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The Bioeconomy Transition

The Bioeconomy Transition

by Wolfgang Onyeali, Michael P. Schlaile, and Bastian Winkler

A condensed version of the authors' open-access article Navigating the Biocosmos: Cornerstones of a Bioeconomic Utopia published in the MDPI journal Land as part of the Special Issue Sustainable Land-Based Bioeconomy Development.

Key points:

  • The current economic system and its thought routines are incompatible with a genuine bioeconomy. A new framework is needed.
  • The bioeconomy involves transitioning to a new human-nature relationship based on a holistic paradigm, not mechanistic thinking.
  • Nature is a rhythmic, interconnected web shaped by the needs and drives of living beings.
  • Two universal tendencies are the drive for autonomy and the drive for relationships.
  • Synchrony between mother and infant, and between humans and nature, is based on affection and shared experience.
  • Imagination allows us to directly know nature's creativity. We can read nature's symbolic language.
  • Autonomy enables creative destruction - disrupting routines and actualizing new possibilities.
  • Freedom to direct attention, combined with unconscious drives, propels purposeful activity.
  • The biocosmos is proposed as a self-sufficient household embedded in its ecosystem, like a mini Gaia.
  • It involves selecting species to form a community interdependently satisfying needs.
  • Humans diversify and integrate the biocosmos' yield to craft desired products and produce surplus.
  • Thus humans act as nature, consciously participating in evolution's creativity.

The concept of bioeconomy is frequently seen as an essential element in what has been termed a great societal transformation, a transition from the current socio-economic system towards a more desirable, possible system in the future [see 1, 2]. When complex and dynamic systems transition from one state to another, they temporarily exist in a state of critical juncture, a state of potentiality in which multiple possible pathways co-exist, and which pathway will be actualized remains undetermined. This state of instability implies that only slight perturbations might be needed to determine the selection of a discrete pathway and thus define the future [3]. This state of indeterminacy constitutes the basis for a creative, participatory universe in which the future is open and unpredictable, ready to be shaped in a co-creative way by the creatures who inhabit it.

If the bioeconomy transition is to be genuine, the human-nature relationship must be reimagined and renegotiated on the basis of a different paradigm. The mechanistic paradigm that still dominates modern thinking has produced a conception of a universe that is lifeless, hollow, and predictable. This paradigm has ultimately manifested in destruction to our planetary ecosystem and in the epidemic loss of fluid imagination. This mechanistic trend has been intensifying since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with the principle of the assembly line being applied to virtually all major aspects of life, despite the fact that biological, ecological, social, and psychological systems are based on principles fundamentally different from, say, machines or factories. Despite being useful in some aspects of life and techno-economic progress, the mechanistic paradigm has locked us into the cage of determinism, leaving little room for freedom, creativity, aliveness, beauty, and experiential depth.

The Weaving of Nature: A Process of Synchronization and Disruption

Our planetary ecosystem is organized by the rhythmic influx of radiation from the sun at daytime and the export of heat into the cold blackness of space by night [4]. This diurnal rhythm and its seasonal variation produces the atmospheric circulations, the ocean currents, and the tidal motions, the water cycle, the circulations within the earth mantle, and so forth. All these flow patterns interconnect these different elemental systems into a unified web of interactions. The resulting cosmic symphony is responsible for the fairly stable conditions we find on earth, which make organic life and its evolution possible. All sentient beings are embedded into this symphony, influencing and being influenced by this web of interactions and by one another. All activities within the biosphere are driven by the needs of each living being, trying to make a living within this dynamic context [5]. The bioeconomy, therefore, is the combined effect of all needs-related activities within the biosphere, both human and non-human [5].

Needs have their basis in the drives that signal that activities are necessary to maintain or restore the dynamic equilibrium of the being in question. These drives motivate beings to engage in the creative activity of satisfying their needs by making use of the potential that nature makes available.

There are two tendencies in living beings that result in strategies for staying alive and healthy, and which facilitate the expansion and complexification of the web of life: (i) the tendency towards autonomy, and (ii) the tendency to build relationships (communion) (see Fig.1). These tendencies are responsible for the apparent trend towards increased autonomy as well as the trend towards greater complexity over the course of evolutionary history [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13].

