From the coral reef, lessons on managing scarcity

In Brief: 

As defined by Dr. Arthur Dahl in The Eco Principle, an "eco" is "any natural or man-made functional system" with the following major characterstics:

~ Limits: The eco must have boundaries, such as a skin, a market, or the borders of a country, that define its form, size and limits.

~ Content: It must have capital or a resource base. "For a coporation, its content is its physical assets and employees; for a farm, its land, buildings, implements, water supply and work force."

~ Energy: For any system to function, there must be an input of energy, which can generated from within or imported from without.

~ Material flux: Materials enter or are lost to an eco across its boundaries, adding or subtracting from its resource base.

~ Dynamics: An eco exists over time and is subject to change.

~ Information: The processes and dynamics of an eco are driven by its information centent, which is its most critical characteristic. "This information on the organization and integration of the eco is the critical factor determing its value or 'wealth,' a wealth that has been largely missed in economics."

"The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis"
By Arthur Lyon Dahl 
George Ronald/Zed Books Ltd. 

Although coral reefs exist in tropical waters that are low in nutrients and plankton, that basic food of the sea, they support a tremendous density and diversity of life. In this fact, says marine biologist Arthur Lyon Dahl, is a lesson of critical importance to humanity's long-term survival.

At the heart of a reef's complex and finely balanced ecosystem, he explains, is a highly developed regime of information content and exchange. More than anything else, he argues, this regime allows the reef to survive and even prosper in an environment of scarcity.

Dr. Dahl draws on the example of the reef throughout his new book, The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis, which is about much more than marine biology. Indeed, the book ultimately sets out the framework for a bold new theory that integrates concepts from a wide range of fields - ecology, biology, economics, systems theory, sociology and even religion - and then elaborates a set of universal principles based on this integration.

According to Dr. Dahl, these principles offer a method by which humanity might reevaluate its direction and reorganize to create a truly sustainable global civilization. Although his stated aim is to bring together ecology and economics, Dr. Dahl discusses a wide range of topics, covering everything from the need for better education to the types of leadership required for long-term survival.

Dr. Dahl, currently a Deputy Assistant Executive Director for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), begins by noting that the words "ecology" and "economy" share the same Greek root, oikos, meaning "house" or "habitat." 

"Economy refers to how to manage our house, and ecology how to know or understand it," he writes. "This unity of word roots also reflects an underlying unity of purpose and function that should link ecology and economy. In practice, however, each discipline lives largely in a separate world, speaking a different language, applying different principles - and reflecting often conflicting paradigms. The chasm between economics and ecology is a symptom of the malfunctioning of modern society which threatens our very future."

He then summarizes some of the shortcomings in our global economic system and its impact on the environment, arguing that the emphasis on profits over people promotes a great disparity in wealth and poverty, that the externalization of environmental costs allows for great waste and pollution, and that the short term focus on growth and development comes too often at the expense of long-term sustainability.

Where Dr. Dahl breaks new ground is in his theory of "ecos" - and its application to a wide range of economic constructs and social organizations that lie far beyond the confines of what is traditionally thought of as an ecological system.

Dr. Dahl defines an "eco" as "any natural or man-made functional system with internal integrity and distinct features and behavior enclosed within clear boundaries." This general definition, he says, can apply equally to an organism, an ecosystem, a machine, a town, a nation, the earth or even a star, as well as to such forms of social organization as a corporation or a national economy.

In some respects, his work is an extension of systems theory. What is new and distinctive is his suggestion that the key factor in the operation of an eco is not its resource base or energy utilization but its information content. From this notion unfolds an approach that might help humanity better understand and manage the problems it faces in the transition from the industrial to the information age.

"It is the information content that is the most critical characteristic of an eco," he writes, adding that the "information on the organization and integration of the eco is the critical factor determining its value or 'wealth,' a wealth that has been largely missed in economics."

Dr. Dahl explains this concept by giving several examples of the way in which information is the key element in any eco. A watch, for example, has all of the characteristics of an eco, with boundaries, content, energy flow and so on. Yet, he argues, it is the information content about how the parts mesh together, and especially their tolerances, which produces something of value: an accurate timepiece.

