Life's Economic Survival Protocol

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Book: Life Rules. Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it. Ellen LaConte.


Ellen discusses 9 aspects of “Life's /Eco/nomic Survival Protocol” that continuously puts life into upward spiral in spite of the geologic history of crises that life has faced. Her analysis is insightful and fascinating. (David Braden)


Under the influence of a global economy that has gone viral, compromising the ability of human and natural communities to provide for, protect, defend and heal themselves, we are living beyond Earth's means, creating a Critical Mass of economic, environmental, social and political crises that cannot be solved by doing more of the same. The largest complex economic system on Earth--the largest provider of goods and services necessary for survival--is not the global economy. It's the biosphere, Life itself. Life rules, we don't. Life has lasted for so long because it learned how to deal with overreaching species: It ruled them out. We can learn how to mitigate Critical Mass, how to survive it and how to avoid causing it again from the ultimate Critical Mass survivor: Life itself. We can learn and obey Life's rules for economic survival, adopt lifeways that mimic Life's ways, and by that means learn to live within Earth's means.

Among the rules written into Life’s Economic Survival Protocol are local self-reliance, intercommunity and regional functional cooperation, non-carbon energy sourcing, resource conservation, sharing and recycling, and organically democratic methods of self-organization and governance. These rules have worked for Life for over two billion years. We can make them work for us, too."


From the publisher:

"Ellen LaConte’s most recent book, has been reviewed by theologian-economist John B. Cobb, Jr., best-selling author of For the Common Good, as the “one book you must read if you want to fully understand the crises that threaten our very existence.” In a similar vein, the influential human ecologist William R. Catton, author of Overshoot and Bottleneck, wrote of the book that “If there were someone with authority to require all candidates for high public office to read certain books in preparation for the responsibilities they aspire to undertake, Ellen LaConte’s Life Rules should be high on the list of urgently required reading.” By LaConte’s own reckoning it is her most significant work to date. Lloyd Wells, an influential community organizer and author of Recreating Democracy: Bringing New Life to American Communities, writes that “it may be one of the most significant books published in 2010.” High praise for the work of an author who is virtually unknown." (


Interview by Robert Jensen:

RJ: I assume you are suggesting that there are many different ways to contribute to making a better world.

EL: I spoke recently to a college Philosophical Society about the book. I told them that it seemed to me that to love wisdom, to be philosophical in the truest sense, meant to be to some degree detached from day-to-day events, from immediate things. Not to be disinterested or unaffected, but less buffeted or influenced and consumed by them. One of the reasons I could synthesize so much of what’s going wrong in the world now is that I’ve had time, as well as the calling and inclination, for it. I could stand back, meditate, read, engage in independent research, wait for understanding to come, question conventional assumptions, including my own, and look almost leisurely for the largest context in which we humans live our lives, which would be the context that should guide how we live our lives and deal with the Critical Mass of crises we presently face. Given how caught up I get in other people’s lives, if I’d been busy organizing, protesting, working full tilt and full time, trying to respond to the needs and input of multiple colleagues, I’d have had less mental space and stamina to do that. I’d never arrived at the simple but elemental understanding that Life rules, we don’t.

RJ: Please explain that title. Do you mean that Life -- something bigger than us -- rules? Or that we need to follow Life’s rules?

EL: Yes, both. The largest context -- the largest high-functioning complex system within which we live our lives -- is not the nation, nation-state system or global economic system but Life itself, the whole-earth, emergent and self-maintaining system of natural communities and ecosystems. That system, the ecosphere, teaches us the physical laws, the relationships and behaviors discovered in physics, biology and ecology and exemplified by the so-called “mystical” spiritual teachers, that we have to obey if we want to remain viable as a species. We aren’t the ultimate authority, and none of the systems we’ve created possess ultimate authority. It’s Life that has created the physical conditions that make it possible for us to exist. We depend on Life for our lives. More specifically, we depend on Life as we know it for our lives, for the climate, resources, natural communities, and ecosystems that provide us with what we need to live.

