Dialogue: Tom Atlee (I)

 

Dear David,

John Steiner sent me your excellent essay "Living Economies for a Living Planet" http://www.pcdf.org/2001/Living_Economies/Living_Economies.htm. Since the article has such obvious potential as a fundamental document (of the sort you tend to write), and because you asked for "feedback at whatever level of detail or generality you are inclined to give", I have taken a couple of days to explore and share what came up for me while reading it. Although the following letter is filled with suggestions, please know that the overwhelming majority of my responses were "Wow!" I could list scores of strong points in this article.

With no changes at all, I think "Living Economies" would constitute a great step forward in our conceptualization of what we're doing, and what we need to do. The distinction between a living economy and a suicide economy is very useful, as is the metaphor of stages of ecosystem development and the concept of "the modern mechanisms of cultural reproduction (mass media, advertising, and education)." And much, much more. The key, of course, is your focus on "Life", which is absolutely central, and for which I have been grateful since I first heard it from you at the E-Law conference here in Eugene last year. If anything, I would encourage you to further ground your vision in language about "life".

LIFE

Others are on the same path. For example, Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, has lately begun using the term "life-serving", which I find attractive (as when you say in Part III that "Money is the servant, not the master, of life"). I think "life-serving" is actually more descriptive than "life-affirming". We can ask of any action or system, "How well does this serve life?"

AN ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT?

The whole article -- especially Part V and its paragraph beginning "From there it is a matter..." -- got my imagination sparking. Would it be possible to generalize Vicki Robin's financial independence movement into an "economic independence movement" which would include "community economic independence" and "consumer independence" as well as "individual financial independence"? There could be groups of people who gather regularly in their town to discuss how they were doing at buying locally, and supporting each other (and their community) in increasing the percentage of local buying. Individual members of the group (and the group as a whole) might have goals to buy locally retailed products (i.e., no chains), and also to buy locally made/grown products. (This would probably require a book or program like Vicki's "Your Money or Your Life" -- perhaps "Your Money or Your Community"?) And when group members were having problems buying locally, they wouldn't be criticized by the group. Instead, the group would explore why such problems existed and what they could collectively do about it. After all, most people in their community wouldn't be part of their group, and all those thousands of people face the same problem, so addressing it might well make it easier for everyone to buy locally.

For example, for the last week I've been wanting to buy a clip-on lamp for my partner Karen, to replace one she had which shorted out. The several places I've called have all referred me to Walmart, which I don't want to use. There is no database (or phone number) which I can consult to find out where I can buy one from a locally-owned business. Everyone in Eugene faces this lack of information about local business products. If this information vacuum was corrected, it would greatly assist everyone to buy locally. If it isn't corrected, it becomes too difficult to figure out where to get such things and people (even me) finally say, "Forget it, I don't have time for this! I'll just go to a megastore that has EVERYTHING!"

LOCALNESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Several times in your article you mention both local economics and accountability. It seems the argument for both would be strengthened by firmly and explicitly linking the two. Perhaps the best systemic argument for local economics (and politics) is that people know each other and have access to each other and have to suffer/benefit together more, so the results of people's (and business' and government's) actions are more obvious and correctable locally than they are at a distance. The feedback loops are more powerful. In non-local systems, not only do "rulers become ever further removed from the realities of daily life and the real world consequences of their decisions" (as you say), but they become less able to be influenced by those who ARE connected to the consequences of those decisions. Local economics IS a primary tool for answerability. (And all of this is a subset of bioregionalism, which extends the principle to all our interactions with each other and the ecosystems in which we're embedded.) [I would make sure to note the accountability factor in your "Ground it locally everywhere" bullet in Part V.]

Here are some other comments I hope will prove useful:

1) HOW DO WE COOPERATE? (re para 5 in the Overview, plus many other places)

You suggest that cooperation is basic. But HOW to cooperate is not fully clear. Unlike the living organisms in a Type III ecosystem, we citizens are fragmented, individualized and isolated by our culture -- torn away and sealed off from neighbor and nature, and individually hooked up (instead) to the pipelines, wires, highways and markets of the Type I economy. "The infrastructure" is our primary and constant companion. It takes tremendous effort to overcome this built-in, institutionalized isolation.

