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Economics Built on Beauty and Community

Gregory Wendt, CFP | Wednesday November 4th, 2009 | 1 Comment

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Right before I boarded a plane recently, I noticed a Body Shop in the terminal next to the gate. The Body Shop has been a leading business that incorporates social and environmental values into its operations. It was founded by the late Anita Roddick, one of the emergent leaders in the expanding and evolving “green” business movement.

Roddick was a very influential and inspiring thought leader, she stood as a pillar of the socially and environmentally responsible business movement. As I thumbed through my reading materials I found an article in Resurgence Magazine by Roddick entitled “The Currency of Imagination.” This eloquent article laid out some of her guiding principles and reflections on being one of the only CEOs (if not the only CEO) in the crowd of human beings who raised their voices against the globalization paradigm represented by the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle.

In the article she laid out a new vision for society, a vision which I share, where we place community and beauty as driving values for our individual and institutional decision making. I have learned that for any successful endeavor in new economic thinking to work, it must be built on a culture of trust and collaboration amongst the participants. Such ideas have inspired me in the efforts I have made in my region in co-founding Green Business Networking, a monthly networking event which brings together entrepreneurs and professionals who are committed to greening our economy through their businesses.

Somewhere along the line we picked up a virus in our culture’s source code. This virus misguided us by placing money and power as the central measuring sticks for success, all fed by a rapacious economic operating system driven by the gospel of consumerism. Our economy has become devoid of beauty and community, transactions have become ”complex, opaque, anonymous based on short term outcomes” according to Don Shaffer, President of RSF Social Finance, and our transactions need to become “direct, transparent and personal based on long term relationships.” On a similar theme, Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Café, who is also a co-founder of the very successful movement “Business Alliance For Local Living Economies” lives these principals. She says that her business was built on the principal of “maximizing relationships” rather than “maximizing profits.” As a result of her focus, her business thrived with the satisfaction of higher sales, and happier people.

In the wake of the recent financial crisis, and the significant ills facing our world, it has become clear to many people that the prevailing economic paradigm is no longer working to improve the well being of humanity. With climate crisis, declining ecosystems, billions, food riots, childhood diabetes, etc. individuals and institutions are experiencing the severe ramifications of an avaricious and predatory economic model. However, there is another way.

I spend a fair amount of energy inquiring into the nature of the latent economic opportunity of which Roddick spoke–that which incorporates beauty and community into the economic equation. I am also keen on discerning the most effective and coherent actions necessary to transmute our current economy of waste into an economy of thriving abundance, conservation and renewal for 100 percent of humanity. Our economic paradigm utilizes debt manipulation and consumerism as a short-sighted means to an unforeseen dead end and endless gluttony for few at the top of the heap.

Roddick said:

Consumerism doesn’t care if we buy in beautiful or ugly surroundings. Few aspects of the global economy provide beauty or community and, worse, in many ways it drives them out by deliberate manipulation of debt, which is as as powerful motivator as invented in human history. On the other hand, providing for these vital needs requires another kind of economy altogether, which emphasizes beauty, community and creativity.

Sadly, and with far reaching consequences, our current economy has failed to value such manifestations of “beauty, community and creativity. She pointed out that the economist John Maynard Keynes “talked about the hideous waste of economic system that could not recognize art or beauty…. In a speech to the Irish government in 1933, he urged politicians and economists to raise their ambition, and spend the money on beauty.”

Yet, the economy of beauty that we need transcends and includes the artful beauty of which he speaks. It is a culture of thriving community of people inspired by, evolving and learning from others and from and beauty that surrounds them.

How do we recognize and create such a vibrant community as the foundation of a successful economic paradigm?

Such a community has “deep connectivity” between participants. In a private paper, leading thinker Jon Ramer wrote that some of the citizens in a society of deep connectivity are “committed to produce something in their lives and the lives of others.” And, that such a society “is for building relationships, producing meaningful results, learning and growing together via a principled-approach to personal and community development.”

An economic system that encourages such “deep connectivity” is based on what I would call the currency of relationships. A perfect example of is the deeply successful Mondragon Cooperative movement, a community based economic system successfully operating the Basque region of Spain. It started during the Great Depression in the 1930s and thrived amid the oppressive Franco dictatorship. Mondragon succeeded in such a fascist context “by avoiding confrontation, not by being passively servile but by doing what was for the good of all.”

Author Thomas Greco made an important point that the success of Mondragon experience is replicable, but only in conjunction with the simultaneous weaving of a strong social fabric. That effort need not necessarily be centered around ethnic identity and culture, but could based on other common factors between the participants – such as religious affiliation, geographical proximity, shared values, or other factors that create common interests (but with concern for the greater common good always foremost.)

It is precisely this inherent characteristic of wishing to be part of something greater than ourselves that has given humans a sense of meaning since time immemorial. This heroic sense of contribution and sharing for the common good is a key principal of success.

Consider: has there ever been a time in history when this kind of collective heroism is more important than now, when the stakes are as high as they can get?

Mondragon scholar, Terry Mollner makes a distinction between the declining ‘material age’ and the emerging ‘relationship age,’ and concludes that the [Mondragon founders] ‘set about building a Relationship Age society by extending into more sophisticated realms the Relationship Age values which were already present In Basque Society.’

Along the same lines, Roddick concludes “We will succeed to the extent to which we encourage human connection and conversation. We will succeed also to the extent to which we spend the small change of imagination – the human stories about people and places and what they aspire to do.

Although it has been said before – we are at a critical juncture where our global circumstances require each of us to embrace that responsibility in every relationship we have. We share the responsibility to manifest the “Relationship Age” right where we are. A Relationship Age where artful living in deep connectivity is the evolutionary catalyst to shift our current economic operating system into a creation of shared wellbeing for our lives here on spaceship Earth.


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