Sustainable Music


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reconciling Ecology and Economy by means of "Nature's Economy"

From Oct. 13-16 I was in Nashville, TN for the American Folklore Society conference. For my paper presentation at the conference this year, I returned to an idea that I’ve mentioned on this blog a couple of times before: Nature’s economy. This was the title of Donald Worster’s fine book on the history of ecological thought. Re-reading it, I found the section where Worster tried to explain the phrase, tracing it to the Enlightenment naturalist Gilbert White. The explanation was intriguing in the context of my attempts to find common ground between ecology and economics, and so I decided to read White’s book, The Natural History of Selborne, compiled from letters that he wrote in the mid-1700s. Doing so, I observed White’s use of the phrase “Nature’s economy” (Nature as the greatest economist) and began to think that the concept might point the way towards a reconciliation of the two conflicting discourses over sustainability—those from conservation ecology and from developmental economics. After I delivered the paper—which is printed below—there was a lively discussion with some critique, which I will summarize in a later blog entry. I will also present a version of this paper at the conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, where it will be framed on a panel asking the question whether ethnomusicology should consider taking a “scientific turn” at this time. Of course, it will depend on what is meant by “science.” But for now, here is my AFS paper: 

“Ecology vs. Economics: Reconciling Two Sustainability Discourses for Folklife through the Concept of ‘Nature’s Economy’”

     By Jeff Todd Titon, Department of Music, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA
[Paper delivered Oct. 14, 2010, at the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, Nashville, TN]           

Just about every other day around noon I take a walk through the woods back of my house, and I see in the forest there the operation of Nature’s economy. In this paper I want to suggest that understanding Nature’s economy is the key that unlocks the door to natural and cultural sustainability by showing a complementary relationship between ecology and economics. For, as I pointed out in my talk at this conference last year, ecology and economy come from the same Greek root, eikos, meaning household. In this paper I claim that managing our cultural household for sustainability rests on our ability to model our cultural interventions upon the way Nature’s economy manages the earth’s household.

Sustainability entered the folklife discourse with Alan Lomax’s “Appeal for Cultural Equity” (1972) and the 1983 report on The Conservation of Culture, coordinated by Ormond Loomis for the American Folklife Center. It entered developmental economics and policy planning with the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report on sustainable development. Since then, cultural sustainability has been invoked to support UNESCO’s conventions on safeguarding folklife, or intangible cultural heritage, where it enjoys great currency and has been the subject of considerable attention from folklorists and ethnomusicologists. However, the roots of sustainability may be found in the lay knowledge of natural historians; and in particular in the idea of “Nature’s economy.”

However appealing sustainability is conceptually, it remains open to a variety of interpretations, ideologies, and practices. In this paper I first review how sustainability operates in two principal scientific areas, ecology and economics. For although the words come from the same root, their meanings have diverged to the point where contemporary mainstream economists do not think of the natural world at all except in terms of resource exploitation. Second, I review two discourses of alternative economics, namely economic anthropology and ecological economics, and conclude that although each remains promising, neither one at present is able to reconcile the contemporary differences over sustainability among developmental economists and conservation ecologists. Third, I attempt to integrate ecology and economics under the concept of “Nature’s economy.” This concept does not originate with me; it may be traced through a line of naturalists from Gilbert White in the mid-18th century through Henry David Thoreau in the mid-19th, then to Sir Albert Howard, the founder of the organic gardening movement in the early 20th century, and then to a variety of cultural and agricultural visionaries in the late 20th century that include Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. As a concept, Nature’s economy begins with the idea that Nature is the greatest economist; as developed by organic farmers, it means that agriculture should wherever possible imitate Nature; and insofar as the concept may prove useful in the cultural realm, it means that culture workers have their best chance of success when imitating the patterns found in Nature. Finally, I outline a number of design and management principles that follow from the concept of Nature’s economy, principles that culture workers may find useful in their interventions on behalf of cultural sustainability.

Last year at AFS I prepared the following diagram, which may be helpful still in reviewing the contemporary sustainability discourse in ecology and economics:

 CONSERVATION ECOLOGY                        ECONOMY
Sustainable populations                                     Sustainable economic growth
Conservation                                                      Development
Endangered Species                                           Resources
Targeted -> Systems Approach                          Targeted approach
Stewardship                                                        Property and Ownership
Equilibrium (Disequilibrium)                             Prosperity
Gifts of nature, wonder                                       Commodity exchange & fetishism
Co-existence                                                       Human dominance
Conservation policy                                            Economic and cultural policy
Diversity  (Concentration)                                  Efficiency

Summarizing what I spoke about last year, conservation ecologists target endangered species; they intervene to protect and sustain populations. Developmental economists target resources; they intervene to manage sustainable economic growth. Conservation ecologists value diversity; economists value efficiency. Both are engaged in policy-making, but conservation ecologists, like organic farmers, proceed from the principle of human co-existence with the natural world, whereas developmental economists consider the natural world in terms of resources for human welfare. Economists are driven to think of their world in terms of property, commodities and exchange, whereas conservation ecologists look to the cycle of growth, death, decay, and reproduction in natural world as their model. One could say that economists look forward to a world of prosperity while ecologists hope for a world of equilibrium with its connotations of justice and equity.