For Cultural Creatives (CCs) this condition is aggravated by a dynamic described by Paul Ray: Each of us CCs has created our own CC-type worldview with great effort, most of us individuating from the Traditional or Modern subcultures. We are ideological loners in search of community, while being very protective of the individual sense we've managed to make of our world. How to find our way to successful community and cooperation is by no means clear. I think many people (certainly me) find that cooperation is easier in theory than in practice.

I acknowledge that there is an individual task here -- that of trying to make connections, of developing a more holistic awareness, and of changing ourselves in various ways that facilitate connection (e.g., handling the "green narcissism" -- "boomeritis" -- that Ken Wilber has commented on for years).

But I suggest that the more fruitful challenges may be collective and systemic. Certain assumptions, cultural factors, processes, institutions, etc., make collaboration easier, safer, more enjoyable, more productive, and so on. Some of these already exist here and there and simply need to be gathered up and made known and accessible (as YES! tries to do) -- and then facilitated and taught more broadly. But our unprecedented circumstances demand more of us than this. We need new forms and some R&D efforts to clarify which cooperative modes work best where and how.

If the perspective I've just described is valid, then we'll ultimately need more than a cooperative rationale and exhortations to pursue it. We'll need strategic thinking to chart a path towards truly doable cooperation. As I mentioned in my earlier conversation with you and Fran, I think we could benefit from organized (even institutionalized periodic) shared inquiry that asks (among other strategic questions) "What would have to happen for communities (or cultural creatives) to develop cooperation-facilitating cultures and institutions that can sustain themselves and evolve in ways that serve life?" I think that various gatherings, conferences, journals, think tanks, etc., which specifically address such questions would have high-leverage impact on our prospects.

2) TYPE I AND TYPE III DEMOCRACY

I have come to believe that the "one person, one voice" version of democracy is (to use your language) part of the Empire's (or Type I) version of democracy. It does not fit with the mature (Type III) ecosystem model. Here's my thinking:

Consider a mature ecosystem. Let's take a forest, for example. Notice that each individual ant cannot meaningfully be said to have the same "voice" as each individual bear or each individual redwood. (We can't even say that each individual ant has an equal voice in the ant realm.) However, we could accurately say that antdom, beardom and redwooddom all have appropriate and interactive influences (voices) in the status and evolution of the whole forest. We could say that it is the open and continual "dialogue" among the TYPES of organisms that constitute the health of the mature ecosystem.

Likewise I would say that it is open and continual dialogue -- not so much among every individual citizen, but among different perspectives and types of citizen -- that constitutes the health of the body politic. This is the logic of involving diverse stakeholders -- environmentalists, ranchers, loggers, city people, country folks, etc. -- in watershed planning activities. It is their diverse needs, diverse interests, diverse life-experiences, diverse values, diverse viewpoints, diverse sense of what's good and possible, that need to be integrated into any viable long-term solution. When a thousand ranchers all share certain interests and perspectives, it is only necessary to have a few of them in the conversation to make sure those interests and perspectives are incorporated. If the conversation is done well and fruitfully, and its results well publicized, those results will be eagerly spread and further "digested" by all the other ranchers (and others), in a very natural manner, since all their "voices" were taken into account.

This is also the logic of Joanna Macy's "Council of all beings" process, where we hear the voices of diverse types of animals and plants as stakeholders in the planet's future. And it is the logic of the various citizen consensus councils I write about, for which a dozen or two participants are chosen as demographically (not politically) representative of the full diversity of the larger population (using scientific or random selection processes). In all these examples, the voices heard are not those of every individual in the population, but of the full range of diverse archetypes present in that population. I see this as very different from "one person, one voice."

