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Uncommon Grace: Biology and Economic Theory

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My wife, Alice, and I hold a deed to twenty acres of land in Morgan County, West Virginia. To most people, there is nothing remarkable about this place. But to us, it is extraordinary. I have spent seventeen years exploring the botany of this land: photographing its wild flowers, learning the language of its avian citizens, and capturing its various moods on film and in pixels. Knowing it as I do, I could never think of this place as a resource. It is simply home: the source. 

In a society that holds sacred the private ownership of property and economic self interest, it may seem strange that neither my wife nor I consider ourselves property owners. At best, we are squatters or temporary guardians of something that has inherent value; an evolving biological entity that exists far beyond the realm of economic self interest and monetary valuation systems. 

Alice and I share this sacred space with numerous plants and animals—most of them wild, and some of them domesticated. Among the latter: five horses, three dogs, and numerous felines. We do not own these animals any more than they own us; they are not our pets. They are simply animal companions, members of the extended human family, and valued equally with human beings, mushrooms, and copperhead snakes.

Unlike my wife and me, none of these animals have to work for a living. They are not expected to perform tricks for us. They are simply free to be who they are. We do the best we can for them with our limited resources. What we get in return is priceless; something that defies quantification. Whatever it is, it is greater than the sum of its parts but as ethereal as the morning mist that rises from a brook. Yet, it is as real as the soil and sky.

It is impossible to commodify the sacred bonds that exist between the human animal, and the non-human animal—a bond that extents into the landscape that spawned them. To claim ownership of another living being, whether wild forest, or domesticated canine, is to break the sacred bonds and reduce them into commodities—mere objects for use. It is to make them our property and force them into slavery; objects for economic exploitation.

So it is with the land itself.

In an ownership society, the land is valued not as an evolved living biological entity with inherent value and rights, including the fulfillment of its own evolutionary destiny, but as a commodity—a natural resource.

In this unnatural schema, wild forests lose their structural and biological diversity to become pulp for paper mills, and are turned into toilet paper, or packaging for ipods. Diverse forests become tree farms and plantations, monocultures thirsting for toxic chemicals to keep them alive. They are no longer natural, no longer wholly real or authentic. This process of industrial forestry moves the land from the realm of the sacred into that of economic theory; and it is falsely called science. That which has inherent value is thus devolved into mere property, a commodity; divested of its sacredness, a severed part divorced from the whole.

Treated as private property, the wild earth, with its essential ecological processes, dies a death of a thousand cuts, as economic myth and Disneyesque plantations supplant the authentic natural landscape, and the artificial is freely substituted for the real.

Surrounded by the artificial, we live in a time when people can no longer tell the difference between the real and the synthetic; the natural and the unnatural. Sadly, they do not even know what has been lost or that it can never be replaced.

Thus we have a culture which holds that economic self interest is the highest expression of human freedom. It is a paradigm that asserts its superiority over all others, including the public welfare and the wellbeing of the earth. It is the foundation of Adam Smith’s capitalism, as espoused in The Wealth of Nations, and modified many times since.

But freedom that subjugates others is not freedom at all.

Private ownership is a paradigm that values the economic parts of nature—those that can accrue wealth to the land owner, while assigning no value to the parts that are economically unimportant, or the greater public good, including the world’s genetic libraries. Yet, in nature, it is often the non-economic parts that provide the essential ecological functions that make life itself possible. Not just human life—all life.

Here in Morgan County, wild forests provide shade on hot summer afternoons, and diverse habitat for multitudes of species, both plant and animal. Together, the interrelationship formed by these species constitute a dance of life that promotes the dynamic equilibrium of a complex ecosystem—the magnificent Central Appalachian Hardwood and Mixed Mesophytic Forest.

Aided by fungus and precipitation, insects residing in decaying trees move nutrients through the earth, building healthy soil. Forests purify the air and remove pollutants, while also trapping and holding greenhouse gases. Wild forests filter pollutants from streams and rivers, providing pure drinking water to foxes, beetles, and people. All of this, and much, much, more, is provided without cost to us; as a right of citizenship in this world.

Left alone, the wild earth—unlike human constructed systems, is a beautifully self-regulating arrangement in dynamic equilibrium; a system that runs on biological capital, rather than artificial economic arrangements. The management of such systems, which have evolved over billions of years, implies the superiority of man over nature, his dominion over the earth—a dangerous and foolish notion that requires unfathomable hubris, and equal parts stupidity.

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Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina.
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You mention David Brower, my greatest hero, who pu... by Daniel Geery on Sunday, Oct 21, 2007 at 10:21:13 AM
Very nice article!Lately Adam Smith has been chose... by Gary Denson on Sunday, Oct 21, 2007 at 3:39:57 PM
My point exactly in a number of comments I’v... by Andris on Sunday, Oct 21, 2007 at 5:51:56 PM
 Your article literally brought a tear of hom... by Andris on Sunday, Oct 21, 2007 at 5:06:18 PM
I'm a regular reader of Jim Kunstler's CLU... by John on Monday, Oct 22, 2007 at 12:28:46 AM
I was reading last weekend, "Patience, Fairne... by Kevin Anthony Stoda on Wednesday, Oct 24, 2007 at 2:47:09 PM