Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ecology, Economy, and Music

Donald Worster's book, Nature's Economy, introduced me to the history of ecological thought. I read it in the late 1970s in preparation for teaching an American studies course, "Ecology and History in America," team-taught with an anthropologist, a biologist, and a literary historian. At about that time I was forming my idea that musical cultures could be regarded as ecosystems, and wrote it into the first chapter of the first edition of Worlds of Music (1984), and each of the four subsequent editions (1992, 1996, 2001, 2009). In recent years I've come to see an opposition between ecology and economy, or at least a commodity-based economy; and it was in the back of my mind as I wrote yesterday about stage-readiness. What does thinking about an economy of nature yield? Worster didn't explore the phrase that lent the book it's title, but it is well worth looking into.

To formulate the problem as clearly as I can, then. Diversity, whether biological or cultural, has a clear advantage for adapting to changing circumstances. For the future, therefore, we should place a value on encouraging this diversity, which means conserving species and protecting habitat, whether biological or cultural. That is an ecological first principle, and it is a principle of equity, for diversity requires the survival of all, or as many as possible. But a consumer-driven, commodity-based economy tends toward specialization, professionalization and concentration of like products, whether in agriculture (monoculture instead of mixed farming), or industry, or art--or wealth, for that matter. Concentration is the opposite of diversity and is disadvantaged for adaptation and thus disadvantaged for sustainability, whether biological or cultural. Musical sustainability is well served, then, by diversity, and ill served by thinking of music as an economic commodity.

Economy comes from two Greek words: oikos (house) and nemein (manage). There are, of course, other kinds of economies besides global corporate capitalism, which is a generally accepted description of our current economic system. "Natural economy," or Naturalwirtschaft, was coined by German economists to describe a situation in which barter rather than the exchange of money characterized most transactions, and they attributed this economy to the European Middle Ages. Of course, a barter economy still places a commodity value on work and production; but barter requires the presence of owners to barter goods and services, whereas global capitalism operates impersonally. In a barter economy the lines of responsibility, legal and moral, are clearly traced to particular human beings. In an economy based on corporate capitalism, the owners are not held legally responsible for the corporation's activities. Government officials, while subject in their personal lives to the same laws as anyone else, are not held legally accountable for actions taken by the government.

The current economic crisis is a natural outcome of global corporate capitalism's need for continuous growth. Whereas ecology teaches us that there are limits to growth, our economic system is dependent on ever-accelerating growth. We are told we must spend our way out of this crisis. The gross national product must not continue to shrink. We must avoid deflation. The new idea is that we can grow the green economy. But continuous growth as conceived under current economic conditions, whether green or not, relies on leveraging capital and creates a house of cards, a giant Ponzi scheme that makes us all vulnerable.

I recall my puzzlement when as a child I was told that the bank I put my meagre savings in did not keep the money I had deposited. Instead, they loaned it out; indeed, they loaned more money than they had. How could that be? Only if everyone paid back their loans, I was told, which they are legally required to do. Now, of course, there is another kind of payback; some loans are considered "toxic" and people are "under water" with their payments: that is, their commodities, on which they owe money, are worth less than the money they owe. This is the outcome, every so often, of an economy predicated on continuous growth: boom and bust. As my friend Hap Collins said, "You can only blow up a ballon so big until it bursts."

There is another way to think of "nature's economy." What, as Wes Jackson would say, would it be like to model our economy after nature? Of course, that depends on how we view or construct nature's economy; but there is no natural economy without human beings, not now. We are in nature interactively; the question is how will we manage that interaction in the biocultural world. An economy based on diversity, limited growth, interconnectedness, and stewardship may be inefficient in the short term, but in the long term it is sustainable whereas the other is not. The same holds for music. Heritage tourism involving music, insofar as it commodifies the product, is implicated in the wrong kind of economy. Instead, sustainability of musical cultures requires, as I have stated before, the application of those four principles and the gradual replacement of the idea that music is a commodity with the notion that it is an act as natural as speaking or breathing.


  1. thanks for the valuable information

  2. great post! ive been thinking about permaculture wrt musiculture, this is great food for mulling