8. Learn from Nature

The post below was an entry to a competition organised by Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics. The competition asked people to imagine the 8th way to think like a 21st centruy economist (her book outlines 7 ways to think like a 21st economist). I chose to write about combining ecology and evolution with politics and economics. I highly recommend Doughnut Economics. It was a fantastic, positive reimagining of our economic systems.

Our current political and economic systems are decimating the nature that surrounds us and sustains us. Yet, it is to nature that we can take inspiration and gain deep understanding of complex political and economic systems. Long before humans existed, the tangled bank of nature was changing and adapting to a long string of perturbations and producing a beautiful variety of life forms from tiny bacteria to massive blue whales. We developed within this tangled bank and are now a central force driving large changes. Nature will continue to exist, but the question is whether we will be there to experience it. To ensure we continue enjoying our tangled bank, we must learn from nature because if you take any issue within politics and economics, nature has a lesson for us.

The most salient aspect of nature is its ability to create new life forms. Through the mechanisms of genetic mutation, natural selection, and random chance, the earth contains about nine million different species, of which humans make up 1/10,000 of the Earth’s biomass. New species continually arise to take advantage of new conditions. In our political and economic systems, we see similar patterns where new ideas, technologies, and companies are created and then proliferate. We must learn to harness evolution in our political and economic systems to produce the new ideas, technologies and companies that will benefit our societies.

Up to certain levels of perturbations, nature has an uncanny ability to restructure the interactions between all of its multitudinous species, in other words to rewire itself. As average temperature, rain distributions, and geological formations change over time, organisms shift their ranges and feeding. These changes create new interactions between organisms, rewiring nature’s networks. If the perturbation is too extreme, rewiring is unlikely to occur in the short term and organisms become extinct. Over the long term, evolution creates new species and nature rewires itself. In our political and economic systems, individuals, societies, and companies all react to perturbations, continually rewiring and creating new combinations of interactions, cultures, and products. Nature warns us that if a system is pushed too far it can collapse. We must learn from nature about when perturbations exceed the rewiring capacity of our systems and identify ways to support their rewiring capacity.

Nature has countless examples of ecosystems that exist within larger ecosystems. Animal guts contain a multitude of coexisting bacteria that live off the animal’s ingested food. These animals live within a ecosystem of coexisting plants, insects, fungi and other life forms. Then at even greater scales, we have the globe containing all coexisting life forms. There are processes that act within each ecosystem and there are processes that link ecosystems together at all scales. Similarly, in politics and economics, there are local communities, governments, and markets within the national or global communities, governments, and markets. We must apply to our political and economic systems what we learn about the processes within and between different ecosystems.

Nature does not have any boundaries. Instead, humans impose conceptual boundaries on nature so that we can simplify the complexity. We may think there are boundaries in nature when, for example, we see an edge of a forest on a grassland. There are animals and interactions that do not cross these apparent boundaries. However, these apparent boundaries also seep animals and interactions. In our daily lives, we like to think within boundaries, usually within national boundaries (i.e England is the best football team ever!). However, our national boundaries are porous and events in other countries often have large implications within our country. The relatively recent massive fluxes of capital between different countries is an area where an understanding of boundaries is critical. We must learn from nature where and how fluxes can be kept within areas and allowed to flow into other areas when needed, effectively imposing porous apparent boundaries for the benefit of society instead of the richest 1%.

Stocks, flows, feedback loops and time delays are the bread and butter of nature. Within an organism, there are stocks and flows of nutrients and energy. Feedback loops and time delays also abound within an organism including homeostasis and physiological responses to stimuli. Within an ecosystem there are stocks and flows of water, carbon, and number of organisms. One notable feedback is the heating of the permafrost layer in the Arctic releasing methane, further increasing the concentration of greenhouse gasses. Numerous time delays exist including the birth of a cohort of animals which then become reproductive later with different conditions. We must apply to our political and economic systems what we learn about how these stocks, flows, feedback loops, and time delays impact evolution, rewiring, and interactions across scales and between bounded areas.

Our biological knowledge barely scrapes the surface of nature. For decades, competitive interactions have dominated ecological thinking. Now, insights into mutualistic interactions are developing and we are examining both competition and mutualisms in nature. Our understanding of rewiring, scale, and boundaries in nature is also at its inception. Deeper understanding of nature and our ability to predict nature’s response to perturbations will improve over time. If we continue our explorations of nature, imagine what new insights we could apply to political and economic systems in the future.

Through the intersection of ecology, evolution, politics and economics, we will find answers to our pressing issues. Nature provides numerous testing grounds to “get savvy with systems”. For example, the diverse microbial communites in our gut provide fast and replicable experiments to understand highly complicated systems. We are embedded in ecosystems, and similarly ecology and evolution should be embedded within all complex systems research. Nature produced us and nature is waiting to teach us how to save ourselves.