To Bring About a Sustainable Economy
We are facing a systemic crisis of great magnitude, which requires radical thinking and action at all levels. We find ourselves in a logic that tells us that the system can only survive and thrive with more growth in an open-ended chain of production and consumption. This requires ever more credit –which caused a crash in the first place- and the use of yet more natural resources… We live however on a finite planet, with finite reserves. The system cannot mechanically absorb such exponential growth in consumption of energy and other resources at the current stage of our technologies and practices, and in the current state of the world’s finances. This perpetual machine model, supported by the 20% wealthiest on the planet – to which any one of us reading this article belongs – however justified by the noble objective of elevating greater numbers to the middle class worldwide, is mindless of its impossibility and spiraling side effects that make the problem even worse. Even if our economies picked up a bit in the near future and if the credit crisis was eased off, even if climate change was not the ‘reality’ some think it may be and even if we continued to find oil and gas reserves and energy efficiencies to buy some time, we would not be able to infinitely exploit a finite environment, and we would be facing the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity within the next decades, this century, with price tensions on raw material and pressures on financial and social systems that would put economies, people and the planet at enormous risk. The problematic won’t go away… It will hit us harder –permanently?- next time…
Mourning the Future
The animated documentary below is a good one to illustrate the interconnection between growth and fossil fuels and the impacts of its intensive use, our dependence and its rarefaction, with climate change left aside:
I shared this video widely, although it contains a few inaccuracies and the happy ending falls quite short, wondering if it wasn’t feeding the doom discourse that causes over pessimists to hide helplessly in their shelters and expect the sky to fall upon them… As a natural and active realistic optimist I think I am not contributing to the gloom. I will not however blindly assume that solutions will emerge on their own, like they always have... neither will I consider the perspective of a total breakdown as a negligible remote probability, hardly accounted for in risk management. I prefer to take the ‘enlightened catastrophism’ approach of French philosopher Jean Pierre Dupuy, who suggests that holding the possibility of a catastrophe credible enables us to become more proactive and to chose, among all options available, those that will in the end push the catastrophe away or make it acceptable... Wouldn’t it be wiser indeed to acknowledge that all things remaining equal, there actually may very well be No Tomorrow, and after having Mourned the Future as Dupuy calls it, to move on to make tomorrow possible again?
What does a thriving tomorrow look like?
What is there to do? What story can we tell? As much as the documentary is showing us in a sequence how we will reach the breakdown, is there an equivalent scenario on how our vision of a brighter future will unfold and materialize?
I have been on a quest for a while, involved in several group discussions around sustainability, change, new technologies, on how to make the world a better place, or to stop engaging in these 'suicidal' activities, with people from various backgrounds, cultures, age, disciplines…
Conversations are taking place everywhere. There is something palpable in the air, a feeling that ‘Something is happening here’ to quote Thomas Friedman in the New York Times last fall.
From, once more, the pessimists’ angle: talks of a Great Disruption, a subject dear to environmentalist Paul Gilding who describes quite well this notion of infinite consumption of finite resources, but also claims a breakdown is necessary before effective change occurs:
And from the optimists’ perspective: signs of a Big Shift, as John Hagel likes to describe, expressed in a swarming of ideas and possibilities that announce a new era, made possible by science and technology. Optimism is epitomized here by Peter Diamandis co-founder of the Singularity University in his Ted talk: Abundance is our future.
And here they are the two of them, Guilding and Diamantis in a debate. Well... both of them are probably right... you need the ingenuity of inventors and innovators to be ready to roll out bottom up effective technological solutions, but you also need the political will and the genuine involvement of corporations and governments to create the conditions favorable for these solutions to get implemented at a sufficient scale, not only in getting out of the way, but in espousing some basic operating principles for sustainable business and governance to happen...
What gives me the most hope because it talks to human nature is Charles Eisenstein's vision of "the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible" beautifully expressed in Ian MacKenzie's video of Eisenstein's Sacred Economics. But this should go further to show how this is doable, not just a dream, how it could scale and become effective:
From a realistic perspective, the transformation needs to be undertaken not only from the periphery but also from within existing institutions. The World Economic Forum too presented a case for a Great Transformation, and shared a forceful call to action video as an introduction to its 2012 Global Agenda. The need for a transformation seems to generate lots of talk. But there isn’t much visible action yet… the brewing is under the surface…
The world has entered an intense mode of conjecture and research, of trial and error, that precedes the birth of something new. Various possible paths, many needs to fulfil, many sensitivities, expectations and aspirations are driving us. We each have our explanation of what is going wrong, we have a vision of the future, an angle or a lens from which we see tomorrow. Some want to impose their own view, others wish to embrace and connect them all. But when we ask each other and ourselves what the solutions are, what is coming next, the question hardly finds a response. Even when systemic solutions and levers are known, we don't quite know collectively where to start, we can't collectively anticipate which steps to take moment after moment... There is no universal model to apply, no global one-size-fits-all solution to roll out top down that could be agreed on.
There are however innovative models being explored and experienced on the field... When we dig a little deeper, we find sustainable solutions swarming everywhere, ready to be implemented, projects to start trying out, new clean technologies ready to be implemented or further developed that could secure Energy-Food-Water supply, regenerate local economies and provide sustainable alternatives to existing challenges and the bio and geo-engineered ‘blanket’ solutions that are being considered. However because most of them are developed as entrepreneurial ventures locally, these initiatives appear as scattered efforts and seem invisible… a drop in the ocean… a whisper in the noise…
Making possibilities visible and accessible, helping navigate possibilities and course of action, showing how they combine to impact and evolve -what I have described in my article here is one of the challenges for those who are building the strategies, tools and solutions for tomorrow.
