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Nature as an Information Economy

pajaro_sunset_060306.jpgA Friday afternoon thought experiment.

The natural world was once thought of solely as a provider of resources for production. Wood, oil, water and other raw materials held value inasmuch as they were part of the industrial production cycle. This is a consumption perspective, one in which the natural world only has value if it contributes directly to the short-term economy. This is the industrial economy vision of nature.

A more nuanced perspective holds that the natural world is a provider of ecosystem services, ranging from clean air to soil formation to pollination. The ecosystem services concept doesn't deny that nature provides raw material for industry, but asserts that the sustained value of the services provided by nature can greatly exceed the short-term value of the raw materials. (A 2005 study from the Canadian Boreal Initiative demonstrated that Canada's forests are worth roughly C$37.8 billion in resource extraction, but C$93.2 billion in service provision; the study (PDF) is also an excellent primer on how ecosystem service value is calculated.) This is the service economy vision of nature.

But what happens when we think of nature as an information economy? By this, I mean thinking of nature not just in terms of the value of physical products or processes, but in terms of the value of the information about and derived from the natural world. We're not accustomed to thinking about nature in this way, but doing so has some interesting -- and, I think, useful -- implications.

Traditionally, we think of the value of a forest in terms of resources such as lumber or in terms of services such as oxygen creation through photosynthesis. We can also think of a forest in terms of information such as the plant DNA or the forest's role in various natural cycles such as storm mitigation, carbon sequestration, and habitat creation (in essence, how an ecosystem provides its services). Similarly, we can think of the value of water as deriving from its immediate use, from its sustained availability, and from the knowledge of characteristics such as location, volume, evaporation cycles, cleanliness, etc.. Arguably, ecosystem information has even greater potential value than immediate use or sustained services, in that the information can be used as the seed of new products, services and information, as well as to enhance the industrial and service economic value of the ecosystem and/or protect the ecosystem against industrial and service economic losses.

What makes the the information economy model different from industrial and service economies are two big factors: replicability and non-uniformity. Replicability means that information, especially digital information, can be copied without reducing its use value or its availability to the original possessor of the information. Biological aspects of an ecosystem clearly meet this condition, through the existence of DNA and built-in (if slow) copying mechanisms such as seeds. I can give you the "information" from my tree without losing value, even while you gain new value. Non-uniformity means that information has its greatest value in the context of other, different, kinds of information. Information can compete, leading to a "survival of the fittest" paradigm (a core concept of memetics), and can combine, leading to new kinds of information. In terms of ecosystems, diversity improves survivability, while uniformity increases vulnerability to threats (think here of monocultures).

The difference between industrial, service and information economies becomes important when we think about the implications each model has for how we work with the global ecosystem.

If we think about nature purely in terms of resources and consumption, the underlying model is competition over scarcity. Each participant in the economy has an incentive to over-consume in order to gain an advantage over competitors (or to avoid being penalized when others over-consume), and while cooperation is possible, it's not a given. The "Tragedy of the Commons" is the classic example of this paradigm.

If we think about nature purely in terms of services, the underlying model is sufficiency. Every participant in the economy gains a benefit from the maintenance of the system, but the cost of maintenance is borne by individual actors. "Free riders" gain the benefits of the system without paying the cost of maintenance. The result is that the system is typically in a state of bare sustenance, with participants acting to keep it going only when the alternative is system collapse. Ecosystem services are here considered a "public good."

If we think about nature in terms of information, however, the underlying model is abundance. Participants in the system create the most value for themselves not by hoarding or by passivity, but by adding more information into the system. The greater the amount and diversity of the ecosystem information, the more that can be done with the knowledge.

Sadly, the industrial economic concept of ecosystems still dominates; the ecosystem services concept is gaining ground among environmentalists, but has yet to take root (so to speak) in the popular mind. The ecosystem information model would need much more development before we could consider it an alternative approach, but it has a couple of things going for it: as the overall information economy continues to expand (especially as fabrication systems start to bring information economy patterns into the world of physical objects), we'll be more amenable to thinking about other aspects of the world in this way -- it may even prove to be a useful method of integrating ecological principles into the economy; and as we are forced more and more to bring climate disruption and environmental collapse to the forefront of our planning and politics, more of us will realize that we need more information about and from the ecosystem to be able to manage the situation successfully.

