About the Author

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urban activist and writer. In 1962, she chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, helping prevent the expressway from being built. She helped block the Lower Manhattan Expressway again in 1968, and was arrested during a demonstration. In part due to her anti-Vietnam stance, that same year Jacobs moved to Toronto, where she would remain. There she helped stop the Spadina Expressway, and influenced the successful regeneration of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. Her books include The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Systems of Survival, The Nature of Economics, and Dark Age Ahead. A Canadian citizen from 1974, she was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996.

Books by this Author
Dark Age Ahead


The Hazard

This is both a gloomy and a hopeful book.

The subject itself is gloomy. A Dark Age is a culture's dead end. We in North America and Western Europe, enjoying the many benefits of the culture conventionally known as the West, customarily think of a Dark Age as happening once, long ago, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. But in North America we live in a graveyard of lost aboriginal cultures, many of which were decisively finished off by mass amnesia in which even the memory of what was lost was also lost. Throughout the world Dark Ages have scrawled finis to successions of cultures receding far into the past. Whatever happened to the culture whose people produced the splendid Lascaux cave paintings some seventeen thousand years ago, in what is now southwestern France? Or the culture of the builders of ambitious stone and wood henges in Western Europe before the Celts arrived with their Iron Age technology and intricately knotted art?

Mass amnesia, striking as it is and seemingly weird, is the least mysterious of Dark Age phenomena. We all understand the harsh principle Use it or lose it. A failing or conquered culture can spiral down into a long decline, as has happened in most empires after their relatively short heydays of astonishing success. But in extreme cases, failing or conquered cultures can be genuinely lost, never to emerge again as living ways of being. The salient mystery of Dark Ages sets the stage for mass amnesia. People living in vigorous cultures typically treasure those cultures and resist any threat to them. How and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?

This is a question that has practical importance for us here in North America, and possibly in Western Europe as well. Dark Ages are instructive, precisely because they are extreme examples of cultural collapse and thus more clear-cut and vivid than gradual decay. The purpose of this book is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end, by understanding how such a tragedy comes about, and thereby what can be done to ward it off and thus retain and further develop our living, functioning culture, which contains so much of value, so hard won by our forebears. We need this awareness because, as I plan to explain, we show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age.

Surely, the threat of losing all we have achieved, everything that makes us the vigorous society we are, cannot apply to us! How could it possibly happen to us? We have books, magnificent storehouses of knowledge about our culture; we have pictures, both still and moving, and oceans of other cultural information that every day wash through the Internet, the daily press, scholarly journals, the careful catalogs of museum exhibitions, the reports compiled by government bureaucracies on every subject from judicial decisions to regulations for earthquake-resistant buildings, and, of course, time capsules.

Dark Ages, surely, are pre-printing and pre-World Wide Web phenomena. Even the Roman classical world was skimpily documented in comparison with our times. With all our information, how could our culture be lost? Or even almost lost? Don't we have it as well preserved as last season's peach crop, ready to nourish our descendants if need be?

Writing, printing, and the Internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture. Most of the million details of a complex, living culture are transmitted neither in writing nor pictorially. Instead, cultures live through word of mouth and example. That is why we have cooking classes and cooking demonstrations, as well as cookbooks. That is why we have apprenticeships, internships, student tours, and on-the-job training as well as manuals and textbooks. Every culture takes pains to educate its young so that they, in their turn, can practice and transmit it completely. Educators and mentors, whether they are parents, elders, or schoolmasters, use books and videos if they have them, but they also speak, and when they are most effective, as teachers, parents, or mentors, they also serve as examples.

As recipients of culture, as well as its producers, people attend to countless nuances that are assimilated only through experience. Men, women, and children in Holland conduct themselves differently from men, women, and children in England, even though both share the culture of the West, and very differently from their counterparts in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Singapore. Travel writers, novelists, visual artists, and photographers draw attention to subtle, everyday differences in conduct rooted in experience, including the experience of differing cultural histories, but their glosses are unavoidably sketchy, compared with the experience of living a culture, soaking it up by example and word of mouth.

