Note: This blog expands on my interview on BBC World Service Newsday programme on 19th January.

Squirrels don’t have GPS and mobile technology.  They’ve got to remember where they hid all their nuts. Fortunately for them, and lots of other creatures that depend on their partial amnesia, they are sub-optimal in the nut recollection front. Imagine if they had a NUTS APP! Not a nut would go unchewed.

You’d see them stumbling across the forest floor, mobile device in hand, connecting to a series of satellites far above them in space, triangulating the exact position of each nut stash.  Optimized nut foraging, and all for £20 a year!  The NUTS APP would transform their little lives. Yet…

…there would be no more oak trees, since all the baby oaks (acorns) would have been eaten.  This means that eventually, there would be no more acorns, and…no more squirrels. Yet for the current generation of squirrels, this would not be a present risk, and so the NUTS APP might seem the only way to go. After all, when a bad winter came you could share your stash of nuts with those “developing” squirrels that didn’t have the APP, at a small cost. What would be wrong with that? And then you could teach them to use the NUTS APP, for a small licence fee.

But squirrels don’t do this, and foxes don’t eat all the rabbits either.  DNA is not perfectly repaired, allowing cancers to develop but also allowing mutations to build at an appropriate rate.  Nature is not optimal at any one level of organization, but rather is suboptimal at each level, for the greater good. 

This is because nature can only be understood using system theory, not reductionism. It isn’t made out of little boxes and it can’t be built from genes or memes.  It is an emergent property. And so we should expect sub-optimality at every level.  I have written about this in depth in my recent book, Escape from Bubbleworld: Seven Curves to Save the Earth, available on Amazon.

Yet we have moved far from this approach, especially in the West.  Western Consumerism has spread, becoming the global aspiration.  Why is this? There are two reasons.  Firstly the underlying philosophy that underpins all of the Western World’s social and economic principles, known as Enlightenment thinking, and secondly, the desire to make this philosophy the new world order, delivered globally through Development, and, in its most recent apparition, dressed up in pretty green ribbons, Sustainable Development.  This is the subject of my most recent book, Sustainable Economics: Context, Challenges and Opportunities. Let’s look at these two points briefly.

1. The underlying philosophy of the Western World.

The Enlightenment was, ironically, probably the darkest moment in recent human history, and indeed, natural history too. Just like the NUTS APP, it seemed like the greatest thing, but while ridding us of Church and State control was a good thing, ridding us of the bonds that tied us to nature was to spell our doom.  Nature holds no limits to the human race, cried Condorcet, the French philosopher.  Gone would be the tyranny of nature – the threats of famine, flood and disease.  The old horses of the apocalypse would be laid to rest, as humans, and humans alone would solve their own problems through technology and reason.  Optimization had begun, where we would all be supplied with NUTS APPS and harvest the bountiful supply of resources of the natural world.  This was the optimization of the human condition, where nature, as source and sink, would be made to bow before us. Its enslavement echoed the slavery of our fellow humans. Western Consumerism was unleased, supported by a philosophy that would become so deeply ingrained that we would come to view it as our natural state.

2. The problem with Development

As if this wasn’t bad enough, we then set about enforcing this philosophy on the rest of the world.  This really accelerated after World War II, where a new order was imagined, with global organizations such as the UN, IMF and World Bank delivering Enlightenment social and economic practice across the globe.  Development was the term that was used, converting the “developing” world into the “developed world”. Everyone would be given a free NUTS APP, and we could all aspire to a Western philosophy of reductionist, optimized and humanist thinking.

Yet as the last oaks fall, and the final stash of nuts has been located on the APP, we may finally realize that optimizing for the human condition was folly, that we live within an emergent system, not a reductionist Legoland, and that squirrel amnesia, not the NUTS APP, would have been the best way forward.