Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ruled for dollars and cents

The sustainability discourses, as I’ve written earlier, are strongest in ecology and economics; and the two are not unrelated. That is to say, economists map scientific views of the natural world onto the economic world, and vice-versa. For example, according to intellectual historian Joel Kaye, the rise of empirical science in 14th-century Europe was likely the result of a craze for measurement made necessary by the monetization of society—the rise of a currency economy, which impacted the scholastics in the universities who, as a consequence, began observing and measuring the natural world (Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century [Cambridge University Press, 2000]). Conversely, in the 18th century, economic theory was influenced by concepts borrowed from science (natural philosophy), as Margarat Schabas argues in The Natural Origins of Economics (University of Chicago Press, 2005). For example, the idea that electricity was a fluid led classical economists to the idea that money flowed through the economy, while gravitational forces were translated into market forces.

Disentangling the two discourses, particularly when, as noted, they rely on the same word root (oikos = household), is a perpetual struggle; they seem to be in constant attraction, as two particles, one with a positive and the other a negative charge. And so today they mingle in concepts like heritage tourism, where heritage represents either a music-cultural ecosystem, or a natural one; and where money from cultural tourism or ecotourism is meant to sustain them.

Even Thoreau, despite trying to live a simple, thrifty life free from materialism, had a hard time keeping the two realms apart. He left us his ecological observations in 37 notebooks—his journals, a priceless legacy. And yet, as he observed, in his essay “Life without Principle,” “I cannot easily buy a blank book to write thoughts in; they are all ruled for dollars and cents.”