In Part III, you say that "democratic accountability to and for the whole on the basis of one person one voice....align[s] with the basic operating principles of mature natural ecosystems." The principles you referred to were Janine Benyus' ten natural system principles. But I found nothing there that supported "one person one voice." Perhaps a more eco-resonant principle for democracy might be something like: "Democratic accountability to and for the whole system arising from dialogue among the diverse perspectives and roles that populate it, to discover what makes sense for that whole, given its existing and necessary constituent diversity and its changing circumstances."

(As an aside, I want to express my gratitude for your use of ecosystem types as a metaphor for economic and political forms. It has triggered some very fruitful thinking in my own work, including the notes above, which I hadn't articulated this way before....)

3) POSSIBLE INTERNALIZED TYPE I ASSUMPTIONS?

I'm wondering if some subtle assumptions of the Type I economic culture are present in the list given in the paragraph beginning "The step to a living economy..." (4th para before Part IV). I may well be missing something, but I wanted to raise the issue, just in case.

For example, you put "a living wage" as one of the main elements of a living economy. "Wage" implies working FOR someone else. In contrast, Robert Theobald once suggested our goal should be 100% UNemployment -- that we should move beyond employment-thinking to new forms that might SERVE LIFE more fully. (I think the saying, "My job is not my work; my work is not my life" reflects the limitations of wage/job thinking as part of a life-based paradigm.) Theobald suggested we search for ways to separate (a) the fulfilling contribution people make with their lives from (b) the social distribution of sustenance. There are many approaches to this. Here are three I know of:

  1. Theobald's (and others') guaranteed income proposals.
  2. Using technology to reduce the amount of work needed to produce adequate material livelihood for all, thereby increasing the amount of "free [unemployed] time" available to pursue our passions and enhance our quality of life. (The current use of technology to increase productivity for the profit of the few causes each new technological development to result in our working harder and faster to make ends meet, thereby reducing our quality of life.)
  3. In the 1950s the Goodman brothers had a semi-totalitarian approach to this: The labor of producing "the basics" would be equitably divided and enforced (e.g., everyone would have to work 15-20 hours a week on that production) and the resulting basics of life would then be distributed freely to all. The remainder of everyone's time would be theirs to do with as they wished.

There are probably hundreds of other approaches, none of which involve "a living wage". I guess I'm particularly conscious of this, having lived a significant portion of my life outside of the wage system, and do not think that a return to it would enhance my quality of life.

In the same paragraph (4th para before Part IV) you talk about "secure returns from long-term investments." I've often wondered about how that part of the capitalist system might serve a living economy, especially in the absence of legal "fiduciary responsibility" to investors (how do you have SECURE returns without fiduciary responsibility?). As I thought about responding to your article, however, a different approach came to mind: You say "The living economy is about mutuality and partnership, democracy, equity and sustainability." This led me to wonder about the role of individual investments vs. community investments: Do individual investments serve mutuality and equity? What would the effect be of allowing investment interest only to geographic communities? The interest would be democratically distributed or spent on service facilities that benefited the whole community (or served the life of a democratically selected group). Would this be similar in principle to land trusts and limited equity co-ops, through which any increase in equity goes to the whole, not to the individual (a fact which stabilizes the real estate market, and might serve to stabilize other markets as well).

Finally, at the end of that paragraph, you say that "a living economy" is a vision of "progress and opportunity". I think of these words as tied to the linear growth model of Empire. "Progress" is the bottom-line myth of industrial culture (which is why I have a problem with the political term "progressive," as well). And "opportunity" has become tightly associated with progress ("progress" is even in my American Heritage Dictionary's definition of opportunity) and also with "economic opportunity." I'd strongly encourage you to replace these words with words associated with the life-metaphor, particularly the now popular phrase "quality of life" (which Vicki Robin and others have contrasted with "quantity of stuff").

To show this distinction in a stark form, consider indigenous (tribal or agrarian village) cultures. Few of them could be accurately described as guided by visions of "progress and opportunity". However, most of them could accurately be described as supporting "quality of life" for their members and the environments in which they live. Aren't they examples of a living economy?

So my recommendation for a closing sentence in that paragraph would be: "The vision of a living economy is for most people a vision of better quality of life for everyone."

