Nora Bateson writes, “If humanity can’t approach the complexity of our world with greater collective effort, we can’t meet the challenges we face now.
This is NOT an abstraction. I maintain that developing an understanding the patterns and processes of interdependency in complexity is the single most practical capacity that we can support in ourselves and each other.”
This post grew out of a recent facebook discussion. Hat Tip to Bruce Kunkel for the title phrase “Cognitive Prison Habits.”
George Monbiot recently made some important points and asked questions we all should be giving some thought to.
“Green consumerism, material decoupling, sustainable growth: all are illusions, designed to justify an economic model that is driving us to catastrophe.”
“The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But already we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us.”
I would add the aphorism that “When you find yourself in a hole, rule #1 is to stop digging.”
The International Energy Agency has just released their yearly World Energy Outlook report, which tells us that current policies put us in a scenario that would add the equivalent of another China and India to today’s global demand for energy by 2040, and greenhouse gas reduction polices currently in play or being considered are “far from enough to avoid severe impacts of climate change.”
While the title of Monbiot’s post mentions consumerism trashing the planet, consumerism is not the fundamental problem (us) that he is addressing, nor is it unrestrained corporate power (them). More fundamental, giving rise to both of the above polarities, is the almost unquestioned commitment to growth that is built in to most of our systems. In Monbiot’s words:
” The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.
But growth must go on: this is everywhere the political imperative. And we must adjust our tastes accordingly…
A global growth rate of 3% means that the size of the world economy doubles every 24 years. This is why environmental crises are accelerating at such a rate. Yet the plan is to ensure that it doubles and doubles again, and keeps doubling in perpetuity. In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction, we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing.”
One of the most important presentations that I think should be mandatory basic education for everyone is Albert Bartlett’s “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy.”
Bartlett claims that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” He talks about the arithmetic and the impacts of unending steady economic and population growth, including an explanation of the concept of doubling time.
Fortunately there is a transcript as well!
Consider these questions (hat tip to Penelope Whitworth) – “Where does that commitment [to growth] come from? Is it programmed into our genes, or our consciousness, or inherent to biological life forms? Part of the “genetic code” of the cosmos? Is it a sociocultural thing? Could we have a humanity whose value system isn’t around growth?”
I addressed these isssues in my 2015 ITC paper, Patterns for Navigating the Transition to a World in Energy Descent. Growth is a natural pattern that exists in all natural systems. However, some tend to fetishize and reify this pattern as a primary imperative. For many it has become something of a “myth of the given” – we don’t even question it. The first step is to recognize and respect this as a natural pattern, but to realize it needs to be balanced and integrated for optimal health with all other natural patterns (see my brief intro to PatternDynamics: Following the Way Nature Organizes Itself to Deal with Complexity.
In natural systems, growth tends to expand exponentially in the early phase when resources are abundant; then comes a phase of climax, where things can settle down into a more cooperative mode, somewhat approximating (comparatively, and for a period of time) a steady state. The best example is to look at a barren landscape, where fast growing weeds compete with one another for dominance. After a long period of time, this landscape could, under the right set of conditions, eventually evolve into a mature old-growth forest ecosystem, which is a perfect example of interconnected mutual support and reciprocity. This in contrast to the competitive growth pattern exhibited by the “adolescent” patch of weeds.
The question becomes, are humans smarter than yeast, which grows rapidly until all available resources are consumed, followed by a collapse? Can we successfully transition to a climax stage which mirrors the steady-state of an old-growth forest, or are we now near our final climax, to be followed by an unrecoverable collapse?
Even those who question unfettered growth are enmeshed in the system that tends to keep driving it forward.
Integral Economist Peter Pogany saw this commitment to growth as part of the “source code” of the self-organizing world system that emerged in recent history. As systems tend to reinforce and sustain themselves and their dominant patterns, it can be very difficult to try to manipulate and change the system’s direction (see Donella Meadows’ “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”). In Pogany’s view, it will take a (brutal) chaotic transition (which has already begun) to get the system to change course to a new, Gebserian, integral world system that is not wedded to the Growth pattern as a prime directive. Pogany saw this chaotic transition “as a necessity to precipitate a crisis of consciousness that would eventually lead to the wide-spread “integral a-rational” consciousness structure, as based on the thinking of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser” (see my articles Chaos, Havoc, and the American Abyss, and Consciousness and the New World Order.