Confronted, late in the twentieth century, with a world of diminishing natural resources, economists embraced the concept of sustainability, as it pertained to both growth and development. Not only do institutions like the World Bank promote sustainable development along with modernization in the Third World, but economists prescribe growth for whatever ails Western economies. Meanwhile corporate conglomerates jump on the sustainability bandwagon, promoting themselves as “green” enterprises good for the planet. When Monsanto proclaims that it is “green” and that its combination of pesticides and genetic seed modifications produce a healthier world ecosystem, it is time to seek out alternatives.

Alternative economics are available, both “in the past” and “over there.” Can we learn anything about sustainability from production, consumption, and exchange among indigenous peoples? The literature of economic anthropology contains at least one provocative line of thought: the contrast between gift economies and commodity economies; yet while the interpretations support the idea that these two kinds of exchange encourage different kinds of human relations, personal and impersonal, with obvious social implications, they do not directly support a hypothesis that gift economies value resource sustainability any more than commodity economies do. Do people in indigenous societies have more awareness of the natural world than people in modern, Western ones; and if so, has this led them to practice sustainability? The answer to the first question is yes, but the answer to the second is contested, with some scholars (and natives) arguing on behalf of indigenous peoples as conservationists and others taking the opposite view. Early economic anthropologists assumed that neoclassical economics did not apply to indigenous economies and sought similarities between them and pre-capitalist Western economies, rejecting the ideal of the “economic man” who always tries to act in such a way as to maximize material wealth with the least effort. Instead, the early economic anthropologists embedded indigenous economic behavior in culture, explaining apparently irrational economic behavior terms of what Melville Herskovits termed “mythological thinking” (Herskovits 1952: 492).

But how could economics be a science if it could not explain economic behavior in all societies? By the 1970s a reaction occurred; economic anthropologists, whether formalist or neo-Marxist, blew away the fog of mythological thinking and attempted to demonstrate how economic behavior in indigenous societies was both rational and materialistic. By 1990 the powerful post-structuralist critique of science that overtook cultural anthropology was returning economic anthropology to a kind of relativism emphasizing, once more, the primacy of local knowledge. This would have amused Malinowski, who is credited with introducing the idea, 100 years ago, that cultural anthropology must first of all grasp the native’s point of view in its own terms. In this way economic anthropology has followed the intellectual trends of its parent discipline, while the evidence it offers concerning sustainability is both equivocal and contested.

            Besides economic anthropology, a second alternative to mainstream economics is provided by ecological economics, a discipline founded, named, and developed by economist Herman E. Daly beginning in the 1970s. Daly’s bona fides include working for six years in the 1990s as a senior economist with the World Bank as well as holding various professorships in the United States. I’ve written extensively about Daly and ecological economics on my research blog; time permits only a brief summary here. Daly indicts mainstream economists for failing to understand limits to growth because they do not realize that economies are not worlds unto themselves, but that like all human institutions they are constrained by Nature. If we bear in mind the classic economic concept of marginal utility, then when the costs of growth outweigh its benefits we have what Daly terms “uneconomic growth,” or growth that is harmful rather than beneficial. Today the most obvious consequence of uneconomic growth is global warming.

Instead of embedding economics in culture, as economic anthropologists do, Daly embeds economics within the earth’s ecosystem, endorsing policies that promote “sustainable yield.” He critiques economic development policies based on the concept of sustainable growth, which he claims is an oxymoron because unlimited growth is unsustainable. On the other hand, he endorses the principle of sustainable development. Quoting Daly, “when something grows it gets bigger. When something develops it gets different.” For Daly, development does not necessarily imply growth; but this distinction between growth and development is lost on most people, including developmental economists, and may have been one of the reasons Daly resigned from the World Bank. Ecological economics does provide a real model for cultural sustainability contextualized within the natural world, but at present it remains wedded to Daly’s interpretation of sustainable development, which unfortunately attracts developers who pretend that there are such things as smart growth and clean coal. Is there no way to reconceive the two discourses, ecology and economics, to bring them together in a complementary relationship?

            I think there is. The clue is in a line of lay knowledge and practice spread among naturalists from the Enlightenment to the present, and its contemporary extensions into a variety of related social, political, and food/shelter/transportation/place expressions, involving lay empowerment and an emphasis on recovering the commons with an emphasis on the local, organic, and participatory. I trace this line of knowledge and practice to natural history and the concept of Nature’s economy, and to its corollary, biomimicry, or the principle of following Nature in cultural design and management.

