Uncommon Grace: Biology and Economic Theory
By Charles Sullivan
-- 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
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
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
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.
Cultures that are based upon reductionism and monoculture fail
to perceive the organic whole of life; the interconnectedness of
all things, both living and non-living. Economic formulae, no
matter how sophisticated and scientific they may appear, are a
construct of the human mind—an artificial system of accounting.
Nature does not recognize them. They have no validity in the
real world. Yet we think they are of overriding importance, the
basis of everything we do; man as center of the universe, as in
the time of Ptolemy.
In truth, ecology and biology are the natural capital upon which
nature works. They are the underpinning of all social and
economic paradigms—bar none. Impair and denigrate them and
everything in them, including us, is diminished. Damage them
excessively, and everything falls, including our precious
Ecological integrity is the foundation of planetary health. It
is the organizing principle of life. Undermining that integrity
for short term profits is to limit all future options in
perpetuity, the ultimate incarnation of insensate greed and
selfishness. It is the work of foolish and misguided men who are
undoing the world; men who cannot conceive of anything larger
than themselves, including the public welfare, or the planetary
ecology; the world’s only authentic economy.
Ecological literacy, understanding how nature works, must
necessarily supersede economic self interest in favor of the
collective good, the organic whole. The world was not made to be
exploited, to be divided into parcels and privatized. Contrary
to popular belief, human beings are not masters of the earth. We
are subject to the same immutable natural law as yeast cells. We
were blessed with a few short years in paradise, and the gift of
consciousness of our place in the cosmos.
If we are, indeed, rational beings, we have a moral obligation
to defend our place from those who would defile and exploit it.
Our allegiance is to the earth and to one another, not to
monetary systems that exploit and cheapen life for profit.
Like all economic systems that are not based upon real science,
or an appropriate land ethic, the concept of property rights and
private ownership are misguided and ultimately self-destructive
constructs. The public welfare and the ecological integrity of
the earth exceed all economic self interests in importance.
Economics are based upon self-serving, false premises, whereas
ecology is real.
There are dire consequences to ignoring reality, for
substituting the artificial for the natural. The earth will
never conform to our views of her. The needs of the greater
biological community outweigh the wants of the self-interested
few, looking to make a fast buck.
It is a sad and foolish notion that nature must conform to man
and his prideful economic constructs. The world operates on
natural capital—biological processes from which humankind
evolved. That understanding must be the guiding principle in all
that we do. Unlike the mythos promoted by economics, ecological
literacy encourages a healthy sense of belonging to something
much larger than the sum of its parts, the greater biological
community; it promotes a healthy sense of the sacred.
Conservationist David Brower once stated: “Economics is a form
of brain damage.” I could not agree more. We need to develop a
holistic world view in place of that which was born of hubris
and economic self interest. That view will not be born of
capitalism, or any repressive religious theology. It can only
come from healthful interaction with the organic world, in the
Henry Thoreau astutely observed, “In wildness is the
preservation of the world.” Like the American Indian, Thoreau’s
world view was not anthropocentric (man-centered), it was
biocentric (earth-centered); holistic and whole. That is a world
view we can live with.
The most precious things in life are those that cannot be
commodified, and hence, owned. Like twenty acres in a place we
call West Virginia—beauty, grace, elegance, and tranquility
cannot be bought and sold, or traded on Wall Street. These
qualities are a gift unto the world provided without cost. We
should freely enjoy them in ways that are non-consumptive, and
therefore, non-destructive. We should give thanks for the
natural wealth the world possesses and leave it for others to
enjoy, long after we have departed this life.
As Edward Abbey, an anarchist, once lamented, “The earth belongs
to everyone, and to no one.” We are simply citizens of the
greater biological community, distinguished only by our capacity
for destruction and self deception.
Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer,
and community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province
of geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at
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