Another thing: a living culture is forever changing, without losing itself as a framework and context of change. The reconstruction of a culture is not the same as its restoration. In the fifteenth century, scholars and antiquarians set about reconstructing the lost classical culture of Greece and Rome from that culture's writing and artifacts. Their work was useful and remains so to this day; Western Europeans relearned their cultural derivations from it. But Europeans also plunged, beginning in the fifteenth century, into the post-Renaissance crises of the Enlightenment. Profoundly disturbing new knowledge entered a fundamentalist and feudal framework so unprepared to receive it that some scientists were excommunicated and their findings rejected by an establishment that had managed to accept reconstructed classicism--and used it to refute newer knowledge. Copernicus's stunning proofs forced educated people to realize that the earth is not the center of the universe, as reconstructed classical culture would have it. This and other discoveries, especially in the basic sciences of chemistry and physics, pitted the creative culture of the Enlightenment against the reconstructed culture of the Renaissance, which soon stood, ironically, as a barrier to cultural development of the West--a barrier formed by canned and preserved knowledge of kinds which we erroneously may imagine can save us from future decline or forgetfulness.

Dark Ages are horrible ordeals, incomparably worse than the temporary amnesia sometimes experienced by stunned survivors of earthquakes, battles, or bombing firestorms who abandon customary routines while they search for other survivors, grieve, and grapple with their own urgent needs, and who may forget the horrors they have witnessed, or try to. But later on, life for survivors continues for the most part as before, after having been suspended for the emergency.

During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed. Henri Pirenne, a great twentieth-century Belgian economic and social historian, says that the famous Dark Age which followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire reached its nadir some six centuries later, about 1000 c.e. Here, sketched by two French historians, is the predicament of French peasantry in that year:

The peasants...are half starved. The effects of chronic malnourishment are conspicuous in the skeletons exhumed....The chafing of the teeth...indicates a grass-eating people, rickets, and an overwhelming preponderance of people who died young....Even for the minority that survived infancy, the average life span did not exceed the age of forty....Periodically the lack of food grows worse. For a year or two there will be a great famine; the chroniclers described the graphic and horrible episodes of this catastrophe, complacently and rather excessively conjuring up people who eat dirt and sell human skin....There is little or no metal; iron is reserved for weapons.

So much had been forgotten in the forgetful centuries: the Romans' use of legumes in crop rotation to restore the soil; how to mine and smelt iron and make and transport picks for miners, and hammers and anvils for smiths; how to harvest honey from hollow-tile hives doubling as garden fences. In districts where even slaves had been well clothed, most people wore filthy rags.

Some three centuries after the Roman collapse, bubonic plague, hitherto unknown in Europe, crept in from North Africa, where it was endemic, and exploded into the first of many European bubonic plague epidemics. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, conventionally depicted as Famine, War, Pestilence, and Death, had already been joined by a fifth demonic horseman, Forgetfulness.

A Dark Age is not merely a collection of subtractions. It is not a blank; much is added to fill the vacuum. But the additions break from the past and themselves reinforce a loss of the past. In Europe, languages that derived from formerly widely understood Latin diverged and became mutually incomprehensible. Everyday customs, rituals, and decorations diverged as old ones were lost; ethnic awarenesses came to the fore, often antagonistically; the embryos of nation-states were forming.

Citizenship gave way to serfdom; old Roman cities and towns were largely deserted and their underpopulated remnants sank into poverty and squalor; their former amenities, such as public baths and theatrical performances, became not even a memory. Gladiatorial battles and hungry wild animals unleashed upon prisoners were forgotten, too, but here and there, in backwaters, the memory of combat between a man on foot and a bull was retained because it was practiced. Diets changed, with gruel displacing bread, and salt fish and wild fowl almost displacing domesticated meat. Rules of inheritance and property holding changed. The composition of households changed drastically with conversion of Rome's traditional family-sized farms to feudal estates. Methods of warfare and ostensible reasons for warfare changed as the state and its laws gave way to exactions and oppressions by warlords.

