From Ego to Eco
“Well, Mister Rico, connectedness, embeddedness,
and natural limits to growth is a consciousness
very familiar to all islanders.”
Lua explained that this crisis originates in a profound disconnect between our dominant model of economic thought today and the collaboration imperatives of a global ecosystem. This disconnect is between an ego-system awareness, where stakeholders maximize benefit only for themselves, and the collaboration imperatives of a global eco-system, where stakeholders need to improve the well-being of all, including themselves. In other words, we have an enormous and dangerous divide between narrow ego-system thinking and a wider eco-system reality in which we are all embedded and on which we all ultimately depend, she insisted.
Indeed, the broad field of ecology emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a science centered around the ideas of holism and system integration and away from the reductionist Newtonian physics model in order to develop a more accurate worldview that is adapted to deal with actual complex living systems; not abstracted linear, separable, mechanical subsystems that operate independently.
In fact, ecology should really be thought of as the dominant scientific paradigm of our time, as it is an inherently interdisciplinary, ‘systems’ perspective where groups of interacting, interdependent parts are linked together by complex exchanges of energy, matter, and information. Ecological thinking recognizes that wholes are much more than just the sum of their parts.
The foundation of real living wealth are healthy ecosystems. These are naturally complex adaptive systems because they are evolutionary rather than mechanistic in nature and exhibit a rather limited degree of predictability.
Healthy ecosystems are characterized by their vigor, organization, and resilience. The vigor of a system is a measure of its activity, metabolism or primary productivity. The organization of a system refers to the number and diversity of interactions among the components of the system. The resilience of an ecosystem refers to its ability to maintain its structure and pattern of behavior and recover in the presence of disturbances such as pollution or predation or other stressors.
Biodiversity has two major roles in the self-organization of large-scale ecosystems: it provides the units, energy flow pathways, and nutrient cycling through which energy and materials flow, giving the system its functional properties; and it provides the ecosystem with the resilience to respond to unpredictable surprises.
It is not simply the diversity of species that is important, it is how that diversity is organized into a coherent whole system.
Solar energy is the prime driving force of ecosystems, enabling the cyclic use of materials and compounds required for system organization and maintenance. Solar energy is captured through photosynthesis by plants. It is necessary for biogeochemical cycling — the conversion, cycling, and transfer of energy to other systems of materials and critical chemicals that affect growth and production. Energy flow and biogeochemical cycling set an upper limit on the sustainable number of organisms and on the number of trophic levels that can exist in an ecosystem.
In terms of benefits to the human community, a healthy ecosystem — marine, forest, or desert — is useful and necessary in that it provides the ecosystem services supportive of the human community, such as food, fiber, the capacity for assimilating and recycling wastes, potable water, and clean air. Moreover, Lua felt strongly that every ecosystem has its own particular enchantment and sacredness, its delicate balance, its quiet music worthy of care and respect. It seemed rather insane to her that much of humanity worships an invisible god while destroying a very visible natural world, not realizing that that very same natural world is the invisible god deserving of worship.
She explained that the great challenge of our time calls for an evolution of the dominant logic and operating system of human societies from one that is based on limited ego-system thinking to one that is based on broader eco-system awareness, connections, and limitations. The trouble with today’s short-term-gains market culture is that we are trying to solve large and complex eco-system level problems with the same narrow and limited ego-system levels of consciousness and awareness that created them. Shifting the state of awareness from ego- to eco-consciousness will begin by awakening the intelligence of the heart — by re-connecting.
I asked Lua,
“What do you think it will take to wake up from this ‘collective sleepwalking’ you talk about?”
“Well, Mister Rico, I think it will require applying the power of mindfulness — deep moment-to-moment awareness— both individually and collectively, to how we conduct our daily business, how we practice democracy, and how we structure society. I think we are entering a period of disruption and transition where big systems around us will continue to crumble and collapse. We will need a fundamental shift in the quality of our relationships — a shift of the heart — that will allow us to co-create, test, and grow new forms of collaborative institutions that recognize our embeddedness in Nature and our deep human need for connection to one another and to the natural world that supports and sustains us all. A seismic Copernican-level revolution in our human story and collective consciousness would be helpful to de-center us and place us back into a cosmic evolutionary narrative from which the Enlightenment wrenched us — before we overload the planet’s regenerative capabilities.”
Lua felt that a collective sense of atonement was emerging as a result of our lack of ecologically-sound growth and for the elevated risk of whole-system collapse that we have created from global environmental threats such as ocean acidification, disintegration of Antarctic ice sheets, and destabilization of the climate system. Fortunately, there are many grassroots ‘re-’ initiatives: re-greening the planet, restoring damaged ecosystems, recycling wastes, and reducing carbon footprints.
Many of these projects and movements will fail, no doubt, from bad timing or bad information or bad execution. Nevertheless, those who are engaged in re-greening and restoration feel a moral duty to pass along a world at least as good as they found it and are striving to ensure all living beings are granted a fair share of Earth’s natural resources. There is growing awareness that the current linear take-make-waste economic model is rapidly depleting the resources that make life possible and is a fundamental moral wrong. Wastefully gorging on fossil fuels, as we are doing today, clearly jeopardizes the full flourishing of life’s possibilities on this planet for future generations.
“The new emerging economy requires a new economics. A system which offers a different model than the outdated and oversimplified neoclassical approach founded upon coldly calculating, self-interested individuals striving to ‘maximize personal utility.’ It must transcend market civilization and its corresponding market vocabulary like ‘natural capital,’ ‘cultivated natural capital,’ and ‘ecosystem services.’ What’s really needed is a shift of consciousness to a culture of caretaking, balance, and renewal based on a deeper understanding of our fundamental embeddedness in Nature and connectedness with other living beings. This is very important, Mister Rico.”
“We need to expand our spheres of care and act not just for ourselves and the people we know, but in the interest of the entire ecosystem in which human activity takes place. We are connected to that system. What happens to it, happens to us! Economists should be educated as specialists within the broader field of ecology before they attempt to measure and guide the health, wealth, and well-being of individuals and communities. They should focus on the long-term sustainability of human, social, and living natural well-being — not just ‘human-made capital.’”
“You seem to have a remarkably deep understanding of these things, Lua.”
“Well, Mister Rico, connectedness, embeddedness, and natural limits to growth is a consciousness very familiar to all islanders.”
“Yeah, I suppose it would be.”