From Dominant Species To Participant Species

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James Quilligan:

“One of the world's great paradoxes is that our economies can only grow by getting people to consume beyond their real needs. Here's the problem: by stimulating the economic demand of our expanding population, we overuse the planet’s fixed amount of non-renewable resources without adequately replenishing Earth's renewable resources. Then we rationalize these disparities through free-market ideology. We say that "since humans are an intelligent species with vast scientific insight and technical skills, we would never harm civilization by creating perilous imbalances within society or nature. This is why we use a market economy because it is self-adjusting and avoids any misallocation of resources". Yet these 'intelligent algorithms' that propel our economic systems are not naturally correcting, as evidenced by widespread poverty and ecological degradation.

While biology shows that no population can live beyond its ecosystem, society ignores this natural law. Through free trade, our national economies buy, borrow and steal from other life-support systems, which means we are all drawing from the greater life-support system of Earth. Capitalism was not designed to value resources at their future worth. Instead, it measures resources by their extraction, production and labor costs and the price at which their products sell in the market -- all based on supplying today's demand.

Today, the fundamental algorithms of modern economics, use value and exchange value, are driven more by what people want than what they need. This has created a growing deficit in our preparedness, integration and resilience as a society, which impedes our allocation of resources to those in need while destroying our environment. Nonetheless, these algorithms are essential in expressing the dynamic forces of freedom and equality in human society. Use value generates our engagement with others through the practical utilization of resources, and exchange value generates trust among people in the marketplace. What is vitally missing is the interdependent practice of social cooperation by every individual and the culture of mutual caring and solidarity that this generates.

We also recognize the critical importance of education and technology in supporting cooperative culture. Yet this is not enough to transform the modern economy. Industrial civilization may have learned to increase economic efficiency by lowering the inputs of production and slowing the rate at which we use resources to produce each unit of what we want. But as long as human consumption continues to generate poverty, waste and debt, today's market-driven systems of education and technology will not change human behavior or drive evolutionary change. In the decades ahead, societies must learn to practice ways of life that are more in harmony with nature and can provide our sustenance through technologies that are designed for the rational and sustainable use of resources.

What will solve this baffling equation is a new software of the mind. We need a code that shifts human understanding of ourselves, our behavior and our evolutionary role as a 'dominant species' to that of a 'participant species' in a complex ecosystem. We need to tell the story of where we come from, our purpose for being here and how we shall survive and thrive in this fragile environment. Without this new history of who we are, civilization will slowly collapse. Indeed, we are now in a period of decline, which is why we need a narrative about the self-sufficient use of the resources common to all people. This story is just as vital for the nourishment of the human race as our air, water, food and energy.

Sustainability involves more than our current availability or access to resources. Given our growing economic and ecological deficits, humanity must look far ahead to how people’s future needs will be met. We have barely recognized that our shared commons cannot belong to one generation more than another, or how the mounting costs of our damage to Earth will be paid by those who were not responsible for this destruction. “ (newsletter,

More information

Resource Democracy

    • Resource Democracy


Self-Reliance through Self-Governance

James Quilligan:

The world is self-ordering through natural evolution, which means that people co-evolve with nature. Unlike the self-regulating cycles in the human body and the natural world, however, the economic formula of supply and demand is mistaken for a self-evolving principle. Little wonder the world seems so disjointed. Our 'self-organizing' free market is a crude approximation of a dynamically balanced ecosystem because supply does not account for the planetary limits of non-renewable resources and demand does not represent real human needs. The old story, ‘supply creates its own demand’, which favors the market value of resources over the basic needs of our population, has driven humanity to deplete Earth's natural resources and generate massive social and ecological debt. Our next story, ‘need measured is need met’, must focus on how effectively the resources available within an ecosystem are distributed to those who need them, creating resource self-reliance (or self-sufficiency) within every eco-region on the planet.

Because human beings co-evolve with the natural world, our communities must be self-governing. Self-governance applies at all levels of human life, from family, neighborhood and community to district, nation and planet. We are focusing on a unit of self-reliance which underlies and links all of these: the bioregion, where natural regeneration and restoration occur. This requires a belief system that is based on the necessity of sustaining life on the planet. Within every bioregional unit, this new socio-economic, ecological and cultural planning must be based on carrying capacity and distributed value. (Carrying capacity is the potential level of resources which an ecology can sustain to meet the needs of its population. Distributed value is the actual percentage of the population in a region whose needs are effectively met by the goods produced and distributed there.)

Democracy is the only form of government that can create ecological sustainability because it is based on a succession of power across generations of elected leaders, making political cooperation sustainable through agreement. In modern democracies, however, a top-down system of authority has resisted human co-evolution with nature and ignored the possibilities of self-sufficiency through social cooperation. This is why we must work with elected officials who control our access and use of resources. If we don't do this, these politicians will continue to expand the market consumption and waste of necessities like food, water and energy. We must show our leaders why it is not necessary to exploit the natural resources of others outside our region when we can sustain our population through community management of the resources in the place where we live.

In this era of climate emergency, pandemic and recession, self-governance means prioritizing human life and well-being through agreements to conserve our non-renewable resources and generate more renewable resources. This is why representative democracy is not enough: participatory democracy is also part of our social responsibility. We must influence our elected representatives to shift decision-making power from corporate managers and shareholders to community stakeholders, including workers, customers, suppliers, neighbors and the public. Local groups must take an active role in decisions to pool their resources through a mutual system of public services, modeling the planning and policies of their political districts after the ecosystems in which they are situated.

This decentralized approach requires a collective change of heart and mind. It also requires a structural change in the financial value that is added at each stage of our economic process through the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, waste and recycling of our resources. By taxing the value that we take from an ecosystem — rather than the value added — society will create a self-ordering, self-reliant economy through its own self-governance. How? First, our common resources must be owned and managed by community or regional trusts that are directly accountable to the public. Second, political decisions on the sustainability and provisioning of each resource will be made by these trusts, which have the authority to lease some of the rights for these commons to small businesses. Third, each business profits from the production of the resource and pays a tax to government, which is recirculated to citizens as credits, dividends or subsistence income. Finally, the trust spends its leasing income on the maintenance of sustainable commons and the replenishment of depleted commons.

Changing our economies from value-added to value-replenished will generate self-sufficiency for the people in every bioregion. Each ecodistrict will take a constant inventory of its resources and production and match these assets with the distribution required to meet the basic needs of its population. Yet this strategic cooperation for self-sufficiency becomes sustainable only when this practice extends across time and into the future. Thus, the goal of democratic self-governance for our commons is to meet the needs of all people in the present while making Earth habitable for future generations. A plan for self-sufficiency today is the next step in honoring the rights of citizens tomorrow.”


More information

Sustainable Economics