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.
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?”