4) DEMOCRACY OF MONEY?

I'm not sure the phrase "democracy of money" works well, since money distorts democracy -- which I realize was your point. The phrase "democracy of people" seems a bit odd to me, too, since "demos" IS "people". Perhaps you could contrast a democracy (people-ocracy) to a money-ocracy: "one dollar one vote; a million dollars, a million votes". Perhaps there's a Greek root for "money" that could be plugged in as a prefix to "ocracy"....

5) PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION AND INSTITUTIONAL TRANSFORMATION

In the second-to-last paragraph of Part III -- and in Part V -- I'd like to suggest that living systems have emergent properties of their own, and are not merely the sum of the "mutual learning, negotiation, and adaptation" of the billions of organisms or people that make them up. For example, in social (e.g., economic and political) systems, feedback loops often are provided by institutions (e.g., representative democracy, or money), rather than just mass human behavior patterns.

Unfortunately (in my view) the transformational thinking of Cultural Creatives too often depends on simply transforming lots of individuals, without even much strategic thinking about how that would happen with hundreds of millions of people immersed in a culture inimical to that transformation. There is simply trust that a great shift of consciousness will occur. (While I agree that great shifts will occur, I do not think they are in any way guaranteed to be to our liking. A great shift occurred in the thinking of Germans in the 1930s, after a period of intense New Age thinking...)

Missing from this perspective is the vital ingredient of SYSTEMIC change. Systemic change is not independent from individual change. It requires at least some changes of awareness and opinion by many citizens in order for certain changes to be instituted. And, once instituted, systemic changes generate profound impacts on people's awareness, behavior and lives, as we've seen with car culture, abolition of slavery, commodification, TV, anti-discrimination laws, right-to-know laws, etc. -- including the legal personhood of corporations.

There are many cultural creative exhortations to change individual consciousness and behavior. I always want to see more attention paid to publicizing and developing institutional alternatives to existing institutions, which will, in turn, change individuals.

Although I think Parker Palmer's description (of the networking of individuals into communities and of communities into alliances, referred to in your paper) covers very real and important dynamics of transformation, I also feel that these alone are insufficient to bring the cultural shift we seek. Quality of life indicators, consumer co-ops, instant run-off voting, LETS systems, official citizen consensus councils, energy grids that draw on excess household (and auto) solar generation for use elsewhere where needed -- all these and more are not simply networked individuals and alliances of communities. They are institutions -- social structures with various legal, technical, organizational, etc., dimensions. I think that much good will come from making this very explicit at every possible point in your powerful article (particularly given its anticipated audience).

This is especially important in Part V "Living the Future into Being" (and in the last paragraph of the Overview), which stresses "a new level of individual consciousness, creativity, and responsibility," but nowhere mentions new institutional forms, per se. It does talk about ENTERPRISES that do good things (and that disconnect from the institutions of the suicide economy), but it doesn't address the need for new FORMS of institution -- in the sense that a "limited equity co-op" is STRUCTURALLY different from a "publicly traded corporation", and that the Grameen bank is based on TOTALLY DIFFERENT ASSUMPTIONS than a regular bank. Including this perspective in this particular article could have a profound and very desirable effect.

In short, I think we need BOTH individual and social-systemic transformations in order to generate the larger life-serving transformation of culture that we seek.

6) COMPETITION AND COOPERATION

I am concerned with the rhetorical disowning of competition and hierarchy. While I have long shared your bias against them (witness my "co-intelligence" work), I am slowly coming to the conclusion -- prodded by such integral iconclasts as Ken Wilber and Charles Johnston -- that our challenge is not to get rid of them, but to figure out and support their proper role in the whole -- or, as Wilber says, to "include and transcend" them. I think the idea of "life-serving" may help us do that. We could ask: What forms of (or in what roles do) competition and hierarchy serve life?

