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.
Cooperative socioeconomic organizations and tools are nothing new, of course, either to humans in general or to the regular DailyKos reader. Transition Towns, Complementary Currencies, Worker Self-Directed Enterprises, Alternative Measures of Wealth and Capital, Time Banks, Makers Spaces, and a host of hybrids routinely appear in times of economic crisis throughout human history and on these pages. What sets our time apart from all others, however, are the scope, scale, and complexity of our circumstances, which far outstrip our individual cognitive abilities to grasp and guide them in ways that can effectively manage our multiple interlocking dilemmas. Or to use our terminology from a previous diary, we are now in an economic era dominated by higher-order processes and effects. Two recent initiatives just now launching hold the greatest potential, in my opinion, for opening up possibilities of new economic paradigms, both in theory and in practice.
The first very exciting development is the vision of Stephanie Rearick, founder and co-director of the Dane County Time Bank, one of the largest and most robust time banks in the country. The new type of cooperative she has created is called a Mutual Aid Network (MAN) which aims to pool and steward value and reward good work with cooperative economic tools such as timebanking, business-to-business mutual credit, and cooperative saving, lending and investment models. This creation has enormous potential to develop cooperative enterprises in locations that might not otherwise be able to form their own initiatives due to lack of shared resources. My primary involvement with the project is to develop a performance measurement system utilizing a combination of alternative approaches which will incorporate (at a very fundamental level) our planetary limits to growth as a core principle and operating goal, something which I see as sorely lacking in nearly every cooperative-type new economy initiative I have encountered.
The second of these is a new analytical framework for analyzing New Economic systems and innovations. This framework was created by the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network (E3N) national network of economists, whose purpose is to develop new and better arguments for protecting people and the planet. The E3N Analytical Framework (E3AF) describes the impacts of new economy innovations along the following key dimensions: livelihoods and opportunities, empowerment, equity, environment, and wealth. Researchers are hoping learn of its usefulness by testing it in the field at numerous locations this year and are encouraging other researchers to apply and adapt the framework, as well.
OK, let’s briefly try our hands at becoming “citizen economists” and see how we do!
You, The New Economist
In the 18th and 19th centuries the economists of the day practiced what they then called political economy. Their world was in transition; economic and social relationships were in a period of rapid change from one familiar state to multiple new unfamiliar ones. People like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx examined what was happening around them and formulated organizing principles around new vocabularies and terminologies that helped them and others to better describe and understand those new emerging systems. They did this not only because it is in our human nature to do these things, but also because they wanted to provide as many opportunities for people to guide and shape those systems for the betterment of everyone. Our current circumstances are not at all unlike those times. And so I want to invite you to become a 21st-century economist.
My proposal to you is this: take the E3N Analytical Framework (E3AF) in one hand and the Symbiotic Economics Conceptual Framework (SECF) in the other. Glance over them now before you read further. Done? Good. Now what you are going to do is begin thinking about applying those two tools in the three main jobs that every good and innovative political economist does: measuring, mapping, and modeling. Let’s briefly look at each in turn.
Measuring. Take a look at all the economic relationships in your life. And when I say economic I am not only referring to financial relationships. Money is not really the most important part of the economy; it merely represents an agreement between people and other agents to conduct a transaction of some sort. Look at the people and systems you interact with on a daily basis. How would you characterize those interactions across the E3AF spectrum using the SECF measures? For example, are your relationships with the people and organizations from which you get your food, health care, and education mutualistic or commensal in nature? Or are they more parasitic or amensal? You can assign simple rankings to these evaluations and sum them up arithmetically to arrive at overall scorings (these are known mathematically as scalar quantities - - nothing but raw numbers).
Mapping. Next, take a closer look at the organizations and systems that you were considering when you were measuring. Think about those systems in terms of how the different agents inside of them interact with each other and how those systems interact with other systems. All of those interconnections can be assigned scalar quantities along with arrows of connection - - the ways and directions the economy flows. Take the electrical energy systems you interact with, for example. Can you construct a mental map of where the source of that energy is, how it is generated and distributed to you, and how you use it? Would you characterize each of these interactions as neutral, or perhaps synnecristic, or perhaps another of the SECF categories? In considering these questions you are constructing a map of the economic systems that you are a part of (these are known mathematically as vector quantities - - scalar values with a flow direction).
