Attuning to Natural Energy Flows vs. Abstract Economic Rationality

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Essay: Inclusionality and sustainability – attuning with the currency of natural energy flow and how this contrasts with abstract economic rationality. By Alan D.M. Rayner

Paper available via the author at [email protected]


"This paper explores how the way organisms relate energetically to changing circumstances in their natural neighbourhood differs in some fundamental respects from human behaviour induced by economic incentives and controls. It explains how the fundamental principles of much current economic and management practice arise from the partial representation of reality by abstract mathematical and scientific logic and self-definition. This partiality singles human identity out from the wider context of natural identity, resulting in an inversion of priorities from seeking sustainable, co-creative evolutionary relationship to striving for supremacy. By revealing the omission in the foundations of abstract logic, this paper shows how a more natural, ‘inclusional’ form of reasoning, based on energy flow, could transform and restore our human sense of place as inhabitants, not ‘exhabitants’, of the world. Such a logical and psychological transformation is necessary for developing systems of economic and social governance that encourage rather than impede sustainable human-environmental relationships. The underlying principles of these systems align with those of traditional gift flow and the dynamics of heterogeneous natural ecosystems. Here, energy is relayed continuously and reciprocally between sites of supply and sites of receipt, hence sustaining diverse, complementary functionality and avoiding cancerous monopolization. According to these principles, notions of exclusive ownership and competition or co-operation amongst independent individuals or groups are logically and ecologically unsustainable as well as a source of profound human conflict. "


Energy currents vs. monetary currency

"The idea of packaging energy within and outside completely discrete units – i.e. as atomic particles in material bodies and photons in electromagnetic radiation – clearly relates to the notion of a quantifiable currency that can be exchanged between independent individuals or groups in human organizations. Monetary units might thereby be thought of as equivalent to energy units, a measure of effort made in the discovery and gathering of natural products or in the value added through their transformation into desirable commodities. If so, then some correspondence could be expected between the sustainability of natural ergonomics and human economics.

Despite this superficial similarity, there are two main physical reasons why, in reality, energy and money amount to very different kinds of currency: the variable fluidity of natural system boundaries and the continuity of space as a limitless omnipresence. The latter cannot physically be abstracted from the former and treated as a completely quantifiable commodity that can be cut up uniformly, along with ‘time’, into discrete sub-units.

There is also a deep psychological reason, associated with the human fear and perception of death and darkness as the end and enemy of life and light. This fear and perception may, above all, lead many of us mentally to try to seal our selves and others within unnaturally discrete boundary limits that feel secure, yet only set the scene for profound opposition and conflict. To soften its edges, there is a need not just to learn about nature from our own local perspective as distanced subjective observers, but more imaginatively and reflectively also about our selves from nature’s limitless perspective in which we are included as inhabitants (Rayner, 2010a). We may then be better prepared to cope with Hamlet’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ than by attempting to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing (think we can) end them’."

Energy as the necessary basis if any economy

"It is therefore clear that availability of energy is the principal influence that governs the growth, organization and function of living systems. Any activity or pattern of development in which energy loss through permeable boundaries persistently exceeds energy acquisition will result in unsustainable deficit. For any living system to sustain itself, its primary need is therefore to be able to attune its activities and development to correspond with energy availability and hence with the local conditions of its habitat. This availability varies, both in amount and rate of supply due to seasonal and climatic fluctuations, and where and in what form it is located. It also changes due to the growth, death and decomposition of the systems themselves, which respectively deplete and replenish supplies as they come under one another’s simultaneous mutual influence.


the inescapable truth is that the ecological and evolutionary sustainability of natural life forms, from the cells and tissues in a human body to the trees in a forest depend upon close attunement with the diversity, complementary nature and changeability of all within their neighbourhood, to which they themselves contribute. When energy supplies become scarce, sustainable living systems pool and redistribute internal resources within integrated structures and survival capsules – they do not compete to proliferate faster on the dwindling supplies than their neighbours. When supplies are abundant they proliferate and differentiate.


