Healthy Ecosystems

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Learning from Healthy Ecosystems

Biologists at the cutting edge of their field now tell us that underlying the competition that biologists have long assumed to be the key to evolutionary progress, life is a fundamentally cooperative enterprise. In a healthy living system the species that prosper are not the most brutally aggressive, but rather those that find a niche in which they meet their own needs in ways that simultaneously serve the needs of others. The unrestrained growth and colonization of a cancer or invasive species is a sign of a pathological system breakdown. Healthy ecosystems maintain a creative tension and dynamic balance between competition for available resources and cooperation to optimize resource use to the benefit of the whole and between innovation and stability.  

We humans must now take the step beyond the individualistic, competitive, and often violent ways of our species adolescence behind us and embrace the responsibilities of adulthood by reorganizing our human economies to function as self-organizing subsystems of the diverse local ecosystems that comprise Earth’s biosphere.  The product of 3.9 billion years of evolutionary learning, Earth’s living systems have much to teach us about organizing human economies to optimize the beneficial and sustainable use of Earth’s resources.

Community Self-Organization

Earth's biosphere has an extraordinary capacity to self-organize through a creative dance of continuous adaptation as trillions upon trillions of cells, organisms, and communities of organisms engage in continuing dynamic exchange with their living neighbors. All the while, each organism at each level of organization from the individual cell, the the multi-cell organism, to the planetary biosphere maintains its own identity and health while balancing its own needs against the needs of others in ways that optimize the well-being of the whole.  

In this unending exchange, life is both frugal and reciprocal. The waste of one species is the food of another in a continuing process of recycling and reuse.

Because life thrives on diversity and depends on continuous exchange, it exists only in community. An individual organism cannot survive in isolation from other organisms or in a monoculture exclusive to its own species. The greater the diversity of the bio-community and the greater the cooperation among its diverse species, the greater the community’s resilience in times of crisis, potential for creativity in the pursuit of new possibilities, and capacity to adapt to diverse and changing local conditions.

Local Self-Reliance Everywhere

Utilizing life's capacity for adaptive self-organization, each of countless local ecosystems optimize the capture and utilization of locally available resources, including sunlight, through continuous adaptation to the most intricate features of their distinctive physical micro-environments. The greater the local self-reliance of each micro-ecosystem, the greater the ability of higher system levels and ultimately the biosphere to absorb and contain the shock of a local fire, drought, or meteor crash. So long as each self-reliant local ecosystem self-manages to keep its consumption and reproduction in balance with its local resource stocks, balance is maintained in higher system levels without need for centralized control.

It is inherent in the underlying nature of life that each living entity from the single cell to Earth's biosphere must capture energy from some source in its immediate environment and then maintain it in an active state of continuous flow within itself and between itself and its neighbors. The very existence of life depends on its ability to form and maintain permeable managed membranes or boundaries at every level of organization—the cell wall, the skin of the multi-celled organism, the oceans and mountains that bound multi-species ecosystems, and ultimately the atmosphere that mediates the boundary between Earth's biosphere and outer space to contain this continuous controlled sharing and recycling of energy. 

In managing its exchange with its neighbors, each organism must maintain a delicate balance. If its bounding membrane is too open, the organism's embodied energy will dissipate or it will be invaded by predators that sup on its energies while offering no compensating service in return. If too closed it shuts off the essential energy exchange with its neighbors. Either way, it dies. Managed balanced exchange is essential to prosperity and survival.

Local self-reliance in living economies is not about isolation or putting up walls. It is about living responsibly within one's own means, adapting to local conditions to optimize efficiency and security in the use of energy and material, maintaining overall system stability, and creating relationships of trust and individual security that make it easy and natural to cooperate and share with one's neighbors. 

Local living economies naturally and appropriately reach out to their neighbors to form a planetary web of cooperation in which ideas, culture, information, and technology are freely shared and in which each community trades its surpluses with its neighbors to the mutual benefit of all — fair trade, not free trade. In a properly functioning international system, democratically accountable governing institutions at national and global levels will facilitate cooperative exchanges among local and regional living economies and secure them against predatory assaults that threaten their integrity.

As with any healthy market economy, a living economy requires a framework of rules democratically agreed to by its participants to maintain the essential conditions of equitable, efficient, and sustainable function. Since under the best of circumstances there will be those who seek unfair advantage at the expense of their neighbors, there must be provisions for enforcement. The living economy's primary source of coherence and integrity, however, is cultural: the mindful sense of mutual respect, responsibility, and accountability integral to an awakened cultural and planetary consciousness.