Modeling. Now comes the challenging part. I want you to add another dimension to your mental map. Think of these organizations or systems as consisting of clusters of agents that share interaction types and that dynamically interact with other clusters over time (these are known mathematically as topological quantities, like in topographical maps that portray the hills and valleys of a landscape). No doubt you’ve seen such dynamics at play in your various social or economic organizations you are a part of. A group of people with a shared purpose acting cooperatively to achieve a goal tend to get things accomplished more effectively, and attract other people to join them in their successes (what I’ve just described are known mathematically as basins of attraction within topological space). Congratulations! You’ve just constructed your first economic model with a new paradigm!
Models like this are very useful for predicting how economic systems create and respond to various stimuli and stressors; moreover, they are not just an academic exercise. Our socioeconomic systems are facing unprecedented crises due to climate change and non-renewable resource depletion, and in the coming years we are going to need to be conducting all of the above in order to identify systems that will be best equipped to manage the coming energy transition.
Make no mistake about it - - we are in a very serious situation of which very few average Americans are aware. The recent 96% downgrading of California’s Monterray Shale Oil Deposit serves as a clear indicator that it is simply not going to be possible in the near-term to build-out a renewable energy infrastructure (itself requiring fossil fuels to construct) to replace our existing systems at their existing demand levels. A substantial power-down of industrial civilization is inevitable, and it is going to affect every American home in significant ways.
As we go about our tasks of measuring, mapping, and modeling, the highest priority must be placed on identifying local socioeconomic systems that exhibit the highest level of mutualistic and commensal behavior and encouraging these systems to expand their interaction base as rapidly as possible. We must then examine our most critical infrastructure needs and determine how best to transform them into as resilient and cooperative types of organizations as possible. This is mandatory; if we are unable to manage to make it through the coming energy transition without our basic social services functional and relatively intact, then no subsequent actions to implement any sort of strategic long-term planning will be possible at all.
As I noted at the start of this diary series, a growing number of analysts have thrown in the towel on the possibility of this happening. I, however, am with Gramsci on this matter; by sheer force of will I deem this not to be so and choose to believe that we have ability and desire to make the type of widespread and fundamental changes that are necessary. We can build these new alternative socioeconomic structures alongside the existing ones and wisely plan for the day when the umbilical between the two is disconnected.
So, you may be asking yourself, is this guy seriously asking me to show up to my job next week with a clipboard under my arm, and commence to surveying my workplace with some sort of New Economic Paradigm Resilience Survey or something?
As a matter of fact I am (in your mind, at least and first, anyway).
One of the most curious phenomena in quantum physics is known as “collapse of the wave function”. It’s the whole thing behind the Schrodinger’s cat deal. The cat is in an indeterminate state (simultaneously both alive and dead) until you open the box and look in. It is in the process of observation that determines what final state the cat is in. By looking at the system you collapse the wave function. This property also exists in how economists interact with the economy, and we see it all the time. By becoming an economist you will be helping to determine what final state our economy ends up in.
