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House Rules

It’s commonplace these days to see ecology and economy represented as two opposing paradigms in permanent conflict. In political discourse, for example, a politician often has to choose to appear either pro-business or pro-environment, but not both. At best, they can advocate for a compromise between the two opposing agendas.

But, as more and more thinkers and activists are pointing out, this whole duality is mistaken. Ecology and economy are not opposites at all: they are close siblings.

My favorite demonstration: notice that the two terms share the same root word. “Ecology” descends from the Ancient Greek oikos, meaning household or home, and logos, an explanation or story. “Economy” comes from that same root oikos, combined with nomos, which means a set of rules or knowledge.

So, using the archaic definitions, “ecology” is the story of a home and its inhabitants, and “economy” is the set of house rules that define the inhabitants’ actions and interactions.

In a microcosm such as a single-family home, it’s very easy to see the connections between ecological relationships and economic rules such as supply, scarcity, and reciprocity. You are living in shared space with several other beings. If you take a 40-minute shower, there will be no hot water for anyone else. If you hoard all of the freshly-baked cookies, people will notice, and demand their fair share. And if you leave a pile of trash on the floor, everyone will be tripping over it – and, more likely than not, getting increasingly annoyed with you.

It’s when we consider larger “homes,” such as planet Earth, that these connections become easier to overlook. A company pumping waste into a river may not even know about the population thirty miles downstream that is being poisoned. This act of dumping is externalization, with no obvious responsibility or reciprocity. But the connection is the same, even if it’s less visible. While expansion of profits and externalization of costs are two foundational practices of current industrial economies, their time is coming to an end.

Recently I’ve been excited to see a resurgence in the popularity of Herman Daly’s “steady-state economics.” It’s the permaculture version of commerce and capitalism, in which constant growth is no longer the goal. It should be clear to anyone who looks carefully that constant growth can’t be the goal forever: Earth offers finite resources and finite space.

The author Edward Abbey made an excellent point when he said “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Constant growth inevitably consumes and destroys the host body or environment in which the growth occurs. The only way out of this is to play by a different set rules. A set of rules that refers to reciprocity and closed-loop cycles instead of externalization, waste, and linear supply chains.

Right now, when we hear the word “economy,” we might think of industry, growth, technology, and money. But as we transition to a Next Economy, the word can return to its origin and once again refer to a set of house rules that guide the exchange of goods and services in a way that benefits all life.