And Economic Theory
By Charles Sullivan
23 October, 2007
wife, Alice, and I hold a deed to twenty acres of land in Morgan County,
West Virginia. To most people, there is nothing remarkable about this
place. But to us, it is extraordinary. I have spent seventeen years
exploring the botany of this land: photographing its wild flowers, learning
the language of its avian citizens, and capturing its various moods
on film and in pixels. Knowing it as I do, I could never think of this
place as a resource. It is simply home: the source.
In a society that holds sacred
the private ownership of property and economic self interest, it may
seem strange that neither my wife nor I consider ourselves property
owners. At best, we are squatters or temporary guardians of something
that has inherent value; an evolving biological entity that exists far
beyond the realm of economic self interest and monetary valuation systems.
Alice and I share this sacred
space with numerous plants and
animals—most of them wild, and some of them domesticated. Among
the latter: five horses, three dogs, and numerous felines. We do not
own these animals any more than they own us; they are not our pets.
They are simply animal companions, members of the extended human family,
and valued equally with human beings, mushrooms, and copperhead snakes.
Unlike my wife and me, none
of these animals have to work for a living. They are not expected to
perform tricks for us. They are simply free to be who they are. We do
the best we can for them with our limited resources. What we get in
return is priceless; something that defies quantification. Whatever
it is, it is greater than the sum of its parts but as ethereal as the
morning mist that rises from a brook. Yet, it is as real as the soil
It is impossible to commodify
the sacred bonds that exist between the human animal, and the non-human
animal—a bond that extents into the landscape that spawned them.
To claim ownership of another living being, whether wild forest, or
domesticated canine, is to break the sacred bonds and reduce them into
commodities—mere objects for use. It is to make them our property
and force them into slavery; objects for economic
So it is with the land itself.
In an ownership society,
the land is valued not as an evolved living
biological entity with inherent value and rights, including the
fulfillment of its own evolutionary destiny, but as a commodity—a
In this unnatural schema,
wild forests lose their structural and
biological diversity to become pulp for paper mills, and are turned
into toilet paper, or packaging for ipods. Diverse forests become tree
farms and plantations, monocultures thirsting for toxic chemicals to
keep them alive. They are no longer natural, no longer wholly real or
authentic. This process of industrial forestry moves the land from the
realm of the sacred into that of economic theory; and it is falsely
called science. That which has inherent value is thus devolved into
mere property, a commodity; divested of its sacredness, a severed part
divorced from the whole.
Treated as private property,
the wild earth, with its essential
ecological processes, dies a death of a thousand cuts, as economic myth
and Disneyesque plantations supplant the authentic natural landscape,
and the artificial is freely substituted for the real.
Surrounded by the artificial,
we live in a time when people can no
longer tell the difference between the real and the synthetic; the
natural and the unnatural. Sadly, they do not even know what has been
lost or that it can never be replaced.
Thus we have a culture which
holds that economic self interest is the highest expression of human
freedom. It is a paradigm that asserts its superiority over all others,
including the public welfare and the wellbeing of the earth. It is the
foundation of Adam Smith’s capitalism, as espoused in The Wealth
of Nations, and modified many times since.
But freedom that subjugates
others is not freedom at all.
Private ownership is a paradigm
that values the economic parts of nature—those that can accrue
wealth to the land owner, while assigning no value to the parts that
are economically unimportant, or the greater public good, including
the world’s genetic libraries. Yet, in nature, it is often the
non-economic parts that provide the essential ecological functions that
make life itself possible. Not just human life—all life.
Here in Morgan County, wild
forests provide shade on hot summer afternoons, and diverse habitat
for multitudes of species, both plant and animal. Together, the interrelationship
formed by these species constitute a dance of life that promotes the
dynamic equilibrium of a complex ecosystem—the magnificent Central
Appalachian Hardwood and Mixed Mesophytic Forest.
Aided by fungus and precipitation,
insects residing in decaying trees move nutrients through the earth,
building healthy soil. Forests purify the air and remove pollutants,
while also trapping and holding greenhouse gases. Wild forests filter
pollutants from streams and rivers, providing pure drinking water to
foxes, beetles, and people. All of this, and much, much, more, is provided
without cost to us; as a right of citizenship in this world.
