John G Bell

Systemic Thinking

Spring '04 - Geist

The Nature of Economies

By using an imaginary dialogue as didactic, Jacobs develops the argument that the artifice of human endeavor, both physically manifested and in the process of human activity, is not only integral to and part of the natural world, but also that there are systemic correspondences between human endeavour and the working of other living systems. (Jacobs, 2000.)

The physically manifestation of human endeavor is the so-called artificial environment which mirrors systemically the physical manifestation of other living systems like bees and beehives. These artifacts become integral to the habitat and surround.

The process of human endeavor is in the economies of human groups which mirrors the way in which living systems exchange energy with their surround. Jacobs points out that the origin of economics was an observation that human activity and exchange was similar to the way that living systems functioned, as an ecology. These words come from the same root, and the worlds they describe share many systemic qualities. For example, all living systems function by taking in energy from the surround and processing that energy. The health and complexity of a living system is related to the complexity of its processing of the energy it takes in from its environment as an open system. The health and complexity of a human economic system is also related to the complexity of its processing of the energy it takes in from either the resources of the environment or through imports.

One of the important aspects of living systems is that the survive within an environment through checks and balances on productive activity. For example, Jacobs uses the example of social grooming activity in primates as an example of activity that is undertaken even when it isn't necessary. This social bonding acts as a check, or systemic balance, on the productive activity of the primate group. Unchecked this activity would outstrip the resources of the environment, as a renewable flow-limited stock. Human systems of activity, the economy, also has balancing features. These features are “traits” of human activity that “cut across cultures, over long spans of time, and must not be at odds with competitive strategies.” (Jacobs, 2000. p126-127) Jacobs makes it clear that even weak balancing traits are not insignificant if they span the history of human activity. (2000, p127) Examples of these traits are “aesthetic appreciation, dear of retribution, awe expressed as veneration, persuasiveness, and corrective tinkering and contriving.” (Jacobs, 2000. p130) These act as balances to the system of human activity.

An awareness of the ways in which human economies are part of natural and living systems is a helpful start to discussions on what is or is not community, environment. That economic activity has systemic aspects is a launching point to an examination of world-systems and bringing political and global economic issues into the discussions of local community and environment. If the artifice of human endeavor is an element of natural habitat and human economic activity is a functional aspect of a living system, then there are ways in which human activity can be examined systemically. The patterns and fractals of other living systems can be used to discuss ways to create leverage toward change in human systems.

Works Cited:

Jacobs, J. (2000). The nature of economies. New York: Vintage.