Life has encoded in every other-than-human species a sort of protocol or blueprint of economic rules for survival, a set of behaviors and relationships that allow Life as we know it to live within earth’s means, to be long-term sustainable. In the physical/material realm on this planet, Life calls the shots. Life rules, we don’t. Other species have no choice but to obey those economic rules. We alone have a choice. And lately, as a species living under the influence of a global economy that has, in the vernacular, gone viral, we’ve chosen pridefully and foolishly to break all the rules. The way we live in the present Global Economic Order -- capital G, capital E, capital O -- isn’t sustainable. It’s pathological. It works at cross purposes to everything small g, e and o -- “geo,” everything earthy. In particular, the GEO works at cross purposes to Life.

RJ: That sounds simple, almost simplistic, pointing out that humans live within an ecosphere that is governed physical laws and not limitless. But all around us in the First World is evidence of a society out of balance, apparently seized with the belief that we can defy ecological limits indefinitely.

EL: If you condense the 100,000 years or so that Homo sapiens sapiens, humans like us, have been around into the 24 hours of one day, the Global Economic Order has been in existence for less than a minute. We can live without a GEO, but we can’t live without or apart from Life as we know it. So we have two choices: We can forego our present economic model and choose to learn and obey Life’s economic rules. Or we can choose not to. In which case Life will rule us out, adapt to our trespasses like an apple tree adapting to a lightening strike, and get on with its experiment in creating and sustaining more life just fine without us. Life rules, we don’t.

RJ: You suggest that because of the way the GEO works, we are close to a Critical Mass. What do you mean by that term?

EL: There’s actually a pretty good explanation for the now almost total disconnect between our perception of reality and our actual reality, between our sense as a species of being larger than Life and the inarguable fact that we are dependent on it for our very existence. Actually there are a couple of explanations.

One is money. Since we use money -- or its funny-money kin, such as credit and its ever-funnier-money kin like default swaps -- to acquire the things we need and want, we don’t provide those things for ourselves, we’ve lost track of where the things we need and want actually come from. We have little or no knowledge of the sources of our provisions or the damage done to living systems by the way we acquire them and the amounts of them we acquire. We’ve put our faith in the economy’s ability to deliver what we need to us, so long as we have enough money. Money has come between us and substantial things -- the real goods, resources and ecosystem services that we actually need to live. Money has kept us from seeing the truth of our circumstances, which is that soon there will be insufficient fossil fuels, plastics, clean fresh water, forests, living soil, grains, seafood, congenial and predictable climate, functioning governments. You name it, we’ll run short of it ad infinitum.

Another explanation for our ignorance of the reality of our present circumstances is that most people have never heard of or taken seriously the limiting factor on a finite planet called “carrying capacity” -- the number of a species or a collection of species that an ecosystem can support long-term without suffering damage in excess of what the ecosystem itself can repair. In accounting, exceeding carrying capacity is called going bankrupt. That’s where we’re headed environmentally as well as financially right now. But most of us don’t realize that’s where we are yet because in those previous 23 hours and 59 minutes of human history we’ve either had more places -- more “New Worlds” to move to, conquer and plunder -- or new technologies that would do a better job of plundering the places we were in to provide for us.

We have just recently -- in, say, the last 30 seconds of that last most recent minute of human history -- hit that point in our global economic assault on living things and living systems both human and natural, that there’s no going back. We have just hit what I call Critical Mass, which is the name I’ve given what others are calling collapse, the tipping point, the long emergency, or bottleneck. It’s my name for our previously latent and slowly unfolding, now rapidly worsening planetary equivalent of HIV/AIDS.


The salient point is that Life and only Life can teach us how to live eco-logically, within Earth’s means. If we learn what Life teaches us and create lifeways that mimic Life’s ways, we can survive this round of Critical Mass we’ve induced and manage to avoid inducing it again. Janine Benyus wrote a book called Biomimicry that reported on and inspired a movement to copy, for example, the ways other species and living systems produce what they need sustainably. You could call what I’m suggesting in Life Rules radical or full-bore biomimicry.