Writers disappeared, along with readers and literacy, as schooling became rare. Religion changed as Christianity, formerly an obscure cult among hundreds of obscure cults, won enough adherents to become dominant and to be accepted as the state religion by Constantine, emperor of the still intact Eastern Roman Empire, and then, also as the state religion, in territorial remnants of the vanished Western Empire. The very definitions of virtue and the meaning of life changed. In Western Christendom, sexuality became highly suspect.

In sum, during the time of mass amnesia, not only was most classical culture forgotten, and what remained coarsened; but also, Western Europe underwent the most radical and thoroughgoing revolution in its recorded history--a political, economic, social, and ideological revolution that was unexamined and even largely unnoticed, as such, while it was under way. In the last desperate years before Western Rome's collapse, local governments had been expunged by imperial decree and were replaced by a centralized military despotism, not a workable organ for governmental judgments and reflections.

Similar phenomena are to be found in the obscure Dark Ages that bring defeated aboriginal cultures to a close. Many subtractions combine to erase a previous way of life, and everything changes as a richer past converts to a meager present and an alien future. During the conquest of North America by Europeans, an estimated twenty million aboriginals succumbed to imported diseases, warfare, and displacement from lands on which they and their hundreds of different cultures depended.

Their first response to the jolts of European invasion was to try to adapt familiar ways of life to the strange new circumstances. Some groups that had been accustomed to trading with one another, for example, forged seemingly workable trade links with the invaders. But after more conquerors crowded in, remnants of aboriginal survivors were herded into isolated reservations. Adaptations of the old cultures became impossible and thus no longer relevant; so, piece by piece, the old cultures were shed. Some pieces were relinquished voluntarily in emulation of the conquerors, or surrendered for the sake of the invaders' alcohol, guns, and flour; most slipped away from disuse and forgetfulness.

As in Europe after Rome's collapse, everything changed for aboriginal survivors during the forgetful years: education of children; religions and rituals; the composition of households and societies; food; clothing; habitations; recreations; laws and recognized systems of ownership and land use; concepts of justice, dignity, shame, esteem. Languages changed, with many becoming extinct; crafts, skills--everything was gone. In sum, the lives of aboriginals had been revolutionized, mostly by outside forces but also, to a very minor extent, from within.

In the late twentieth century, as some survivors gradually became conscious of how much had been lost, they began behaving much like the scholarly pioneers of the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance who searched for relics of classical Greek and Roman culture. Cree and Cherokee, Navajo and Haida groped for fragments of lost information by searching out old records and artifacts dispersed in their conquerors' museums and private collections. Jeered at by an uncomprehending white public of cultural winners, they began impolitely demanding the return of ancestral articles of clothing and decoration, of musical instruments, of masks, even of the bones of their dead, in attempts to retrieve what their peoples and cultures had been like before their lives were transformed by mass amnesia and unsought revolution.

When the abyss of lost memory by a people becomes too deep and too old, attempts to plumb it are futile. The Ainu, Caucasian aborigines of Japan, have a known modern history similar in some ways to that of North American aboriginals. Centuries before the European invasion of North America, the Ainu lost their foraging territories to invading ancestors of the modern Japanese. Surviving remnants of Ainu were settled in isolated reservations, most on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, where they still live. The Ainu remain a mysterious people, to themselves as well as to others. Physical characteristics proclaim their European ancestry; they may be related to Norse peoples. But where in Europe they came from can only be conjectured. They retain no information about their locations or cultures there, nor by what route they reached Japan, nor why they traveled there.

Cultures that triumphed in unequal contests between conquering invaders and their victims have been meticulously analyzed by a brilliant twenty-first-century historian and scientist, Jared Diamond, who has explained his analyses in a splendidly accessible book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. He writes that he began his exploration with a question put to him by a youth in New Guinea, asking why Europeans and Americans were successful and rich. The advantages that Diamond explored and the patterns he traces illuminate all instances of cultural wipeout.

Diamond argues persuasively that the difference between conquering and victim cultures is not owing to genetic discrepancies in intelligence or other inborn personal abilities among peoples, as racists persist in believing. He holds that, apart from variations in resistance to various diseases, the fates of cultures are not genetically influenced, let alone determined. But, he writes, successful invaders and conquerors have historically possessed certain crucial advantages conferred on them long ago by the luck of what he calls biogeography. The cultural ancestors of winners, he says, got head starts as outstandingly productive farmers and herders, producing ample and varied foods that could support large and dense populations.