It could be claimed that it is inconsistent to say that cooperation is better than competition -- or that networking is better than hierarchy -- because these statements create a competition between (and hierarchy of) the two modes, trying to decide which is better. It certainly evokes a competitive response from supporters of competition and hierarchy! How do we walk our talk here? One approach might be to say (with Bill Mollison, founder of permaculture), "What does competition have to offer to Life if we cooperate with it? It would be wise to assume that competition can be a positive resource -- and that it is up to us to work out how we may use it as such." Here's how I might try actually doing that:

I can see five potentially life-serving roles for competition:

  • attracting opportunistic entities into interactions they wouldn't ordinarily engage in;
  • enhancing performance by motivating towards excellence;
  • generating diversity and creativity through efforts to gain novel advantage;
  • selecting or winnowing things according to some standard, often in a self-organized way;
  • and, by doing the previous four actions, transforming the realm of activity in which the competition has taken place, making new things possible there.

This manifests in Type I ecosystems as a process of generating and winnowing the diversity needed to "sort things out at the start" -- to populate open territory and transform it into a suitable environment for the Type II and then Type III ecosystem organisms that then stabilize the scene into one ruled by broad cooperation and loose ("good enough") survival standards (see Norman Johnson's "Developmental Insights into Evolving Systems: Roles of Diversity, Non-Selection, Self-Organization, Symbiosis". Competition also plays an ecological role in maintaining and improving the overall quality of organisms in each species population. Given all this, it seems to me clear that nature embraces competition -- in its rightful place.

Furthermore, although people are living systems, we are not ecosystems. Although our lives and behaviors may be shaped by certain ecosystemic principles, the fact that we have consciousness and cultures changes our relationship to those principles, and may require new principles to encompass our actual ways of being, individually and collectively. For one thing, I think it is safe to say that we have a genetic POTENTIAL for BOTH competition and cooperation. Our challenge is not to replace one with the other, but to learn from nature and our experience what the right (life-serving) role for each is, to choose those roles for ourselves, and to design institutional supports that embed those roles into our cultures.

For us humans, our choice of certain forms of competition may depend on factors such as the following, which reach beyond Benyus' biomimicry list:

  • Do "excellence" and "selection", per se, serve us well in this particular area of life? For example: How does it serve life to choose an overall "best friend" -- compared to choosing the best food processor?
  • Do our success criteria serve life? For example: Does it serve life better if we measure which society has the highest GDP -- or which society has the most happy people?
  • Is the competitive game designed and managed to serve life? For example: Is there a level playing field?
  • Does the competitive spirit being practiced here serve life? For example: Are we trying to excel, or to undermine (or even kill) our competitors?
  • Are the results of the competition used to serve life? For example: Do the results of this contest uplift everyone involved, or degrade losers and make excellence feel even more out of reach for ordinary people?

This gives us some (possible) standards whereby we might say that a particular competition serves life. Some reflections on specific cases:

  • Competitions for who is most popular or "the best person" are relatively degraded, and thus do not serve life. They invalidate the losers to no positive end, and cause everyone to focus on public opinion rather than on who people really are and what they actually do. (This "popularity contest" syndrome manifests in the marketplace as image advertising, which you vigorously attack in your article.)
  • International competition between athletes can actually serve cooperation among countries. But we must note that the domination of the Olympics by gigantic institutions (corporations and states, driven by the popularity dynamics noted above) threatens the quality of life of the athletes, to say nothing of its impact on everyone else.
  • A contest for who can create the most efficient solar cell could generate a wide variety of solutions. This contest could be followed by an official collaborative effort involving all the best innovators in an effort to invent something better than any of them had come up with. In this case, the competition would help both to stimulate the inventors and to choose who would participate in the subsequent collaborative effort. (This combination of competition and cooperation could be tried in other ways, such as a community contest for the ten best local bands, who are then supported to do collaborative conversations and workshops with musicians who want to start or improve their own bands.)
  • Trade agreements that trigger competition for the highest environmental standards are preferable to (more life-serving than) trade agreements that trigger de facto competition for the lowest environmental standards.
  • You say in Part I that "Nature, it seems, has learned that competition and ruling hierarchies are inefficient and wasteful of scarce resources." The fact is that nature recycles resources whether there's competition or cooperation, and it often wastes energy for good purpose (such as creating thousands of offspring of whom only a tiny fraction will survive, by design). We need, I think, to accept the multiplicity of nature -- it has uses for all the opposites -- and to find our fruitful relationship to that reality. In this case, I think we need to view the competition that goes on in a Type I ecosystem as life-serving, since it is a basic pattern of life, a fact that is barely acknowledged in your article. Although you grant that the Era of Empire (civilization's analog to a Type 1 ecosystem) did produce "extraordinary advances in human technology, knowledge, communications, and organizational capacity," you don't ground that in a developmental theory of civilization that acknowledges the inevitability and appropriateness of that phase -- AS a phase -- given the understandings we've gotten from the development of ecosystems. Possible candidates (or raw material) for that developmental theory include:

    Jay Earley's TRANSFORMING HUMAN CULTURE http://www.earley.org/Transformation/transforming_human_culture.htm

    Charles M. Johnston's THE CREATIVE IMPERATIVE http://www.creativesystems.org/press.html

    Duane Elgin's AWAKENING EARTH http://www.awakeningearth.org/books/awakening/aedescription.html

Informed by these developmental theories, I would say now that the point is not that competition is bad, but that its life-serving role is limited to certain circumstances, practices and developmental stages. In our culture's development we have achieved the purposes for which competition shaped our adolescence, and it is time to move on to the next stage, in which competition takes a more subsidiary, well-monitored role.

Finally, I think the concept of FEEDBACK may prove useful in helping both competition AND cooperation serve life. As you so clearly describe (e.g., "a self-reinforcing cycle by which financial power becomes cultural power..." etc.), what we call reinforcing (or "positive", or "maximizing") feedback magnifies certain dynamics, whether or not they are desirable. And balancing ("negative", "optimizing") feedback modifies such extremes towards some desired standard.

Reinforcing feedback can help certain desirable qualities grow to a sustainable level. However, runaway reinforcing feedback usually creates wild extremes and fluctuations that ultimately destroy the system. In some cases, even this is desirable, creating a crisis ("bifurcation point") that triggers a needed transformation. In Type I ecosystems, competition is encouraged with reinforcing feedback to SERVE LIFE by generating diversity and transforming the landscape. Then it is discouraged by the dominance of benign shade trees that SERVE LIFE with balancing feedback loops that modify weather and stabilize species variety.

We can't say that "balancing feedback" is good, and "reinforcing feedback" is bad, any more than we can say that "cooperation" is good and "competition" is bad. They all have their places, and each one may be called for in different circumstances -- or be problematic in other circumstances. Balancing feedback loops tend to keep things within an orderly range. If a system is operating in a desirable way, this is good. But if the system is destructive of itself or its environment, balancing feedback loops just help it continue that destruction. Such feedback dynamics are conservative forces, for good or ill. They are useful to monitor competition -- but also to monitor cooperation.

Norman Johnson (referenced above) notes that too much cooperation can result in ideal, universalized solutions to systemic problems which, when they become institutionalized by the system, can undermine diversity and, thereby, the resilience of the system in the face of major environmental changes. A little messiness -- of competition mixed in with the cooperation -- and some reinforcing feedback mixed in with the balancing feedback -- can SERVE LIFE.

Intelligence provides a third kind of feedback, I believe, one that monitors whether reinforcing or balancing feedback needs to be strengthened. Individual and collective intelligence, guided by the standard of "what serves life," can tweak the system to optimize healthy feedback dynamics. If it understands that messiness and unpredictability and wild cards and non-optimum conditions can provide great service to life, then that intelligence will probably do OK.

--

I hope this has proven useful. Thank you for your monumental life's work critiquing the current scene and visualizing the desirable future for our world. You are a blessing for us all.

My best to you always.

Coheartedly,

Tom

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * PO Box 493 * Eugene, OR 97440
http://www.co-intelligence.org 
http://www.democracyinnovations.org
http://www.co-intelligence.org/CIPol_Index.html

 

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Posted July 21, 2001