RJ: Given how detached most of the contemporary world is from understanding, let alone mimicking, the natural world, is this realistic?

Adopting Life’s rules will require, of course, a huge transformation of the ways we think about our place in the community of living things and the ways we live. My book offers three chapters of examples of what we can do and some communities are already doing, if in a very preliminary way. We’ll need to revise what education is for, what needs to get taught and where, when and how learning needs to occur. I would suggest again that Life is the primary teacher, its economic, production, consumption, relational and organizational rules the curriculum. The particular ecosystems -- the geographic places -- we live in and are presently destroying are the classrooms. And as Post-Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg proposed in Powerdown, the most important and hardest lesson we will need to learn as a species is self-limitation. Where material consumption is concerned, “less is best” will absolutely have to replace “wars for more” as our collective ethical prime directive.

The good news is, if we take our cues from Life, if we decide to transform our ways of living and providing for ourselves, we don’t need governments as we know them or any sort of global agreement or institutions to begin and to succeed. Sustainability is by nature a grassroots undertaking. Both the learning and the mimicking can, and must, be engaged in particular places with the natural and human communities that live in those places. Life’s a collection of local phenomena, a community of communities, as John Cobb and Herman Daly propose in their books, for example, For the Common Good. If we need a goad to transformation, there’s this one: If we don’t choose to transform ourselves and our lifeways, Life will force us to. Life rules, we don’t, and Life will not hesitate to rule harshly and even rule us out.

RJ: Does that mean we have ugly times ahead of us?

While there’s no reason to believe we will engage in this transformation willingly or that there will not be violence on the way to Life-likeness, a lot of communities around the country and in other countries have already begun to explore and experiment with aspects of Life’s Protocol for Economic Survival, though they don’t have my name for it yet. The relocalization, Transition Town, post-carbon,, local currency, slow food, ecozoic and new economics movements, for example, all teach and apply one or more of Life’s lessons. Paul Hawken’s team at the WiserEarth website is creating a data base of information about organizations involved in movements like these. They’ve accounted for around 125,000 and think there may be twice that many. Hawken suggests we think of these organizations and their members as anti-bodies helping healing the planet’s immune system of this AIDS-like, economically induced disease I call Critical Mass. These organizations and movements represent a starting point.

But a viable treatment plan for this virulent, life-threatening, economically-induced syndrome of crises cannot engage in just one or two or even three of the 5Ds, and cannot engage in them scattershot or only to a degree that doesn’t upset business as usual. Eco-logic requires that we incorporate, integrate, and practice all of Life’s rules, that we stop behaving as if we were larger than or apart from Life and become constructive participants in it.

RJ: It seems clear that the kind of change you describe as necessary is not possible within capitalism and that capitalism is a serious impediment to such change. Earlier you said we have to “forego our present economic model,” but not all the movements and experiments you mention are anti-capitalist. How do you negotiate that?

EL: I kept religion, politics, parties, personalities and “ism” analysis pretty much out of the book in order not to allow any of those divisive topics to set up straw figures and distract readers from the central point: By present economic methods and models, we are living beyond earth’s means. I suggest in the book that unregulated, growth-dependent capitalism only appears to succeed because it has been enabled by the mechanisms of globalism to have the whole earth at its disposal and by the machinations of the Powers to make grab-and-get/pillage-and-plunder its operating principles. Once it has been globalized, the one thing a capitalist economy can’t be is not-global. And as a globalized phenomenon, it cannot help but exceed earth’s means of supporting it. It is the globalization of the capitalist -- and, I would add, colonialist -- industrial economy that is doing-in Life as we know it. And as I also suggest in the book, the system is too big not to fail since the resource base -- or, to retrieve my HIV/AIDS analogy, the host planet -- it depends on is finite. When AIDS sufficiently ravages a human patient’s body, the virus dies along with the patient. Consequently, along with ecosystems, species, human and natural communities, human lives, quality of life, and Life as we know it -- the global capitalist economy itself is in its terminal stages.