In my 2015 paper for the Integral Theory Conference (cited above, but also posted here), I quoted from Edgar Morin and Peter Pogany to describe what Bruce Kunkel has called the “cognitive prison habits” that keep us locked in to pursuing endless growth and development at all costs. To requote the quotes quoted in that paper:
Edgar Morin referred to “development” as:
“The master word, adopted by the United Nations, upon which all the popular ideologies of the second half of this century converged…development is a reductionistic conception which holds that economic growth is the necessary and sufficient condition for all social, psychological, and moral developments. This techno-economic conception ignores the human problems of identity, community, solidarity, and culture… In any case, we must reject the underdeveloped concept of development that made techno-industrial growth the panacea of all anthroposocial development and renounce the mythological idea of an irresistible progress extending to infinity” (Morin, Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millenium, 1999, pp. 59-63).
Addressing this “myth of the given,” Peter Pogany pokes fun at his own profession (of economists):
“Historically, geocapital [matter ready to be used to feed cultural evolution] has registered a net increase; additions and expansions more than offset exhaustions and reductions. This long-lasting successful experience led to the culturally ingrained confidence in the possibility of its eternal continuation. Economic growth theory keeps “deriving” the same conclusion over and over again: Optimally maintained economic expansion can continue forever. Translated from evolutionary scales to our own, this is analogous to “Since I wake up every morning I must be immortal” (Rethinking the World, 2006, p. 118).”
I suggest we join Morin and Pogany in renouncing the irrational exuberance that expects irresistible progress and economic growth extending to infinity. To break out of this cognitive prison habit may be very challenging indeed. However, at some point there will be no choice. It’s time to stop digging that hole that we think is taking us up the mountain.
Last month we realized the back third of our 1/2 acre yard was getting a bit out of control. Upon the encouragement of local scythe master Brian Kerkvliet of Inspiration Farm, we decided to host a “Sunday Scythe Social” to get it cleaned up. Angela and I give a hearty thanks to Brian, Kevin, and Josh!
“For those of us fortunate enough to have an optimistic temperament, distinguishing optimism from hopefulness is not always easy. But it is important because optimism may fade while hope remains. What I am calling “hopefulness” is grounded in faith and faithfulness. It is because the Cosmic Spirit’s aim can be our aim, that we are never alone. The Cosmic Spirit seeks through us to save this little planet. It has no hands but our hands, as I sang as a boy, but it can direct those hands beyond simply our personal wisdom. That I cannot know what good consequences may follow from some act to which I feel called does not mean that none do. Hope is a kind of trust that we can be partners of a Spirit that guides us, and that can sometimes transform even our sins and failures into stepping stones to something positive.”
Perhaps you’ll take the time to read the entire article, “What Keeps Us Trying?” by John B. Cobb, Jr.
What better way to conclude “National Doughnut Day” than to re-post a great article on Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. For those not in the know, Wikipedia describes a Doughnut as “an edible, torus-shaped piece of dough which is deep-fried and sweetened.”
But let’s get serious. This article was Originally published at Open Democracy. I found it at the highly recommended website Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics. The embedded videos are excellent in helping to convey the key points.
Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Transform 21st Century Economics – and Economists
Economics matters enormously for the future, but its fundamental ideas are centuries out of date.
By Kate Raworth
No one can deny it: economics matters. Its theories are the mother tongue of public policy, the rationale for multi-billion-dollar investments, and the tools used to tackle global poverty and manage our planetary home. Pity then that its fundamental ideas are centuries out of date yet still dominate decision-making for the future.
Today’s economics students will be among the influential citizens and policymakers shaping human societies in 2050. But the economic mindset that they are being taught is rooted in the textbooks of 1950 which, in turn, are grounded in the theories of 1850. Given the challenges of the 21st century—from climate change and extreme inequalities to recurring financial crises—this is shaping up to be a disaster. We stand little chance of writing a new economic story that is fit for our times if we keep falling back on last-century’s economic storybooks.
When I studied economics at university 25 years ago I believed it would empower me to help tackle humanity’s social and environmental challenges. But like many of today’s disillusioned students its disconnect from relevance and reality left me deeply frustrated. So I walked away from its theories and immersed myself in real-world economic challenges, from the villages of Zanzibar to the headquarters of the United Nations, and on to the campaign frontlines of Oxfam.