We need to begin a national dialogue on how we are going to make it through this transition, and that must begin in each of our backyards. Conversations must commence and debates must be raised. The attractiveness of using the framework I’ve described here is that it encourages dialogue with a completely new vocabulary, unshackled by outdated terminologies and concepts that no longer have any relevance. The terms “capitalism” and “socialism” are not really all that relevant any more except in the most abstract sense. What we need to be focusing on are real people’s lives and socioeconomic relationships on an individual basis on up and how best to rearrange society’s economic relationships in ways that maximize our overall resilience and sustainability. That will only be possible if we find a way to set aside our political and ideological biases and filters and begin having truly meaningful conversations. In the words of my favorite new tweeter on economics,
Progress occurs when responsible ppl of different ideologies debate and learn from one another, desperate to reach some kind of consensus.— Econolosophy (@Econolosophy) May 20, 2014
I think if Marx and Smith were alive right now looking at our situation they would be nodding in agreement with what I just said and asking us why in the hell we haven’t started this damn thing already. And I’m pretty sure both of them would have agreed with Gar Alperovitz when he said:
it is time for both activists and academics to roll up their sleeves and get serious about work focused explicitly on systemic issues—both in terms of theory and institutional design, and of practical on-the-ground political, economic, and ecological development that can also help deal with growing difficulties no matter what.It’s time to get to work, people. We need to be working towards having a national dialogue to redefine what we mean by the amorphous concepts of "economic growth", "progress", and that now near-meaningless word "sustainability". We must start talking very clearly and unambiguously, as a polity, about sacrosanct ideas and adaptation strategies. But it must begin with starting conversations about these things now.
We are going to be facing some difficult choices in the coming period of technological triage, and we need to weighing our options, now, before they are forced upon us. After the basics necessities of living, I vote for keeping those that unite us as a species. Those that inspire us. Those that can give us that most wonderful of human traits: Vision.
That Vision Thing.
The Vision Thing is not a luxury for tomorrow; it is a necessity for effective action today. As Gar Alperoitz put it (yeah, I know, I quote Gar a lot, what can I say, I adore the guy),
Unfortunately, what we call traditional politics no longer has much capacity to alter most of the negative trends. To be clear: I think projects, organizing, demonstrations and related efforts are important. But deep down, most people sense—rightly, in my view—that unless we develop a more powerful long-term strategy, those efforts aren’t going to make much of a dent.Actually, for favorite quotes on this topic, it’s kind of a toss-up between Gar and Don Hazen at Alternet:
…we know what the problems are. We're increasingly sure about how we got here. We're very clear about who's to blame. And we're even beginning to figure out what we need to do to fix things.If we don’t have a compelling vision of a positive future in the front (not back) of our minds, we may as well not do any of things I’ve described - - it would be pointless.
But we're still lacking a clear vision of the world that awaits us on the far shore of the change process -- the world that we want to create, that will meet our hopes and aspirations. Until we can offer better alternatives, we cannot hope to overwrite the corporatist reality that's stifling our liberty and our democracy. Without a vivid sense of what we stand to gain if we dare to loosen our grip on the present and reach out our hands to the future, we will never be able to fully let go of the past.
It is time to generate a new conversation -- one that asks: What comes next?
The above diagram shows the predominant “solution space” that most people seem to be operating with these days. We see the present as an end point of increasingly constricted “degrees of freedoms” of choices we could make, leading up to the present, where we feel like we have no choices left at all. “If only we had made more intelligent decisions 40 years ago when we first learned about all this, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today,” they say. And this is true, poor choices in the past have overdetermined many aspects of our present. But that is always the case, and focusing on them now to the exclusion of projecting optimistically and creatively into the future does nothing to improve on our present situation; it in fact only serves to limit our thinking of all the possible choices we do have available to us now.
But if instead we start thinking 40 years into the future something marvelous unfolds:
Look at what just happened to the degrees of freedom in our solution space in the present! When we look at our situation with an eye to that future point in time suddenly all kinds of possibilities open up to us! This is what we need to be doing. We need to be articulating a compelling vision of the future as we wish to see it 10, 40, 400 years from now. This is our most pressing and challenging task right now. Without it, nothing else matters or will work.
There is incredible power and magic in having vision. Not magical in the sleight-of-hand sense, but rather in those ineffable qualities of the human spirit that defy explanation or measurement. Vision compels, cajoles, encourages, and guides. It can inspire those around it to attempt things they did not think themselves capable of doing or achieving. Vision is at the core of what it means to be human.
I want to share something with you that happened to me recently that demonstrates just how powerful vision can be.
