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Natural economics ~ have we invested badly?

Birds often migrate incredible distancesIt’s unusual to get to the end of the day at the moment, without hearing the word ‘recession’ (look there I go mentioning it again!). But these cycles are to be expected as they are a completely natural thing. Each year we enter a different kind of recession, but one that we are always much more prepared for ~ winter.

Life employs two main strategies to get through these lean times; migration & hibernation. Plants don’t have a lot of choice as they are rooted to the ground, but being mobile gives animals & birds an extra option.

Migration is an effective way for many species to cope with the ups & downs of the natural economy. When one habitat goes into recession, they just head off to another that is about to b(l)oom again. Instead, over centuries we humans have opted for an adapted hibernation option, but has this been a crucial error that has led us into the environmental mess we now find ourselves in?

Body fat is never lost on the stock exchange...

The migration strategy involves saving up during the summer boom period, then spending most of those reserves on making the life saving trip to warmer climes again. Hibernation however necessitates slowing the metabolism to use as little of those reserves as possible through the winter recession. Of course, in nature those reserves are entirely stored in the body of the animal of plant, which may at first seem limiting, but looked at from another perspective cannot be lost in a bank collapse or stolen (short of the plant or creature being eaten!). Money & shops may seem like a good idea to us, but our vital reserves are now stored outside our bodies where they are much more vulnerable to being lost.

Not that there is anything wrong with trading, in fact nature’s stability depends on it. Cooperative relationships abound in nature, many completely out of sight. Trees & plants develop complex relationships with each other & fungi. The latter need sugars, which they cannot make themselves so they connect up with plants for whom it is a by-product of photosynthesis. What do plants & trees get from the deal? A considerably extended root system (some fungal nets can stretch for kilometres) & the ability to take up certain nutrients, otherwise inaccessible to them. Each benefits from the increased size & health of the other, making mutual investment very worthwhile. These associations called mycorrhiza (literally meaning fungus-root) have also been dubbed the ‘wood wide web’.

A delicious meal for worms...

Not all exchanges are two-way though. Nature’s economy also relies heavily upon trust (the key difference between boom & recession in our own financial systems). Deciduous trees don’t hesitate before releasing their leaves each autumn, even though they have no guarantee that the soil will have enough fertility to feed them next spring. These leaves provide food in turn for the likes of worms, decomposing & assimilating micro-organisms, before feeding the trees & surrounding plants once more. If the leaves didn’t fall, the cycle would grind to a halt & everything would slowly die.

It’s interesting to notice though, that in this process nothing gives away what is still of use. Only waste products are traded & yet nature is so well designed that there is always something nearby that can make use of them. Alas we seem to have forgotten this & are now producing vast quantities of substances that are not just of no use to other species, but dangerously toxic too.

So back to our strategy… some time ago we began to choose hibernation over migration, even though our bodies are better developed for the latter. At first it may have seemed like a good idea, saving us all that effort of being regularly on the move. Forests were abundant, providing all the building materials & fuel we would need to keep us warm through the winter. But now there are a lot more of us & a lot less forest & we are burning vast quantities of fossil fuels instead to maintain the habit.

Local, regional & global permaculture solutions

It might be interesting to compare the energy cost of heating a home through the winter with the cost of travelling to somewhere warmer (has anyone ever done this calculation?). Not that we have that option to collectively change our minds anymore; there are far too many of us now. Those warmer lands we might be able to migrate to are already fully populated by humans who sit out their own winters too. We’ve become trapped by the short-term success of the hibernation idea. And yet the gift of cheap oil is running out…

Permaculture uses the observation of natural systems to help us design solutions to such dilemmas. We first need to see beyond symptoms though & identify the root causes of our problems. Only then can we come up with effective, lasting solutions. What will they look like? I don’t know. All I know is that we need them fast, before we bust our own & everything else’s ‘bank’.