Left alone, the wild earth—unlike
human constructed systems, is a
beautifully self-regulating arrangement in dynamic equilibrium; a system
that runs on biological capital, rather than artificial economic arrangements.
The management of such systems, which have evolved over billions of
years, implies the superiority of man over nature, his dominion over
the earth—a dangerous and foolish notion that requires unfathomable
hubris, and equal parts stupidity.
Cultures that are based upon
reductionism and monoculture fail to
perceive the organic whole of life; the interconnectedness of all
things, both living and non-living. Economic formulae, no matter how
sophisticated and scientific they may appear, are a construct of the
human mind—an artificial system of accounting. Nature does not
recognize them. They have no validity in the real world. Yet we think
they are of overriding importance, the basis of everything we do; man
as center of the universe, as in the time of Ptolemy.
In truth, ecology and biology
are the natural capital upon which nature works. They are the underpinning
of all social and economic paradigms—bar none. Impair and denigrate
them and everything in them, including us, is diminished. Damage them
excessively, and everything falls, including our precious ownership
Ecological integrity is the
foundation of planetary health. It is the
organizing principle of life. Undermining that integrity for short term
profits is to limit all future options in perpetuity, the ultimate
incarnation of insensate greed and selfishness. It is the work of
foolish and misguided men who are undoing the world; men who cannot
conceive of anything larger than themselves, including the public welfare,
or the planetary ecology; the world’s only authentic economy.
Ecological literacy, understanding
how nature works, must necessarily supersede economic self interest
in favor of the collective good, the organic whole. The world was not
made to be exploited, to be divided into parcels and privatized. Contrary
to popular belief, human beings are not masters of the earth. We are
subject to the same immutable natural law as yeast cells. We were blessed
with a few short years in paradise, and the gift of consciousness of
our place in the cosmos.
If we are, indeed, rational
beings, we have a moral obligation to defend our place from those who
would defile and exploit it. Our allegiance is to the earth and to one
another, not to monetary systems that exploit and cheapen life for profit.
Like all economic systems
that are not based upon real science, or an appropriate land ethic,
the concept of property rights and private ownership are misguided and
ultimately self-destructive constructs. The public welfare and the ecological
integrity of the earth exceed all economic self interests in importance.
Economics are based upon self-serving, false premises, whereas ecology
There are dire consequences
to ignoring reality, for substituting the artificial for the natural.
The earth will never conform to our views of her. The needs of the greater
biological community outweigh the wants of the self-interested few,
looking to make a fast buck.
It is a sad and foolish notion
that nature must conform to man and his prideful economic constructs.
The world operates on natural
capital—biological processes from which humankind evolved. That
understanding must be the guiding principle in all that we do. Unlike
the mythos promoted by economics, ecological literacy encourages a healthy
sense of belonging to something much larger than the sum of its parts,
the greater biological community; it promotes a healthy sense of the
Conservationist David Brower
once stated: “Economics is a form of brain damage.” I could
not agree more. We need to develop a holistic world view in place of
that which was born of hubris and economic self interest. That view
will not be born of capitalism, or any repressive religious theology.
It can only come from healthful interaction with the organic world,
in the big outside.
Henry Thoreau astutely observed,
“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Like the
American Indian, Thoreau’s world view was not anthropocentric
(man-centered), it was biocentric (earth-centered); holistic and whole.
That is a world view we can live with.
The most precious things
in life are those that cannot be commodified, and hence, owned. Like
twenty acres in a place we call West Virginia—beauty, grace, elegance,
and tranquility cannot be bought and sold, or traded on Wall Street.
These qualities are a gift unto the world provided without cost. We
should freely enjoy them in ways that are non-consumptive, and therefore,
non-destructive. We should give thanks for the natural wealth the world
possesses and leave it for others to enjoy, long after we have departed
As Edward Abbey, an anarchist,
once lamented, “The earth belongs to everyone, and to no one.”
We are simply citizens of the greater biological community, distinguished
only by our capacity for destruction and self deception.
Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance
community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of
geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at
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