Living Earth

Enlivenment: A New Bios for our Relation to the Natural World and to Ourselves

People often call for ‘changing the system’ and seek to reform the ‘free market’ approach that turns everything, including life itself, into a commodity. But it is impossible to alter our prevailing ‘operating system’ for economics, politics and culture if the underlying ‘bios’—our unexamined, foundational view of reality—remains the same. This is our biggest problem: our understanding of bios—the nature of life itself—is wrong. Our civilisation operates as if reality is all about organising inert, dead matter in more efficient ways. This is the heritage of the Enlightenment, which claims that physical bodies are entirely separate from immaterial minds. Once this assumption is made, no serious systemic change is really possible, as much as we might try.

To suggest a more promising, alternative future, this essay proposes a new paradigm of bios called Enlivenment. Based on recent research findings in the biological sciences, in economy, in physics, in psychology, and the arts, the idea of Enlivenment explains how nature—and our role in it—is irrefutably individualistic, cooperative and centered on experiences and meaning. The world is not simply an elaborate machine driven by impersonal macro-forces. It is alive! From an Enlivenment perspective, nature itself is a living commons. The biosphere is not just about various forms of competition, but equally about the commoning activities of a myriad of individual agents living in an ecosystem. This new perspective can help us realize that only an enlivened economy will be truly sustainable.

What is Life, and What Role Do We Play In It?

By using the term Enlivenment to reorient ourselves to the planetary crisis, we can begin to focus on a singular deficiency in contemporary thought: a lack of understanding of what life is. We might even say we have forgotten what life means. We are unaware of our most profound reality as living beings. This absentmindedness is an astonishing fact—but it is also a logical outcome of our rational culture. The ‘meaning of life’ and questions about human purpose, satisfactions and aspirations have long been ignored in biology, in economics and the humanities.

And yet, this notion of meaning of life embodies some simple, everyday questions that stand at the center of human experience. It demands that we consider: What do we live for? What are our inner needs as living creatures? What relationships do we have, or should we have, to the natural order? How do we produce things for our immediate needs or the market? How must we create, maintain and earn our livelihoods? My proposal is to shift focus to a new question: What is life, and what role do we play in it?

If we are to recover reliable references points for sustainable living, and so find the wisdom to confront the manifold crises of our time, I will argue in the sections below that we must first look for a fresh account of the principles of existence of living beings. This requires that we carefully reconsider how relationships in the biosphere are organised—and experienced. Are there basic rules by which organisms realize their existence? What makes ecological systems sound? What makes the individual experience of a full life possible? How is exchange of goods, services and meaning possible without degrading the system?

I propose to follow a rather pragmatic focus: First, we have to diagnose why we have an aversion to thinking or talking about life. Then, it is important to consider how a contemporary account of life could be imagined without falling back into essentialist thinking, but rather to open genuinely new windows of thought. Finally, we should try to understand what recent scientific findings reveal about the unfolding of life’s processes—and how this could lead to a new approach that overcomes dualist thinking, our reflexive mental habit of separating resources and natural agents, reason and the physical world, human life and animate nature, and physical bodies and human meaning.

It is necessary to explore a new narrative for what life is, for what it is to be alive, for what living systems do, and what their goals are. We need to explore how values are created by the realisation of the living, and how we, as living beings in a living biosphere, can adapt the production needed for our livelihoods to that reality, the only reality we have. Even though this narrative will encompass different areas and disciplines, life is the binding dimension for all of them. As a living being, the human organism integrates and connects diverse fields of existential experience, metabolic exchange and social relationships.

The narrative that I propose is by no means an objectivist account, however—not a mechanics or a cybernetics of reality. It will be objective in the sense that poetics is objective: transmitting shared feelings by working in the open dimension of continuous imagination, which is the field of life itself. The narrative of the living that I wish to unfold here will thus strive for poetic objectivity or poetic precision. This is the most appropriate way to describe the living world with its endless unfolding of existential relationships and meanings.