Large and dense populations--in a word, cities--were able to support individuals and institutions engaged in activities other than direct food production. For example, such societies could support specialists in tool manufacturing, pottery making, boatbuilding, and barter, could organize and enforce legal codes, and could create priesthoods for celebrating and spreading religions, specialists for keeping accounts, and armed forces for defense and aggression.

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The Lost Massey Lectures

The Lost Massey Lectures

Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers
also available: eBook
tagged : essays
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The Nature of Economies

From Chapter One: Damn, Another Ecologist

"Hortense and Ben have broken up," said Armbruster, waving a fax at Kate as she slid into the booth, balancing her cup of coffee.

"I'm sorry but not surprised," said Kate. "Remember how Ben used to gloat over industrial disasters? He thought everything industrial or technological was unnatural and that everything unnatural was bad."

"He meant well," Armbruster said. "We need Jeremiahs, but it must have been depressing for Hortense to live with one. It seems the breakup happened some time ago and she's gotten over it. She's interested in a new man. Mind if I finish this fax? I only got it as I was leaving the house."

In late morning they were sitting in an almost-empty coffee shop on lower Fifth Avenue, not far from Armbruster's Gramercy Square apartment. It was an unappealing restaurant in a stretch of New York rapidly going upscale. Armbruster liked it as his morning hangout because its well-deserved unpopularity guaranteed seats for acquaintances dropping by. He lived alone, and since his retirement from a small book publishing company, he missed his work and its daily give-and-take with colleagues.

"Damn, Hortense has found another ecologist," Armbruster grumbled as he continued reading the fax.

"That's not surprising, either," said Kate. "She's an environmental lawyer, so those are the people she talks to, consorts with. Those and other lawyers."

"But listen to this: His name is Hiram Murray IV. The Fourth! What an affectation."

"He's not to blame if his family ran out of names."

"You drop off the numbers when they die. I dropped off my Junior when my father died. Only kings and popes hang on to numbers."

"Maybe the other three are still alive—you don't know."

"Let's see," Armbruster mused aloud. "Number two would be his grandfather, and number one—" His eyes widened, exaggerating his customary owlish expression. "Good heavens, Hortense is fifty. You don't suppose—"

"No, I don't think Hortense is running around with a kid. Read on."

"Well, well, she's planning to come back from California," Armbruster read on. "He has a house in Hoboken. What's an ecologist doing in Hoboken? She says I'll like him and she's bringing him over a week from Thursday unless she hears otherwise, and so on."

"May I come too?" Kate asked. "It'll be wonderful to see Hortense again. And remember, Armbruster, I'm a fringe ecologist myself."

When Kate was denied tenure a few years previously in the biology department of the Long Island university where she taught and did neurobiological research, she found a job on a prospering science newsweekly, partly on the strength of her editing experience on Systems of Survival, a dialogue she and Armbruster had put together from conversations and reports by a little group Armbruster had got up to explore the different moral systems appropriate to different kinds of workers—such as police, legislators, clergy, and others holding positions of public trust, on the one hand, and manufacturers, bankers, merchants, and others in commercial pursuits, on the other. Hortense, who was Armbruster's niece, had been one of the group. During her first several months in her unfamiliar work on the weekly, Kate had frequently asked Armbruster for help and advice with her editing. After she no longer needed his guidance, she continued to drop in on him from time to time out of friendship.

A week from the following Thursday, at Armbruster's small apartment—crowded with books and signed photographs of authors on walls and tabletops—Hortense and Kate greeted each other affectionately and Hortense introduced Hiram. At tedious faculty meetings, Kate had learned to pass the time by imagining childhood versions of her colleagues' faces. Now, in Hiram, she saw a well-brought-up, thin-faced, eager boy grown into a good tweed suit and a receding hairline, his eagerness still intact.
As Hortense sat down on the sofa, Hiram remained standing, distractedly patting his jacket pockets. Kate glanced around the room in puzzlement. "Did you lose something, or mislay it?" she asked him.

"No, why—oh." He dropped his hands and smiled sheepishly. "I quit smoking five weeks and four days ago, and I still keep hunting for a cigarette." Hortense, Armbruster, and Kate, reformed smokers all, smiled sympathetically and Hortense patted his hand as he sat down beside her.

Knowing that Armbruster would be itching to deal with Hiram's dynastic pretensions, as soon as they were settled with drinks Kate remarked offhandedly to Hiram, "That Four after your name is unusual. Not unheard-of, of course, but unusual."

Hiram made room between a book and a photograph on an end table and set down his drink. "My father's a splendid old man, but he insists on being Three, so I have to be Four. He's an economist and he would've liked me to be an economist, too, but after a try I dropped it for environmental studies. Most people I knew—this was thirty years ago—thought that it was like majoring in canoeing or bird-watching, but Pop took what I was doing seriously. I just mention this to show how minor his crotchet about the numbers is. 'Live and let live' runs both ways. But I did draw a line. My own son is named Joel."

"What do you do as an ecologist?" asked Armbruster. "Rally people around to save the woods and punish polluters?" Hortense and Kate exchanged glances, as if to acknowledge Armbruster's implicit, not very kindly, reference to Ben.

"No, although saving forests and reducing pollution are important. I'm a fund-raiser and facilitator. Specifically, I give organizational advice and help find grants for people— scientists—most of whom are trying to develop products and production methods learned from nature. Biomimicry, that approach is called. There's a book about it by that name. I'll get you a copy if you're interested. Two copies," he added, turning to Kate.

"Oh, I have it. I reviewed it," said Kate. "It's a good book, Armbruster. Broadly speaking, the aims are to make better materials than we manufacture now, but to make them at life-friendly temperatures and without toxic ingredients, like the filaments spiders make or the shell material abalones construct, for instance. Ideally, by imitating the chemistry of nature, we should be able to make materials and products by methods that are benign and, at the end of their lives as products, return them to earth or sea to degrade benignly."

"So many other possibilities are being explored," said Hortense. "Think of the energy, soil, artificial fertilizer, and chemicals such as weed killers that could be saved if grain fields didn't require annual plowing or planting—if wheat or rye could grow like perennial grasses in prairies. All green plants capture sunlight, but it's a puzzle and wonder how duckweed captures sunlight so effectively and uses it so efficiently. That's worth learning from. You get the idea, Armbruster?"

"Interesting," Armbruster replied, "but it sounds like just another way for us to exploit nature—trying to get out of technological messes with more technological messes."

Kate suppressed a snicker at Armbruster's mischievous adoption of Ben's persona and glanced at Hortense to catch her reaction. Hortense, who usually remained cool and elegant under provocation, uncharacteristically bristled. "No! This isn't exploiting nature! It's learning from nature, with the object of undoing damage and getting along with nature more harmoniously. Biomimics are the last people deserving thoughtless dismissal, Armbruster. You have no idea how difficult these puzzles are, how hard and complicated it is to learn the way prairies manage to replenish themselves year after year. What's gotten into you? You didn't use to be so negative and glib. You sound like Ben!"

"Just curious. You've put me in my place. But if these endeavors are so difficult, they may not be practical."

When neither Hortense nor Kate replied, Hiram spoke up again, rubbing his forehead thoughtfully. "Biomimicry is a form of economic development. So caring about biomimicry requires caring about economic development—hoping it continues vigorously. Otherwise, we can't hope for better products and safer methods. How else can we get them? Thinking about development has made me realize how similar economies and ecosystems are. That's to say, principles at work in the two are identical. I don't expect you to believe this just because I say so, but I'm convinced that universal natural principles limit what we can do economically and how we can do it. Trying to evade overriding principles of development is economically futile. But those principles are solid foundations for economies. My personal biomimicry project is to learn economics from nature."

"Bravo!" said Armbruster, sensing a book in the making. His eyes shifted to the tape recorder on a shelf.

"Uh-uh, Armbruster," said Hortense. "No symposium; no reports. Not again. Can't we have a conversation without that recorder? Can't we just talk? Can't you forget about trying to produce a book? There are so many other interesting things you could do, now that you have time." Kate caught Hortense's eye and, waggling her eyebrows, signaled to Hortense to pipe down.

"Producing a book never crossed my mind," Armbruster lied. "But it did cross my mind that I'd like a tape. Economic development interests me, too. What harm?"

"I don't mind if Kate and Hortense don't," said Hiram. He finished the last of his drink and set down his glass, with a questioning smile directed first to Hortense, then to Kate.

Hortense shrugged and Kate grinned while Armbruster moved his machine to the coffee table, pushed the record button, nodded to Hiram, and said, "What did you mean about learning economics from nature? Economies are human, not natural. They're artificial, with the possible exception of primitive foraging."

"A common assumption, and one can see why," said Hiram. "After all, only human beings employ smart, educated border collies to herd sheep. Only human beings build hospitals and operate on cleft palates, or wrap snacks in plastic, or issue credit cards and send monthly bills. We differ from other creatures in the ways we make our living, but different doesn't necessarily mean artificial. We don't call bees' activities artificial because they manufacture honey, nor beavers' because they log and build dams, nor seahorses' because the males hatch and nurture the young. We don't call sunflowers artificial because they're so much taller than daisies. Our own manual dexterity and brains are created by nature. What we can do with those assets comes to us as naturally as the ability to spin webs and to sting netted prey comes to spiders."

"Not so fast," said Armbruster. "I didn't mean we're biologically artificial but that we create artificial things and impose them on the world of nature. We make artificial leather, artificial turf for stadiums, artificial teeth, artificial ice, and so on. How can you say human beings don't have artificial economies?"
"Armbruster, that's like accusing spiders of artificiality because they're spinning something other than cotton, flax, silk, wool, or hemp fibers," said Kate. "Please relax and let's listen before we argue."

"If we stop focusing on things," said Hiram, "and shift attention to the processes that generate the things, distinctions between nature and economy blur. That's not a new idea. Early ecologists were quick to see—"

"Who were the early ecologists?" asked Armbruster.

"Botanists who became interested in plant communities—groups of plant species whose interdependence seemed so similar to economic relationships that the naturalists coined a new word for natural communities of organisms and based it directly on the word economy. That was late in the nineteenth century."

"Wait!" said Armbruster, darting to his unabridged dictionary. "Aha, economy is derived from two Greek roots—oiko, meaning 'house,' and nomy, meaning 'management': house management. Ecology comes from the same root for 'house,' plus the root logy for 'logic' or 'knowledge.' So ecology literally means 'house knowledge.' Now, that's strange, isn't it? Bio, meaning 'life,' and nomy, 'management'—bionomy, 'life management,' would have been more to the point. Victorian scholars were well grounded in Greek. Odd that they embraced jargon as imprecise as ecology."

"Not odd when you realize they thought of ecology as 'the economy of nature,' " said Hiram, "a definition still in currency. The very sound of their new word tagged it as the twin of economy. That was their point, regardless of literal meaning. They were studying the economy of nature. I'm studying the nature of economy. Same affinity, glimpsed from an opposite angle.

"Natural processes obviously aren't founded on human behavior," Hiram continued. "Instead, nature affords foundations for human life and sets its possibilities and limits. Economists seem not to have grasped this reality yet. But many people engaged in various economic activities do realize it's important to learn from nature and apply the knowledge to what they do. For instance, modern metallurgists can observe the changes that take place in lattices of metallic crystals owing to temperature variations and alloy combinations—information old smiths had no access to, because they didn't have X-ray crystallography. Architects and engineers accept the reality of natural forces
of tension and compression and the help of tables of properties of construction materials. Wine makers, cheese makers, and bakers grasp and value their cooperative relationships with yeasts and bacteria; sanitary engineers, physicians, and organic farmers have learned to do the same and are still learning.

"In sum," he went on, "all kinds of people now understand that their success depends on working knowledgeably along with natural processes and principles, and respecting those processes and principles. That's very different from supposing that success depends on lore handed down from supernatural sources or on blind trial and error—and diametrically different from supposing that human beings are exempt from nature's dictates or that they are masters of nature.