Figure 1 : Harmonized Human-Nature Relationship. Source: Onyeali et al. (2023)

The Universal Tendencies Towards Autonomy and Communion

Mother-infant Synchrony

When a child is born and the umbilical cord that has connected it to its mother is cut, the infant tastes the first experience of autonomy. However, the infant remains helpless and unable to satisfy its needs on its own and is nurtured both physically and psychologically by its mother. Their sensitivity allows them to deeply connect and intuitively feel the inner condition of the other. Rather than being rational, these primal interactions are aesthetic experiences. The feelings as expressed in gesture, eye gaze, facial expression, vocal tone, etc. are mirrored in the other. This sharing of affection forms a resonant circuit which partially dissolves the boundaries that separate the infant from its mother. Therefore, in those moments when the mother affectionately attends to her child and the child responds, their brain waves, heart rates and endocrine systems synchronize [14, 15, 16, 17].

This synchrony does not disappear when the infant has grown to adulthood and devises strategies to make a living in a self-determined manner. Instead, it forms the basis of any form of communication. When two people, as an example, engage in an intimate dialogue, what is literally being said is but a small fraction of the actual process of communication which includes paraverbal and nonverbal aspects [18]. These non-articulated aspects convey the bulk of the meaning the speaker intends to express and may be apprehended by the listener directly and immediately. This is possible because the sensitivity of the listener and the openness of his attention allows him to mirror the other in his imagination, that is, he may experience the other as himself [19, see also 20]. A meaningful expression thus reverberates in the whole embodied being. This is also expressed by micromovements surging through the muscular system of the listener - the body “dances” as it were, in accord with the expression of the speaker. And thus, through imagination, the listener mirrors and embodies the speaker to some degree [21,22]. This peculiar interaction that intimately synchronizes beings with one another results in an intersubjective space of a shared experience and thus complexifies the web of life and keeps it integrated and unified.

Human-Nature Synchrony and The Body Language of Nature

Since we are also in a perpetual dialogue with our environment, our surroundings constantly “speak” to us in a myriad of gestures influencing our physiological and psychological constitution [e.g. 23]. For instance, the rhythm of light and darkness that varies as the sun passes through the zodiac, and the lunar rhythm moving the waters accompanied by the stellar and planetary constellations that ignite the blackness of space form the baseline of experience for all life on earth. “Life on earth has been continuously exposed to astronomical and geophysical rhythms and has coevolved with them” [24, p. 234]. Nature´s body language thus constitutes the shared archetypal experience [Urerfahrung] of organic life [25]. And this shared experience of evolutionary time (not clock-time) is an aesthetic experience by which the hidden but vibrant potentiality becomes visible in cosmic gestures that can be sensed, can produce imaginations and, in turn, inspire meaningful responses.

It is widely known that the mere exposure to a healthy ecosystem positively affects us human beings in various ways including our physical health and mental health, which is only possible if there is a fundamental and systemic synchrony mediated by our affective sensitivity. Yet this perpetual dialogue usually happens below the threshold of consciousness. However, if raised above the threshold of consciousness, this resonance has an epistemic function, rooted in imagination, that allows us to mirror and embody, and thus acquire direct knowledge of, nature's creative processes. Thus, nature presents itself as a symbol of the invisible in the process of becoming [see also 26].

"When someone meets you with a smiling face, you do not stop short at the characteristic contortion of his features, you see beyond the physiognomic expression and recognize that the smile reveals the person’s inner life. Likewise you recognize tears to be an expression of inner pain and sorrow. In other words, the outer expresses the inner; through the physiognomy you perceive the depths of soul. As the human face, or the gesture of a hand, is the expression of a person’s soul life, so, (…) everything that takes place in nature is an expression of soul and spirit. Every stone, plant and animal, every current of air, the stars, all express soul and spirit just as do shining eyes, a wrinkled brow or tears. If you do not stop short at today’s materialistic interpretation that regards what the Earth-Spirit says in Goethe’s Faust as poetic fantasy, but recognize that it depicts reality, then you know what is meant by imaginative knowledge: 
In the tides of life, in action’s storm,
A fluctuant wave,
A shuttle free,
Birth and the Grave,
An eternal sea.
A weaving, flowing Life, all-glowing,
Thus at time’s humming loom ‘tis my hand prepares
The garment of Life which the Deity wears!" 
- (Rudolf Steiner, 1906)

