow food, medicine and building material crops appropriate to their bioregions in sustainable ways.
Poisoning from pesticides and herbicides is normal today in all our bodies. Pathogen contamination (Salmonella, Listeria, E. Coli, etc.) of mass-produced food is a serious problem. Ralph Nader has told us for more than a generation of the pollution in our meat and other food; by now other studies abound. According to the Institute for Science in Society in Washington D.C., every year in the U.S. alone, where food supplies are cleaner than many other parts of the world, millions become ill and thousands die from pathogen contamination of meat, eggs and other foods, and this cause, while medical and productive losses therefrom are counted in the billions of dollars. The most popular fast foods, chicken and ground beef, are among the most dangerous food items.
BBC film team John Seymour and Herbert Girardet asked a California tomato farmer why he grew tomatoes for his family in a special kitchen garden when he had thousands of acres of them. He replied that if they understood what agricultural poisons were built into every cell of every tomato grown in his fields -- his kitchen garden was organic -- they would neither ask that question nor ever eat another canned tomato in their lives! He then explained how he was trapped in this method of production by deep indebtedness for machinery, chemicals, irrigation and the need to meet contract quotas.
Another reason given in support of hi-tech agriculture is the low price of supermarket food in relation to organically grown food. Yet every year at the annual Bioneers Conference in San Francisco, it is demonstrated that organic food can be grown more cheaply than hi-tech food. We are never told the real cost of supermarket food, most of which is government subsidized, but clearly it is far less expensive to grow labor intensive organic food, which could create much-needed employment.
Many urban dwellers today say they would go back to the farm in preference to living in dilapidated, hi-crime inner cities. Holland and Denmark are eliminating chemical agriculture and the latter bonds professional farm sitters so that farmers can spend time in cities. Communications technology can bring urban advantages to country life. And agriculture itself, even if low-tech and natural, would not be as difficult as it used to be if more indigenous (e.g. no-plow, no-till) methods were used.
Vandana Shiva has also documented the `piracy' of patenting plants and the dangers of genetic engineering of agricultural and medicinal crops. Seeds developed over thousands of years by indigenous peoples or peasants and traded or gifted in sacred ceremony have been defined, for example, as `primitive cultivar' until brought into a laboratory, genetically altered and then patented for ownership. Under such an agreement the indigenous peoples or peasants who developed the seeds can be fined for planting them unless they buy the seed from its new owners.
Genetic engineering has become the source of great public controversy around the world, as Richard Heinberg and others have documented and discussed. Our experiences with DDT, originally promoted as good for us all, and with nuclear energy that was supposed to solve our problems but brought us Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, has made us leery of yet another panacea.
Instead, in Europe and America, the increase in public demand for healthy organic food has risen dramatically over the past few decades, creating a very significant shift in agricultural production. Before the turn of the millennium, organic food production in the U.S. had become the only agricultural growth industry, and in California, public schools began to implement organic food lunches for children. Meanwhile, in Europe, the public outcry against genetically engineered foods had caused England to make new labeling laws even for restaurants and the European Common Market to reject them entirely as imports, and test fields for such crops were being burned around the wold in protest.
Perhaps the engineering of poor cloned Dolly the sheep woke us out of the sheep-like apathy Dostoevsky bemoaned, and we are at last taking responsibility for the great freedom Gaian evolution bestowed upon us.
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A sustainable world must be based on visions of what sustainability is, and our experiments with it around the world are helping us create it.
Bioregionalism, as described in Chapter 16, is one such vision. A bioregionally organized world would most likely include various forms of scientifically integrated permaculture derived from indigenous and traditional agriculture along with appropriate technology for other aspects of life, from communications to housing, medical care, etc. Local production would meet as many needs as possible for food and other goods, with imports determined by democratic discussions. Community would naturally become vital again in such settings, and local culture would flourish, while also exchanged with other regions.
Urban areas would still be desirable and necessary for efficient technological production and other activities and institutions, such as research institutes whose knowledge could then be made available electronically to all. Many people are working on sustainable urban designs that integrate gardens and use clean, efficient energy and public transport. Questions are being asked about optimal city size, about which technologies will be appropriate, about design to eliminate waste. Communications technology would link all bioregions, becoming the central nervous system for the body of humanity. And we can make our computers and other equipment without harming either the people making them or the environment.