Towards a distributed economy
The path that seems to materialize is made of multiple paths emerging organically from the development of agency and capability at the user or citizen and community levels. Something A shift, enabled by a growing capacity for self expression bootstrapped by technologies, from a decentralized top down hierarchical model, to a distributed model. A natural movement toward autonomy, resilience and sustainability that manifests in many areas. This orientation toward local empowerment and access to resources is a real motive for hope and what we should work to consolidate.
- We see it with internet enabled access to independent information combined with extended authorship and voicing capacities to challenge the existing order. This is has affected the press industry, politics, intellectual property, collaboration and business to consumer relationships.
- We see many alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear energy co-generated locally, making use of what is available, reducing online losses and waste and unnecessary dependencies. Gunter Pauli’s Zeri and Blue Economy are a good example.
- We see local traditional agro ecology providing up to twice the yields of mass agriculture, addressing systemically at the same time regeneration of soil, water and energy and the [re]construction of community life and economies. This is supported by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Report: Agro-ecology and the right to food or with examples such as the Savory Institute’s holistic management of land and numerous bio intensive and permaculture initiatives.
- We see the development of open source production and 3D manufacturing that enable to build goods and spare parts locally on demand and the growing number of fab labs, hacker and maker spaces around the world, that combined with the growing and unsuspectedly significant penetration of mobile phones in every remote part of the globe provide access to new types of products and services adapted to actual social and economic needs.
- We see the development of local and alternative consumption and monetary systems based on the sharing Economy, collaborative consumption, barter, alternative currencies, mutual credit, and the return return of the girft economy as described by Charles Eisenstein in his book Sacred Economics.
- We see new corporate structures and management practices emerge that favor autonomized teams and distributed decision making or new ways of doing business. These are embodied in corporations such as Semco, or management hack platforms such as Gary Hamel’s Management Exchange
Robustness is acquired through flexibility. Agile is replacing solid. A circular regenerative, waste-is-nutrient, cradle-to-cradle approach is replacing the linear exploitive extract /produce /consume /dispose logic.
This doesn’t necessarily entail the re-localization and re-fractioning of everything. What is vital and more effective when centralized/ decentralized for social, economic and environmental reasons is likely to remain so. The principle of subsidiarity that stipulates that matters ought to be handled and commons governed at the most relevant and effective level in terms of agency, capability and outcome is likely to provide a good criterion to define governance boundaries. Transforming politics and governance into an effective operating system is another challenge of the coming decade.
Our mindsets, institutions, infrastructures are currently systemically dysfunctional because they are conceived for branching out and establishing exchanges along designed paths that solidify - and channel overexploitation- with time and size (the decentralized tree model), with each node empowered through its upstream nodes. The natural movement described above is pushing towards paths that form to respond to specific needs (the distributed brain model) with each node self-and context- empowered and (re)forming connections on ad hoc basis.
If the sustainable economy is to be built on distributed solutions, tailored to needs and available resources in concert with local stakeholders, the way these solutions will be diffused and implemented at a scale that makes them become more than a series of scattered initiatives and a pace relevant to the urgency of the situation we are facing is another challenge we will be facing.
What new infrastructures, structures, institutions need to be in place to facilitate this process? How can the current decentralized networks and institutions operating under the old paradigm, who have a firing power, a surface, a presence, to move mountains, be put to work to bring about the new rather than fuel the systemic failure mentioned above, without adopting the new models just to perpetuate the old abuses? How can they be transformed? Distributing and enabling a sustainable economy from the periphery as well as from ‘within’ is requirement for a swift transition. The shift required is massive. It cannot happen with alternative solutions and through social entrepreneurship alone.
The major challenge of morphing from an overall hierarchical model to a more sustainable and distributed model is one of distributing leadership, decision, and capability. This requires actors to be empowered and enabled for participation and action at the local level and requires political will within the current structures and institutions. There is a huge gap between local and people aspirations and what current institutions and governance structures are ready to offer and particularly what they are ready to renounce. We are dealing in the political.
It seems clear that the mainstream is progressively coming to senses. Pockets of consciousness in the corporate world, such as demonstrated in the sustainable consumption initiative of the WEF or as Corporation2020 dedicated to blend sustainability into the design, ownership, governance, strategy and practices of the corporation, or furthermore McKinsey backed Circular Economy rationale for an accelerated transition presented by the Ellen McArthur foundation are clearly showing directions. Insurance companies and re-insurance companies will eventually push the requirement for externality costing now endorsed by the UN to another dimension, if the increase of resource prices don’t do the job fast enough. This process needs to be helped and accelerated further.
If today’s leaders and change agents can’t design and engineer global top down solutions, they can help create contexts and conditions and generate processes and dynamics to activate and accelerate self directed, emergent, evolutionary breakthroughs, that would help the 'willing', the 'bridge builders' within the mainstream to start a transition process from where they are located.
I have been exploring for a while the ways to "activate" human agency and political will, in the lines described in my "We Move... building an ecology for transformative action" set of slides. In this other post I describe an action-oriented strategy and process methodology for generating engagement and accountability in the political, economic, social and environmental spheres. Inspired by Elinor Estrom's "Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action" with the objective of turning around the tragedy of the commons.
This all revolves around ACTIVATION. Activation of human agency and what Clay Shirky calls the cognitive surplus, activation of political will, activation of possibilities, activation of on the ground action and implementation at all possible levels and of all possible kinds.
These are the challenges that we change agents are facing now!