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Updated: Sep 8, 2021

We have to put the eco back into economics’ – David Suzuki

Connectivity is a major theme in my Masters work.  Right now I’m thinking about how we connect the exponential disruption we’re facing in the digital space, with our most urgent need to reconnect with what we really need, clean air, clean water, clean energy, clean soils.

But Suzuki (in his updated book The Sacred Balance, 2007) brings us back to real issue: without clean water, air, energy and soils, economics and everything else is superfluous. He says that environmental issues are often framed incorrectly – the environment identified as somehow separate.  We are in fact, “intimately fused to our surroundings and the notion of separateness or isolation is an illusion.” [pg 18]

In his introduction to the new edition, he takes us back some helpful definitions.

““Eco” comes from the Greek word Oikos, meaning home.  Ecology is the study of home, while economics is the management of home. Ecologists attempt to define the conditions and principles that govern life’s ability to flourish through time and change.  Societies and our constructs, like economics, must adapt to those fundamentals defined by ecology.  The challenge today is to put the “eco” back into economics and every aspect of our lives.”

So, we need to reconnect our terms – Eco is home (our planet, our environment) eco–ology is the study of it, and eco-nomy is management of it.  Maybe this management isn’t going so well. How did economy move from management of our home/environment to domination of our home/environment with consequences we now all understand? I’m not going to head into this right now…but I think the definition is helpful.

As I think about reconnection, I’ve been listening to podcasts and learning about the indigenous way of looking at how everything’s connected – I recently listed to Robin Wall Kimmerer – a bryologist (virtual chocolate fish to anyone who knows what that is) – and Native American.  She talks about how our vocabulary must adapt to acknowledge our connections – like, who is that mountain rather than what is…  Everything is animate if it hasn’t been made by humans, the rocks and water have lifecycles too – loved this discussion on On Being where Robin outlines the intelligence in all kinds of life.

Suzuki talks about this too. And he points out that if we need these connections scientifically proven, look no further than the human genome project which identifies our genome as nearly identical to that of the Great Apes and proves that we “carry thousands of genes identical to those in fish, birds, insects and plants, a revelation that we share genes with all other life forms to whom we are related by our shared evolutionary history.”

He believes the separation and reductionism that’s resulted from isolating ourselves from our environment has led us to think we can escape the restraints of nature and worse, led us to think that the services our environment supplies are little more than a function of economy.

“It is nature that cleanses water, creates air, decomposes sewage, absorbs garbage, generates electricity and produces food, but … these “ecosystem services” are assumed to be performed by the workings of the economy.”

Our troubles come from the explosive (exponential) speed of both growth and technological development which means we are expanding beyond the capacity of our environment to support us.

All of this rings so true to me – connection with nature has been a major force in my life and it is how I regenerate and certainly re-create.  I’ve never understood the attraction of a swimming pool over wild ocean waves (though I’ll take the pina colada thanks).

My recent understanding of the exponential nature of technological growth also brings home our failure so far to harness that technology to use in bringing us back into balance and reconnection with our true nature. Technological advancement – now exponential – has so far been mostly used to increase our ability to exploit our environment. (Often with disastrous consequences such as Biomagnification, a process that sadly wasn’t recognised when DDT was invented.) So how do we turn this around so that technology is used mostly to regenerate our environment and so that in future the unintended consequences of exploitation are avoided?

I think these concepts need to underpin all discussions about sustainability.  As Suzuki points out, the human bottom lines are: clean air, clean water, clean soil and clean energy and these are ecological processes, not economic.  He also points out that science, in its reductionist thinking (linear, looking at parts of systems in isolation, failure to recognise that sum of parts is often very different from what all parts together actually add up to) fails to examine whole systems and so complexities and dynamism are often overlooked, as are the interdependencies that mean a minor change to one part can have major effects on the whole system.

These concepts are wonderfully communicated in this talk from George Monbiot where the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has not only re-established a population, it’s also changed the course of the rivers (now I’m being reductionist – this one action of reintroducing a wolf population has had so many previously unidentified consequences, finally altering the entire environment… – watch the talk!).  It demonstrates beautifully the interconnections of everything – and in just 4 and a half minutes.  For a more indepth discussion, check his TED talk.

If we start thinking about interdependency and connectivity in terms of biodiversity and species loss – who knows what risks we run or what opportunities we face. We know so little, yet amazingly we do now know how to rewild – re-establish wolves for example, and there’s a movement in Britain dedicated to regaining biodiversity – check this article from The GuardianRewilding Britain plans to restore many of the islands’ long lost species in a bid to reconnect people to their natural environment and regenerate the ecosystems that support our lives.  And it’s not simply repopulation of threatened species, Rewilding Europe is working on bringing back the Auroch, a creature extinct since the 17th Century from ancient DNA.  So this work can be done.  The key is our own preparedness to rediscover our place as part of the ecosystem, connected to everything within it, to study our home – ecology – rather than continuing to assert exploitative dominion over it.

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