In the process I realized the obvious: that you can’t walk away from economics because it frames the world we inhabit, so I decided to walk back towards it and flip it on its head. What if we started economics with humanity’s goals for the 21st century, and then asked what economic mindset would give us half a chance of achieving them?
Spurred on by this question, I pushed aside my old economics textbooks and sought out the best emerging ideas that I could find, drawing on diverse schools of thought including complexity, ecological, feminist, behavioural and institutional economics, and set out to discover what happens when they all dance on the same page. The insights that I drew out imply that the economic future will be fascinating, but wildly unlike the past, so long as we equip ourselves with the mindset needed to take it on. So here are seven ways in which I believe we can all start to think like 21st century economists:
1. Change the goal: from GDP growth to the Doughnut.
For over half a century, economists have fixated on GDP as the first measure of economic progress, but GDP is a false goal waiting to be ousted. The 21st century calls for a far more ambitious and global economic goal: meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet. Draw that goal on the page and – odd though it sounds – it comes out looking like a doughnut. The challenge now is to create local to global economies that ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials – from food and housing to healthcare and political voice – while safeguarding Earth’s life-giving systems, from a stable climate and fertile soils to healthy oceans and a protective ozone layer. This single switch of purpose transforms the meaning and shape of economic progress: from endless growth to thriving in balance.
2. See the big picture: from self-contained market to embedded economy.
Exactly 70 years ago in April 1947, an ambitious band of economists crafted a neoliberal story of the economy and, since Thatcher and Reagan came to power in the 1980s, it has dominated the international stage. Its narrative about the efficiency of the market, the incompetence of the state, the domesticity of the household and the tragedy of the commons, has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse. It’s time to write a new economic story fit for this century – one that sees the economy’s dependence upon society and the living world. This story must recognize the power of the market—so let’s embed it wisely; the partnership of the state—so let’s hold it to account; the core role of the household—so let’s value its contribution; and the creativity of the commons—so let’s unleash their potential.
3. Nurture human nature: from rational economic man to social adaptable humans.
The character at the heart of 20th century economics—‘rational economic man’—presents a pitiful portrait of humanity: he stands alone, with money in his hand, a calculator in his head, ego in his heart, and nature at his feet. Worse, when we are told that he is like us, we actually start to become more like him, to the detriment of our communities and the planet. But human nature is far richer than this, as emerging sketches of our new self-portrait reveal: we are reciprocating, interdependent, approximating people deeply embedded within the living world. It’s time to put this new portrait of humanity at the heart of economic theory so that economics can start to nurture the best of human nature. Doing so will give us—all ten billion of us to come—a far greater chance of thriving together.
4. Get savvy with systems: from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity.
Economics has long suffered from physics envy: awed by the genius of Isaac Newton and his insights into the physical laws of motion, 19th century economists became fixated on discovering economic laws of motion. But these simply don’t exist: they are mere models, just like the theory of market equilibrium which blinded economists to the looming financial crash of 2008. That’s why 21st-century economists embrace complexity and evolutionary thinking instead. Putting dynamic thinking at the heart of economics opens up new insights for understanding the rise of the one percent and the boom and bust of financial markets. It’s time to stop searching for the economy’s elusive control levers (they don’t exist), and instead start stewarding the economy as an ever-evolving system.
5. Design to distribute: from ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design.
In the 20th century economic theory whispered a powerful message when it comes to inequality: it has to get worse before it can get better, and growth will eventually even things up. But extreme inequality, as it turns out, is not an economic law or necessity: it is a design failure. Twenty-first century economists recognize that there are many ways to design economies to be far more distributive of value among those who help to generate it. And that means going beyond redistributing income to pre-distributing wealth, such as the wealth that lies in controlling land, enterprise, and the power to create money.
6. Create to regenerate: from ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design.
Economic theory has long portrayed a clean environment as a luxury good, affordable only for the well-off—a view that says that pollution has to increase before it can decline, and (guess what), growth will eventually clean it up. But as with inequality there is no such economic law: environmental degradation is the result of degenerative industrial design. This century calls for economic thinking that unleashes the potential of regenerative design in order to create a circular, not linear, economy—and to restore ourselves as full participants in Earth’s cyclical processes of life.
