The Science of “Enlivenment” and the Commons

May 28, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

One of the more provocative talks at the Economics and the Commons Conference last week was Andreas Weber’s critique of the “bio-economics” narrative that blends social Darwinism and free market economics.  Bioeconomics is the default worldview for contemporary economic thought, public policy and politics.  The only problem is that, by the lights of the latest biological sciences, this narrative is wrong, seriously wrong. 

Worse, it is impeding the emergence of a more accurate account of natural systems and life itself.  It is thwarting our ability to develop a new, more respectful relationship with nature.  Weber proposes instead a new story of “enlivenment” that points to a different vision of the "more than human world" and to commons-based based ways of organizing our political economy.Image Removed

Andreas Weber is a Berlin-based theoretical biologist, independent scholar and ecophilosopher who explores new understandings of “life as meaning,” a sub-discipline in biological sciences known as “biosemiotics.”  This is the idea that living organisms are not just automatons who respond to various external, impersonal forces, but rather are intrinsically creative, sense-making organisms whose subjectivity and “consciousness” matter.  Indeed, our subjectivity is an indispensable part of biological evolution, Weber contends.

Weber’s essay “Enlivenment:  Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics,” was just published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.  It can be downloaded here.  (Full disclosure:  I gave Weber some editorial advice about his text.)

Weber’s complaint about conventional biology is that it refuses to study life itself.  It is too committed to Enlightenment categories of the individual, rationality and competition, and it insists upon a reductionist logic that cannot address, let alone provide answers, to what is life itself.  Weber argues that organisms are “sentient, more-than-physical creatures that have subjective experiences and produce sense.”  He notes that current biological sciences do not ask, “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?….What is life and what role do we play in it?”

The “bioeconomic worldview” that conjoins Darwinism and free market economics claims that nature is all about individuals, competition, efficiency and growth.  But Weber argues that these basic assumptions are flat-out wrong.  As he notes:  “The biosphere is not efficient.  Warm-blooded animals consumer over 97 percent of their energy only to maintain their metabolism.  Photosynthesis achieves a ridiculously low efficiency rate of 7 perent.  Fish, amphibians and insects have to lay millions of eggs only to allow for the survival of very few offspring.” 

Nor does the biosphere grow constantly; the quantity of biomass is fairly constant.  Nor has competition been shown to spur the rise of new species, Weber writes:  “Species are born by chance:  they develop through unexpected mutations and the isolation of a group from the remainder of the population through new symbioses and cooperation….”  Scarcity of resources does not lead to a creative diversification of species, as bioeconomics holds, but to an impoverishment of diversity and freedom. 

But if the standard Darwinian narrative is incomplete and skewed in misleading directions, how do we begin to explain evolution and life itself more accurately?  Weber calls his alternative account “Enlivenment,” by which he means an “upgrade” of the deeply embedded metaphysics of the Enlightenment.  We must augment the story of individual rationality and competition with a new story that he calls “life-as-meaning,” or “biopoetics.”  In the emerging new picture of biology, as confirmed by a growing body of empirical research, “organisms are no longer viewed as genetic machines, but basically as materially embodied processes that bring forth themselves.  Each single cell is ‘a process of creation of an identity.’  The simplest organism must be understood as a material system displaying the intention to maintain itself intact, to grow, to unfold, and to make a fuller scope of life for itself.” 

Life, then, amounts to more than inert physical matter that is animate.  It is about “a meaningful self that is producing itself.”  Life amounts to a subjective/material process to maintain and preserve a specific identity.  “A system that intends to keep itself intact automatically develops interests, a set of perspectives, one might say, and therefore a self.  It becomes a subject with a body.”  Life itself is a paradox in conjoining the material and the subjective, but that paradox is central to the essence of life.

This is the radical idea behind enlivenment — subjectivity as a serious force in evolution and living systems.  Our inner lives matter.  They are not peripheral to the grand epic of evolution; they are essential, driving forces of it.  If market economics and modernity have banished our subjectivity and spirituality as vestigial curiosities, biopoetics asserts that our subjectivity is central to our creativity and freedom as evolving organisms and to the grand march of life itself.

This has far-reaching implications for how we conceptualize our economics.  Rather than see nature as inert, dead matter that we can manipulate for whatever purposes we choose, we must see that “nature” is not an other, something apart from human beings, but rather as something we are wholly integrated with.  Nature amounts to an open-source commons – a realm in which exclusivity or property rights do not exist.  Indeed, the dualisms of “individual” and “collective” do not make sense because the two notions are blurred and integrated with each other.  Human beings themselves amount to a “super-organism” of smaller organisms aggregated into a whole; humans are not strictly separate from nature but rather deeply embedded in it.

From these ideas, Weber develops the idea of “interbeing,” the ecological principle that “everything is hitched to everything else,” as naturalist John Muir put it.  Material resources do not operate on a separate plane according to external forces beyond our control; they are linked to (immaterial) meaning and sense that living beings are constantly refining. 

An “enlivened economy” is one that promotes these sorts of relationships among living, natural processes.  “If nature actually is a commons,” writes Weber, “it follows that the only possible way to achieve a stable, long-term productive relationship with it is by building an economy of the commons.  It can help dissolve the traditional duality of humans and nature, and orient us toward respectful, sustainable models of engaging with the more-than-human aspects of nature.”

Weber’s account of “enlivenment” is sure to be controversial precisely because it challenges some core assumptions of the modern, scientific worldview.  It spans the worlds of science, politics, economics and the commons in a way that certainly raises many questions.  His essay is also likely to be misunderstood or its implications resisted, as when one questioner at the conference declared, "But we are not animals!"  Surely not in many significant senses, but we have yet to come to terms with our actual biological existence.  Our identities, consciousness, morality and sense of the world are embodied in living, breathing, material organisms.  The standard bioeconomics narrative has little to say about this realm.

To me, Weber’s accout has far more explanatory power than the standard accounts of homo economicus or Enlightenment categories.  Recent discoveries of biological sciences seem to confirm that the commons and the “more-than-human world” are different aspects of life itself – while the metaphysics of modern civilization is one that sees nature as “dead matter.”  It’s time to “enliven” this dead matter by recognizing and reclaiming the inner subjectivity of living things.

This blog post can’t do justice to a remarkably complex and thoughtful argument that, in its complete form, requires 71 pages.  Read the entire piece and you may never look at the world in quite the same way. 

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: Bioeconomics, biopoetics, Enlivenment, laissez-faire free market economics, Neo-Darwinist theory