By 1991, Fran and I had pretty much decided that Asia was home and assumed we might remain there indefinitely, until a fateful conversation with Smitu Kothari, a leading Indian intellectual and activist. Smitu and I had become close friends and colleagues. During one particular conversation, he said to me, “You and Fran came here from the United States to help us. We appreciate that. We believe that during your years here you have learned what our real problem is. If you really want to help us you now need to return home and teach what you have learned to other Americans."
I knew by then that the problem to which Smitu was referring is the United States, our expropriation of the world’s resources to support our profligate consumption, and our promotion of a development model that is spreading social and environmental devastation throughout the world. Fran and I thought long and hard about Smithu’s words. In 1992, we returned to the United States and turned our attention to promoting change at home based on what we had learned during our years abroad.
Correcting System Failure
One of the most important lessons I remember from my days as a student in the Stanford MBA program, was to look upstream to identify the system failure responsible for whatever problem you are facing. Then fix or replace the system to prevent the problem from recurring.
From our apartment in New York City located between Madison Avenue and Wall Street just off Union Square, I took a long look up stream and found a system that is running wildly out of control with no internal mechanism to self-correct. I wrote When Corporations Rule the World to share what I had learned about why the corporate ruled economic system is driving toward social and environmental collapse.
Identifying source of the system failure, however, is only the first step. There must then be a plan for fixing or repairing the system. In this instance it seemed clear that the system is corrupt beyond hope for repair. It must be replaced. But with what? This required a larger conversation and I became involved in a number of initiatives to support its engagement.
The end of 1996, I became involved in launching YES! Magazine and have since served as board chair. In 1998 Fran accepted the position of publisher and executive director. In 1998, we moved to Bainbridge Island in Washington state where the YES! office was located and where I finished writing my first book outlining the design of an economic system based on living system principles.
Design for a Living Economy
I suggested in When Corporations Rule the World that it is within our human means to create economies that serve life rather than money. I sensed that the design of such economies would necessarily be guided by principles derived from the study of healthy living systems. Yet the work on living systems with which I was familiar seemed, narrow, mechanistic and removed from the richness of the living world of my experience.
A break through came from an encounter in 1997 with Dr. Mae-Wan Ho at a conference in Spain. She introduced me to the framing concepts of the new biology, which takes a complex systems approach to understanding life. A few weeks later I met Elisabeth Sahtouris, another new biology pioneer. The ideas of these two women provided the essential framework for The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism, which was launched at the United Nations headquarters in New York City in March 1999. See The Forum's Living Economies Program History.
Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
Presentations on the living economies framework that Elisabeth and I made at two Social Ventures Network conferences in 2001, provided the conceptual framework for launch of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, which was launched the end of 2001 and has since been supporting local business networks across the United States and Canada in growing the new economy from the bottom up.
Global System Perspective
On the international front, most of my involvement from 1994 through 2004 was through my participation in the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) [See Breaking with the Establishment]. The IFG was formed around a shared critique of economic globalization that served as the organizing focus around which global civil society emerged. It became evident, however, that resistance alone was a losing strategy. I focused my IFG involvement on an IFG effort to produce a consensus IFG report presenting a rule-based market-alternative to corporate led globalization. Edited by John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander, Alternatives to Economic Globalization, published in 2002 and expanded and updated in 2004, remains the single most comprehensive and authoritative articulation of the design for a just, democratic, just, and sustainable planetary economic system.
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