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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  1. Doc,

    I have to scratch my head at the logic of the society we have created.

    First, we have declared ourselves to be intellectually well beyond belief in silly mythology that we have declared religion, in general and Christianity in particular, to be. The Bible is banished from the public square. Right and wrong are now relative and up to each of us to self-determine and no one has the right to criticize our decisions in this regard.

    And then we wring our hands over the rampant materialism and environmental consequences of the choices people make under these new rules.

    You could make a very compelling argument for our moral responsibility to be stewards of the environment, and to reject the drive to accumulate more and more wealth and all it can buy – if you were allowed to use the Bible to make your case. Without it, however, you are just a guy with another opinion on what is morally right that is no weightier than that of the most blatant materialist.

    • Religions are based upon multiple suppositions that are based upon one general pre-supposition that must be accepted without evidence (faith, belief). From Christianity to Buddhism to Atheism including all suppositions of science require a beginning assumption (a pre-supposition) to exist for measurement. The pre-supposition that all exists from some form of creator deity or merely happened through energy forces unknown, or both in relativity.

      Moral ethical human arguments revolve around spiritual belief systems regardless of heaven, hell, reincarnation or one merely ceases to exist. For myself, within the Christian belief, the Bible would make the case for thinking like nature. But even within the realm of Christians, the “Bible Case” would be interpreted differently due to one religion that stands above all, the religion of expansion based financial models.

      Moral and ethical decline, the changing definitions of right and wrong is not the cause of rampant materialism and environmental consequences, it is the symptom of a deep religious observance to the god of expansionary monetized transactions. This is not a social acceptance of “new rules”, it is a socially perceived inability to escape the monetary religion of expansion. Spiritual beliefs are much easier to apostatize.

      With this in mind, I believe we have a shot at making a case for responsible husbandry of our environment across all spiritual beliefs. For there is one thing that the god of finance lacks, cohesion between suppositions based on infinite growth with a pre-supposition of a finite earth.

      Michael R. Hall
      MRH Design

      • All the major religions have major schisms, Catholic-Protestant, Shia-Shiite, for instance, and so many minor schisms that no two Christians have exactly the same concept of God.

        The environmental-economic schism in the Presbyterian church now seems to be healing over, but 20 years ago it was intense. Sandra and I regularly attend Presbyterians for Earth Care meetings, which are very ecumenical. Everyone is welcome: Catholic, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and all beliefs of indigenous peoples. The common denominator is holding that nature is “sacred,” to be restored and preserved.

        Occasionally, whenever someone stops yakking about sports, and is open to discussing religion, I can ask them what their concept of God is. Their response describes their own deep beliefs. Loving God; loving person. Vengeful God; vengeful autocratic person.

        Thirty years ago I had an interesting conversation with the Japanese manager of Tokai Rika at Battle Creek. He had researched why American workers did not behave as his Japanese ones. He concluded that it was the doctrine of original sin. Therefore an American will trust another American only after they prove that they can be trusted. However, a Japanese will trust another Japanese until they show that they can’t be trusted.

  2. Climate change attracts attention because big business requires a new market for expansion when the old market appears to stagnate. Green wrapping seems to work with the consumer to increase consumption. Finance encourages this behavior.

    All of the commercialized and propaganda arguments for or against climate change align with one goal, to monopolize a market for one side while eliminating the other. For example, limiting fossil fuel consumption for transportation and electricity generation through expansion of consumer products that encourage more transportation and electricity use (green wrapping). Using less of both negates the whole concept of business growth, which negates the entire base for our current financial system.

    Climate change is happening for those who, through observation, think like nature (which includes many non-commercial scientists). We know the climate is changing and we know that humans have become the intrinsic value for such change. What we do not know is how to cope with the changes in our modern financial world. Why is that?

    The partial hypothetical answer (on my own assumption) is that our current financial models were born and raised on models of indirect learning. Meaning that we mechanically learned how to make money based on expansion that we can no longer sustain. Now we have a serious problem trying to disdain our religion of finance we created.

    Can we be in balance with nature? Yes we can, but doing so shall leave our current religion of finance in shambles for which sovereign nations have historically (and currently) produce hot wars to salvage. The kings (historical and current) shall throw their subjects in a blood bath fire fight to salvage the value of the king’s gold. One king wins, but all of the subjects lose.

    How do we begin to think like nature? Maybe this happens when we understand our right (as subjects) to defend our skills to make our own food, clothing and shelter. What happens if the subjects fail to support, in a fight for their life, the king’s gold?

    So far around the world too many subjects have been indoctrinated into the religion that the king’s gold is their gold. Obviously that has never worked out, but we are subjects educated into the king’s court of acceptance.

    How do we change this?

    Michael R. Hall
    MRH Design

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