Although the symbolic transparency of nature was a common concept throughout history and the human being was regarded as the image of the cosmos, of nature, this conception was abandoned by Sir Francis Bacon at the inception of Modern Science [27]. Paracelsus, as many scholars before him, referred to this human- nature synchrony as reading the Book of Nature [27]. Even throughout the subsequent evolution of Modern Science, this imaginative way of knowing and its corresponding nature-philosophy was advocated by scholars such as Paracelsus, Schelling, Goethe, Steiner, and Whitehead as a necessary foundation of and complement to the analytical-mathematical way of knowing. Nevertheless, it has been largely excluded by the quasi-monopolization of linear thinking. Imagination, however, is the fertile ground by which the analytical-mathematical way of knowing is sustained and from which it sprang forth in the first place. Modern Science was born from the observation of astronomical rhythms, and the endeavor to read the stars initiated the evolution of mathematics and geometry.

The sensitivity by which we commune with the other and know the other constitutes a missing link meant to intimately connect us to one another and to the cosmos, which is the self-expression of the invisible and fertile realm of potentiality. This connection links everything to everything else. And thus, even distant astronomical events might as well echo in the planetary web of life and germinate in the human imagination as seeds of new possibilities, ultimately manifesting as culture. Our embeddedness within the interconnected cosmos is defined by how we position ourselves in the web of relationships, how we live and interact with it, and, specifically, how we satisfy our needs. And this sense of communion with the cosmos can be referred to as spirituality:

Spirituality is not theology or ideology. It is simply a way of life, pure and original as was given by the Most High. Spirituality is a network linking us to the Most High, the universe and each other.
- Haile Selassie I (1960)

Autonomy, Agency, and Creative Destruction

Sentient beings are not only shaped by their environments and their respective communities of inhabitants but, being autonomous agents, they also proactively reshape and internalize their environments. Whereas the innate sensitivity in beings facilitates communion with the meaningful expressions of nurturing nature, it should be emphasized that nature is not only the source of physical and psychological nutrition but also acts as the force of deterioration, destruction, death. All beings have to deal with the universal problem of physical deterioration and may grow stronger by doing so. Autonomy is a response to this erosive side of nature. Creatively finding ways to keep deterioration at bay constitutes a primary function of bioeconomic activity.

What makes a creature creative is its autonomous agency. This entails that it can, to some degree, change the rules it wants to follow and disrupt existing interaction patterns that have become routine. Creatures can thus refuse to synchronize or cooperate with other agents and rather push back boundaries of constraint and engage in competition. This allows an organism to transform its environment in reference to itself (niche construction), venture into new territory, as well as develop new capabilities [28]. These then allow for new sets of possibilities to become available.

The autonomous agent is not the effect of an external cause. Living cells, organisms, ecosystems, and economies, are not systems that are assembled and operated by an outside agent. Rather, they spontaneously assemble and maintain their own structural identity in the face of change (autopoiesis) [29]. In contrast to a factory, for example, which is constructed by an outside agent producing pre-determined identical versions of the same product, each autonomous agent is unique, and it produces nothing other than itself. Its exact developmental pathway and its embeddedness into a given environment is not fully determined. Thus, the exact outcome is the result of improvisation based on moment-to-moment calls and responses, which happen in concert with other improvising agents, who do likewise. The result is not a disorderly chaos but a field of potentiality, which allows the invisible cosmic potentiality to leak into the macroscopic world and transform it from inside by actualizing new possibilities that may persist.

The basis of autonomy is the being´s capability, unconditioned by its natural and social context, to direct and focus attention freely. The light of attention transforms potential into actual. Attention is the principal means by which beings navigate the process of becoming in a participatory manner. This freedom to navigate is self-determined by the being and is thus unpredictable, resulting in a fundamental openness regarding the future. A being´s autonomy enables it to disrupt the web of routinized interaction patterns and then creatively weave the loose threads into a new meaningful pattern. This process of individuation produces diversity and allows for new combinations.

