An Epic Opportunity—If We Get Our Story Right
For the new to emerge, the old must give way. By shutting down the global economy for everyone everywhere, COVID-19 reminds us that we are one people with a common future. To underscore its point, it lays bare for all to see the fatal flaws of an economic system that exploits the most essential—the care takers—to benefit the predators most of us best do without.
The time is at hand for a story that reminds us who we are, what we truly want, and what it is within our means to create together.
We humans are a remarkable species with an extraordinary drive to understand ourselves and our place in a complex and evolving universe. In search of such understanding, we develop cultural narratives that express our shared understanding of who we are and why. Science calls these narratives theories. They guide us in making the individual and collective choices by which we organise as families, clans, identity groups, societies—and now as a global civilisation.
When We Get Our Story Wrong
If we get our narrative wrong, we get our choices wrong in ways that can make us a threat to ourselves and to the living Earth from which we evolved. Our current primary narratives are deeply flawed, and the consequences are dire. The example of humanity’s current economic story is a prime example.
According to estimates of the Global Footprint Network, it would require 1.7 Earths to sustain current human consumption. We have only one Earth.
Yet the economic theory by which we have chosen to live together assures us that ever growing consumption is essential to our health and happiness. In the continuing thrall of that theory, we pursue growth in consumption as humanity’s defining economic priority, never asking to whose benefit or what actual purpose.
Little if any benefit accrues from GDP growth to the billions of Earth’s people who face a daily struggle to fulfil their needs for food, water, shelter, and other essentials. The resulting tensions lead to high rates of suicide, mental illness, and violence—including in so called “developed countries” that present themselves as models of economic success.
Meanwhile a global human population of 7.8 billion people continues to grow, thus putting further human pressure on an already overstressed Earth. The most extreme inequality humans have ever experienced continues to grow as well.
By January 2020, the wealth of just 26 billionaires had grown to exceed that of the poorest half of humanity—3.9 billion people. As ordinary people struggled to survive the COVID-19 economic shutdown, the world’s richest billionaires were enjoying a bonanza so extreme that Bloomberg now publishes daily financial results for the world’s richest people. On November 12, 2020, Bloomberg reported that the total net worth of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, stood at $183 billion. He was down $1.45 billion from the day before but was up $68 billion since the beginning of the year. The world’s 10 richest individuals had a combined wealth of $1.0 trillion on November 12, up a total of $243.33 billion or an average of $24.33 billion each since January 1. It is difficult to imagine greater proof of economic failure than the extraordinary gap between human need and the economy’s actual performance.
Living Beings with an Exceptional Ability to Choose
As is obvious to anyone who observes with an open mind, humans are living beings with an exceptional ability to choose. Most of us care deeply for one another and the living Earth on which our own being depends.
With a little help from the observations that the instruments of modern science make possible, we now know through observation the extraordinary truth that life depends on communities of diverse living beings self-organising together to create and maintain the conditions essential to their individual and collective being.
The human body is an intimately familiar example. The holder of our consciousness and the instrument of our intelligent agency, our body is a community of tens of trillions of regenerating cells and microorganisms engaged in a continuous exchange of nutrients, water, energy, and information mediated by the body’s heart, lungs, liver, brain, and other organs. If this exchange suffers serious disruption, we die.
Science is only beginning to understand the complex processes of communication and decision-making by which our body’s cells achieve this miracle. Our conscious mind not only does not control these processes. It is mostly unaware of them. Its role is to manage our body’s engagement with its external environment.
When we extrapolate this understanding to Earth, we see an even more vastly complex living organism. Like any multi-celled organism, the living Earth survives as a living being only so long as its countless individual organisms self-organise as interdependent communities to create and maintain the conditions of climate, pure water and air, fertile soil, and all else on which life—including human life—depends.