7. Be Agnostic about Growth: from growth-addicted to growth-agnostic.
To the alarm of governments and financiers, forecasts for GDP growth in many high-income countries are flat-lining, opening up a crisis in growth-based economics. Mainstream economics views endless GDP growth as a must, but nothing in nature grows forever, and the economic attempt to buck that trend is raising tough questions in high-income but low-growth countries. That’s because today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive. What we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow. That radical flip in perspective invites us to become agnostic about growth and to explore how our economies—which are currently financially, politically and socially addicted to growth—could learn to live with or without it.
I am convinced that these seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist are fundamental to the new economic mindset this century demands. Their principles and patterns will equip new economic thinkers—and the inner economist in us all—to start creating an economy that enables everyone to prosper. Given the speed, scale and uncertainty of change that we face in coming years—and the diversity of contexts from Beijing to Birmingham to Bamako—it would be foolhardy to attempt to prescribe now all the policies and institutions that will be fit for the future. The coming generation of thinkers and doers will be far better placed to experiment and discover what works as the context continually changes.
What we can do now—and must do well—is to bring together the best ideas to create a new economic mindset that is never fixed but always evolving. The task for economic thinkers in the decades ahead will be to bring these seven ways of thinking together in practice, and to add to them. We have barely set out on this adventure in rethinking economics. Please join the crew.
Kate Raworth’s new book is Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.
Originally published at Open Democracy.
2017 May 6
“These three videos are the culmination of my life’s work to-date and, by far, my most important legacy contribution.” ~ Michael Dowd
Part 1 is about “The Evidential Reformation: Facts as Scripture, Ecology as Theology.” Part 2 is “Reality is Lord: A Scientific View of God on a Rapidly Overheating Planet.” Part 3 is on “Grace Limits and Big Picture ‘Apocaloptimism’: The Great Reckoning as Great Homecoming.”
What is ‘Apocaloptimism’? Michael Dowd first heard Theo Kitchener call herself an ‘apocaloptimist’. I’m guessing Kirchner is author of this post discussing the term, and she first heard it from NASA scientist Peter C. Griffith. She describes it this way:
Apocaloptimism is embracing the unknown, is embracing transformation. It is being okay no matter what the outcome is, but fighting like hell to steer it in the direction that you want.
Dowd has described himself as an ‘apocaloptimist’ because he is a short term pessimist (or realist), but a long term (big picture) optimist. Listen to a great interview with Terry Patten here.
I provide below some teaser screenshots from this third video, to entice you in and to reinforce some key points.
The quote from Teilhard de Chardin above is important. Dowd believes that one of the most important systemic changes that needs to happen in the world is for us to learn to align self-interest with the well-being of the whole. My wife and I found the following quote from the presentation to be very meaningful:
“[One of the] most important systemic things we need to do is to align self-interest with the well being of the whole. That’s how evolution has proceeded to create greater complexity over time.
When the self-interest of the parts and the well being of the whole are aligned, then when the part does well for the whole, it [the part] benefits. And when the part harms the whole, then it harms itself in some way.
So it is in its own self-interest to do the right thing to the whole. It’s called “consequence capture” – the impact of individuals and groups, for good or ill, must be reflected back to them.”
The following introduction to the video is copied and pasted from the webpage “Standing for the Future.”
Standing for the Future (Part 3 of 3) — “Grace Limits and Big Picture ‘Apocaloptimism’: The Coming Great Reckoning as Great Homecoming”
Given our impact on Earth’s climate, the seas, and other species, humanity is already beginning to experience The Great Reckoning. The good news is that this is also The Great Homecoming: the prodigal species, after squandering our inheritance, coming home to Reality (God).
Big History — the Epic of Evolution or Universe Story — is humanity’s first and only inclusive, globally produced, evidence-based creation story. In this culminating episode, Dowd shows how this Great Story provides clear and compelling guidance to help our species ‘obey’ (honor) physical and ecological processes that have been at work for hundreds of millions of years. He offers both practical tools of resilience and an empowering vision of collective action in response to climate chaos and other large-scale systemic challenges.
Michael and Connie are currently engaged in a speaking tour in the northwest U.S., with upcoming vists to Edmonds, Whidbey Island, Seattle, Orcas Island, and Bellingham, WA, in January 2017. Check out their itinerary here. Our Transition Whatcom event listing is here – Jan. 22nd (Sunday morning) and Jan. 23rd (Monday evening), both at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship.