Economies are Trophic Flows

In 1972, as I was just about to get married for the first time, I read the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. I decided not to have children, given the long term prospects.

In the meantime, while I went to study hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari, a man called Robert Paine, who died two years ago, was developing a model of how positive trophic flows were generated by certain keystone species like sea otters and beavers and wolves.

My research, meanwhile, led me to conclude that the hunter-gatherer economy was responsible for the positive trophic flows in the Kalahari – keeping the plant and animal species diverse – and that perhaps humans have actually evolved in a keystone ecological niche. Later, as my research expanded to the study of long-fallow farming and nomadic pastoralism in the Sahel, I saw evidence in their economies also, of positive trophic effects. In fact some of the last areas still supporting elephants and giraffe and other large wildlife were to be found in the region inhabited by the slash-and-burn farmers in southern Burkina Faso.
I was not sure, however, what to make of the Fulani claim that grass and trees sprang up where their cattle’s hooves had been. Then a whole series of other research appeared – suggesting that nomadic pastoralists had actually increased the health of savana ecosystems – generated a positive trophic effect – through the effects of concentrating manure from cattle kraals as they moved across the landscape.

Finally, I reconsidered the extraordinary research by Elinor Ostrom, and of Robert McCNetting, who had documented that negative environmental effects were avoided by settled agricultural communities in places like Nigeria and Switzerland, through the institutionalization of economic practices that prevented the tragedy of the commons. In fact, Harding’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is easily recognizable as the consequence of communities UNABLE to restrain some people from overuse of grazing, deforesting, and over-exploitating resources of the commons traditionally held and protected by local communities.

It occurs to me that most people do not realize that the living planet is humanity’s “commons” – it belongs to us all. Millions of species; a wondrous diversity, is our endowment and our trust. Without a way of recognizing that fact, and of managing that commons in a way that will keep earth’s essential ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial, thriving – we lose the primary ecological niche we evolved to fill, and to fulfill.

Private “property” and “government property” are both concepts that deny the existence of this commons. If you doubt this, consider our “commons” in civilization – what are they? I think they are the national parks, the national monuments, and heritage sites…but they are ALSO infrastructure like roads, bridges, museums, libraries, schools and universities, hospitals, and even pension funds and unemployment insurance. These all BELONG to the people as a commons that elected officials are entrusted to care for with collective funds derived from taxation and other levies. And they rest on the resources of the larger commons – the ecosystems of this living planet, not just the minerals, soils, and water, but the breathable air itself.

In social democracies, like Denmark and Germany, the government is a major employer, since the whole healthcare, education, pensions and welfare, infrastructure, and energy systems are all government services. Governments also tend to be more active in creating a sustainable relationship with the larger ecological commons, by regulating the industries and other human activities that might pollute or over-exploit the resources and landscapes of the commons. Taxes are higher to support all these services, but the government is actually doing its job: it is looking after the people in the country. This leaves businesses to run commodity production, and merchandising… which are OPTIONAL consumer sectors, like gym clubs, restaurants, cinemas, beauty salons, butcher shops, grocery stores, pharmacies, furniture, book, and appliance shops, and a myriad of other businesses that people CAN CHOOSE to spend their money on.

So the “job” of government to protect the commons. Not to sell or lease them as if they are private property. Hospitals, health care, social and the education system, like public works and welfare infrastructure are not the property of government to sell off or lease out to private firms to run as if they were profit-making businesses.

Meanwhile, are ancient forests, wetlands, lakes, and rivers, not part of the public commons? When businesses demand land for a new development and the government does NOT to support the people’s commons, what happens? People will chain themselves to trees, blockade roads, hold mass demonstrations. We have seen this for decades: one instance occurred recently in the German Hambach forest in Germany, which is threatened by the expansion of a coal company, and other such protests occur frequently in the United States and Canada, where ecosystems on indigenous lands, or parks like Wood Buffalo, and the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge, are threatened by oil or liquified natural gas industry development.

As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which, when land was in common, cost the labourer only the trouble of gathering them, come, even to him, to have an additional price fixed upon them. He must then pay for the licence to gather them; and must give up to the landlord a portion of what his labour either collects or produces. This portion, or, what comes to the same thing, the price of this portion, constitutes the rent of land ….”Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776) Book I.

What happens is that governments are urged by corporate business interests to think they somehow have discretion to legally disregard the protests of citizens – especially “indigenous” citizens, in favour of promoting corporate use of the land, especially when corporations promise that this use will lead to more jobs and is necessary to meet future energy needs.

Tainter’s magnificent study “The Collapse of Complex Societies” seemed far from my main enquiries during all this mulling I have been doing, about the way my own research can tie in with the major issues before us today. But now, one of scientists who has written on the Limits to Growth, Ugo Bardi, has co-authored a study that re-analysed the various scenarios, including Tainter’s, about civilizational collapse. He and his colleagues have concluded that Tainter’s model is the most plausible – the costs of maintaining an expanding empire escalate until the whole financial, and then the political and economic institutional heart of the empire falls.

“…The models studied here are not supposed to describe specific cases of the collapse of human societies, rather, they are thought of as a simplified playground to examine the effect of some parameters on the trajectory of complex systems intended as dissipative structures based on finite or slowly renewable resources. The models are based on a simple concept: that of the trophic chain. If we assume that the natural resources available are non-renewable, as they are in the case of mineral resources (e.g. gold and silver for the Roman Empire and fossil fuels for the modern global empire), the disappearance of the trophic structures exploiting the resources is unavoidable – unless new resources can be found. The same is true for those resources which are slow to renew in comparison to the rate of exploitation. The models tell us how the dissipation of the natural resources goes by the progressive filling and emptying of the stocks at lower thermodynamic potential – every step implying a loss of exploitable potential energy which disappears in the form of pollution, e.g. low temperature heat. ….This phenomenon generates “bell-shaped” curves for the filling/emptying of the stocks. These curves can also take the “Seneca shape” when the decline is faster than the growth. As this phenomenon goes on, the stocks interact with each other. The time delay in the filling/emptying of the stocks generates a trajectory where stocks move in the phase space along a hysteresis curve. The system continuously evolves in an irreversible manner and it can never return to an earlier condition, unless the resources are assumed to be renewable and, in this case, the system circles around an attractor in phase-space. In other words, simply reducing the size of the “Bureaucracy” stock will not return the system to a condition in which it was during the growing cycle, an observation which seems to correspond to the current situation.Overall, as long as a society exploits resources in a condition of unbridled feedback, as it happens when it tries to maximize yields, then the overexploitation collapse is unavoidable even though the resources are theoretically renewable. Only an intelligent control able to plan for the future can avoid this destiny. Such a control was not modelled in the present study, but the records of history tell us that it is rarely – if ever – utilized in human societies in history…”

Conclusion: it is when any community loses control of their commons, and negative trophic cascades begin, that the feedback into a tragedy of the commons, begins. At this point in the history of humanity, the degree of inequality has never been greater. A handful of billionaires has more wealth and property than three or four billions of people on the planet. They seem to act as though this gives them, or the giant corporations that enrich them, more power over the use of the commons, than any local community. I think that this signals loss of control, on the part of the global community, of the commons of this world, and that this is how the collapse the civilization, at the centre of the exploitative economy, begins.


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