            The influential thinkers in the twentieth century’s first wave of agricultural environmentalism understood the connections between nature and culture in just this way. Wendell Berry, for example, approached both culture and agriculture in his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, pointing out that both words come from an Indo-European root meaning “to dwell.” Let us recall that “household” is root meaning of the words economy and ecology. In this way, we are able to view the culture of agriculture as dwelling within the earth household. In his 1981 essay “Solving for Pattern,” Berry remarked that “a bad solution solves for a single purpose such as increased production in ignorance or deliberate disregard of the larger patterns in which it is contained.” The obvious examples of bad agricultural solutions are chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified crops. These mistakes follow the law of unintended consequences and ignore the principle of interconnectedness, one of the four principles culture workers can learn from the science of conservation ecology: interconnectedness, diversity, limits to growth, and stewardship. But these principles did not originate with latter-day environmentalists, alternative agriculturists, or conservation ecologists; they are implicit in the concept of “Nature’s economy.” Again, the idea is that Nature is the “great economist,” in the sense that everything is interconnected and nothing is wasted. Here I quote from Gilbert White’s observations in The Natural History of Selborne, Letter VII, written about 1765:

“A circumstance respecting these ponds [in Selborne], though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid-leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding. During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle; and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency. Thus nature, who is a great economist, converts the re-creation of one animal to the support of another!” (White 1908 [1788]: 30).

White’s vision of Nature’s economy integrates ecology with economy; things are recycled and nothing is wasted.

            Sir Albert Howard, the founder of the organic gardening movement, also understood these interconnections, and extended them to humankind. In his 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament, he wrote: “The whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man [is] one great subject.” Howard advanced the other key idea, biomimicry, or following nature’s economy, when he wrote that the way “Nature manages her land [must] form the basis of all our studies of soil fertility. What are the main principles underlying Nature’s agriculture? These can most easily be seen in operation of our woods and forests.” As I wrote earlier, I see these principles in operation every time I walk in the woods behind my house. They include biodiversity rather than monoculture; and the cycling of plant and animal waste into the forest soil that produces the food for the next generation of plants and animals. For Howard and a few thousand pioneers in 1940, and today for the tens of millions of people who produce and consume organic agriculture, managing agriculture means managing in imitation of Nature. The definition of organic gardening contained in Rodale’s Organic Gardening Encyclopedia reads: “The balance of Nature must be respected. Each part has its own sphere of activity as well as fusing with and complementing other related parts. A substance that alters one part, for instance, may affect half a dozen others—most often to our own disadvantage. . . . The soil is a storehouse of living organisms which must be fed and cared for as any others. . . Organic gardening or farming is a system whereby a fertile soil is maintained by applying Nature’s own law of replenishing it. . . .” (Rodale 1973: 794-795).

            Imitating Nature inspires Wes Jackson’s contemporary work at the Land Institute, in Kansas. In response to the problem of agribusiness and its depletion of natural resources, Jackson undertook a plant breeding program based on what he saw in the perennial state of the original Kansas prairie. One example involves cross breeding annual wheat with perennial grass to make a perennial wheat. It would be planted once; it would replenish the soil; and some could be harvested each year. Interviewed by National Public Radio in 2009, he said that “The solution is to build an agriculture based on the way nature’s ecosystems work” [NPR story,]

            Biomimicry follows from the idea that Nature is the great economist in earth’s household. Thus ecology and economy, Nature, culture, and agriculture are brought together in a single discourse. Another contemporary manifestation of sustainability through biomimicry is found in the Permaculture movement. Permaculture, a portmanteau word made from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” is, in the words of its most influential thinker, Australian Bill Mollison, “an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.”

            In conclusion, the various design and management principles that follow from Nature’s economy and biomimicry integrate nature with culture and offer strategies to culture workers acting in stewardship to the public interest. Folklorists are well aware of some but perhaps not others; it is their integration that I have been seeking here. I end this presentation with a few of those design and management principles:
            (1) Observe patterns in Nature that connect all living beings and design with these in culture. Do not impose form; in Nature form follows function. Manage for whole systems; do not offer single solutions.
            (2) Encourage cultural and biodiversity as a strategy for sustainability through adaptation and dynamic change. Encourage revitalization movements that recycle tradition and know that in order to survive, tradition must be dynamic.
            (3) From organic agriculture to culture, apply the principle “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Do not intervene to bolster specific expressive cultural genres—these will come and go naturally, and today in the internet age all are capable of staying in one form or another. Direct support to the social, political, and economic conditions or the cultural soil under which expressive cultures flourish and upon which they depend.
            (4) Nature rewards cooperation and demands local expertise; culture workers should partner with local scholars and practitioners, ascertain their desires and goals, and work towards mutual ends and rewards.            


Lomax, Alan. 1972. “An Appeal for Cultural Equity.” The World of Music, 14:3-4, 9.

Brundtland Commission Report. 1987. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Howard, Sir Albert. 1940. An Agricultural Testament. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

Loomis, Ormond, coordinator. 1983. The Conservation of Culture. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center.

White, Gilbert. 1908 [1788]. The Natural History of Selborne. London: Cassell.

Herskovits, Melville. 1952 [1940]. Economic Anthropology: The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples. New York: Norton.

Rodale, J. I., and staff. 1973. Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books.

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