…those elements present in ecosystems which, through cultivation, production or value-add, can be used to generate means of social or commercial engagement
Under the sun of the Mayan Riviera I completed reading Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. I suppose that it was as fitting a place as any to read this accessible account of our species’ progression towards an accelerating evolutionary cul-de-sac where our grossly oversized appetites to consume will either engulf or transform us. Should you wish to probe more deeply into the linguistic and behavioral intellectual paralysis that has led us so completely into our consumer hypnosis, I recommend both the book and the venue. Wells provides an ideal point of departure for this week’s Integral Accounting post on Commodity because his central ethno-anthropological thesis – quite compellingly argued – includes the assumption that homo sapiens have “civilized” over the passage of time. However, as I will point out, I don’t find the evidence compelling. Far from self-congratulatory terms like innovation, civilization, and development, I would argue that we’ve become far less creative than our forbearers, less willing to share for the common good, and far more susceptible to single point failures leading to a renewed urgency to rethink how we account for life and the systems on which it hinges.
Commodity is a term that, in ordinary use, refers to substances which have non-discriminatory intrinsic value (meaning that their value exists by virtue of their very existence without any qualitative differential across markets) and can be used or distributed equally by, and between suppliers and consumers. A simpler understanding of the common use of the term may be the concept of ingredients for baking. Flour and sugar (both derived from “commodities” and both “commodities”) can, in the right hands become a cake or chocolate cookies. However, in the magical hands of my wife, Colleen, they can become the essential elements in the most transcendent bread this world’s ever smelled or tasted.
Not surprisingly, the term commodity shares its linguistic roots with the concept of commons. However, our understanding of commodity has undergone persistent enclosure in what James Quilligan frequently critiques as antithetical to ideal social organizing principles. After all, in the Magna Carta’s companion declaration, the Charter of the Forests, felled wood, nuts for foraging and other sources of livelihood were essential non-discriminatory resources.
We need look no further than our electricity addiction (or petroleum, as the same argument will hold) to see how perverted our understanding of commodity has become. As heirs to Edison and Westinghouse’s legacies, humans have ripped mountains apart, ravaged forests, and fouled rivers, lakes and oceans in pursuit of copper. Now, we’ve done this so that we can extract the metal, stretch it into long, fine strings and twist it or coil it to feed society’s most ubiquitous drug into our shared addiction. And despite over 100 years of mining ore from the earth (and calling it a commodity), we have failed, in this recyclable metal, to realize that we’ve taken out enough. You may be interested in knowing that, according to the USGS 2007 Minerals Yearbook, consumers recycle less that 25% of metals with the exception of lead. We throw away the vast majority of our aluminum, copper, iron, steel, magnesium, nickel, tin, titanium and zinc. Our current economic system is built on the immoral and genocidal belief that it’s more desirable to take ore out of the ground (at great environmental degradation cost and human displacement cost), transport it over great distances (polluting all the way), smelt and refine it (once again at great polluting cost), fabricate it into wire (at great polluting cost) and then integrate it into disposable products which we will bury on average after 7-10 years (the terminal life of most electrical appliances) than it would be to actually design products whose motors, compressors and conductors could be entirely reused for the life of a person (or many generations).
We tolerate this delusion because our religions, governments and economic propagandists (a.k.a. – most of the world’s business schools) cannot fathom that the Earth is NOT ours and is NOT free. Somewhere between days two and six of Biblical creation, humans enshrined themselves as the pinnacle of “lordship” over the Earth. And since our sacred texts all say that “God said so”, we blindly go along with the madness.
In Integral Accounting, our worldview around the elements all change. Let’s start with the basics. First, it’s all here. All the air, water, calories, energy, shelter – all are here and all exist in sufficient abundance to care for life on Earth. Second, it’s all going to stay here. If we decide to burn carbon-based life residue, for example, we’re not getting rid of it. We’re just changing its form into something that is choking our atmosphere rather than percolating under our land and seas. If we over-produce and over-consume starches, our bodies will do what they do and make fat. I guess the silver (or more appropriately, greasy golden) lining here is that we’re closer to biodiesel with every passing sedentary day. Third, the better we figure out suitable distribution of access and use, the better our chances at becoming a persistent species.