Taking on capitalism head on would have gotten up the backs of too many potential readers. And while they might waste time arguing the merits of capitalism or arguing the possibility of no-growth capitalism, they cannot successfully argue the merits of a globalized economic system of any kind. Globalized bartering or socialism or communism would equally challenge the earth’s human and natural communities and the biosphere’s functioning. Kirkpatrick Sale and E.F. Schumacher had it right: Scale matters and where sustainability is an issue, which in the matter of human survival it is, small is not only beautiful but self-limiting, survivable, and sustainable.

So, no, not all the movements and examples I mention in the book are anti-capitalist. The measure of an experiment’s success is not that it is anti-capitalist but that it works in harmony with living systems, and in the ways that living systems work. An experiment need not be in and of itself the cure for Critical Mass but is exemplary of one or more elements of Life’s Economic Protocol for Survival, which as I’ve said, would lead us to integrate and obey all of Life’s rules. Doing that would automatically move us away from capitalism as we know it and probably from any conceivable model of capital as an economic end-all and be-all. Provisions themselves are what we need to live, not the funny-money with which we presently purchase them if we are lucky enough to have any." (



Life’s Economic Survival Protocol

The shortest version of the Life Rules:

"Life’s successful (long-lasting and sustainable) economies waste nothing and produce no waste they cannot consume or sequester.

They run directly or indirectly on inexhaustible forms of energy, the foremost of which is solar.

Life’s successful economies are relatively equitable, common good economies.

Life’s basic units of economic activity are locally self-reliant, interdependent, mixed-species communities.

Locally self-reliant natural communities organize, regulate and govern themselves within limits set by their environments and by the needs of the larger communities of which they are a part.

They exchange information and pool intelligence in real time.

They distribute leadership according to task.

In hard times, Life’s successful—long-term sustainable— communities cut back.

Natural communities operate in ways that are inherently—organically—democratic."

Elements of a Lifelike Economic Survival Protocol

A longer version:

"The basic units of sustainable human economic activity are locally and bioregionally self-reliant, interdependent, fully inclusive com-munities.

Truly sustainable, Lifelike communities are communities of place, partnership and purpose like the natural communities in which they are located.

Truly sustainable communities organize, regulate and govern themselves democratically within limits set by their environments and by the needs of the larger economic commons and natural communities of which they are a part. Regional economic coalitions and networks are politically subsidiary to local and bioregional communities except when the activities of any of those communities threaten the well-being or sustainability of the coalitions and networks of which they are a part. Regional economic coalitions and networks are co-operated by participating communities.

Long-term sustainable communities are biocentric: They are embedded in and harmonized with the ecosystems of which they are a part, and partners with or sponsors of natural communities with which they share those ecosystems.

Their economies are resource-based rather than primarily monetary. Their size, scope, content and cycles of production are de-termined a) by the kinds and quantity of resources that are available to them in their bioregion or that can be made available without causing harm to surrounding natural communities and regional ecosystems, and b) by the kind and quality of regional ecosystem services that are available or can be encouraged without damaging those ecosystems.

Truly sustainable communities export only what they have or can produce in abundance without compromising their future well-being or the well-being of the natural communities and ecosystems in which they participate and on which they are aware they depend. To the extent possible, they import what they cannot provide for themselves only from economic communities that export according to the same rules.

They waste nothing (or as little as possible) and produce no waste they cannot find a use for or safely sequester.

Their economies are, to the extent possible, pollution-free, relatively equitable, subsistence, common-good, full-employment economies.

Truly sustainable communities prioritize energy efficiency and run primarily on inexhaustible and renewable sources of energy that are managed locally and regionally and synchronized, to the extent possible, with surrounding energy systems.

They exchange survival information and pool intelligence, particularly economic and ecological intelligence, in real time."

