Can We Learn to Think Like Nature?

Nature’s Business (6 minute video)

Can We Learn to Think Like Nature?

Industrial societies can’t keep living the way they do now because their systems make the environment unnatural. Climate change draws the most attention, but were the climate not changing, many other problems, some poorly understood, might be just as perilous. An example is plastic microparticles in everything, including human bodies.

Even when we mean well, we may not do well because we don’t think like nature. For example, we create nature preserves that are really parks; habitat destruction and constant human visitation depletes plant and animal populations. Learning how to live differently struggles to escape the commercial logic that guides our daily living. We may know better, but can’t swear off this Kool-Aid to learn to habitually think and do differently. We have to do differently to truly think differently.

The system presumes unending expansion. The epitome of it is, “You can never have too much money.” This assumption frames a linear path of progress to what we think is success. However, on a finite planet, linear progress eventually starves out. To avoid catastrophe, we must balance our success with nature – curb our effects on nature so we don’t mindlessly suck the life out of it. That’s “learning to think like nature.”

Environmental implications aside, high consumption stresses those of us buried in stuff and swamped by information. We need regimens to help us curb personal consumption. An example is Adbusters, whose anti-buying advertising peaks at Thanksgiving by renaming Black Friday as “Buy Nothing Day.” Stiff the merchants. A Google search turns up minimalist stories and consultants that will help you kick consumerism and de-clutter your life. At least one minimalist program promises to instill frugality as a habit – one active step toward learning to think like nature.

Critics often blame manufacturers for producing excess stuff and excess pollution, but if consumers don’t buy, manufacturers don’t produce. They will think it the end of the world; headlines would scream job loss, but they would not produce. Obviously, trimming consumption of energy and materials will trigger a social revolution. We can’t end the old system without beginning another, one in which business and cultural thinking moves beyond monetary guidance. So think positive. What better world awaits? How might we reach it?

Minimalizing Through Symbiotic Learning.

Through the ages, great thinkers associated frugality with utter dependence on a fickle nature (save in the fat years to survive the lean ones). Many recognized that all things are interdependent, an idea embedded in many religions, particularly oriental ones. For instance, Buddhist enlightenment is a sense of connectedness beyond verbal or logical description. Deep Ecology is likewise a movement of people learning to feel that they are part of nature, responsible for it. However, those still immersed in consumption can’t dig it. Scientists like James Lovelock and Fritjof Capra promote environmental literacy and overwhelm us with evidence that all things are connected, from quantum entanglement to the microbiomes symbiotic with our bodies.

Unfortunately, we directly sense only a small fraction of reality, and that only a piece at a time; we can’t keep it all in mind at once. Much of what we think we know depends on models, our mental and verbal ones, as well as numerical formulations. These are learned indirectly, not by personal observation. That is, our learning depends on social trust in systems of learning – on the integrity of scientists and journalists, amateur as well as professional. Lose that trust, and we revert to rumor and speculation.

The modern economic world is based on transactions, independent agents acting in self-interest, all meeting only at points of sale. We do think beyond this of course, but “the system” does not promote learning much beyond how to satisfy the customer. That seems treacherous enough, although the perspective is narrow and short-term. If we must consider nature, we need a broad, long-term perspective.

Nature’s Logic vs. Commercial Logic

We can’t literally think like nature, but we can pay attention to it, see our effects on it, and give nature high priority. We have to see outside the narrow focus of today’s commercial logic.

Financial analysis intrinsically assumes benefit to a person, to a company, or to a community. Of course, building up nature eventually redounds to human benefit, but financial analysis gives priority to short-term, foreseeable returns to humans (more is better). Indirect benefits or losses from nature, coming decades hence don’t fit the framework. This makes it hard to conclude that letting nature work its way is a good decision. To exercise nature’s logic, give non-monetized measurements of project proposals higher priority than cost benefit analyses.

For a simple example, take return on energy. If we are doing it physically, most of us and most animals will take the lowest energy way to go from Point A to Point B. But if using generated energy, and it is cheap, we think nothing of leaving the lights on. Unless mindful of it, we are unaware of how much generated energy we use at home or at work. Can we learn to do this without jacking up the price of energy to the equivalent of $20 per gallon of gasoline so that it is meaningful in a transactional system?

But that would blow up the system. Can’t we get around it by substituting alternative energy for fossil fuel energy? Not completely. If we commanded huge amounts of energy, would we use it to screw up the environment in other ways? We have to abandon assuming that everything can stay the same, except…

That’s learning to think like nature.

Forced Hypocrisy

Observant individuals can only do so much until we collectively change the systems we live by – the economy – and more than its monetized representations. We must change what we actually do as nature might see it. However, to minimally participate in today’s high consumption economy, we can only be relatively frugal – therefore hypocritical. Unless we become hermits, we drive vehicles and otherwise consume a big resource footprint.

To change the systems we live by, we have to change the systems we think by. Think more like nature. Become more external-oriented.

An example of this is risk management in business. It’s becoming a necessity. Jack Ward informs me that corporate boards are becoming more environmentally literate just to fulfill their obligations of fiduciary duty to ownership by approving some project that incurs a huge liability – or not requiring practices that would minimize liability. Pacific Gas & Electric and their liabilities for the Campfire debacle and other fires in California come to mind. The fires triggered their most recent bankruptcy.

This may be an opening wedge for corporate leadership to grow into a much bigger perspective. Risk management has usually been inward focused, assessing the potential costs to a company from foreseeable adverse events. A first thought is to insure the company against the risks, and of course, try to minimize them. That’s the fire-in-a-plant mentality. But actions that unbalance nature are not measurable in this way. Thinking has to move to a different plain of responsibility – beyond the scope of market comparison pricing, the established commercial standard for assessment.

One conclusion that could be reached if we think like nature is that your corporation has no good reason to exist, doing what it does. Think the unthinkable.

Toward Collective Action

None of us really know what a future economy in balance with nature would look like. More environmental initiatives exist than we can track, all chipping away at this huge change that appears to be underway, but at glacial speed. Perhaps we can work out what to do together. If you are interested, please join one of our Monday evening teleconferences.

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