Jump to content

Ecology and Economy

In the last half of the 20th century the environmental movement and industrial enterprise have been in intense conflict over how human kind conducts its "business". The contest is nicely abbreviated in two words, ecology and economy. Clinton's pithy political intuition "It's the economy, stupid" embodied contemporary wit but lacked wisdom.

The tension and contemporary enmity between ecology and economy is ironic because they share a common root eco - from Greek oikos, house, household. Further back, the Indo-European root is woikos which gives us Latin vicus, a cluster of houses, hence our words village and vicinity. So, at root, eco means dwelling place. Ecology and economy differ in their suffixes. Logy is from Greek logos, from legein, to gather, count, hence to recount, hence to say or speak. Logos and its Latin counterpart legere - to count, speak, gather etc. give us a plethora of terms from legend to dialect to logic to neglect to elect to diligent et alia...

Ecology at root means the legend or logic of the dwelling place, the story of where we live. Simply put ecology is talking about home, the science (from Latin scio - to know) of dwelling. Ecology includes everyone in the story; plants, critters, weathers, seasons, soils, rocks, ghosts, glaciers and microbes. Ecology is an attempt to articulate and understand the complex, well woven synergy of us, the locals. Because it embodies a changing, evolving knowing and saying I think ecology is most accurately revealed as the legend of the house. (Legend as map calibration, instruction, memory, artful rendition and deep understanding.)

Economy is eco plus nomos. Nomos is from another Greek word nemein, to distribute. Economy is from Greek oikonomia, household management. Our sense of economy as thrift echoes this root sense. By extension economy has come to include all enterprise. In Greek economos meant steward, the household manager, the agent of economia, good management, thrift.

So are ecology and economy necessarily in conflict? Ecology is the story of the "house". This story is the instruction, the eco-logic that informs the actions of he economos, the thrifty steward who "counts" the house. Ecology is the natural traditional and proper context of economy. In a deep and fateful sense economy is an aspect of ecology, an actor, a part in its drama.

But this is not how modern economy understands itself. Modern economy is not a "household" enterprise but a self referenced commercial fantasy. Stock market speculation does not know, care about or require a real locale. The modern "economist" is not a thrifty steward but an analyst of an endeavor that has forsaken home, turned its back on "ecology". Modern economy is a traveling salesman with no home. Its logic is profit based not place based, hence the wholesale migration of business to cheap labor locales and the standard argument that environmental regulations are limiting business growth. Economy has become a self referenced process, unrelated to the larger world (ecology) and that is a kind of madness. In the cyclic drama of ecologia, the seasonal blossoming and dying of creation, one actor has claimed center stage and has held forth in one long and increasingly boring self righteous soliloquy. Modern economics is increasingly deranged and homeless, its context profit not vicinity; its vicinage a Swiss bank book not the alder dreaming salmon.

The original sense of economy as thrift makes sense if we are living in the story of the house, living within our means. But in the modern economy the economos is no longer a steward but a homeless, manic huckster frantically paddling his canoe on the crest of a fitful cash flow, desperate to stay ahead of his own entropic wake. The "wisdom" of "it's the economy, stupid" imagines economy containing ecology. In that "technology will fix everything" imagination nature/ecology is a sentiment not a fundament. Nature has become a recreational commodity, a place where rich yuppies hike off the stress of commerce, not a resource that is our fateful succour, a photo op wonder preserve not the bone marrow of our culture (resource is from Latin re-surgere, to resurge. Surge is from sub-regere, to rule from below. So a resource is something that surges back, ruled by powers hidden from view, a gift of the "ancestors", salmon, fir, rain, ice rock, soil, the ecologia...)

If economy "contains" ecology much longer ecology will be consumed. We will burn down the house to stay warm. But the words themselves remind us ecology is the story, an evolving, fateful drama, and we, the temporarily wayward economos, are actors not directors.