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Nature’s full employment economies: Part 3: Job Creation

June 27, 2011

 Part 3: How to create a full-employment economy?

Bailey’s Mills B&B: Photo: From TripAdvisor for Bailey’s Mills B&B, Reading, VT

I’m writing this from Bailey’s Mills Bread and Breakfast (Reading, Vermont). This big old house (a fantastic place to stay) sits aside a rushing stream which during the 19th Century powered a region’s mills – saw mills, grist mills, etc. (See photos and links at: Bailey’s Mill B&B ). Once logged and later farmed, the old fields have reverted to the biologically diverse ensemble of maples, oaks, birches, big ferns and wildflowers nicely matched to the climate and soils here.

Wood and Stream at Bailey’s Mills Bed & Breakfast: Photo: Ekos-Squared

What does this have to do with full employment? Every nook and cranny of this woodland is pulsing with life. A gram of its fertile soil is likely to contain a billion bacteria with thousands of species, many of which play an important role in fostering plant growth.[1] In turn dead leaves and wood provide a source of nutrition for the bacteria. The stream is filled with an entirely different community of microbes, plants and animals, many of the wet rocks covered in lush moss. All of these life forms are gainfully employed. 


The old dam with sluice for the rush of water that powered the mills; Photo: Ekos-Squared

Is an ecosystem really an economic system?Ecosystems (at least those spared human devastation) represent true economic success stories. Consider that the

An old mill stone, hydro-powered to produce flower from grain; Photo: Ekos-Squared

fundamentals of ecosystems and economic systems are quite similar – with some important differences. Both “eco and “econo” systems have many of the same basic processes – material and energy flows, production and consumption, competition and cooperation; saving and spending; growth and restoration; and the creation of wastes. The first human economies were fully integrated into their natural habitats – forests, deserts, or savannahs. The separation began with large-scale cultivation; the divorce finalized during the 20th Century with industrialization and the exponential growth of fossil fuel use.

Sustained Success: The ecosystems including many American forests have been around for hundreds of thousands of years – shaped by the continuous dance of evolution – myriads of species competing, cooperating, and adjusting to one another and to changes in climate, water  they are able to absorb and recover from shocks (fires, droughts, infestations and are flexible enough to adapt to changes.[2] To wipe out a resilient ecosystem takes really big disasters like asteroids, volcanoes, glaciers, or the increasingly destructive human intervention now underway. Perhaps we should learn rather than undermine these systems – which happen to be critical to human survival.   

Hunters & Gatherers: Inuit hunting walrus soapstone carving by Jobie Crow, Umiujaq Quebec,

Full employment ecosystems: Every living organism in nature is both producer and consumer. This duality exists at every scale of nature from a cell to organisms and colonies to entire ecosystems. You can follow the work & eat trait all the way up the food web – starting with green plant cells that convert solar energy into chemical forms that plants can consume for food, growth, reproduction and other vital functions. The same process, photosynthesis, replenishes another critical need, oxygen. Ecologists refer to green plants as “primary producers.[3] In this Vermont woods plant eaters including squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks are the “primary consumers.” “Secondary” consumers include birds and spiders that eat bugs and higher level consumers, i.e. hard working predators (owls, hawks and foxes) etc.[4] Then there are the scavengers (e.g. vultures), dismantlers (e.g. wood chewing beetles and decomposers (fungi and bacteria).

One of the keys to ecosystem success is its collective ability to retain and reuse natural resources to the maximum extent possible. Using such resources efficiently is important not only at the level of an organism but also for ecological systems as a whole. In fact ecosystems have collective mechanisms (i.e. natural infrastructures) which preserve the commonwealth. One of the most important examples is the soil that holds resources vital to the health of a forest including moisture, nutrients, organic matter and a host of beneficial organisms that increase soil fertility.[7] The roots of trees are another part of the forest ecosystem, not only because they take up water and nutrients for individual trees, but because collectively they work to hold the soil in place protecting it against the erosive forces of moving wind and water. Thus all the organisms of nature are not merely involved in “dog eat dog” competition but depend on the well being of the entire system – the biggest Siberian tiger is totally dependent on the maintenance of soil and its creatures.

Roots represent a natural retaining wall, a barrier that holds the soil in place. The soil is a critical part of the forest infrastructure. Root systems prevent erosion.