And the elements do not merely have value in the industrious hands of humans. Remember that soil, water, and air all rely on these shared resources. Plants, animals, and living systems we don’t yet characterize and understand all rely on these same elements. When we take a metal from the ground, have we considered what bacterium was being held in check based on, for example the bactericidal properties of silver? Is it possible that by preferring an ever narrower list of foods, metals, and chemicals upon which we rely, we endanger our species to susceptibility to disease and extinction unthinkable in our hunting and gathering past? As we see throughout history that dense urbanization and its associated industrial food and water infrastructure preceded “mysterious” mass extinction events common in the Americas and Eurasia, is it possible that keeping maximum diversity in our appreciation of commodity is actually the only path to avoid a similar outcome?
Commodity reductionism – a pseudo-efficiency required only to maintain wealth and power asymmetries created by the industrial mercantile system that we currently find prevailing – is the proximate cause of most of our armed conflicts on Earth and reinforces unspeakable atrocities. Commodity diversity is a requisite for human persistence. “Too Big To Fail” – a phrase lately applied to the financial industry is a greater threat when it applies to elements perceived to be essential for preservation of a way of life. Go online and look how boring we’ve become. Look at the commodities markets and puzzle over why We The People of Planet Earth seem to care about silver, gold, titanium, copper, nickel, aluminum, orange juice, cocoa, coffee, sugar, soybeans, beef, pork, corn, wheat, and rice? While I’m only slightly over-simplifying to make my point, I do know that we’ve predisposed ourselves to single-point failures in a world of abundance and we need to have our heads examined.
Let me end with how we put Commodity Integral Accounting to use. When I teach people about Integral Accounting principles, one of the first exercises I have them do is walk outside and count everything they see in instances of greater than six. These are the local abundant commodities resident in an ecosystem. Rather than seeing a place for what it’s missing, see the place for what it is. Immediately, think about what you could do if you had a lot of that thing. What kind of systems would you build or create to expand access to and use of this abundance if you chose to do so? What community would you need to engage? What would be the full ecosystem consequence of such use? What information would you still need to answer these questions?
So, here goes. When you fly into Dalanzadgad, South Gobi Province, Mongolia, at the right time of day, you notice that the municipal landfill is highly reflective. Like many other landfills in Mongolia, there is an abundance of one item – vodka bottles. A legacy of the grain alcohol industrial production accompanying the Soviet era, the abundance of glass is staggering. In this desert, water and food are appreciated for their intrinsic value. However, when a Korean development agency decided to set up greenhouses in this land prone to violent wind and sandstorms, they used metal tubing and plastic coverings. Sheets of flimsy plastic to protect vegetables from harsh cold, to preserve moisture during arid months without rain, and to, well, litter the landscape in the next big wind. Integral Accounting would see another path. Why not use the vodka bottles as building materials for greenhouses? By using the bottles as glass bricks, one could easily create a vapor and thermal barrier that would: a) withstand the wind and sandstorms; b) insulate the interior for optimal growing seasons; and c) solve a municipal solid waste problem. Oh, and by the way, local communities could grow their own organic produce without relying on expensive overland shipping from China. Given that the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine – the potentially largest mineral reserves of both on Earth – is estimated to bring up to 30,000 new hungry mouths to this parched region, wouldn’t such an approach make economic sense?
Of course it would. When it comes to our view of commodity, it seems that we’d be well served if we could begin to migrate from our linear view of extractor – processor – consumer – disposer to a practice of optimized repurposing. This transition opens up countless opportunities for perpetual creativity which can be done in harmony with community in the context of next week’s post on custom and culture.