October 16, 2003 (Ira Pilgrim)

Human Ecology

A hardy and busy peasantry covered the rich soil with crops and kept the cities fed. They lived in hovels, and suffered the usual exploitation of the useful by the clever.

Will Durant, 1950

As I look out of my bedroom window, I see a huge forest, with an occasional house. Countless things are happening in that forest; plants are growing, insects and mammals are eating the plants, bacteria and fungi are doing their part in maintaining what is called the "ecosystem." Despite the peaceful appearance of that forest, all sorts of what we would consider to be violent things are happening. On a large-size (macro) level, a mountain lion is eating a deer every week or so, a golden eagle is eating a jackrabbit, a cat is eating a mouse and so on. On a microscopic level, bacteria and fungi are eating dead animals and plants. I could go on for volumes about the process, but you should get the drift by now. In that violent forest, where every creature is eating some other creature, there is order and peace, which might be broken by a wildfire or some other catastrophic event. However, while catastrophic events can happen, they are unusual. When they do happen, it is just a matter of time before the forest regenerates and returns to what we call normal.

In the world of humans, we have what is called a capitalist system which functions in ways that are analogous to what happens in our forest. In other words, it is a mess; but if you step back and look at it from a distance, it works; much as our forest works. If you put our system under a sort-of microscope, you might say that it is a god-awful mess. If you look at it from a distance, it works. People and cockroaches are reproducing their kind and life goes on; more satisfactorily to some than others.

If someone came from another planet and looked at a city, he might wonder how so many people can be fed in a city of steel and concrete, where the only thing that resembles a food supply are some house plants and an occasional tree. We know that it works because of a complex system that transports food and other things from the country to the city. The city, in turn, returns to the country folk a fictitious something called "money," which the country folk use to purchase machines and other manufactured goods from the city.

Some of us concentrate on what is wrong with the system. As Otto von Bismarck said, "If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made." If you concentrate on what is wrong with the system, and there is plenty that is wrong, you might forget that it does work. The random violence, mayhem, greed, stupidity etc. are an intrinsic part of our human ecosystem; like it or not.

What I am recommending to my younger friends who would like to make a better world, is that this mess may be close to the best that can be achieved at this time, so we might as well enjoy it.

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