"To repeat, I'm convinced that economic life is ruled by processes and principles we didn't invent and can't transcend, whether we like that or not, and that the more we learn of these processes and the better we respect them, the better our economies will get along."

"That sounds pretty pessimistic," said Armbruster. "Here we are, already loaded up withgovernment regulations. And now you want to compile still more lists of economic rules and regulations decreed by nature?"

"Limits are part of it," replied Hiram. "Awareness of them can prevent futility. Alchemists did better after they gave up trying to turn base metals into gold and to discover a universal solvent and instead applied themselves to studying chemistry. But here's what interests me most: Natural principles of chemistry, mechanics, and biology are not merely limits. They're invitations to work along with them.

"I think it's the same with economics. Working along with natural principles of development, expansion, sustainability, and correction, people can create economies that are more reliably prosperous than those we have now and that are also more harmonious with the rest of nature."

"I'm glad to hear you say 'the rest of nature,' " said Kate. "If it's actually true that natural processes rule human economic life—or could if we'd let them—it follows that we're an integral part of the natural world instead of its mere disturbers and destroyers."

"That's not necessarily a reassuring thought," said Hortense. "Plenty of other animal species have naturally gone extinct, along with their practices, whatever they were—you know that, Kate. Nothing is more unforgiving of error than nature. If we poison our own water and air with hormone-mimicking chemicals that we don't understand, it isn't reassuring to realize that nature's solution for maladaptations is extinction."

Armbruster cut short the potentially interesting point Hortense had raised. "Before we move on to anything else," he said, "I'd like to mention a few subjects that I consider economic fundamentals. You haven't said one word about money. But economics is first and foremost about money. What does nature say about money?"

"Nature says money is a feedback-carrying medium," Hiram replied. "Money is useful to economic self-regulation in the process we've come to call negative-feedback control. But the usefulness of money is far from enough to explain how economies work."

"What about the law of diminishing returns?" asked Armbruster. "First you cream off what's easiest and cheapest to exploit, then getting more is increasingly hard and expensive. That's certainly fundamental to economic life."

"The law of diminishing returns is truthful and harsh," said Hiram, "but it explains little about economic life in the absence of the converse law, which we might call the law of responsive substitution, meaning that people seek or cotrive substitutes for resources that have become too expensive. Obvious examples have been domesticated animals in place of wild game; petroleum in place of whale oil and, later, coal; plastics in place of tortoiseshell and ivory. But that raises questions about development which demand some analysis of development in the rest of nature."

"What are you going to do with your project of economic biomimicry?" asked Armbruster.

"Write a book, I suppose," said Hiram. "Or put it on the Web. Or make practical use of it, advising clients. But that's premature. I've only partly formulated it. This isn't my work, just my hobby, a sideline. My main work is finding funds to keep other biomimics going—even though they're a frugal lot."

"I don't want to pry," said Armbruster, "but what do you live on? Commissions from grants you help to find?"

"No, I get paid for my time as a consultant. And I do some lecturing. Fortunately, I inherited my Hoboken house from my mother. It's enough room for my office and two apartments that I rent out, as well as my own apartment. I drifted into consulting after my father and I provided a little capital to a group in New Jersey working with novel and promising ways of treating sewage. I soon saw that development work of that sort needed more research and experimental capital than we could dream of affording, so I began hunting for more and turned out to be good at it. You could say I found a niche in the environment. I can't imagine doing anything more interesting, because of the amazing people and ideas I get involved with, but it doesn't leave me much uninterrupted time."

"Which reminds me how late it is," said Hortense, rising.

"Wait," said Armbruster. "All you've told us is why you think learning economics from nature isn't outlandish. You haven't told us what you've learned. Can't you go a bit further?"

"Better not tonight. But we can arrange a time for me to bring you that book I promised and to talk some more." As Kate, Hortense, and Hiram were putting on their coats, Armbruster jubilantly stuck a Post-it note on his refrigerator door, reminding himself to stock up on blank cassettes.

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The Question of Separatism

The Question of Separatism

Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty
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Vital Little Plans

Vital Little Plans

The Short Works of Jane Jacobs
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The Shape of the City

The Shape of the City

Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning
by John Sewell
introduction by Jane Jacobs
also available: eBook
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