The amazing thing about the natural world is that it has seen it all, done it, and perfected it. It is the only true free market economy and the complexity is orders of magnitude over what we have created in our economy. But instead of emulating the most successful, we too often mimic the primitive and the complexly unsuccessful.
Take the Ebola virus. It kills 50–90% of the people it infects. We have this fascination over its lethality, we fear it, respect it. It is powerful and we want to be like that — winner take all. The Ebola Virus is a model for market capitalism, slick, lethal and the winner. Right?
If you were to graph all of life and put the most successful at one end and the outlier high risk experiments at the other you would put technology, humans and the Ebola on one end and most other life, particular bacteria, on the other. And the winners would not be humans and Ebola.
Ebola burns through its victims, it take every inch it can get, merciless, efficient and deeply flawed. When you kill 50–90% of your hosts you are forced to break out briefly and then die off or go into hiding. You are TOO efficient; you left nothing on the table for everyone else. You fail as a bright shooting star — magnificent in that moment but totally unsustainable.
What the hell does this have to do with our economy? Well the economy that mimics the Ebola Virus has been tried. It is called an extractive economy — an apt term as it extract the maximum from humans and nature alike. It produces that bright shiny moment and then quickly fades. In the financial economy we applaud the “efficient” and to a degree efficiency works, but when it goes to far and it becomes virulent — an Ebola Economy.
When we look economies that take the Ebola approach the examples are unfortunately numerous, they are the extractive economies. Extractive economies are those built on taking rather than building. It is no surprise that there have been ZERO economies reliant on natural resource extraction, oil, metals, or timber that have built sustainable, pluralistic and successful world-class economies. If your wealth is from the taking, you learn to take and perfect that style. Saudi Arabia has tremendous wealth controlled by a very few and the majority lives impoverished. It is an unhealthy economy that will exist through force till the oil runs out. You can make a long list of resource handicapped countries that never amount to anything.
Then there are those countries that built a human extractive system. The ultimate expressions are those built on slavery or near slavery terms for the majority population — apartheid South Africa, the plantation nations of the Caribbean. The owners do well for a time, but as the slaves are drained for their base level productivity and nothing else, the economy is too narrow, fragile and it collapses. It is the Ebola Virus of human capital. Many more economies exist on a something just slightly less extractive than slavery. They perpetuate deep inequality and corruption that creates rigid rules that restrict human potential for the extraction of wealth for an elite minority. Argentina, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Haiti, are examples.
But there are those amazing breakthroughs that change the world. The U.S. rather than being born of riches did not have the gold of South America (the most coveted resource of its day). The U.S. was born from a parent nation, England that was forced to accept inclusion. First at home because of the Black Death and a lack of labor resulting in serfs having bargaining power and a loosening of monarchy control. And abroad, when tied down by war debt, they could not afford as tight a rein on the New World settlers, unlike richer countries such as Spain and France that had the resources to extract the wealth of their colonies (and indigenous populations that had gold and silver) with ruthless efficiency.
Instead, England cut a bargain of necessity that valued more than extraction and allowed many of the tenants of American society to empower inclusive pluralistic values to be the fabric of our society. The bargain in essence was: If you settle this continent, you can own land and as a result political and economic power. This was social mobility and economic empowerment not possible in Europe. The result, still evident today is that the North America, born of poor but fair parents did well, and Central and South America born of wealthy parents who could exploit the colonies (like the Ebola virus) killed off the full potential of its people and the recovery has still not set it for most countries.
So as we sit today with a widening wealth gap and a sense of something gone wrong with the American Dream, we have to ask why. America’s greatness wasn’t its extractable natural resources; it was a political structure that included more people under the tent and with those people came ideas, hopes aspirations. A man (and I mean a male here as it was not perfectly equitable, and you could not have dark skin as well) could come over to America, even have transportation covered, work for 5 years and become a landowner. With that land was the means of production and potential for financial capital.
We avoided the Ebola model, included more under tent and it created the most physically productive society ever. And that was good. And we went further to finally rid our nation of slavery, ended household indentured servitude for women and the economy grew by leaps and bounds.
But we either forgot or didn’t understand the real lessons inherent in our nations unique founding circumstances. We forgot that inclusion is always better then exclusion and extraction. We have maintained with unwavering cruelty the Ebola philosophy with one more slave class — nature. And the economy is reacting, as any natural system or economy that is extractive must eventually do. It is stalling and becoming unstable.
The Ebola mentality has crept back into our human economy as well. Maybe as a result of the pressures on natural systems or a defect in our economic business model that values financial capital while discounting or ignoring human, societal and natural capital. The Ebola mentality feeds on the fear of a societal stall and the extractive mindset sets in once again.
Some number to illustrate — this last year 2012, marked the highest concentration of wealth since 1927. You would be hard pressed to find an encouraging environmental sign out there, unstable ecosystem, wildlife in decline, unnatural wildfires, persistent drought, climate change, rivers not only in the arid west but now in the humid east drying up. It is not the fast collapse depicted in apocalyptic Hollywood films but the slow painful decline of mismanagement taking hold.
Worldwide it is worse. A billion people live in slums and estimates predict we will add another BILLION people to slum class within 50 years. Nature at best exists in slave class and most often is relegated to extermination class, expendable.
This is all so unnecessary. We have not reached the limits of technology or peak oil, human potential or natural resources. We have reached the limits of imagination and blindly following the wrong model, the Ebola model. The assets that we are forcing from the tent are far larger than that which is within. The wealth of inclusion has and always will be larger than exclusion and extraction. We need only look to our own history and that repeated around the globe to see a much brighter future is within our grasp by embracing better design and a new business model for the realities of today. We can incorporate the immense wealth of human, societal and natural capital into our economy and become truly inclusive, thrivable (not just sustainable) and successful.