There are undoubtedly many holes in this idea, and I'd be more than happy to have them pointed out.

(Photo: Pajaro Sunset, Jamais Cascio © 2006)


"If we think about nature purely in terms of services, the underlying model is sufficiency."

-- could you explain your meaning a bit more?

how does Abundance work as a model for information within the natural environment? Wouldn't, for example, a particularly cold-hardy crab species like to keep the information (enzyme design, etc) that allows it to outcompete its evolutionary neighbors, well, private? Or are you thinking of 'nature' as some kind of whole?

Wonderful. Quick thoughts in return:

As equity figures strongly in an open future, prioritize for equity when designing markets for services, with consideration of current state of property rights (commons, public or private). If common property (i.e. the atmosphere, the oceans), allocate permits via auction, not grandfathering. Consider a fiduciary responsibility to future generations.

“storm mitigation, carbon sequestration, and habitat creation” – These are generally considered as services. Their provision is rivalrous. I see where you are going tho – the knowledge of how these services are provisioned also has a specific value, as the basis for potential geo-hacking (terraforming) – and I admire your careful consideration of this topic. Still, some would associate this line of thought with the hubris that got us into our environmental mess.

Seems your description of replicability is what would usually be called nonrivalrousness. Non-uniformity, indeed, a key feature of how services are provisioned.

“scarcity sufficiency abundance” – Very nice formulation for thinking about this stuff.

We might also consider at least one further utilitarian value of nature: biophilia. I may be stuck in the past, but I tend to think that if we are forced to provision that one with a hack (robot pets, say), we’ve diminished our humanity.

Some would of course insist on non-utilitarian values, as well.

Colin, Howard -- thank you for your useful observations and questions.

When I say that 'sufficiency' is the underlying model for services, I mean that we tend to see the provision of natural services in terms of "what's good enough?" instead of "what's optimal?" The "free rider" problem and the perception of lost income from avoiding development (for example) push economic actors to try to minimize costs as much as possible.

And, yes, I am thinking of nature as a whole -- moreover, I'm thinking of how we as humans interact with nature as a whole.

Howard, I was referring to the knowledge about how services are provisioned, although not just for terraforming/geo-engineering purposes. Better knowledge about how natural services are provisioned allows us to make better choices about how we use (or avoiding using) natural resources.

I had "non-rivalrous" instead of "replicable" in an earlier draft, but it seems to me that (broadly put) all replicable things are non-rivalrous, not all non-rivalrous things are replicable. If I understand the term properly, non-rivalrous means that my use of a service/object/idea/etc. does not block your use of it; this could include (e.g.) the atmosphere, where I can't block you from breathing (or polluting). The atmosphere wouldn't be considered to be replicable, however.

I'm right there with you regarding non-utilitarian values to nature. I think I've been reading too many environmental economists lately.

We can think of the industrial, service, and information economies as distinct ways to think about, and ultimately configure, the world. The economies become maladaptive when their thinking and configuration get out of sync. In this light, the tragedy of the commons isn’t a problem of functioning industrial economies and free riders aren’t a problem of service ones. Rather, they are the result of maladaptive industrial and service economies that create the opposite of what they’re supposed to (i.e. inefficiency and insufficiency). If that’s true for industrial and service economies, then maladaptive information economies cause a lack of abundance. We can see that happening, for example, when digital artists become intellectual property pirates because the world is reworking itself into an information economy but stuck with antiquated thinking. The same sort of sub-optimal use of information pops-up with nature in the restriction of scientific journals, the patenting of life, etc.

This perspective can give us insight into future bottlenecks. Take the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It is wonderful, and pioneering, and ahead of its time. But it also focuses on ecosystem 'goods and services'. That's not to say that it doesn't approach 'ecosystem information' (if you will) but only that it does so through sub-optimal industrial and service lenses. A good indication of this is the MA's framework around four groups of ecosystem goods and services: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the information-heavy groups, namely cultural and supporting, are the ones it treats least and most awkwardly.


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