Savings and reinvestment: The dead leaves of deciduous trees that fall in autumn are no longer useful and would shade next spring’s solar collectors if left on the tree. We might regard them as waste. However, in nature, such wastes are a form of saving. As the leaves decay they provide the soil with nutrients and humus (the rich dark color in forest topsoil). The nutrients will be used by plants in future seasons and the humus has many beneficial properties including its ability to hold moisture and make the soil more drought resistant. Nature’s “wastes” are not only non-toxic but are chemically supportive of the ecosystem as a whole and its future. This is in sharp contrast with the wastes of dominant human economies, i.e. dangerous emissions and ash from coal burning power plants and the high level radioactive wastes generated by “clean” nuclear power.

Economic hemorrhaging: In my view one of the principal reasons for our nation’s sustained high unemployment rates is that the much of the wealth being generated by local economies is not reinvested locally in local businesses which generate local jobs. Let’s say that you buy a new television at big box store. It’s true that the retail store provides jobs. True, you can get a bargain on the TV; however, the employees at the Big Box don’t really earn a living wage. Secondly the manufacturing of the products happens far away. So much of the profit goes into a financial sector that is divorced from every day life and employment.

Nor are the profits likely to be recycled within the community. Instead they are likely to be invested in Wall Street Banks with capital flowing out of the country or the kinds of risky investments that caused the financial meltdown of 2008. The federal government spent trillions bailing out the financial behemoths. Yet, small local businesses, those which generate most of the nation’s new jobs have found it agonizingly difficult to get credit. In 2009, I received a letter from Bank of America saying that it had reduced the line of credit to my small business (environmental consulting) from $20,000 to about $2,000. The system may benefit wealthy investors and Wall Street but it’s not helping to create the jobs so desperately needed.

No, we can’t go back to nature: Despite my love of Vermont’s pastoral essence, I am not calling for a return to the wild. However, we can learn from the organizational attributes of ecosystems that promote resilience, resource efficiency and full employment. We are currently in a globalized economic system that increasingly drains the life blood of families, communities and ecosystems. It cannot be sustained.

 PS. Very hard to find a bad viewshed in Vermont!

[1] Nardi, James, Life in the Soil, University ofChicago Press, 2007, p. 48. For example, many types of bacteria transform atmospheric nitrogen (not usable by plants) into ammonia and nitrates which are usable by plants. Nitrogen is one of the most important “macro-nutrients” and is required by all plants and animals. We owe a great deal to bacteria.

[2] The great bio-diversity in ecosystems fosters their resilience; a bad year for one plant may be a great year for another; if mice disappear, owls can eat moles and or voles. See previous post: Nature abhors a monoculture.

[3] Green plants are also consumers; they use stored energy for growth and reproduction.

[4] Predators such as wolves have a particularly tough job that requires tracking, outsmarting, and nabbing their prey. Through the process of co-evolution both predators and preys have improved their respective skills at catching or avoiding being caught respectively. Also while we tend to call top predators the kings, queens or tsars of their territories, from an ecological perspective they serve the entire food web by keeping populations of grazers in check thereby conserving the vegetation vital to the survival of grazers.

[5] Examples include stored starch, protein and oils in seeds; from the standpoint of a forest, the great mass of trees is in the form of dense, dead organic used for support. Eventually trunks and branches will fall and be broken down for future use in the soil.

[6] All dynamic systems from cells, to organisms, to ecosystem to businesses and entire economic systems require a continuous input of high quality energy; this energy must be replenished because it invariably is lost to the environment in the form of waste heat.

[7] Beneficial organisms include nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These microbes convert the dominant form of nitrogen in the air and soil (N2) into forms that green plants can take up and utilize. The nitrogen fixing bacteria are critical for the survival of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2011 7:25 pm

    It seems that today’s society and economies are geared towards top-level consumers or predators that provide little or no energy transfer (work/resources) back into the system. Nature would quickly bounce back if we disappeared (Alan Weisman’s ‘The World WIthout Us’ is a good read on this topic)…perhaps we need to have more faith in our own resilience too, instead of being so attached to this Utopian 21st century ‘ecosystem’ we have created?

    • Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
      June 28, 2011 8:48 pm

      Yes, I agree
      Predators in nature provide extremely valuable services; without predators (e,g. wolves), the grazers (e.g. caribou) would likely deplete the vegetation on which they depend. Also a kill provides food not only for predators but for a host of scavengers and de-composers. Predators in human economies rather than provide a service for the whole drain resources and wealth and deplete communities and ecosystems.

      More to come on this very subject in a forth coming

      Thanks for your comment

  2. Cathy Welker permalink
    June 28, 2011 8:02 am

    I’m new to the blog and I find this fascinating. Thank you!


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