The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis
Author: Arthur Lyon Dahl
Publisher: George Ronald/Zed Books Ltd. Oxford/London, 1996
Review by: Brad Pokorny
"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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
~ 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."
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 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 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.
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'í 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.