The challenge of organising a human society of 7.8 billion intelligent and self-aware people in mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with one another and Earth seems almost simple by comparison with the far greater challenge that living Earth’s community of life has mastered. In learning to manage ourselves in ways that work for ourselves and for Earth, we have much to learn from healthy non-human living communities that meet their needs through continuous exchange between cells, organisms, and Earth’s physical structures with no need for money, command and control institutions, or legal adjudication.
We frequently find in nature a clear and immediate quid pro quo, as in the dramatic case of the cleaner fish that feeds on parasites that infest the shark’s mouth. Most examples are less dramatic. Some take decades to play out. Life’s capacity to achieve its miracle of synergistic self-organisation and self-evolution is a product of its capacity for distributed intelligent agency.
Despite our failings, it appears we humans are the currently most advanced expression of life’s evolutionary journey toward ever-increasing intelligent, self-aware agency. We have yet, however, to develop the wisdom and skills required to use this capacity in service to the health and wellbeing of Earth’s community of life on which our own wellbeing ultimately depends. The product of a relatively recent advance in human understanding, this reality finds no place in the defining stories of religion, science, and economics by which we live as a now global species with a common future.
We now live by a story that bears devastatingly destructive consequences yet has no reality outside the human mind. It is within our means to change instantly what exists only in our own mind.
When we get our story right
If we get our shared story right, we can get our relationships right. It we get our relationships right we can live better with less while restoring the health of the living Earth community.
The work of crafting a new human future grounded in a new story has five key elements:
- Acknowledge the imperative for deep change.
- Identify the sources of current system failure.
- Create a unifying vision of possibility.
- Identify system choices supportive of the vision.
- Engage in collaborative transformational learning.
Let us go through them one by one.
- Acknowledge the Imperative for Deep Change: The consequences of clinging to the pre-COVID status quo will not work for anyone for the simple reason that there will be no winners on a dead Earth. Our individual wellbeing ultimately depends on the wellbeing of the whole. As noted previously, for the new to emerge, the old system must give way as it is now doing—exposing its fatal flaws in the process. This is an unprecedented moment of transformational opportunity to join as one people to create the future on which the wellbeing of all people and Earth depends.
- Identify the Sources of Current System Failure: The current human crisis is a consequence of badly flawed cultural, institutional, technological, and infrastructure choices. To avoid repeating the mistakes of our past, we must acknowledge them and identify their source. Simply stated, we organise as if our wellbeing depends on competing to dominate one another and Earth in denial of the foundational truth that life exists only in diverse communities of living beings that self-organise to create and maintain the conditions essential to their individual and mutual existence.
Captive to current economic theory that denies community and all that makes us human, we organise the global economy around the interests of global corporations that compete to dominate people and nature for the purpose of growing the financial assets of the world’s already richest people. In so doing we subsidise and destroy that on which our human wellbeing ultimately depends.
- Create a Unifying Vision of Possibility: We are understandably reluctant to let go of our current means of living in the absence of a reasonable belief that an attractive alternative will be forthcoming. That alternative future will not emerge spontaneously. We must create it together guided by a common vision grounded in an authentic story of our true human nature and possibility. We must create together a reality-based vision of a truly civilised civilisation of material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all people living in creative balanced engagement with the beauty and abundance of the regenerative systems of a finite living Earth.
- Identify System Choices Supportive of the Vision: The systems of culture, institutions, technology, and infrastructure by which we currently live are designed to concentrate power in the hands of the few at the top to exploit the many at the bottom. Earth’s community of life organises from the bottom up to secure the wellbeing of the whole as it continuously adapts to ever changing local conditions everywhere. Our choice of the cultural values, institutions, technology, and infrastructure of the Ecological Civilisation of our common human future must support us in doing the same. Call it deep democracy.
- Engage in Collaborative Transformational Learning: No one has been to the future we must now create together. We will know that future only as we create it, learning as we go, freely sharing lessons as they emerge, each finding our place and making our distinctive contribution.
Getting these choices right will require drawing on all our sources of understanding relating to the structure and dynamics of self-organising communities. We can and must combine this understanding with the full and creative application of the most advanced of modern information technologies to facilitate efficient communication and collaborative exchange with a minimum dependence on the physical movement of people and material goods.