What We Can Do Based on Life's Rules

Six D-grees of Separation from the Global Economy: Triggers for Thinking and Acting Locally

"1) Drop out or drop back, money-wise. We can pull a good deal of our financial and political support from present ineffective systems. We can also create community associations that localize and regionalize food, fiber, energy and jobs production, and education and transportation systems, for example. How? By creating alternative currencies and regional monetary systems that operate as complements to existing systems. Examples abound of communities that have begun this process.

2) Downsize. Natural economies are locally and regionally self-reliant. They are community based. If we consolidated the 100,000 years of modern humans into a 24-hour day, we’ve depended on the global economy for just the last minute of that day. Surely we can learn how not to depend on it, how to bring the scale of our economic activities into harmony with the scale of Life’s economies.

3) Diversify. Investment counselors tell us to do this with our money. We should be doing it with our economies, too. The kinds of things we make and consume need to be as unique and diverse as the places in which those economies are located and the resources available in each place.

4) De-carbonize. Life is a carbon-based energy economy, but the carbons it’s based on are renewable. Renewable energies include solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, human and animal muscle. We can increase efficiency and conservation, create systems that use less energy, and prioritize the use of the last fossil fuels so we don’t have to go cold turkey without heat, electricity, plastics and medicines, for example. De-carbonizing would tend to detoxify most of what we produce, too.

5) De-materialize: Use less of everything. We need to recycle, reuse, and/or repurpose as much as we can. We also need to produce fewer goods that can’t be eaten or used for the good of humans or some other living thing or process. If we take fossil fuels out of the equation, we won’t be making a lot of stuff that isn’t good for us and other living things. Rely on renewables and things that can be restored in biologic time.

6) Democratize: Life built relationships, behaviors, and shapes and methods of organization that are more democratic then we’ve yet imagined into its operating system because they permitted species to live—together—within Earth’s means. Democracy in natural economies is not an option and it’s not about having a higher quantity of material goods; it’s organic and it’s about practicing a higher quality of common good. Democracy in natural communities is a first-order survival technique."

What is Critical Mass?

Ellen LaConte:

"In his 2007 bestseller Blessed Unrest, natural capitalism proponent and best-selling author Paul Hawken observed that one of the reasons most of us have not yet grasped the severity and complexity of the Critical Mass of crises we’re facing is that we haven’t had anything to compare it to. Most of us grasp something new more easily when we see how much it’s like something we’re already familiar with. We like analogies, similes and metaphors. Ostrich meat tastes like chicken, only stronger.

The iPad is comparable to a notebook computer but it’s even more portable and it’s still a cell phone. Et cetera.

In the same book, Hawken provided the key that opened my mind to an analogy I believe explains our mega-crisis and points the way to what’s caused it.

Referring to the “Gaia hypothesis,” (Sir James Lovelock’s seminal insight that Life on Earth works in ways that are similar to the way an organism like our body works) Hawken wrote that “If we accept that the metaphor of an organism can be applied to humankind [too], we can imagine a collective movement that would protect, repair, and restore that [planetary] organism’s capacity to endure when threatened,” as it presently is. Hawken proposes that such a movement—of individuals working through non-governmental organizations—would “function like an immune system” and the individuals and organizations in the movement could be thought of as antibodies.

That’s it! I thought. A threatened immune system, antibodies. . . That’s why we’re exceeding Earth’s capacity to support Life as we know it.

Critical Mass is the Earth’s equivalent of AIDS.

This insight became more compelling the longer I considered it.

Scattered around the world just as the diverse parts of the immune system are scattered throughout our bodies, Earth’s diverse natural communities and ecosystems have in the past worked together to provide the same sort of protective, defensive and healing services for Life as a whole that our immune systems provide for us. That’s what James Lovelock and others have meant when they’ve said that Life learned how to create and maintain the conditions in which it can continue to exist on Earth despite challenges like ice ages and asteroid collisions. Life evolved its own version of an immune system. And our activities are threatening to undermine it.

