When pondering whether civilisation as we know it can survive, given the rapid growth of the human population and its use of energy and resources, we should think about trees.
Trees are biological organisms, as we are. They comprise far more mass than the human race; in most of their population centres they are more densely populated. They use more primary energy collectively than we do. They exchange massive amounts of water, energy, and material resources, using biogeochemical agents in their ecosystem as intermediaries.
They compete in non-cooperative games, causing sub-optimal results like those that economics writer John Cassidy has dubbed “rational irrationality”. In a rainforest, trees crowd each other out to reach toward the sun in what biologist Richard Dawkins calls an “arms race”, attempting to expose their treetops to solar energy. In this process they grow to the maximum height they can support. That makes them vulnerable to lianas, which in some places threaten rainforests – thick, flexible vines that snake over the tops of the trees, weighing them down and causing their collapse.
If only the trees could agree to share the sunlight and grow to less than their maximum carrying capacity; then they would be less vulnerable to lianas, and they would still capture the same amount of solar energy.
In the trees’ ecosystem there is an “economic growth” mechanism, a creative destructive process often called natural selection. This process spawns many kinds of products – not only mutations and variations of species, but a variety of chemical and biological products and services as well. The “market” – the trees’ ecosystem – reveals through its actions its preferences as to which will survive and which will not. This process can be viewed as value-increasing, in the same way that economists attribute increases in value to the choices markets make in the human economy.
Trees and their ecosystem are different in many ways, of course, from mobile humans and our social economy. Nevertheless, most mechanisms that propel the human economy can be found in the trees’ ecosystem – their economy – too.
Why, then, do we assume the economy of trees is sustainable while ours is not?
Perhaps, if we were present during the growth stage of a new forest but had never seen a fully-grown forest before, we would think that the rampant, disorganised growth and fierce competition would be unsustainable and would end with dire consequences. Yet the forest now is reasonably stable and continues, as just noted, to “grow”; and is the trees’ advanced state of development, in which they use all of their carrying capacity, a bad thing?
This analogy of the economy of trees to the human economy is not perfect, of course; but as models of the economy go, it’s about as good as it gets. Most economic models today are so abstract that the real world isn’t recognisable in them, except to an economist.
A model contemplating the economy of trees does have an advantage, however, over other models. It affords a basis for a secular eschatology – an economic vision of the ultimate destiny of humankind. No mainstream economic theory today addresses this issue adequately, if at all. Where does our growth ultimately take us, and how can we assure that the end point is desirable?
Mainstream economics does not mention this. It tends to assume only that the economy will grow forever. It has no succession theory, as the science of ecology does. Current economic theories would make no distinction between a forest’s pioneer stage and its “climax” stage. They do not help us envision what the human economy might look like in a mature phase, a phase we have not yet reached.
Our agenda for thinking about sustainability must include pre-visioning society’s climax stage. It may help in the process to develop a robust economics of natural systems, like forests and their ecologies.