However, as a means of navigation, attention is impotent on its own. It is like the steering system of a ship. The ship can only be navigated if there is something that propels it forward. In this analogy, the propulsion system is excitement, enthusiasm, interest. This excited state allows an individual to move toward an anticipated state being attracted to or interested in the actualization of a possible state. This motivational force exists as personal drives as well as collective drives forming the phenomenological basis of needs as anticipations of future states. The motivational force ebbs and flows, pouring potentiality into the human field of attention - at times with seemingly uncontrollable force - and lures beings into meaningful and purposeful activity [30]. It is an interplay of the light of attention and the fertile and vibrant blackness of unconscious potentiality, which gives rise to currents of imagination.

This interplay may result in a flow state, a state of heightened awareness in which drive, attention, and motor skills fully converge in a singular act of creation. This creative act is nothing but the cosmos in the process of creating, actualizing potential. As Goethe insists, the creative human being, therefore, “does not imitate Nature but himself operates as Nature.” [31, p. 13] And, correspondingly, the student of nature in the process of imaginative knowing becomes “nature itself philosophizing [autophusis philosophia],” to use Schelling´s words [as quoted in 32, p. 224]. It is by knowledge and creativity that the human being is inseparably intertwined with nature, acquiring imaginative knowledge and expressing it in the meaningful and spontaneous actualization of potential, weaving new actual patterns within the grand orchestra of the cosmos. As if submerged in the current of evolution, beings participate in the creative process. Yet in the human being this process may happen in the full light of attention.

Thus it can be argued that the two fundamental tendencies (autonomy and communion) provide the unique opportunity of (i) direct, imaginative knowing that allows us to link to, mirror, and embody the dynamism of the other, and (ii) co-creation based on the power of imagination that allows us to dissolve existing thought-patterns and spontaneously actualize new meaningful ones and thus reshape the world we live in.

The Biocosmos: Gaia's Daughter

Nature has not yet forgotten that she ought to be exalted and redeemed further by the human being, that even until now there lies a talisman within him by which she is supposed to be redeemed.
- Friedrich Schelling (1809)

This raises the question: what could our future look like if we were to apply organic principles of organization to human society instead of the principle of the assembly line, if we were to merge with nature instead of machines? What is proposed here is the transformation of the private household into an agroecological habitat system – the biocosmos - a bioeconomic pattern of irreducible complexity. The biocosmos is composed of a selected community of species, i.e., autonomous and sensitive agents, arranged into five biomes, reflecting the evolution of ecosystems, which supply the household with the basic resources needed for a good life and produce surplus as these in turn supply the selected species with what they need. The biocosmos is a miniature replica of Gaia and is a fabric woven around the household members, the biocosmonauts. The tendency toward communion allows the household members to gradually merge with the community of selected beings into a human-navigated superorganism, Gaia´s daughter, the firstborn.

To turn the possibilities presented into actual satisfaction of needs, the products of the biocosmos need to be diversified and refined in the respective conversion processes. These are the metabolic pathways of the biocosmos that result in a spectrum of building blocks. This means that, based upon the need for autonomy, the biocosmonauts disrupt the biocosmos and dismember its body to diversify and make available a broad spectrum of substance possibilities from its produce (diversification). This is only legitimate because in the subsequent step, these parts are combined creatively in the crafting of those things needed for satisfying the needs of the household members, i.e. crafting the world they want to live in, which includes the house, food, medicine, cosmetics and cleaners, furniture and household stuff, clothes, etc. (integration). The refined and diversified substance possibilities are like the keys of a piano that are combined into chords, arranged into sequences resulting in a biocosmic composition that satisfies the full spectrum of human needs. In so doing, the biocosmonauts operate as nature, diversifying and integrating, disrupting and weaving a new pattern in the fabric of life. Applying this universal process of solve et coagula, navigating the biocosmos can be seen as a new, extended form of art, aiming at advancing beyond the modern industrial society towards a post-modern biocosmic civilization. Thus, the biocosmonauts consciously and constructively participate in the ascending trajectory of the process of evolution.

What surrounds the human being does not alone act on him. He acts back on the same and by allowing himself to be modified he modifies what surrounds him. So, clothes and household stuff of a man is certainly indicative of his character. Nature shapes the human, he reshapes himself, yet this reshaping is still natural. He who is set into the great wide world, fences, walls in a little one therein and adorns it according to his image.
- Goethe as quoted by 33, p. 11


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