Bioregionalism is consistent with grassroots democratic movements that are cropping up all over the world, creating new local self-sufficiency systems with their own currencies. From huge housewives cooperatives in Japan to sustainability movements in the hi-tech Silicon Valley world, ordinary people are taking control over their lives into their own hands and practicing local democracy.
Many people wonder how long we have to turn things around. It is really not a question of some critical turning point, but of nurturing more viable systems even as the old ones decay. One metaphor for our changing world is Norie Huddle's story of a caterpillar's metamorphosis into a butterfly. After consuming hundreds of times its own weight daily as it munches its way through its ecosystem, the bloated caterpillar forms its chrysalis. Inside its body, new biological entities called imaginal discs arise, at first destroyed by its immune system. But as they grow more in number and begin to link up, they begin to survive. Eventually the caterpillar's immune system fails, its body goes into meltdown and the imaginal discs become the cells that build the butterfly from the spent materials that had held the blueprint for the butterfly all along. In just this way, a healthy new world, based on the principles of living systems, can emerge through today's chaotic transformation.
There are as many ways to build a new world of living systems as there are creative people who want to do it! Remember that we have seen all evolution as an improvisational dance. Each person, as an imaginal disc, can contribute to the process of today's metamorphosis in some unique way. What matters is that we all understand the Earthdance and the healthy features of living systems at their best. From there we need only the will and the love to create a better future for all living beings.
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Before we leave this discussion of sustainability, let's look at a marvelous reinvention of ancient biotechnology that is changing our world faster than anything else we have discussed: the World Wide Web, or Internet.
Just as bacteria learned to trade information from one to another worldwide, like frenzied traders on a stock exchange floor, as Lynn Margulis has put it, so we humans have suddenly set up our own worldwide information exchange, qualitatively different from our international telephone calls, though using the same lines. It all began when the army sought a way to get messages through phone lines in case parts of their web was knocked out in warfare. Packet switching was invented, a distributed network of nodes permitting snippets of messages -- not unlike bacterial genes -- to independently seek open paths from A to B along working routes and then be reassembled at their destination. Victor Grey has a wonderfully readable history of the Web, showing clearly why it is different from all previous systems, how it caught on, why all efforts to control it have failed and what it means to our future.
From an evolution biology perspective, what is most exciting about its nature and explosive growth, is the way its multiple designers and users have unwittingly adopted all the organizational design and operating principles of living systems -- that is, their ecology and economy as we have defined them. In Chapter 15, we pointed out that machinery is always an extension of humans. Now we can see that Internet players -- who come increasingly from all walks of life and all persuasions -- have self-organized, hooking their computers to phone lines through modems, a real and apparently viable living system. It grows in size and complexity daily -- generating, processing, sorting and distributing almost unthinkably large amounts of material around the clock and around the globe at ever greater speed.
The Web remained a growing conversation by `e-mail' and chat rooms, backed up with mushrooming websites filled with all manner of information for a surprisingly long time, despite corporate attempts to sell goods on it. Its players were simply too focused on conversations, on hacking at browser designs and developing all manner of new software to create and send each other artistic messages, music and animations to even think of consuming goods. But finally, they had to make a living themselves, and businesses began to sprout up on the Web, with bookstore Amazon.com the first howling success. Within weeks after its launch, the Web was going crazy with new venture capital and businesses, soon throwing Wall Street for a loop with the hottest stocks on the market..
Many of the people who developed Web businesses did so in desperation when they were fired in massive corporate `downsizings.' As Wall Street Columnist Thomas Petzinger has shown, that tactic backfired, never benefiting the corporations -- on the contrary, they suffered a new and stiff competition from their own ousted employees. And the explanation lies in understanding living systems, as Petzinger was astute enough to recognize, writing headlines in the Wall Street Journal on February 26th, 1999 over an article excerpted from his book on these `New Pioneers':
A New Model for the Nature of Business: It's Alive!
