A Platonic dialogue among friends about the big issues

The Nature of Economies By Jane Jacobs The Modern Library 190 pp., $21.95

Presumably, author Jane Jacobs figured that explaining her economic views of man and nature would be more digestible by employing a dialogue and story based on imaginary characters.

The didactic method doesn't really succeed in this book. Though Jacobs displays knowledge of many academic fields, she is not a novelist. The story line is not intriguing, and it is hard to sort out her ideas in the intellectual conversations among the characters.

Jacobs's basic thesis is spelled out in a two-page foreword: "Human beings exist wholly within nature as a legitimate part of natural order in every respect."

Ecologists have a tough time accepting this unity, she adds. In anger and despair, they see the human species as an interloper in the natural order of things.

Economists, industrialists, politicians, and others, taking pride in human achievements, assume that reason, knowledge, and determination make it possible for human beings to circumvent and outdo the natural order.

In arguing that humankind and its works are not separated from the rest of nature, Jacobs uses information from the fields of biology, evolutionary theory, ecology, geology, meteorology, and other natural sciences.

Some of her tasty bits of knowledge save the book from being terribly boring. For instance, one character, Hiram, proclaims that "nature affords foundations for human life and sets its possibilities and limits. Economists seem not to have grasped this reality yet. But many people engaged in various economic activities do realize it's important to learn from nature and apply the knowledge to what they do." It's a little hard to imagine a real conversation going like that. Maybe it does in some circles.

In any case, Hiram then talks of modern metallurgists using X-ray crystallography to observe the changes that take place in lattices of metallic crystals created by temperature variations and alloy combinations.

Hiram concludes that "all kinds of people now understand that their success depends on working knowledgeably along with natural processes and principles." Economic life is "ruled by processes and principles we didn't invent and can't transcend, whether we like that or not, and that the more we learn of these processes and the better we respect them, the better our economies will get along."

In another instance, Kate explains to her friends why the Titanic sank in 1912. The steel then available to the engineers couldn't withstand the stress of the vessel's size, and it cracked under minimal impact with the iceberg.

That curious fact is related to the idea that economic or technical development depends on co-development, not just development in a straight line. The engineers could design this huge ship, but metallurgy hadn't advanced as far as engineering.

Hiram concludes that economies "enable us to partake, in our own fashion, in a great universal flow."

And Kate says, "Economic life is for teaching our species it has responsibilities to the planet and the rest of nature."

So both the author and super-keen environmentalists or ecologists end up somewhat in the same corner: Mankind must look after this globe and its creatures.

Just perhaps, her view of man as part of the natural process might ease some of the frequent battles over environmental issues. And she does believe it's possible for mankind to exploit nature in ways that can assure survival.

*David R. Francis is the Monitor's senior economics writer.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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