The Myth of Progress–What Can Nature Teach Us?

If you plant too much in a small space, competition for soil, water, and sunlight will result in diminished garden productivity.  Something will lose out on the aforementioned energy resources.

My experiment with grape vines has proven poor planning on my part–rapid growth, root system, and large leaves have overtaken a small strip of garden running adjacent to my deck.  It was somewhat exciting to train the vines to take over the deck rail, harvest grapes (the chickens love them), and almost see something growing by the minute.  Grapes grow really fast.  But I didn’t account for several years of pruning and growth in the given space.  Nor did I account for my desire to plant as much as I can in small spaces.  I tried to cut the vines this past winter, but they are shooting out new vines.

When done well, crops can compliment each other so they both thrive.  It takes careful planning, experimentation, and care.  I’ve recently planted some tomatoes near some greens–spinach and lettuce varieties–so that as the summer heat envelops Kentucky, the tomatoes will thrive and also provide shade for the greens so that they’ll continue to grow.

A young tomato plant that will eventually provide shade for the spinach.

I planted garlic at the base of my peach and nectarine trees, as I’ve had trouble with peach scab and other fungus on the leaves.  Garlic builds up sulfur, which I read is a natural fungicide.  So far this season, the trees look better.  But it’s still far from harvest time.

A well-maintained and thoughtfully planned out garden serves as a model for a more sustainable economy.  The Myth of Progress by Tom Wessels decries the current global economic model based on competition and growth, a model completely out of synch with resilient and complimentary natural systems.  He argues that because the current economic paradigm is so out of synch with nature, it is not a matter of if it’ll fail, but a matter of when.

He writes about coral reefs, forests, and other complex ecosystems.  Over time, species will coevolve and coexist in order to maximize their chances of survival and increase energy efficiency.  For example, chickadees and nuthatches have evolved to reduce their competition by learning to forage on different parts of a tree.  Wessels writes:

Competition in nature is quite a bit different than competition in human endeavors.  In the natural world, species don’t seek competition and more importantly, no  winners emerge from it’s struggles.  Although an individual or species may prevail from a competitive interaction, they lose energy during the competition.

The natural world and the business world are at odds, of course, but what has a longer track record of success?

If you measure economic health on the availability of cheap material goods, then of course we’re doing well.  If you measure economic vitality by winners and losers in the name of resources, markets, and landscapes, then what is happening in a lot of places is a colossal failure.

I don’t want any one crop to overtake a section of my garden, just as I don’t want any one corporation to take over massive tracks of land, shopping developments, or energy supplies.  I don’t want to grow only one type of tomato, just as I don’t want to have a limited choice of consumer goods or products due to massive corporate growth or consolidation.


  1. Agreed. Intuitively, I have felt like the global economy and the obsession with “growth” is absurd. The nature analogies are helpful in understanding what kind of systems can truly last and thrive.

  2. Yes! I saw chickadees and nuthatches at my birdfeeder this morning. They actually pick out different seeds from the wild birdseed mix. I hope the stone fruits do better this year!

  3. Interesting quote about competition. I always like the idea that we shouldn’t be playing the game of life to win, but rather to a draw. To win means an quick end and at the expense of everyone else; to tie is to last as long (hopefully in comfort) as possible.

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