Forget the Mechanical, Today's Leaders Embrace the Biological
Let's look at this more closely. The corporate world had been organized under the old mechanical worldview, with top-down command-and-control hierarchies engineered to keep people in their departmental boxes, doing only the jobs prescribed. Management was about keeping them there and keeping them on their toes lest they be fired. The conversation and creativity people were finding on the Web was not permitted. Business consultants went through waves of fads for making business work better -- Total Quality Management (TQM), Total Performance Accounting (TPA), and so on -- but nothing seemed to improve the situation, and downsizing was a last resort at streamlining.
Those that created businesses on the Web were not seeking a bottom line of profits so much as an enterprise that would succeed because it met human needs -- whether for hard to get widgets or used books from second hand bookstores. It worked. There were instant computer connections with suppliers and equally fast connections to buyers -- it didn't matter where they were, things could be ordered and sent into the mails directly to consumers as fast as the buyer made a decision. The new entrepreneurs went after everything from goods sitting in corporate warehouses, left over last year's models, to unused radio and TV airtime and auctioned them off. By the time this book is in print there will no doubt be a flurry of Internet currencies, and a way to interface them, possibly competing effectively with the dollar economy.
What we are seeing is the discovery of what it is like to function as a creative living system after being kept in the prison of mechanistically engineered schools and workplaces. And the corporate world cannot ignore it. In fact it quickly began hiring savvy young people with Web experience to teach them how to talk to people on the Web, how to market to them in personal ways, how to keep their "eyeballs captive." In other words, the Web has demonstrated the power to lead the behemoth corporate world into its practically homemade, until recently shoestring budget world.
How can we identify the operating Web principles that made this remarkable feat possible? The answer is to look at the organizational and operating principles of healthy biological living systems -- the organizational and operating principles we can abstract from them, be they cells, bodies, communities, ecosystems or our world economy -- and observe that the Internet uses them all, while most corporations use almost none of them. The power of the Web is the power of Life!
Organizational and Operational Principles of Healthy Living Systems
Self-creation (autopoiesis) Complexity (diversity of parts) Embeddedness in larger holons and dependence on them (holarchy) Self-reflexivity (autognosis-self-knowledge) Self-regulation/maintenance (autonomics) Response ability -- to internal and external stress or change Input/output of matter/energy/information from/to other holons Transformation of matter/energy/information Communications among all parts Empowerment -- full employment of all component parts Coordination of parts and functions Balance of Interests -- negotiated self-interest at all levels of holarchy Reciprocity of parts in mutual contribution and assistance Conservation of what works well Innovation -- creative change of what does not work well
A comparison of these principles with those by which corporations operate makes the point more clearly.
MECHANISM (Corporations) ORGANISM (The Web) Allopoietic Autopoietic Inventor created Self-created Hierarchic structure Holarchic embeddedness Top-down command Holarchic dialog/negotiation System engineered System negotiated Repaired by engineers/experts Repairs itself Evolution by external redesign Evolution by internal redesign Exists for product or profit Exists for health and survival Serves owners' self interest Serves self/society/ecosystem
The influence of the Web on the corporate world is enormous -- so much so that the corporate world will follow suit in coming alive, in reorganizing itself from mechanism to organism, as a few pioneers have already done. After all, life works, and corporations are made of people! Why would they want to continue behaving like machines once it is obvious that life works better.
What will a corporation look like when it makes the change? The new corporate organization's interests will be compatible with the interests of its own stakeholders, their families, and all society. We can guess that it will:
- Be autopoietic and holarchic
- Create value both internally and externally for all constituencies
- Make "shared destiny" moral contracts with employees and society
- Shift from absentee shareholders to involved stakeholders
- Ensure the recycling of all products not consumed
- Treat other organizations as respected equals (friendly competition)
- Have triple bottom lines: profits, social development, ecosystem health
In this transition lies our greatest hope for becoming a mature species in time, for corporations are the most powerful human institutions on the planet today, the only ones with the resources and ability to make the transition from our acquisitive species adolescence to wise maturity, leading the way for us all.