But, if we’re the ones who are compromising Earth’s immune system, why haven’t we hit global Critical Mass sooner? It’s not because we used to be more virtuous, intelligent or wise. We just didn’t have the tools for whole-planet conquering.

For the past 30,000 to 40,000 years, whenever we’ve arrived on a new continent, we’ve killed and eaten enough of the largest, slowest mammals we found there to render them extinct within a few thousand years. Their disappearance changed the make up of ecosystems everywhere we went to the extent that the phenomenon has a name: the Pleistocene Overkill. But mega-fauna (large animal) overkill was the only widespread destruction we were capable of back then and it happened one region and continent at a time over thousands of years. And after we’d wiped out the mega-fauna, we settled into our new locations.

New ecosystems arose around us and settled in, too. We wreaked very little additional havoc until the first civilizations arose around 6,000 years ago. Most indigenous (native) peoples have continued to fit themselves into their natural surroundings.

Civilizations, on the other hand, have always compromised the health and the healing functions of natural and human communities that were within their reach. They have always induced regional Critical Mass. But for most of the historic period, the larger planetary immune system (the majority of natural communities and ecosystems, which no civilization had yet compromised) was still intact and functioning. Compromised regional ecosystems eventually recovered and new ones, adapted to civilizations’ trespasses, arose. New, smaller-scale, less excessive human communities developed with them after the offending civilizations collapsed, and for a while these smaller communities live within Earth’s means.

We have only been technologically sophisticated enough to exceed the whole Earth’s capacity to support us and to undermine the function of all of Earth’s natural and human communities—the whole planet’s immune system—for the past one hundred, fossil-fueled, globally industrialized years. And that’s just what we’ve done. Put simply, then, Critical Mass is attacking Earth’s immune system— the methods Life has evolved over four billion years to protect and heal itself—in the same way that AIDS attacks the human immune system—the methods Life evolved over several million years to protect and heal our bodies.

Critical Mass poses the same sort of risk to human survival and Life as we know it that AIDS poses to the lives of the people it infects. If it is allowed to run its course, Critical Mass will lead to a protracted and profoundly unpleasant demise for all but the hardiest, most adaptable forms of life."


David Braden:

"Life is built up from individual interactions that produce the flows that constitute the system. Every living thing needs every thing it needs to survive within the range of its ability to interact with the system. It is that set of interactions, within each locality, that constitutes the habitat that we experience. Humans have expanded our 'ability to interact with the system' to include the entire planet. However, certain aspects of that expansion leave human systems vulnerable, such as the need for money to have that kind of range, the reliance on cheap fossil fuels to achieve that range, reliance on a market system that has no use for nearly half of the human population, and the loss of an understanding of the importance of local interactions (or the interactions in a hand full of soil).

Lest we forget, humans are also animals with a genetic make up. We are social animals who evolved in relatively small groups. We are capable of participating in large organizations but, beyond a certain size, organizational decision making becomes inefficient whether we use a top down hierarchy or a democratic process. Research on the genetic basis for the efficiency of small groups has been done by Dunbar, and others, resulting a concept called Dunbar's number. [1]

That research indicates that there is a limit to the number of people for whom we can feel empathy. Within a group that does not exceed that number, there is no need for a lot of rules because we are genetically disposed to work together for the common good. That number appears to be somewhere between 100 and 230 . . . the size of a neighborhood. It is also within this local sphere where we can come to understand our relationship to the plants and creatures that participate in the creation of our habitat . . . who do not have planetary range. It is my thought that, if we focus on building new bridges within the context of that 'locality', we begin to change the world from the bottom up.

For the purposes of the rules humans need at the neighborhood level I have proposed these three simple rules:

1. Everyone gets to make their own decisions,

2. What ever we do is open to all residents, and

3. We measure progress by the diversity of the people, plants and creatures participating."

More Information

  1. Audio interview of the author by Ken Rose, ;