I was talking with a friend the other day about the pending end of the world as we know it. She made a most insightful suggestion to me: instead of looking at our situation as a window that is about to close on us (which is indeed how many people do see things), her thought was that we might benefit from thinking of it more like a “looking glass”, a-la Alice in Wonderland. Her suggestion really clicked with me and a cascade of brain synapses closed in new patterns that I had never experienced before. A new kind of light went on in my head, as it were.
That’s what new paradigms do, or are supposed to, at least. They are supposed to enable us to look at the same old big jumble of often-times confusing data, facts, and figures in a completely new and different way. This can then increase the size of our available “solution space”, as it is sometimes called, so that we can discover new approaches that we weren’t able to see before.
And never before have we more needed to increase our solution space; we are, indeed, about to step through the looking glass. Our species has gone through crisis points that threatened our very survival, our near-extinction following the Toba eruption the most extreme so far. What we are facing now is not so far removed from that. Equipped with our very clever hominid brains, we have extracted the enormous energy of millions of years of solar energy stored in the form of non-renewable fossil fuels and built a planetary-scale industrial civilization that now has its own geological era named after it: the Anthropocene.
That we have done great harm to the planet’s biosphere upon which all of life depends is obvious and indisputable; what is less appreciated are the good and admirable things that we have achieved in our fossil-fueled activities; and what is rarely acknowledged, if ever, is that we painfully beat each up over the head for not having sooner recognized our mistakes and taken proactive measures to correct them. I think the point bears repeating that, evolutionarily speaking, we jumped out of the trees and walked on to the African savannah only yesterday. That we have not yet solved all of the world’s problems that we have created through our innate cleverness should really come as no surprise, and we would all do well to stop berating each other over our situation.
If we are to turn our perils into opportunities what we need to do now is to rediscover our innate capacity to cooperate: how best to recognize it, how best to describe it, and how best to foster it. Cooperation is in our nature; it is what enabled us to survive in the face of vastly physically superior predators. While competition has its place and time in our socioeconomic systems, such periods are the exception, and not the rule. It is only the excess energy provided by cheap fossil fuels that has created the mistaken illusion of the inverse.
Thus we must all become New Economists if we are to make this transition back to our natural state. The stakes are too high and the scope of work too daunting to be left to a select few academics to inform us what to do and how to do it. This transition is going to require all of our collective efforts if we are to make it through to the other side of the looking glass whole and in one piece. This is most assuredly not an academic exercise.
And make no mistake as to the opportunity: the invitation has been made; the opening beckons. It is truly now up to us, at the grassroots level, to build new economic paradigms and structures within our communities. If we do not avail ourselves of this opening we will have only ourselves to blame - - and only our descendants to look back on our inaction and curse our names forever for not having even made the attempt. Assuming they will exist at all.
In this diary I’m first going to tell you about what I think are two very important economic initiatives that are just now getting underway that you need to know about. After that I’d like to recommend what I think we should all be doing as New Economists right now with a small exercise; then I will bring up another very important topic I haven’t discussed before: “that vision thing”.
So let’s stand before the looking glass before we step through and see if we can’t make out what’s closest on the other side that looks good and workable, shall we? Please, join me below the fold.