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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Meditations for a Sustainable Economy

Meditations for a Sustainable Economy
Rollie Smith, November 2012

Meditation 1: The Story

I have lots of insights from the Contemplative Alliance Symposium in which I participated a couple of days ago.

David Korten (Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning) presented the importance of changing our central narrative or creation story if we are to foster resilience and integration in our economic, ecological, and (I would add) political systems. And with this change of narrative comes a new metaphor for God.

We need to move past the agricultural age tribal story of a Distant Patriarch or (I would add) Nourishing Matriarch and past the industrial age story of classical science of a Starter God who makes and switches on the machine, maybe oiling it from time to time.

Korten articulates the new image for God as Integral Spirit. This is a Teilhardian image of Consciousness present, emerging, and guiding all elements and systems of the universe.  It is also Thomas Berry's notion of Nature in the fullness of Being and Becoming. And it is the notion of Reality as portrayed by the new science and contemporary art appearing through rational inquiry (scientific method) and phenomenology of consciousness (artistic and religious imagination).

This story and image, some of the participants of the symposium pointed out, is contained in and vies (usually unsuccessfully) with the dominant narrative in the scriptures and rituals of most of our religious traditions, e.g. the Cosmic Christ Spirit of Christianity, the Shekhinah of Judaism, the ruh of Sufi Islam, the Sunyatta or Annata of Buddhism.

Korten, citing some Pew Foundation studies, indicated that over 60% of the people have abandoned the patriarchal God of the fundamentalist Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim hierarchy but need avenues, language, and institutions to express the emerging imagination and narrative; and that is a contemplative imperative. Certainly this was the vocation that Trappist monk Thomas Merton took seriously (and also with great humor) as my friend Bob Toth points out.

The old, angry white, usually Christian, men and their women in America are trapped in their belief systems, their limited images, by their own institutions even against their own interests. Perhaps that is why they were so shocked by the last presidential election--much more than I would have been if it had gone differently (as I suspected it might). These Neanderthals will die out, as will I, hopefully leaving room for the young to bring in the new imagination to support the new economy, ecology, and polity which belongs to no one nation, party, or ideology.

Listening to and thinking about all this I penned the following prayer in my notes:

God, you do not love us. 
You are the Love we have for one another and the earth.

You do not tell us things.
You are the Word we speak to power with each other.

You do not answer our prayers. 
You are the Solution emerging through our contemplation in action.

You do not dictate truths to us. 
You are the Truth we discover in our cooperative inquiry.

You do not judge us.
You are the Good we intend in all creation.

You are not a person or thing.
You are Consciousness that we become in our selves, each other, and the universe.

Meditation 2: Meaning of Economy

Fiscal cliff crisis talk: Grand Bargain or Grand Betrayal? Austerity to cut the deficit or stimulus to create jobs? Give investors more to invest in what they think they can to make some money. Or take some money from them to invest in what we think the public needs to invest?

Everybody says let's just do what is best for the American economy. But which and whose economy? And what do we mean by "economy" anyway?

Two definitions from the Oxford dictionary:

Economy: 1. the state of a country or region in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services and the supply of money.  2. careful management of available resources

But it is helpful to consider the origin of the concept from the same dictionary:
Late 15th century (in the sense 'management of material resources'): from French ├ęconomie, or via Latin from Greek oikonomia 'household management', based on oikos 'house' + nemein 'manage'. 

The household or home is the realm of sustaining life (Arendt).  Oikos is also the land and the earth, our first and basic home, the origin and sustainer of all life. And so the word "ecology" is from the same root. One of the tragedies of industrial modernity is the separation of economy from ecology; and thus the loss of the sense of a universal ecosystem.

Economy is distinguished from the polis or the civis--from which we get the words politics and civilization. In the city or state, free citizens step out of their private households to join with others in speech, decision, and action as equals to create and conduct the affairs of the commons.  This includes the protection of private households and personal life and happiness (economy/ecology): walls (laws) for defense of earth's resources and personal property, market places, safety nets, disaster centers, routes and centers of commerce, and police to protect them.

But action in the commons includes so much more than protection of personal life, by making space and time for public happiness: learning centers (universities), entertainment centers (arenas), cultural centers (theaters, museums, institutes, temples), parks and recreation centers, government centers, and above all centers for free speech and action.

Culture/religion belongs to both realms.  There are household gods, shrines, and rituals that give meaning to life.  There are public gods, shrines, and rituals that give meaning to common action. New thinkers question the gods and rituals, especially in the public realm, at considerable risk as Jeremiah, Socrates, Jesus, Giordano di Fiori, Galileo, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King demonstrate.

Economy, therefore, cannot be understood without its relationship to ecology, to the commons or public realm, and to culture or symbols of meaning.

But that is precisely what left, right, and center in the present conversation on the economy are trying to do. They neglect the intimate interaction of the systems of economy, ecology, politics, and culture.  They use the definition of the Oxford dictionary and as Korten points out, identify resources with money and wealth with the supply of money instead of using money as simply an accounting tool for true wealth.

Meditation 3: Sustainable Capitalism

Money is the capacity to consume, to use or use up things. And we do need to consume and so produce to live. Producing things for consumption and developing our technology to do so has brought tremendous advances to humanity.

Money is a wonderful tool for measuring production and consumption of things. Much better than trying to barter or bargain--since I am terrible at that; and I am getting too old to carry things to market. A unit of money is simply a piece of paper or an accounting entry that shows I owe or am owed something I need, want or value. The money system works because we all together through our governments give assurance for the note or accounting credit or debit.

Financial Capital is measured by the amount of money one has or the assets that can be traded or accounted for by money. So our condo in this market is worth about $250K.  I owe $125k on my mortgage. Unless the condo appreciates or depreciates, I can count on $125k to use to buy things if I sell our condo. However, we have to live somewhere and intend to keep our condo. So that $125k doesn't really mean that much. I'm just glad I don't owe the bank more. I am also glad that I can avoid paying some taxes on my other retirement income because I can declare the interest on my mortgage payment. My bank is glad even more because then I wouldn't be giving them money.

Some of us seem to need or want more than others. That's okay. I needed lots more financial capital when I was going to school or raising my children. I need and want a lot less now. I need and want transportation, nourishment, reading, writing, and education (primarily through libraries and internet), interacting with my family and friends and knowing they are and will be safe and happy, being of some use to others, running and walking on trails and in parks, nice weather, breathing clean air, drinking clean water, eating nourishing food, enjoying good health and health care, and some culture and fun (primarily through museums, institutes, schools, theaters, cafes and pubs). I do want to continue to explore through travel but mainly locally. So these are what I value, most of which cannot be measured in money. However, I realize that the goods and services that provide these are measured in money.

I do not measure my worth or success in terms of money, my capacity to buy and use (up) things. And I don't think most people do. So I am not at all concerned about gaining more or fearful about losing money. I think that makes me free in a very basic sense; i.e. in the sense that I think all people should be free from fear for or want of basic needs of life and pursuit of community and public happiness.

So I want an economy that is not based on financial capital. I do not want an economy that functions simply by increasing money or moving money around (usually up, to people who have the most) without fostering real capital--like a casino does, like Wall Street does, like housing speculation does, like buying, selling, corporatizing businesses does, or like commodifying and depleting earth resources does. I'm all for economic growth but not the kind that the big banks, the stock brokers, the financial fund operators, and the transnational (i.e. non-local) corporations mean.

I'm all for capitalism. But the capitals in which I am most interested are human, communal, earth, spiritual, educational, cultural capitals. These are the capitals I want to support, enhance, and protect. A capitalism that does not grow these capitals is a sham, unsustainable capitalism that will ultimately destroy itself by destroying its very life supporting system.

And this is just what we are seeing in earth change, fragmenting communities, fear and terror, non-renewable energy depletion, and plutocracy with loss of political engagement. By focusing on profit, by understanding profit as an increase in money not capital, by subordinating all capitals to financial growth, by measuring success of nations, cities, and persons by the accumulation of the private, individual ability to consume, we are on an unsustainable path as a species.

And I think that most of us sense this but react to it in different ways, some by building more solid walls, by burying precious metals, by buying weapons, by trying to take things away from others, by holding on to destructive dogmas. A better way is to redesign our economy into a sustainable capitalism.

Meditation 4: Strategy for a Sustainable Economy

There are three elements of a strategy for a new economy according to Korten: 1) the new story, 2) organizing local community, and 3) supporting policies for a sustainable earth.

The desired new narrative embodies a different set of values in line with contemporary science, a contemplative view of universal consciousness, and the imagination of postindustrial relational culture. This narrative is emerging through the weaving of many stories in the works of novelists, science fiction writers, movie producers, historians, philosophers, and citizens of diverse communities and backgrounds.

According to Biblical scholars, the central narrative of the ancient Hebrews, was the product of many tribes, each with its own gods, rituals, and customs, federating for strength in relation to dominating empires north and south by taking monthly turns at a common shrine in Shiloh and sharing their stories.  Amphictyony, the practice of tribes sharing a central place or worship to form a league or association, was not an uncommon occurrence in ancient times as the Delphic Amphictyony of Greece illustrates.

But the lesson I am taking is that the unifying narrative for a nation or a league of nations is an emerging and unfinished narrative developing through the listening to and sharing of many stories. A good community organizer is one who can listen to the stories of potential leaders, hear their interests, values, and affiliations, and establish a space where leaders can hear the others' stories to discover commonalities in affiliations, values, and interests. In this way leaders start writing a transcending, unifying story for a powerful community.