Bioeconomics: The Hidden Megascience

It is not by chance that ‘eco-nomy’ and ‘eco-logy’ are nearly identical terms. Both build on the metaphor of housekeeping and the provisioning of existential goods and services (the Greek word oikos means house, householding or family). Both concepts have a particular and related manner of treating the organisation of this existential supply. Both start from the idea that keeping a house—or making a living, for that matter—is a theater of competition and contest whose object is an ever-moreoptimal efficiency.

The process is subject-less and self-organised in the sense that eternal, external laws (that of selection and that of economic survival) punish or reward the behaviour of atomistic black boxes called Homo economicus—economic man—or in a more modern telling, the ‘selfish gene.’ To yield results in this framework of thinking, neither contemporary economics nor ‘eco-sciences’ need to consider actual, lived experience. The framework has excluded life in the existential, experiential sense. We might therefore say that the prevailing ‘bioeconomic megascience,’ the deep metaphysics of our age, is a science of non-living.

Both Darwinism and Liberalism were born in pre-Victorian England at about the same time. While Charles Darwin was struggling with an explanation for the diversity of living nature, political economist Thomas Robert Malthus proposed an idea that became a pivotal point in the development of evolutionary theory and hence for the still valid understanding of biology as result of evolution-by-optimization. Malthus was obsessed by the idea of scarcity as a driving force of social change. There will never be enough resources to feed a population that steadily multiplies, he argued, and a struggle for dominance must necessarily take place in which the weakest will lose. Charles Darwin adopted this piece of socio-economic theory, drawn from Malthus’ observations of Victorian industrial society, and applied it to his comprehensive theory of natural change and development. Interestingly, even the more empirical-biological part of Darwin’s theory dealing with selection was not based on observations of long-term natural change. It was based on the experiences and practices of Victorian breeders.

The resulting discipline, evolutionary biology, is a more accurate reflection of pre-Victorian social practices than of natural reality. In the wake of this metaphorical takeover, such concepts as struggle for existence, competition and fitness—which were central justifications of the political status quo in (pre-) Victorian England— tacitly became centerpieces of our own self-understanding as embodied and social beings. And they still are—especially in those parts of the world that even now resemble pre-Victorian England. Biological, technological and social progress, so the argument goes, are brought forth by the sum of individual egos striving to out-compete each other. In perennial rivalry, fit species (powerful corporations) exploit niches (markets) and multiply their survival rate (profit margins), whereas weaker (less efficient) ones go extinct (bankrupt).

We can call this alliance between biology and economics an economic ideology of nature, or ‘bioeconomics.’ Today, it reigns supreme over our understanding of human culture and the world. It defines our embodied dimension (Homo sapiens as a gene-governed survival machine) as well as our social identity (Homo economicus as an egoistic maximizer of utility). The idea of universal competition unifies the two realms, the natural and the socioeconomic. It validates the notion of rivalry and predatory self-interest as inexorable facts of life.

What are the most prominent flaws of our bioeconomic view? What can we say about the validity of the common assumptions of the bioeconomic paradigm? Most if not all ignore the fact that we are living subjects in a living world constituted by subjective, creative agents.

  1. Efficiency: The biosphere is not efficient. For instance, warmblooded animals consume over 97% of their energy only to maintain their metabolism. Photosynthesis achieves a ridiculously low efficiency rate of 7%.
  2. Growth: The biosphere does not grow. The quantity of biomass does not increase. The through-put of matter does not expand; nature is running a steady-state economy—that is, an economy where all relevant factors remain constant in relation to one another.
  3. Competition: It has never been possible to prove that a new species arose from competition for a resource alone. Species are rather born by chance: they develop through unexpected mutations and the isolation of a group from the remainder of the population.
  4. Scarcity: Resources in nature are not scarce. Where they become so, they do not lead to a creative diversification, but to an impoverishment of diversity and freedom. The basic energetic resource of nature, sunlight, exists in abundance.
  5. Property: There is no notion of property in the biosphere. An individual does not even possess his own body. Its substance changes permanently and continuously as it is replaced by oxygen, CO2 and other inputs of energy and matter.