(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Over four decades, Jane Jacobs produced several book-length analytical essays examining human systems, particularly cities, and their operation. The Nature of Economies continues in this tradition, offering comparisons of human economies to the systems of the natural world.

The Nature of Economies is, in a sense, a continuation and extension of Jacobs’s Systems of Survival (1993), which focused on the moralities of commerce and politics. Jacobs brings back several characters from the earlier book and employs a similar format—that of narrating and transcribing a series of conversations among friends in New York. Armbruster, a retired publisher, organizes meetings among the friends. He is joined by his niece, Hortense, an environmental lawyer; Kate, a science writer and former research scientist specializing in bioneurology; and Hiram Murray IV, a new character, an ecologist Hortense is dating. Later conversations bring in another new character, Hiram’s father, an economist. Missing from the circle is Ben, Hortense’s former boyfriend, who used to gloat over industrial disasters as evidence backing up his opinion that anything industrial or technological is inherently bad. His voice would have added more depth to the conversations; only rarely are objections raised to the points being made even when such objections are valid.

Jacobs herself states in the foreword that she uses didactic dialogue, a better description than “Platonic dialogue,” which appears on the flyleaf. Most of the conversations consist primarily of monologues by Hiram expounding on his theories. Hiram is a fund raiser and assists in finding grants for people to develop products and production methods based on nature—activities that he refers to as “biomimicry.” This work has led him to contemplate how human systems fit into what traditionally has been called the “natural” world. Throughout, he stresses that humans are a part of nature and that principles that apply to “nature” should apply equally well to human activities.

Armbruster is at first skeptical of Hiram’s program of biomimicry, and Hortense accuses him of sounding like her former boyfriend, Ben. When Armbruster states that biomimicry seems to be an exploitation of nature, Hiram responds that biomimicry is a form of development and states his belief in connections between economies and ecosystems. He also announces his personal project of learning economics through a study of nature (he had studied economics in college but switched to environmental science). This idea interests Armbruster, who wants to find out what Hiram has learned and asks permission to tape-record later conversations.

The initial conversation introduces four of the five characters and sets the groundwork for later discussion. Hiram points out that the word “ecology” was coined to refer to the economy of nature. He believes that human economies, like nature, are ruled by processes and principles that people did not invent and that they cannot transcend. Furthermore, knowledge of these principles can promote development and make development more harmonious with nature. Kate notes that Hiram’s theoretical framework implies that humans are a part of nature, an implication with which she agrees.

At the beginning of the first tape-recorded conversation, Armbruster admits that he does not know where to begin in questioning Hiram and requests that Hiram start his discussion wherever appropriate. This request sets the tone for the remainder of the book: Throughout, Hiram explains his theories, with the others listening and, occasionally, elaborating with examples from their own experience.

Chapter 2 is Hiram’s explanation of development, which he defines as significant qualitative change—that is, for development to occur, a system must change rather than simply grow. This differs from some economic definitions that measure development as an increase in economic capacity gauged by gross national product or income per capita. Hiram believes that all development is similar, consisting of differentiation resulting from generality; the differentiations then become new generalities.

Invention is an important aspect of development but is not synonymous with it. Some inventions are ahead of their time; they cannot be exploited fully because other conditions do not adequately support them. Kate mentions that the engineering of the Titanic, for example, was advanced for its time but that the best steel then available could not withstand the stresses created by the engineering design. Knowledge is thus part of the development process, and knowledge in one area often will have effects that reach many other areas. In addition, “lost” knowledge—that associated with obsolete techniques and technologies—may later resurface as important in new contexts. This idea ties into the importance of retaining biodiversity—certain species may serve purposes not yet realized.

Hiram notes that many governmental attempts to promote economic development have been based on what he calls the “Thing Theory of Economic...

(The entire section is 2089 words.)