Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lessons From Nature - On the Economy

We could learn a lot from nature, if we would just take the time to stop and pay attention. For too long, we (humans) have believed ourselves superiorly wiser than the natural world. We can do more, we can be more, we can think more. When, in fact, we are really no different than other creatures who manipulate their environment (often to their own detriment), thinking they know better what's best.

I mentioned recently that this year's potato harvest was a little disappointing. I harvested only a third of what we would need for the winter (and we'd need even more than what I estimated, if potatoes were a daily fare). Yes, the potatoes were huge, but is bigger really better?

As it turns out the answer is no. Bigger just means bigger, and at some point, things get too big, and too often too big results in illness and disease ... and in this case, rot from the inside out.

My potato is actually a pretty good metaphor for the state of our world. We were so interested in perpetual growth that we didn't stop to think, perhaps, some things should not get so big.

The housing market with its inflated values is a good example. I knew, many years ago, that my three-bedroom, single-story house, in a fairly desirable location would never be worth the $300,000 price tag a similarly situated home in my neighborhood sold for, but that's the direction so many wanted me to believe things were going. I just knew, intuitively, that there was no way (and more, no reason) why a house for which I paid less than $100,000 would triple in value when no significant improvements had been made. It's not like I added granite countertops, maple floors and gold plated bathroom fixtures. Nothing changed about my house ... and yet.

It just didn't compute for me, and the housing bubble bursting was no surprise. The surprise for me is that it went as long as it did, and more so, that there are still people out there who believe the bust is the anomaly and that the growth is the norm. Really?

The same could be said about most of the institutions that govern our lives these days. Nearly everything we are and all that we live is simply too big. Our houses, our cars, our incomes (and the flip-side, our spending habits).

When I was unearthing the potatoes, taking care not to skewer them with the shovel, what I found was that the plants attached to the gargantuan potatoes grew *one* potato. I kept gently scooping out the earth around the base of the plant, hoping to find more, but for most of the plants, there was just the one potato. It was a biggy, but the plant had put so much energy into growing this *one*, humongous potato that it was all it could grow.

I also grew a red potato variety, and those plants had several, much smaller potatoes per plant. The red potatoes are not good for storage potatoes (unfortunately), but they're healthier than the white potatoes that grew too big, because they understood a little something about diversity.

I think, as a society, we're doing the same as the white potato plants. We put all of our energy into this *one* thing, and that *one* thing (growth) will be the end of us. I'm going to eat that one potato, and there won't be any left for seed next year. If I'd had five small potatoes, I'd have eaten four of them and saved one, but with only one big one ....

In essence, because the plant put all of its energy into growing as big as it could get, it doomed itself.

We could learn a lot from nature, if we would just stop and pay attention, and the first lesson is that perpetual growth is not possible. At some point, everything gets too big and stops growing. The starker lesson is that, at some point, everything dies - it gets as big as it's going to get, and then, it *simply* dies. This year's white potatoes from my garden will have no offspring, because the few potatoes I harvested will all become fuel for my family.

That's the lesson that we are just beginning to grasp as our society, as our culture, starts winding down. Historically, all large civilizations eventually disintegrate, and ours is no different. The only difference is that our civilization is now global, rather than regional, and when *it* finally collapses, the reverberations will be felt across the entire earth, on every continent, in every country, by all people (with, perhaps, some very few exceptions of people who never became dependent on the global economy). We got too big, and now we will consume ourselves.

And, hey, did anyone notice that the price of gasoline per gallon is over $3 ... again? I'm not surprised :).


  1. Been poking this idea too. Here and here I'd love to hear what you think.

  2. We were those people planting the big potatoes ( working in construction;building houses), I remember many nights discussing how this wouldn't last forever. One of our biggest mistakes was over enjoying it while it lasted verses taking the time to save and work on being sufficient. Finally our lives were full of over grown rotten potatoes. It took longer than a season to reap what we had sown... but slowly but surely a new crop was planted...

    I enjoyed your analogy. Bigger isn't better nor is more. Obviously our society has some things to fix now but when do we say that will just have to do, instead of making more or trying to make "better"? When will we as a whole say its not perfect but lets keep it?

    One of my fears about the job market isn't about more job loss but too much job recovery... an abundance of jobs means consumerism, both parents traveling outside the home, loss of simple pleasures and self sufficiency.

    So, lets figure out how to do it smaller with less money. I hope we all learn to keep our taters' small. ;)

  3. My six year old nephew always wants one big rock when I take him somewhere outdoors, rather than say, five small ones. "I want this one!" Yeah, it's big, but it's no good if you can't carry it home.

    Gas here (KY) right now is $2.77. For some reason it's been pretty stable the past two months which makes me a little apprehensive.

  4. I love potatoes, and I love metaphores. This is incredible. Hee hee!

    I've always been a believer in this. People always say "I want my kids to have it better than I did." Nope. Not me. When you go to the movies all the time and you eat out at McDonald's once a week, where's the specialness? You have to find your "cool" things to do in more expensive things--trips and gizmos. It just progressively escalates.

  5. Kaye - I totally agree - it's not those big things that make our lives so great. It's actually the small stuff, the every day stuff - like the cup of tea Deus Ex Machina makes me every morning.

    Alyse - funny about the rock! Isn't that the way it always is? Gotta have the biggest. I'm working on reducing that consumerist ideology from my girls. It's tough, though.

    Leigh - funny you should say that. The book that I have written and am in the process of editing is based on that whole premise - the suburbs aren't perfect, or even great (the way they are right now), but it's what we have, and instead of abandoning them, we really need to start the process of making the suburbs sustainable.

    Alan - I took a look at your posts. They're very dense, and I need to digest them a bit more before I comment :). Thank you for sharing the links.

  6. I have a very small house and want to go even smaller.

    Follow my link if you want a small eco-friendly home with organic land and a low affordable price. Considering ANY offers.

    Wendy, hope you don't mind my posting this here. It fits. And it is urgent that I sell the place fast. Thanks, Judy

  7. Judy - I don't mind the advertisement ;). You should mention that your house is in a rural suburb in Florida for those who might be looking to relocate south ;).