Likewise, he writes, the most critical element in all living things - which also qualify as ecos - is the information content that determines how biochemical components interact and communicate with each other to sustain life. At the most basic level, this information is stored in the DNA. At higher levels, information gained from the senses about an organism's environment, supplies of food, nearby predators, etc., is also critical to its survival.

The information in an eco can be communicated to other ecos, and it can be used to build connections with other ecos. Accordingly, ecos may be nested within other ecos. To recall the example above, the cells of a human body are ecos that operate within the ecos of organs, which operate within the overall eco of the body itself.

Dr. Dahl develops this idea by discussing the coral reef as an information system, explaining that it is the "high information content and interconnection" of relationships among reef organisms that allow them to survive in an environment of scarcity.

Many reef animals have tiny symbiotic plants living inside them, he notes, and they provide the host with food in exchange for lodging and the fertilizer. A paired species of small shrimp and fish share a burrow in the sand; the shrimp digs the burrow and the fish, which has better eyes, stands watch. Cleaner fish keep highly visible stations and predators come not to eat them but to have parasites picked off.

Principles of the Eco

From examples like this, Dr. Dahl draws out certain basic principles for the sustainable functioning of an eco. Based largely on his study of organic, natural systems, he concludes that the "balance" of imports and exports is critical to the functioning of an eco, that such "balance" is achieved principally by the "accumulation, transmission and perpetuation of information" within the ecos, and that the "nesting of ecos within ecos" is one way that complex systems can be kept "decentralized and manageable."

"With the eco as a unifying concept, we can also redefine ecology as the study or knowledge of the ecos and economics as the mangement of ecos. Both then take on a larger sense than in their traditional usage, and their complementarity becomes evident."

-- Arthur Dahl in The Eco Principle

"With the eco as a unifying concept, we can also redefine ecology as the study or knowledge of the ecos and economics as the management of ecos," he writes. "Both then take on a larger sense than in their traditional usage, and their complementarity becomes evident."

He proposes first that we must come to see economics in more organic terms by understanding that "the concept of endless or unlimited growth" is a "biological impossibility and an economic fantasy." A better path, he suggests, is something more akin to the coral reef, where higher levels of efficiency are achieved by a better use of information.

Whether enhanced by the better training of workers, improved laws and rules to guide economic activity, more sophisticated knowledge of markets or the scientific advances that undergird new technologies, it is such information that is the real wealth of society - not money and/or capital assets, he writes.

He argues that building "human capital," principally through better education, is the best investment as the world seeks to build a sustainable society. "A society reoriented from money to knowledge as the central focus of development will be able to build on the enormous progress our civilization has made," he writes.

Likewise, the proper management of the new economic systems that are dictated by the principles of the eco will require new forms of leadership. Handling the increasingly complex flows of information and resources between multiple nested ecos will require less bureaucracy and more consultation.

Global Values

Ultimately, the principles of the eco necessitate new values. "The essential concept that must become central to our worldview is the fact that this planet is, at its largest scale, a single eco, a global human community linked to and dependent on the earth's natural systems," he writes. "At this level, the oneness of humanity and the oneness of nature come together." Many of humanity's problems, he writes, come because we have ignored the existence of a planetary eco and not worried about balances at the global level.

Dr. Dahl, who is a Bahá'í, says he has been inspired greatly by the Bahá'&iacute writings. He suggests, further, that the values and administrative structures of the worldwide Bahá'í community might provide an important model as scientists and thinkers consider what the principles of ecos mean for our global future.

The Bahá'í community, he writes, "is highly decentralized and adapted to the many cultures, nations and peoples of the world, yet links them into a global system that corresponds to the increasing levels of international economic, social and cultural exchange. It is fundamentally organic and evolutionary in operation, building on the strengths of democratic systems, while compensating for their most common flaws. Its strong resemblance to natural systems suggests its adaptability to the kind of decentralized, multilevel structure needed for an evolving world society, and capable of balancing human pressures with environmental requirements for sustainable development."

Time will tell whether the theories set out in The Eco Principle will have the kind of paradigm-shifting effect on economics that Dr. Dahl foresees. Yet the sheer scale and scope of what Dr. Dahl suggests demands that his theories be given a careful consideration. If nothing else, they will contribute much to the ongoing discussion about the values of our present day society and the degree to which those values must shift if we are to survive.