Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nature as a System of Abundance

Roberto Verzola, an economist and agricultural activist in the Philippines, opened with a presentation about the inherent abundance of nature – an abundance that market capitalism systematically attempts to negate and control. He compares natural abundance to the “miracle of the loaves” parable in the New Testament of the Bible, in which living things seem to miraculously multiply. Verzola calls this ecological sector of production the “living sector,” which must be seen as qualitatively different from the industrial sector, which by contrast “creates things from dead matter.”

The significant factor about the “living sector” is that it is capable of zero marginal costs in production because of the self-reproductive capacity of living things. As humans interact with nature, they can alter and improve the “programming” of living things, cultivating a framework of abundance that conventional economics simply cannot understand. The logic of natural abundance is well illustrated by the System for Rice Intensification (SRI), a kind of “open source agricultural innovation” project that Verzola has been involved with for years. Thousands of farmers from fifty different countries participate in SRI by collaborating via the Internet to discuss how to improve the yields of natural rice seeds (i.e., shareable seeds, not GMOs or hybrids). These self-directed grassroots collaborations have improved rice yields as much as five times over conventional levels without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or GMOs.

Verzola believes that focusing on abundance is what enables communities to create commons. Participating in a commons, in turn, helps overcome the baseline assumption of modern economics that resources are inherently scarce and that people have unlimited wants. If you assume that people’s needs can be met and that an ethic of sufficiency can prevail, said Verzola, then the whole edifice of conventional economics breaks down. Or as Gandhi put it, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

The challenge with systems of abundance (in nature or in information commons) is finding ways to make the abundance last and be made universally available (as opposed to being privately controlled for private profit). Economists tend to focus on efficiency and how to maximize gain, said Verzola, but engineers are more concerned with reliability, i.e., how to avert failure. For people who work with abundant resources, the primary focus should similarly be how to minimize the risk of failure. The precautionary principle is one expression of this impulse, but the larger need is to develop intellectual analyses and legal forms that can protect abundance. This is a very difficult challenge, however, when the entire capitalist economy is systemically dedicated to engineering scarcity and destroying natural abundance (in order to create markets and predictable profit streams). - David Bollier

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