Three decades ago I was inspired by a vision. At that time I was simultaneously reading William Ophuls’ Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, a collection of essays about the need for society to transition to a steady-state economy, and Gerard K O’Neill’s The High Frontier, his classic work that launched a generation of space advocacy. Why, I thought to myself, are these two communities not joining forces to reach their common goal: the long-term sustainability of human society. It seemed to me a natural coupling: the urge to expand, to explore, and to grow is hard-wired into our species; but so is the need to be settled at home. Both must find a mutually beneficial space within each others worldviews if we are to survive in anything other than the stone age in the very long term. For the next thirty years I kept watching and waiting for someone to articulate this vision and researched how one might implement this approach within neoclassical econometric models (this is the project I was referring to in my previous diary).
Early last March I decided, more or less on impulse and at the last minute, to submit an abstract outlining a paper describing this vision to the annual International Astronautical Federation (IAF) for inclusion in their annual International Astronautical Congress(IAC). The IAF is quite the august body…
The International Astronautical Federation is an international space advocacy organisation based in Paris, and founded in 1951 as a non-governmental organization. It has 270 members from 64 countries across the world. They are drawn from space agencies, industry, professional associations, government organizations and learned societies. It is linked with the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) with whom the IAF organises the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC).…so I in no way expected it to be accepted, given the unknown status of both myself and this idea. The paper…
65th International Astronautical Congress 2014
12th IAA SYMPOSIUM ON VISIONS AND STRATEGIES FOR THE FUTURE (D4)
Contribution of Space Activities to Solving Global Societal Issues (2)
SYMBIOTIC ECONOMICS: A NEW CONCEPTUAL AND STRATEGIC FRAMEWORK FOR
INTEGRATING SPACE ACTIVITIES WITH A WORLD IN TRANSITION
…was accepted for an oral (not poster) presentation at the IAC this fall in Toronto. Not only will this enable me to articulate my particular future vision to the space community, but it will provide me with an ideal opportunity to educate them (if they are not already) on the importance of adopting steady-state cooperative economic models on Earth.
There is incredible power in having vision.
This is what we all must do. We must project our minds into the future and decide what we want that place to look like. Where we want our grandchildren, our great-grand-children, and their children’s children to live. And then do whatever we can to make that future happen by what we do in the present.
Make only bold assumptions. Anything is possible. An outlandish engineering idea? Throw it out there for peer review. Experts in a MAN somewhere will be more than happy to go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Want to change global accounting standards? Start an initiative to build a movement to work toward that objective, as well (I have a pleasant surprise for you about what’s in store there in a future diary). It’s time we put everything on the table. Nothing can be off-limits. But nothing will happen at all unless you see that future clearly and articulate it with the zeal of a prophet.
Express your vision however you can. Find it in the words of a poem, a painting on the sidewalk, or an outrageous tattoo that must be explained in detail to be understood and appreciated. Let it be expressed in the song on your lips, the nimble handiwork of your fingers, and in the very beating of your heart.
We all live together on one tiny fragile planet. Borders are an illusion, politics and ideologies mere distractions. Awe, wonder, and exploration must continue. This extraordinary creation of billions of years of evolution cannot end as a result of our generation’s lack of resolve. Fundamental change must begin. Now.
What awaits us on the other side of the looking glass no one can say for certain, except that whatever it is we have no past memory, no historical precedent, to guide us on our journey. But it feels like we’ve done this before. The shape and texture of the ripples in the glass look oddly familiar, because they are; their aroma is reminiscent of Indonesian volcanic ash and fumes. We have done this before. And we can do this again.
Let us not be afraid. Let us find courage in our hands in each others. Let us step boldly into the future filled with the confidence of our visions and the actions they inspire in us so that those that come after us will say our names and raise a song in grateful remembrances.
And so we cannot fail. Because we have each other. And we are all one family.
~ vasudhaiva kutumbakam ~
Postscript: Please stay tuned for an upcoming diary on the launch of a new economic paradigm initiative: http://www.gofundme.com/...
Thank you, thank you, thank you so much in advance if you can! :)
Previous diary links in this series: