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Building an Economy Worthy of Our Affection

By 3p Contributor

“Overturning a previously accepted paradigm does not come about

from gathering new facts that call the paradigm into question.

Mere logic does not change people’s minds. A society’s grasp needs to be

loosed by something other than logic, something far deeper and more

difficult to articulate that we call by various names:  emotion, the irrational, the metaphysical.

Or by Faith…”

Thomas Kuhn – "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," 1962

By Edward L. Quevedo, J.D.

We who read these worthy pages share much in common – a passion for making the world a better place; a vision for social enterprise heightened by respect for the innovators who have come before us; or perhaps a clear and burning desire to build our own enterprise to contribute to the greater good.

In these times of rapid and compelling change, and in a season of political upheaval, it is worth asking about the bigger picture: What are we hoping to achieve in the larger economy? I would offer a curious and perhaps naïve notion.  Can we imagine and build an economy worthy of our affection?

Doing so seems well beyond our reach at a time when the economy has taken on the dimensions and character of a heartless machine.  The dominant economic model, conceived and built in an era of consolidation of the “means of production,”* seems a far cry from one worthy of affection and care.

Our global economy feeds on domination by a privileged few companies and wealthy families.  It relies on a top-down approach to production of consumer products.

A top-down approach to life can work wonderfully.  The sun shines down on fields of sunflowers in Provence, of edelweiss in the Bavarian Alps, or of poppies in the California foothills.  The light from the sun activates the chlorophyll in the flower’s cells and converts carbon dioxide into sugar from air and water, fueling the flower’s roots, stems and leaves.  And ultimately its growth and development.

A parent stops in mid-thought to look at her daughter’s curious face, and anticipates her question with an empathetic response.  From the wisdom and experience of the parent’s life to the open curiosity of the child’s inquiry flows love and understanding, fueling the child’s grasp of the world around her.  And ultimately her growth and development.

In these instances, a top-down element brings value to the participants, be they part of the larger ecosystem or humans interacting in the space of love, life, or education.  In truth, though, these are not top down arrangements.  The nourishing flows of nutrients -- be they physical or psychic, emotional or intellectual -- is circular, systemic and flowing.

In our mechanistic economy, however, it could well be concluded that the top-down structure has failed, has had its time, and is in need of a fundamental re-think.  Whilst certainly contributing to unprecedented levels of material prosperity, our top-down economy also stands responsible for destroying communities, crushing ecosystems, and creating intolerable living conditions for most humans on the planet -- fomenting a stark absence of any semblance of social justice.

How might we re-imagine the economy, at scale, in line with a sense of humanity and fairness at its heart?  As noted above, there are many innovations in confined corners of the global economy that are at odds with the dominant model painted here.  Our task, though, if we are to do more than whittle away at the edges, is to mainstream these innovations.

To begin examination of how we might accomplish this, consider three basic building blocks of modern society: education, banking institutions and the financial markets.  Powerful new models offer themselves for study in these three domains that use systemic, graceful engagement and inclusiveness to challenge the mechanical inhumanity of the dominant economy.  If mainstreamed, these new models hold inestimable power to restructure our economy for the better.

Much of education today is designed to use standardized testing and curricula to build consumers.  The pathway of default for education in the U.S. is college.  This approach degrades the dignity of the honorable trades, and dooms tens of thousands of our most promising children to disappointment if college is not right for them.  But the approach is just right for building consumers in their millions.  Can we do better?  Can our schools focus on inspiring the next generation of citizens driven by passion rather than consumers driven by pursuit of material wealth?

Instead of a top-down model focused on standardize learning and testing, a number of innovative primary and secondary schools** strive to ignite their students’ passions, and let that drive their learning.  This approach to learning is, in general terms, informed by this progression:

  1. What do the students consider important in terms of real world problems or issues of which they are aware?  What are they most interested in learning about now?

  2. Which subjects (in terms both of learning studio subjects and social issues) spark their curiosity?

  3. How can or might they engage with the specific content they have identified?

  4. How might they choose to demonstrate their learning?

  5. What tools and support will they need to progress their learning?

Of course, students at various developmental levels will show varying aptitudes for use of this model.  But these schools’ individualized approach to learning, and the unique learning environments they foster, generally account for these differences and help students build their confidence and alacrity in taking advantage of this approach.  It might be possible, if this model were to germinate and propagate, that the next generation of citizens would seek not jobs, not careers, but their calling and true purpose in the world.  Such workers would surely demand and contribute to building an economy worthy of their affection.

Conventional models of financial institutions reflect the same massive, mechanical forces that drive the global economy:  size, consolidation, and relentless growth.  Many commentators have focused on precisely these characteristics of financial institutions as causes of the global financial collapse of 2008.  But how to reimagine these institutions?  Can we build a bank worthy of our affection?

Consider instead the example set by Beneficial State Bank in California, Investors Bank in New Jersey, and Triodos Bank in The Netherlands.  These institutions are community focused and report and measure the creation of value via development of community well-being vs. growth for its own sake.  These institutions focus on empowering their customers, borrowers, and investors with the tools for financial literacy, agency, and independence.  The stakeholders who choose these banks might, if they reflected on the matter, be seeking (and finding!) banking experiences that cultivate affection and not just profit.

In terms of financial markets, these are driven the world over based on quarterly returns, creating a relentless drive for unsustainable levels of performance to report favorable quarterly earnings.  Recently, we are seeing instances of new, more nuanced, and more sophisticated ways of evaluating the creation of value in markets, based on a more inclusive and holistic approach.  I refer to this model as Regenerative Economic Development. 

This model calls for conducting corporate operations, and making corporate decisions, with the goal of generating net, measurable, and simultaneous gains in:

  • Ecological well-being (improving eco-systems performance improvements),

  • Social and community capital (enhancing social conditions and community development), and

  • Long term, enduring financial profitability (building financial resiliency).

Companies as large and wide-reaching as Mondragon Corp. and Infosys Software, and as unique and small as Guayaki, are using elements of this regenerative model to reinvent how they report corporate performance and the creation of value.

I have mentioned here only a few examples of powerful disruption within education, banking, and financial markets.  But by participating in and propagating the work of these organizations, I firmly believe that we can all contribute to flipping the dominant economic script.  In doing so, each of us has the power to inspire, to forge coalitions of unapparent and non-obvious collaborators in common purpose, and to help us to usefully broaden our vision of the kind of world we are working to bring about – the state of affairs towards which we labor: an economy worthy of our affection.

* Considered broadly, these include capital, labor, and resources.

** Among others, we would include the Jefferson County Open School in Colorado, University Park Campus School in Massachusetts, Hood River Middle School in Oregon, and the Summerfield Waldorf School in California.

Image credit: Paul Jarvis via Life of Pix

Edward Quevedo is an educator and writer, and directs programs in Peace & Social Justice and Future Economies as a Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future.

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