The parable of the bees

A Reading Note

When the people of Mao County, in central China, killed off the last of their bees via pesticides and overuse, they turned to alternative methods to pollinate their apple trees: people. Laborers dipped “pollen from blossom to blossom using brushes made from chopsticks and chicken feathers and cigarette filters.” MacKinnon continues:

Fifteen years later, three American researchers published an economic analysis of what they called “the parable of the bees,” and turned that story upside down. Mao County’s apple growers told interviewers they actually preferred hand pollination. Human pollinators, it turned out, were better at getting to every blossom, performed cross-pollination more efficiently, and could work in windy, rainy weather that a bee would never venture out in. What’s more, wages paid to orchard workers were often spent in the local area, further bolstering the economy. Worker bees don’t head off to the bar or the grocery store when their day is done.

“Destroying and replacing the free gifts of nature can be an economic benefit,” the researchers concluded. They might have gone on to argue that we should immediately begin to identify other ecological processes that could be replaced with human labor and technology, but in this case the team, led by the economist John Gowdy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, moved in the opposite direction. The parable of the bees, they argued, is not that natural systems aren’t always valuable, but that it’s dangerous to measure the value of nature in dollars and cents. “Market valuation is an exercise for people who have lost all sense of ecological embeddedness,” they wrote. “This is us, the global economic human of the twenty-first century.”

MacKinnon, The Once and Future World, page 140

In other words: judging something solely by its economic value is foolhardy. Schumacher, writing nearly forty years earlier in Small Is Beautiful, outlines this more directly:

I am asking what it means, what sort of meaning the method of economics actually produces. And the answer to this question cannot be in doubt: something is uneconomic when it fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money. The method of economics does not, and cannot, produce any other meaning. Numerous attempts have been made to obscure this fact, and they have caused a great deal of confusion; but the fact remains. Society, or a group or an individual within society, may decide to hang on to an activity or an asset for non-economic reasons—social, aesthetic, moral, or political—but this does in no way alter its uneconomic character. The judgement of economics, in other words, is an extremely fragmentary judgement; out of the larger number of aspects which in real life have to be seen and judged together before a decision can be taken, economics supplies only one—whether a thing yields a money profit to those who undertake it or not.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 44

My, but how quickly we forget this. The prevailing storyline these days would have you believe that valuations and profit margins represent the complete and singular picture of a business’ worth. No other metric figures into the conversation. Schumacher, again:

Economics, moreover, deals with goods in accordance with their market value and not in accordance with what they really are. The same rules and criteria applied to primary goods, which man has to win from nature, and secondary goods, which presuppose the existence of primary goods and are manufactured from them. All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of private profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 46

I’ve long thought (though I’m aware just how unlikely this is) that economics, as a discipline, ought to be kicked down a notch or two. We treat it, in our ordinary political conversations, as if it were all that mattered, or at least as if it mattered more than many other things. The subtitle to Small Is Beautiful—“Economics as if People Mattered”—remains an aspiration.

Related books

The Once and Future World

J. B. MacKinnon

MacKinnon calls for a “rewilding,” bringing the wild back into our lives rather than carving out a separate place for it. A compelling and beautiful read.

Small Is Beautiful

E. F. Schumacher

Schumacher brilliantly interrogates modern economics and proposes an alternative: a Buddhist economics that takes as its imperative the quality of human life, not the quantity of profit.