Defining Elements of the New System
Securing the wellbeing of Earth’s holarchy of living communities requires that we embrace regenerative/ living communities as our defining units of societal organisation and apply three foundational principles in relating to them.
- Get Our Purpose Right: The defining purpose of both society and the economy must be the health and wellbeing of place-based living communities and their members.
All our choices relating to how we organise and manage ourselves and our relations with nature properly follow from this purpose, including our choice of the indicators by which we assess the performance of the economy and the firm. Growing GDP works nicely as a defining economic indicator if our goal is to grow corporate profits and the fortunes of billionaires. It is a disastrous choice if our goal is the wellbeing of humans and Earth.
Living beings grow physically, but only within life’s continuing cycles of birth and death. If our human body continues to grow past adolescence, it generally means we need to change our diet and get more exercise.
Kate Raworth, the widely acclaimed author of Doughnut Economics, suggests that managing a modern economy requires two indicator panels. One panel warns when essential human needs are not being met. The other warns when humans overburden one or more of Earth’s critical regenerative systems. The goal is to equitably meet the material needs of all people within the limits of Earth’s regenerative capacity.
- Get Our Power Right: To secure the wellbeing of society, power must reside in communities of place that control and manage their resources through deeply participatory processes consistent with the needs of the whole.
All institutions, including those of business, must ultimately serve the wellbeing of and be accountable to deeply democratic bioregional communities of place. The Firm must have profits sufficient to remain viable and provide a fair and modest return to investors commensurate with risk. Beyond that its defining responsibility is to maximise its contributions to the wellbeing of the communities in which it does business.
The charter of a for-profit corporation is a legal instrument that supports the unlimited concentration of economic power free from accountability to the communities in which the corporation does business. It has no legitimate place in the 21st century civilisation to which humanity must now transition.
Equally obsolete is the current system of monopolistic private for-profit banks that create money by issuing interest-bearing debt that can be repaid only so long as GDP growth is generating sufficient new debt to pay the interest on outstanding debt. Money creation must transparent, accountable, and supportive of productive investments that put underutilised regenerative resources to work meeting unmet community needs. Money must serve people—not control them.
- Get Our Procreation Right: Living communities maintain their capacity for regenerative resilience and creative unfolding through continuous procreation—continuing cycles of death and rebirth and the constant predominantly local sharing and recycling of nutrients, water, energy, and information in balanced relationship with one another and finite living Earth.
By our thoughtful and responsible support of these cycles, we support continuing evolution toward the ever-growing beauty and creative potential of the whole.
Life engages in constant cycles of rebirth, regeneration and renewal as it regenerates soils, aquifers, streams, and rivers; sequesters excess carbons, toxins, and other wastes; purifies the air; and stabilises weather and local and global temperatures—all under constantly changing conditions in a continuing struggle against the forces of entropy. So long as each local community is meeting its needs in balance with its local ecosystem resources, the global ecosystem remains in balance.
Our children are humanity’s future. Their care must be a defining priority. Earth has more than enough abused and neglected human children. What we lack is adequate attention to the care and development of all our children to assure that they achieve their full adult potential as intelligent, responsible contributors to the wellbeing of the whole.
Imagine a world in which every human child is a wanted child who receives the loving care of family and community supportive of their development into fully functioning caring adults committed to and skilled in securing the wellbeing of others.
Together we must—with all due haste—advance our understanding of how life organises, our human nature, and our human contribution to creation’s continued unfolding as we find our way to a new civilisation consistent with our true human nature, needs, and potential. Getting our future right begins with getting our story right.
This reflection forms part of our ‘Living the New Story at the Turning of the Year’ Blog Series. We are deeply grateful to David for sharing his wisdom and insights with our Findhorn New Story Community. Be sure to read our other contributions in the Series generously offered by respected proponents of a new story for humanity at this uncertain and changing time in our evolution.