Sustainability, not supremacy, is therefore the key to evolutionary and ecological continuity. Natural energy flow is variably fluid, circulatory and redistributive from higher concentration (relative ‘abundance’) to lower concentration (relative ‘scarcity’), as illustrated, for example by atmospheric and ocean currents. The primary need for all life forms is not to seek competitive advantage through the unilateral accumulation of energy ‘wealth’ at the expense of their neighbourhood, but to sustain themselves and their offspring as variable channels for natural energy flow. They are more like members of a relay team – continually receiving, temporarily retaining and eventually passing on what sustains life – than a set of autonomous individuals striving to be first past the post. To succeed in this they have to be open to the energetic influence of their neighbourhood at the same time as sustaining the distinctiveness – but not discreteness – of their inner worlds from their outer worlds through their dynamic boundaries. Any growth that overwhelms what it depends upon isn’t sustainable in the long run, no matter how profitable an enterprise it might seem to be in the short term. Any loss of distinctiveness removes the capacity to relate in versatile and complementary ways to changeable circumstances. Real natural community life, as an expression of heterogeneous energy flow, isn’t intolerant of variety – it can’t sustain a monoculture of too many the same if its inflows and outflows are to remain balanced. By the same token, ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ simply represent ‘receptive’ and ‘responsive’ influences affecting the direction of flow within a circulation between receivers and donors, not the subtraction or addition of ‘one’ from or to ‘an other’.


Any ecological or evolutionary model that treats an individual or group as a discrete, autonomous object or subject with the set objective of promulgating and preserving its self at all costs as sole survivor of a war of attrition is therefore partial and unsustainable in a changeable world of natural energy flow. Yet just such partial treatment underpins the Darwinian concept of ‘natural selection’ as ‘the survival of the fittest’ or ‘preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’ (Darwin, 1859). It also underpins the notion of economic incentive that drives human social governance to abstraction, an over-definitive representation of reality, at the expense of our evolutionary and environmental sustainability.


The assumption, still widespread throughout modern political cultures and enshrined in Game Theory (e.g. Dutta, 1999) and neo-Darwinism, that ‘diversity and creativity equals competition’, is fallacious: competition – in the sense of mutually or unilaterally exclusive opposition – destroys diversity and creativity (Rayner, 1997). Such has been the unsustainable, ‘Rise and Fall’ story of human economic and social imperialism, which seeks to capitalize by diverting and rigidly walling in the flow from abundance to scarcity. It is not the sustainable story of natural energy flow within and across fluid living system boundaries, whereby ‘self’ naturally includes ‘other’. That is the story that we may need to admit the truth of, at this time of social, psychological and environmental crisis: we need to ask not ‘what can we do about Nature outside us’, but ‘What can Nature do about us in her midst?’ "

Gift Flows and their restrictions

"There is clear anthropological evidence that prior to barter and financial transaction, human social organization was and in some indigenous communities still is primarily orchestrated according to principles of ‘gift flow’. These correspond closely with the circulatory and redistributive supply, receipt and temporary retention of natural energy flow (e.g. Hyde, 2006; Taylor, 2005). Even in modern cultures, intangible qualities of love and artistic creativity are a shared source of profound human pleasure and caring that defy – and are defiled by – any attempt to commoditize or quantify them.

At the heart of traditional gift flow is trust in the principle that what is freely given is equally freely returned in the long run, such that whoever gives away most also receives most, and vice versa. This harmonizing principle is broken as soon as anyone accepts without giving or vice versa. Such restrictive practices give rise to a breakdown of trust that gives rise to further restrictive practices, setting the scene for a vicious cycle of competition, conflict and increasingly rigorous legislation to define trading practice and monetary transactions. By the same token, such restrictive economic rationality is associated with the localization (‘privatization’/’nationalization’) of self and/or group identity and individual or public ‘rights’ of property ownership. Sometimes systems of gift flow may operate within family/social groupings alongside rigidly structured trading or economic practice between groups. This implies a hard boundary limit between the two and a resulting ‘double standard’ of the kind identified by Hyde (2006) as ‘the double law of Moses’, which permits repayment of a loan to be demanded from an ‘other’, but not from a ‘brother’. This duality corresponds with the neo-Darwinian notions of ‘reciprocal altruism’, ‘kin-selection’ and ‘inclusive fitness’ but leaves moot the question of where and whether kinship begins and ends and how it arises, both genetically and contextually (Rayner, 1997).


No sooner is an absolute two-way or one-way discontinuity set up between individual or group-interest and other-interest, than the harmonizing flow that balances giving and receiving within a community is liable to be blocked or subverted. This leads to fragmentation and corruption into hierarchical power relationships in which the few may live at the expense of the many or vice versa. These problems are exacerbated by prescriptive consumption and enclosure in anticipation of scarcity or abundance instead of in direct attunement with actual availability."

The space-time error of abstract rationality

"This perception of completely definable objects separated by intervals of space as ‘gaps of nothingness’ sets the scene for the hard line logic of abstract rationality to become established in the foundations of our mathematical, scientific, theological, linguistic, governmental and economic endeavours. It also profoundly affects our perceptions of ‘self’ and ‘self-interest’. The Aristotelian axiom that ‘one thing is not another thing, and, specifically, that ‘one self cannot be another self’ leads to what C.S. Lewis (1942) called ‘the philosophy of Hell’, in which ‘to be means to be in competition’.

Every figure is rendered completely discontinuous from the contextual space that it manifests from and within. The number, 1, becomes a lone figure – all one – an independent singleness, a complete ‘whole unit’ or ‘oneness’ without neighbourhood. ‘I’, as an individual self-identity, is set narcissically apart from its environment, which it must command or obey if it is not to succumb in the struggle for its own existence. The ‘environment’, what Einstein declared to be ‘everything that isn’t me’, becomes viewed one-sidedly as a source of threat and promise, not the very ground from which the self manifests and into which the self returns. Nothing appears more of a threat in this abstract environment than ‘nothingness’ – the receptive transparency and darkness of the void that seems ever-ready, in the guise of ‘death’, to dissolve the illusion of independent existence upon which the self stands on its own two feet. Everything possible is done to defer this ultimate fate, by walling the self away from its origins and destiny. Maintaining order against the forces of uncertainty – Hamlet’s ‘sea of troubles’ – becomes the order of the day. Yet with the desire for complete order, paradoxically, comes the attitude of human mind that in reality most threatens the possibility of sustainable relationship with the natural world we inhabit.

It is easy to see that this partial perception of nature and human nature in unnatural opposition could lead to profound human conflict and jealous possessiveness. With the continuous presence of space throughout and beyond all form erased from consideration, ‘subjective self’ and ‘objective other’ are brought into fear-full confrontation. Priorities are inverted from seeking sustainable relationship with others in a natural ‘Garden of Eden’ or ‘communion of diversity’, to seeking cancerous dominion over other as the only certain route to ‘self-preservation’ (cf Taylor, 2005). Sustaining ‘Ego’ becomes the focus of attention at the expense of the natural neighbourhood upon which individual self-identity actually depends to sustain itself."

The answer: adopting the logic of flow-forms

"All that may ultimately be needed to unlock ourselves from this unnatural confinement imposed by abstract rationality is the simple understanding that space cannot be cut, confined or excluded and so is a continuous presence throughout and beyond the energetic boundary interfacings of natural figures as flow-forms. By the same token, boundaries are energetic interfacings between inner and outer realms, not fixed limits. This is the basis of what, in ecological and evolutionary terms has been called ‘natural inclusionality’ and in mathematical terms is rooted in ‘transfigurality’, which was first developed in 1985 by Lere Shakunle (e.g. Shakunle, 1994).

