Toward A Living Economy: Managed Boundaries

This is a continuation of a series exploring some ideas about what a living economy based on the rules of nature might look like. David Korten points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. This post will consider the third.

The third rule is “Managed Boundaries”which recognizes the exchanges at work in the interdependence of a healthy ecosystem.

Because of the way life manages energy, each living entity must maintain an active flow of energy within itself and in continuous exchange with its neighbors. Life requires permeable managed membranes at every level of organization—the cell, the organ, the multi-celled organism, and the multi-species ecosystem—to manage these flows and as a defense against parasitic predators. If the membrane of the cell or organism is breached, the continuously flowing embodied energy that sustains its living internal structures dissipates into the surrounding environment, and it dies. It also dies, however, if the membrane becomes impermeable, thus isolating the entity and cutting off its needed energy exchange with its neighbors. Managed boundaries are not only essential to life’s good health; they are essential to its very existence.

This is exactly what the current economic system cannot account for, energy flows. We can’t see what resources are flowing out of our bioregion and into others and likewise we don’t see the flows from other bioregions into our own in the form of food, products, labor, etc. The current system masks these flows with layers of trade, corporate entities, regulation, nation-states and various governing authorities. You can look at most products and find a “Made in…” label, but how much does that really tell you?

Reorganizing our human economies to function as locally self-reliant subsystems of our local ecosystems will require segmenting the borderless global economy into a planetary system of interlinked self-reliant regional economies. This does not mean shutting out the world. Vital living economies exchange their surplus goods for the surplus goods of their neighbors and freely share ideas, technology, and culture in a spirit of mutual respect for the needs and values of all players.

When I mentioned in the last post that this might sound like a scary form of tribalism to some, this point is what I had in mind. It’s as if our imaginations are held captive to two possibilities, which ultimately keeps us captive to one possibility for organizing the world, either some form of strong central control (which includes both capitalism, marxism, socialism, communism, etc.) or isolationist groups fighting with each other in a neo-tribalism or balkanization of the world. It seems to me that the problems we face are usually created in some part by our lack of ability to get outside of the status quo and paradigm that shapes our picture of the world and how it works. This exercise in imagining a living economy is an attempt to imagine an alternative beyond the two possibilities mentioned above, strong central control or tribalism.

Korten helpfully points out that the living economy he imagines is not local and regional tribes that isolate themselves from each other (Has this ever really been the case entirely?). He isn’t ranting about dismantling the global economy. Instead he seems to envision a global economy that more closely mirrors the global ecology. There are global exchanges that take place but not the kind of top-down centrally managed enterprise that currently exists with asymmetrical power relationships between nations, peoples and sectors within economies of nations and regions.

Ecological health does not depend on global institutions to regulate it. There is no IMF that lends some energy, trees, animals or pollinators to an ecosystem to maintain its health. If a species goes extinct (whether naturally or because of human intervention), there is no way to take out a loan with structural adjustments from a hypothetical institution of ecological resources that will somehow correct the health of the ecosystem. A greater degree of autonomy for local and regional economies would be necessary to mimic the health of ecosystems.

It also means that local and regional economies would have to be primarily based on their bioregions and then negotiate the management of the boundaries of that bioregion in terms of exchange with other localities. This seems to imply that the global system which makes it normal to have high-need and short season crops, like asparagus, and crops with a very small growing region, like quinoa, out of season in regions far from the point of production may no longer be feasible. Producing non-agriculture products in overseas factories may likewise also be less desirable with a shift in focus toward regional sufficiency and dependency on the local bioregion.

Each of the elements of Korten’s suggestions for a living economy shift the primary economic focus from a system abstracted from the natural resources on which it depends to one that begins with the soil that sustains us and only gradually, and in a limited way, expands from there. The question that looms over the act of imagining such a system is how in the world we could ever get there from here. I hope to explore some thoughts about that question in the final post in this series.

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