From Cows to Capital to Cultivation

cap·i·tal (etymology): Borrowed from Latin capitālis (“of the head”) (in sense “head of cattle”). Use in trade and finance originated in Medieval economies when a common but expensive transaction involved trading heads of cattle. Compare chattel, which also uses “cow” to mean “property.”

For many years, I’ve resisted the trend to apply the economic term “capital” to various spheres of our lives, as in “human capital,” “social capital,” “natural capital,” and so on. As this trend approaches absurd proportions, however, it is clear that an appropriate alternative is needed — one that enriches our understanding of complexity rather than reducing it, and one that invites wise, compassionate stewardship rather than commodification and thoughtless exploitation of the things we hold most dear.

The Ever Expanding List of Types of Capital

But why stop there? What if we go just a little further and apply the “capital” brush to more granular aspects of the human experience? Instead of health, we could talk about our digestive, immune and circulatory capitals. For intellect, I could boast about my spelling and grammar capital. For dating, we could tune in to someone’s height, reproductive and humor capitals.

Here is where we have to ask: how would we be served by labeling these aspects of ourselves as “capital”? How would our understanding and appreciation of them be enhanced? How would our actions be better informed? Would applying the label spur us to try to assign a financial value to them? Does the value of my spelling and grammar capital sufficiently offset my lack of culinary capital? According to whose standards?

The Limits — and Dangers — of the Metaphor of Capital

Wikipedia reports, for example, that: “In economics, capital consists of an asset that can enhance one’s power to perform economically useful work…. Capital is an input in the production function…. [It is] resources which enable the production of more resources.” As much as those who apply the term liberally would like it to mean something that is grown organically, the more accurate meaning is something that is accumulated. “Stocks and flows of capital” is the phrase used by systems scientists.

This may make some sense when the “capital” in question is a machine or money or some other inanimate object, rather than living beings within living communities and ecosystems. But does it really make sense to apply the term to people? The UN Human Development indices suggest that: “Theories of human capital formation and human resource development view human beings as means to increased income and wealth rather than as ends. These theories are concerned with human beings as inputs to increasing production.” This may be why “human capital” (German: Humankapital) was named the German Un-Word of the Year in 2004 by a jury of linguistic scholars, who considered the term “inappropriate and inhumane.” I might say the same about the related truism that “Our employees are our best asset,” as if they were a commodity to be bought, sold or rented.

What about “social capital”? Author David Halpern posits that the concept has gained popularity because “it has a hard nosed economic feel while restating the importance of the social.” But what if we didn’t feel the need to give it an arbitrary and artificial “hard nosed economic feel”? What if there were an alternative way to value the social that didn’t reduce it to inanimate, commodity status?

Journalist George Monbiot goes even further in his criticism of “natural capital,” which he calls “the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it…effectively pushing the natural world even further into the system that is eating it alive…. All the things which have been so damaging to the living planet are now being sold to us as its salvation; commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction. Now, we are told, these devastating processes will protect it.”

Even when the label is used as it was originally intended — to describe machines and their role in producing more resources — the concept doesn’t invite reflection about whether more resources should be produced, about how much is enough, and about the far-reaching repercussions of production. Inanimate “capital” is always embedded within complex, decidedly animate context. It can’t reasonably be considered — or assigned objective financial value — in isolation of the web and flow of life that it exists within.

An Alternative: Cultivating Fertile Conditions

When we look at the list of types of capital — Human Capital, Social Capital, Relational Capital, and so on — we can acknowledge that there are quantifiable, even controllable components that can be accumulated and, in some cases, depleted within each of these areas of our lives (years of schooling, for example, or number and variety of connections). All living systems are made up of component parts, though the system cannot be understood or stewarded effectively by looking only at those parts. Shifting the terminology from the sacrosanct “capital” to the humble, subservient “component” might be a step in the right direction.

com·po·nent (etymology) 1640s, “constituent part or element”, from Latin components, present participle of componere “to put together, to collect a whole from several parts,” from com “with, together” + ponere “to place”.

If so, then our next step might be to substitute one of these more dynamic concepts in place of “capital.” Human Capability. Social Potentiality. Natural Potency. Intellectual Generative Capacity. Even if none of these alternative words is an obvious winner, these phrases already hold more meaning than their original counterparts: there is inherent capability there, in that particular sphere of our lives, if only the right conditions are present for it to manifest.

This last phrase points to something fundamental. Instead of imagining that we are accumulating and using inanimate tools or components to get to predictable outputs, we begin to see that we are continually and adaptively cultivating the conditions for potential to be expressed over time — potential that may extend beyond what we can predict.

In fact, where we have in the past been tempted to apply the “capital” label to living entities, it may be more accurate and effective to speak of fertile conditions necessary for thriving. To thrive, we need to be able to develop and express our individual gifts; we need the flow of rich and ever deepening relationships; we need the essential functions and beauty of the natural ecosystems of which we are part; we need the flow of relevant information and the accumulation of useful knowledge. These are the aspects we have been referring to as “capital,” as if they are in service only of “the production of more resources.” But a larger lens helps us see that they are conditions necessary to our ability to thrive — to our “thrivability.”

Shifting from “managing types of capital for production of resources” to “cultivating fertile conditions necessary for thriving” represents a transition from a reductionist, mechanistic productivity mindset to an ongoing, generative practice of stewardship. And what we are stewarding is life. Human Capital, Social Capital, Natural Capital, Relational Capital — each of these examples of “capital” points to an opportunity to serve and support some aspect of a living system’s intrinsic ability to express its potential and to be transformed within its present context. There may be qualities or components that are accumulated, but this is not the system’s purpose (as the language of “capital” suggests). Some type of output can still be an intention, but the nature of the output and the means to get to it are understood within a far richer context.

What changes, then, when we see these various aspects of our work and our lives not as capital but as fertile conditions to be cultivated in service of thrivability?

  • We see wholeness. While we can acknowledge the presence and importance of quantifiable, controllable components, we go beyond language and thinking that envisions people or communities as a collection of separable parts, like cuts of meat in a cow. If you cut up a living system, you kill it. Connections and context are vital to understanding how a living system thrives and how to support it.
  • We engage with dynamism and flow. In contrast to the static concept of capital, cultivation is active, adaptive, changing over time. It relies on verbs and adjectives more than nouns, which is part of why the transition to new vocabulary is so challenging.
  • We envision the work differently. Instead of seeking most of all to control and commodify, we cultivate, in humble and curious service. “Building my social capital” might be better understood as “cultivating vibrant, generative relationships.” “Leveraging human capital” might be seen now as “cultivating human thrivability.” In place of the transactional, we seek the transformational.
  • We serve life — all life. The goal is no longer simply production of more resources in economically useful work; it is enabling life to thrive at every level: for individuals, for organizations, for communities and for the biosphere. This invites more important aspirations. It raises the conversation to a higher level, asking: to what extent does any decision we are considering enable life to thrive? Even in the case of inanimate machines, we may ask: what is its tendency to enable integrity, beauty and regenerative capacity?

As the saying goes, “Words create worlds.” All of this language may still feel awkward, but as the underlying way of thinking settles in, we may find our way to more fluid vocabulary. Or we may gradually grow into these more expansive concepts. As Donella Meadows says in her landmark article, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System: “People who have managed to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm have hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.” And transform systems we must. My sense is that this shift in vocabulary — and in perceptions and actions — is absolutely critical if we are to make it through the environmental and social catastrophes we face.