Our Capitalism & The Natural World: A Mirror Image

When I was first introduced to the idea of capitalism, I was told that the competition within capitalism models nature. In the natural world, competition encourages evolution. Species must compete for food, water, and other goods provided by the environment for survival. This competition fuels evolution, as animals constantly need to change and adapt to keep up with other species. In a capitalist economy, businesses must compete with each other to keep up profits. To prosper, a business needs to strive to provide better goods and services at lower prices. If it doesn’t, other businesses will outcompete it. This encourages the “evolution” of human society. More and more is made available to the masses by the competing businesses. The untouched natural world has always continued to evolve itself, and has done so while remaining ingeniously self-sustainable. So in theory, a system of economics which models the processes of nature should be a sustainable, self-evolving system.

No one can deny capitalism has encouraged the development of many advanced technologies and effort-saving conveniences. But I wonder how much we’ve actually improved our quality of life? In the capitalist nations of the world, it seems most people are provided with basic necessities, and usually a good deal more. Yet, there are still many in these nations left without enough material wealth to survive. And it seems that most of the people with enough material wealth have little to no wealth in other parts of life. No happiness, no passion: no spiritual wealth.

If capitalism models nature, why isn’t it yielding positive results? Shouldn’t this model, in mimicking nature, provide incentive for the “evolution” of the human condition? Shouldn’t it also sustain itself? I would say capitalism models nature so completely that if you violate certain laws you throw the system out of balance.

As just one example, a basic ecological principle is that diversity supports survival. When an environment contains a wide variety of species then the system as a whole can handle shifts in balance. But, if an ecosystem has limited diversity then even a small shift in balance can have drastic effects. The lack or excess of one species could eventually destroy the entire ecosystem. The less diverse an ecosystem, the more vulnerable the species within it.

Humans violate this through species genocide. Plenty of animals kill for food. But they kill only enough needed for survival. The human is the only animal that kills other species entirely; sometimes we wipe out whole ecosystems. We do this directly when we kill a certain animal. We also do this indirectly by taking resources from the environment so rapidly that the system is thrown out of balance, killing animals in the process.

This rule, and how we violate it, can be applied analogously to capitalism. If there is a large diversity of owners with means of production then the system will be able to weather something happening to a few of them. Now, I feel this picture does justice to what we do instead:


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There are still some small brands left; between mom-n-pop stores, farmers’ markets, and starving-artist types. But how much profit goes to them compared to the brands in this picture? I’d be concerned about the answer to that question. It’s no wonder our system is so unstable! By buying so much from, and in doing so giving so much power & support to, so few companies, we make our entire system dependent on these companies! Low diversity, high vulnerability.

And it gets worse! What do businesses have in common with houses, cars, weddings, and a college education? They’re expensive. More importantly, they’re so expensive that most people take out loans to get them. We make our economy incredibly dependent on banks. So much money, and thereby so much power, goes to so few places. The fate of our economy then rests on a small number of powerhouses.

Lastly, a diversity of flourishing businesses would encourage creativity. In turn, this promotes innovation, and inherently more of an evolution in our material condition! Instead we use our money to support economic genocide. These huge brands squash, or simply buy out, any smaller business that has a chance at competition with the big players.

So where do we go from here? First of all, we must make ourselves less and less dependent on these economic powers-that-be. When we become independent of these brands for what we need to survive, we no longer have to buy from (in other words, support) them and the perpetuation of an unsustainable economy. Even buying from the farmers’ market, as opposed to feeding from the hand of Nestle, is a step forward. An even bigger step, which eventually we will have to take, is the ability to provide all of our own necessities. I think it’s needless to say adopting the lifestyle Valhalla aspires to is one way of accomplishing this.

I believe humans could flourish under capitalism. But collectively we have proven ourselves far too immature to do so in the present. Imagine if the majority of humans were to start making purchases consciously – that is with an awareness of which companies practice ethics toward environment, labor, economy, et cetera. Eventually a capitalist economy would make the ethical companies rich and leave unethical ones bankrupt. Also, for a capitalist system to be truly sustainable, economies would need to be more localized (but still connected!) to prevent the current lack-of-diversity predicament.

Unfortunately, we are so deep in, this option seems to be a hope for the far future. Regardless, it would be intelligent for us to acknowledge how much sway capitalism and the companies on top have. If we acknowledge this we can see the importance of working both from within and without this system. At first, by taking ourselves out of this system as much as possible – either through communities such as Valhalla or through other methods – we can escape our dependence on this system. After our independence is established we can start working within the system to transform it. I envision a time when Valhalla-esque communities and like-thinkers can selectively boycott the businesses doing the most harm to our environment and our humanity, and support businesses doing the most good. We can both “create our own grid” economically, while transforming capitalism from within with the intent of molding it into a new, more benign capitalism!

Ultimately, I don’t pretend to know what the “best” system is. Humanity will always be evolving and progressing, and I am sure our idea of how an economy should be run will change along with us. I don’t think there is as much of a “best” system as there are systems which are relevant to the time period and culture. What I am sure of is that if we are to tell ourselves capitalism is good because it models nature, then we need to start acknowledging that how we use capitalism, just as how we use nature, produces results corresponding to how responsible and respectful we have been to the system. I am sure that it is time to start using the capitalism we have built more responsibly, and I am sure that it is time to start experimenting with new economies which might be a more complete representation of nature.

4 thoughts on “Our Capitalism & The Natural World: A Mirror Image”

  1. Great article! Very creative approach.

    I disagree with the premise. I don’t think capitalism models nature at all. Yes there is competition, but it’s always balanced out by cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships. I don’t think nature is so one dimensional in that it only operates by being purely competitive, and that applies to Darwin’s evolutionary theory as well.

    • I think capitalism – as we’ve used it – models the destruction we’re creating in nature. A few enormous powerhouses subjugating everyone else for profit – just as the powerhouse of human civilization is subjugating nature for resources. But I think capitalism could become a more balanced system, one more resemblant of nature. This would include more cooperative, mutually-beneficial, community-style projects (and just as importantly, attitudes!) operating within a capitalist system. This would bring in the dimensions missing and help to make the system more balanced, benign, and representative of a harmonious natural system.

        • I see both of your points of view. I think, Greg, you should look at it as maybe a flawed analogy. As Ben explained in his response to you, he is comparing the current manifestation of capitalism to the destruction we’ve caused in nature. You are are right, Greg, because in the article it sounds like an across-the-board analogy. But, I think the greater point is valid. Ethical capitalism is the next step, if people are going to exercise their power. I have long envisioned that the next, best step would be small businesses everywhere providing locally for their communities. The closest thing we have now is a parent company hoarding the profits of ostensibly unconnected (to the public) companies. What Ben talks about wasn’t really possible in the past. If you back far enough (not that far), there were small companies all around. Then major corporations came along, and gave us a mixed bag of good and bad, as Ben subtly refers to. But the whole “corporations aren’t people” thing is valid, and people everywhere are suffering from our current system (which, as Frederic Jameson might refer to as Late Capitalism), which is an extreme concentration of (and selective ignorance of) what capitalism was. This is because it USED TO BE tempered by commonly (that is, widespread) formed ethical models. Now, the capability for people to form their own business and operate both on their own terms AND in a way that is better for select demographics is unparalleled. That is the next step. If you look behind the scenes, what the big box companies do for people is FAR out-shadowed by the harm they do to the environment AND the people (that is, what the big box companies collectively do to the general population through their business practices).

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