Climate change, environmental damage and many aspects of poverty are all symptoms of a faulty economic system, one that measures the wrong things, that does not account for the true costs of activities that damage the environment and people. Treating climate change or poverty without addressing the structural flaws in the economy is like putting a Band-Aid over a severed limb. With that treatment plan the patient, this planet, is going to bleed out.
We need to fundamentally evolve our economy, to keep pace with the current environmental and demographic conditions. The very good news is, even though you won’t hear much about this in mainstream media, a whole lot of people are working to do just that. There is in fact a growing global New Economy Movement.
The New Economy Coalition describes itself as, “a network of organizations imagining and building a future where people, communities, and ecosystems thrive.” They are working to create deep change in the economy and politics so that a fundamentally new system can take root. It is a dynamic organization creating and holding a space to address some of the most important issues of our time.
A very exciting and hopeful development in the New Economy Movement is the Next System Project which is focusing directly on the systemic challenges the United States is now facing and working to create a vision and tools for building a system better suited to meet those challenges.
3EStrategies has been participating in a global wellbeing lab that is filled with new economy resources.
3EStrategies recently co-sponsored a screening of Love Thy Nature, a moving film by Sylvia Rokab, narrated by Lim Neeson. The film beautifully and lyrically illustrates how many of the big issues confronting humanity are a result of our belief that humans are separate from, above, the rest of nature.
One of the things I most appreciated was that rather than the doom and gloom common in so many environmental films, this one celebrates the beautifully adapted, uniquely creative species that we humans are. I also loved the perspective that getting to our current point of crisis might actually be a gift. Perhaps, now that it is becoming so obvious that our separation behavior is dangerous not only for other species but for ourselves, we may finally begin to deeply value the wholeness of life on Earth.
One of the primary solutions the film highlighted is biomimicry, creating products based on nature itself. I have been an intrigued student of biomimicry since grad school. I have studied Janine Benyus, the Biomimicry Institute, EO Wilson and others.
Most of this work has focused on creating products/ technology based on nature’s designs. A famous example is Velcro, which sprang from the observation of how burrs stick to dog’s fur or one’s socks. They attach via numerous, slightly prickly furled fronds. When pulled loose, the stretched fronds unfurl, release the fabric, then snap back into their original shape, ready to stick again. Other examples include LED screens based on colorful, chameleonic cuttlefish and super efficient wind turbines based on the amazing qualities of humpback whale fins.
These naturally intelligent innovations are hopeful. However, moving beyond our currently unsustainable trajectory requires taking biomimicry beyond products to processes and systems. Homo Sapiens is a young species relative to most others on our planet. Many, many species have survived millions of years longer than we have existed. None of the successful species create waste products that the planet cannot process. Successful species have not piled their by-products in massive, non-biodegradable, toxic heaps. The materials they consume and produce stay productive in the overall system as fertilizer or food for other creatures. There is no “waste” in non-human nature. In contrast, even biomimicked products made from non-biobased materials are not a solution. For example, Velcro’s design is based on nature’s genius but it’s usually made from non-recyclable plastic that still winds up in landfills.
Going deeper still, biomimicry, or in many cases mimicry-avoidance, could also apply to human behavior. As nature has proved time and time again whenever a population of organisms consumes resources faster than those resources can replenish that population dies off. Humans should learn from those examples rather than follow in their ill-fated hoof prints. Our currently dominant economic model requires continuous escalation in the consumption of natural resources. That model is fundamentally unsustainable since our planet has limited supplies of natural resources. No successful species has ever defied the laws of physics. Homo Sapiens means wise man. We would be wise indeed to learn from our fellow travelers on this small blue planet.
The news is saturated with coverage and commentary about the economy. Is it recovering? Is it growing? Where’s it heading? But, rarely, rarely does anyone ask the most important question – what’s the economy for anyway? What is it supposed to do for us?
In a very important and readable book titled exactly that, What’s the Economy for Anyway?, my colleagues John de Graaf and David Batker do an excellent job leading readers through some truly important questions.
Is the current system making us healthier? Well, Americans spend significantly more per capita on health care than any other industrialized country but our overall levels of health are only very slightly better than people living in high poverty Cuba. The US spends over $9,000 per person each year on health care. Cuba spends around $500. And yet Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate and a slightly longer life expectancy than the United States.
Is the current system setting our kids up for opportunity and wellbeing? The current form of global capitalism requires continuous growth in consumption of natural resources. As a result we are currently using up clean air, clean water, soil, fish and wild animals about 50% faster than the Earth can replenish itself. It’s going to be hard to be prosperous and well on a depleted, unhealthy planet.
These questions aren’t just about future conditions. Ask yourself, “Is the current economy making you happy?” This may seem a trivial question but it’s pretty fundamental to our human existence. Time and again Americans report working too much, struggling with debt, and lacking enough time for leisure and family. Time and again, we report being highly stressed by and dissatisfied with the daily grind.
And yet, we are bombarded with the message that for the good of the economy we need to buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend. In this scenario is the economy working for you or are you just working for the economy?
Poll and focus group results show that most Americans believe the economy is something “out there” beyond our control. The tendency is to think of it as a machine that churns forward under its own power. But actually, it’s more like a garden. Humans planted its seeds and we prune and shape it all the time. We do this through policies like subsidies, the tax code, regulations or lack thereof and many other mechanisms. These various prunings dramatically shape how the economy functions and which products and investments are available to us.
I find this incredibly empowering.
The economy is not a self-created machine. It is a set of human made systems, policies and decisions. Since we created it and constantly shape it, we have it within our power to recreate and reshape it.
The very good news is, even though you won’t hear much about it in mainstream media, a whole lot of people, organizations and businesses are working to do just that. There is in fact a growing global New Economy Movement.
Last month 3EStrategies participated in annual New Economy Week by co-hosting a screening of Naomi Klein’s new movie, This Changes Everything. The film highlights how issues like global climate change and poverty are leading to burgeoning efforts to design a healthier, saner economic system.
We’re at a point where we need to fundamentally evolve our economy, to adapt it to the current environmental and demographic conditions. Though we may at times forget it, such bold innovation and reinvention is in our American cultural DNA. We did it when we harnessed the power of oil in 1859. We did it during the Industrial Revolution when we created mass production. We did it after the Great Depression when we built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. And we did it when we tapped the creativity of the space race to develop myriad new products and companies. It is time to do it again, to lean into creating an economy that will simultaneously increase prosperity for our people and restore the environment. This is the greatest challenge and opportunity of our lifetime.
What’s the economy for anyway? It should be to serve us, give us opportunities to improve our health, our wealth and our wellbeing. It should function in a way that restores, rather than destroys, our planet. After all, the root of both words — economy and ecology — comes from the greek “oikos” which means “home”.
Actions you can take:
Don’t just accept the status quo. Ask the deeper questions.