The underlying logic of both natural inclusionality and transfigurality can be described as ‘the understanding of all form as flow-form, an energetic configuration of space in figure and figure in space’, such that space, as a receptive (non-resistive) presence, is not assumed to be discontinuous (i.e. to stop at discrete boundary limits) (e.g. Rayner 2010a; Shakunle, Rayner, 2009). Correspondingly, we can recognize the impossibility of defining or measuring anything in absolute numerical terms anywhere, because all form has both a ‘figural’, energetic inner-outer interfacing or dynamic boundary, which makes it distinct, and a ‘transfigural’ – ‘through the figure’ – spatial reach that cannot be sliced or limited. The transfigural space throughout and beyond the figure pools it within the co-creative, influential neighbourhood of all others: ‘self’ as an ‘including middle’ finds identity in its non-local neighbourhood as neighbourhood finds identity through its local ‘self’. Without transfigural space, figures are rendered lifeless and loveless, stone-cold bodies, integral or fractional numbers and idealized geometric points, lines and solids. With transfigural space included, we escape the confinement and inconsistencies of the ‘excluded middle’, discrete boundary logic of ‘one opposed to other’ that has held our imagination to ransom for millennia. This enables us to move on to a more natural and comprehensive form of reasoning in the fluid boundary logic or fluid transfigural logic of each in the other’s mutual influence. The real meanings of ‘zero’ and ‘infinity’ as qualities of space and sources of creativity, not abstract quantities of material, are brought into our natural accounting systems, not excluded by abstract definition.


Here a fundamental difference between rationalistic and natural inclusional/transfigural perceptions of continuity emerges: 1. In rationalistic thought, continuity is equated with ‘connectedness’ because space is regarded as void, a source of discontinuity or disruptive gap between and around ‘things’ as discrete objects. Hence the only way of deriving continuity in this ‘whole way of thinking’, is either by totally excluding space and boundaries from form as a continuous line or network of width-less threads, or by totally conflating space with form in a seamless [boundary-less] whole. Such exclusion or conflation is neither consistent with evidence/experience nor does it make consistent sense. In a way, it is a product of holistic wishful thinking that seeks to eliminate rather than reconcile the occurrence of natural distinctions, because these are seen as a source of disharmony. It is an over-reaction to the over-definition of boundaries characteristic of analytical thought, which seeks to replace the latter with its antithesis instead of seeking the dynamic synthesis and balance that natural inclusionality/transfigurality provide (Rayner, 2004).

2. In natural inclusional and transfigural thought, space is a continuous omnipresence that cannot be cut, confined or excluded, and form is dynamically continuous through its energetic inclusion of space in figure and figure in space. Distinction and difference are hence accommodated in a natural fluid continuum, without contradiction. Local identity is recognised as a dynamic inclusion of non-local space in which all forms are pooled together (but not absolutely merged) in natural communion as flow-forms.

3. Correspondingly, the treatment of continuity by abstract rationality as the same as connectedness – as exemplified in conventional calculus, where continuity is approximated by connecting infinitesimal discontinuous units – is an idealized construct that is physically impossible. The very idea of complete ‘whole units’ existing anywhere, at any scale in Nature as an energetically open, fluid system does not make sense. Natural inclusional and transfigural connectedness arises from the coming together (attachment/inter-connectedness) and fusion (conjugation/intra-connectedness) of energetic paths, corridors or channels of included space (intra-space) in labyrinthine branching systems and networks (as in Figs. 1-4), not the ‘ties that bind all into a web of one’ (Rayner, 2004; Tesson, 2006; cf. Barabasi, 2002).

How might natural inclusional and transfigural logic contribute to the development of economic systems that encourage rather than impede sustainable, co-creative human-environmental relationships? In the long run, the hope might be at the very least radically to overhaul our current financial systems, to align with natural principles of energy availability and flow. In the shorter run, and perhaps as a prerequisite, a change in mental attitude concerning the true nature of life, love, pleasure and suffering needs to be brought about, along with a shift in values towards love, respect, care, generosity and honesty and away from avarice and xenophobia (Rayner 2010c).

A change in mental attitude could be possible through educationally enhancing awareness of the psychological, social and environmental damage arising from abstract rationality, at the same time as providing the vision of a healthier, more creatively improvisational and sustainable way of reasoning about life and evolution (Rayner 2010b). The difficulties of bringing about such change are, however, as great as they are in overcoming any serious human addiction, and considerable sensitivity and receptivity is needed from all concerned (Pryor, 2003; Pryor, Rayner 2005a,b). Indeed the roots of many human addictions may themselves be traced to attempts to remove the pain associated with living amidst the contradictions of a rationalistic culture that misguidedly divorces reason from emotion.