Community is a self-organizing process in which stories are shared and a transcending story emerges. In this way, a community shapes its own boundaries, i.e. sets policies, for its continuing development and power. Therefore, the three elements of the strategy that Korten articulates are in deed not different moments or parts, but three inseparable dimensions of what Jesuit Spirituality calls "contemplation in action."

Organizing community, as John McKnight (The Abundant Community) has pointed out, is neither top-down (hierarchical) nor bottom-up (populist), but inside-out. Vertical approaches focus on scarcity in which those who have provide charity to have-nots or victims force the haves to give up some of their possessions. Good community organizing focuses on abundance, the assets already in persons and their communities that when brought together can strengthen communities and their persons.

In a sustainable economy, existing human gifts are brought together for everyone to have. People with their talents come to the concert to create a great symphony. Or, another metaphor, by planting the seeds, laying the compost, and attending to nurture, the garden grows. Investment in a sustainable economy is not putting up money to get more money where the rich get richer and the poor don't, but putting in capital--real capital so that everyone gets wealthier.

One last note before I get specific and lay out my own plan.

Is it okay to get rich, like Gates or Romney or Wall Street bankers? Sure, I have nothing against riches. If money is what turns you on, go for it. I don't care how many cars or houses or wives or jewelry or yachts or art pieces you need, want, or have. Just don't screw the rest of us while getting them. And don't pretend that you are adding anything to the sustainable economy or well-being of the nation because you are rich and getting richer, especially if you are not adding anything to building community, enhancing life, advancing human knowledge, and fostering dignity and integrity in persons, among nations, with the earth. And please don't get rich in a way that is destructive to human and planet life and community and then, after you are rich, try to do good.

Meditation 5: Planning for A Sustainable Economy

After the presidential election, I identified three root issues that only arose in the campaign through surrogate sub-issues.

They are:

1. The widening gap between the rich and everyone else with the consequent domination of the superrich and their institutions. This means much more than tax reform or debt reduction but re-imagining the fundamental vision, mission, and structure of our national and global economy and its institutions. And it means the survival of a republican form of government.

2. The state of the planet with the consequent survival of the human species. This means more than preventing or adapting to global warming but re-imagining the fundamental vision, mission, and structure of technological progress in relation to the condition and future of humanity.

3. The development of cosmopolis and the threat to freedom in and power of communities, nations, and/or the whole of humanity. This means understanding and reviewing the structures that foster or prevent domination, war, and terror.

Each of these issues implies the others. Underlying them all is the vision, mission, and ethical structure or integrity of humankind: the notions of justice, of equity, of power, and of freedom. Organizing and planning for a sustainable and democratic economy is a tall, many-faceted, long-term endeavor that must engage hundreds of thousands of leaders from all sectors of human life and action in numerous experiments, critiques, and verifications.

I presented a mind-map of these issues to show their relationship with each other, the other sub-issues, and the ethical underpinnings.  

After the Contemplative Alliance meeting facilitated by David Korten and some discussion with colleagues, here is a tentative plan for experimental action that I am exploring. I present this plan to be critiqued by colleagues and by others who are interested in participating with me in this endeavor.

1. Listening and research. I intend to keep reading and studying about the issues. I intend to interview experts and leaders of NGOs that are tackling these issues, looking for "handles" or promising points of entry for organization and action.  Bill Gates recently at the Aspen Institute reaffirmed an adage I first learned from Tom Peters: "You get what you measure." So at this stage and throughout, it is important to come up with specific, concrete measures for a sustainable economy and successful humanity. If not GDP, if not "bottom line," if not accumulation of money, what are they?

2. Local experimentation. I think that my niche and handle to the new economy, based on my own expertise, relates to the local and worldwide sustainable urbanism movement. I am now facilitating a strategic planning process in a dynamic neighborhood of DC based in my participation in my church and its sponsored housing and community development corporation. I am in contact with leaders and organizers in other neighborhoods of DC doing similar work. We are articulating our vision for a livable, or what MLK called the "beloved," community. We are reviewing our mission and measures for getting there.

3. Sustainable Communities DC. Working with local neighborhood developers and organizers and City staff, I want to explore a metro DC sustainable communities initiative as we have begun to achieve in California’s Central Valley.  Working with National Community Reinvestment Coalition regional organizers, I want to explore the developing strategy for community banking as a part of that movement. This experiment includes the "breaking up" of the "too-big-to-fail" financial institutions by encouraging them to work through and build the capacity of local community banks.  This is much as national government works through local governments and NGOs to achieve our national goals; or as national and international foundations work through local community foundations to accomplish their mission. Or a radically new model of local neighborhood financing of commercial real estate. Or as certain franchise and cooperative organizations work. The key is building local capacity from the inside-out.

4. National/intentional connections. Linking to DC and East Coast based NGOs and using my relationships with the Sustainable Community organizing in California I hope to develop the story and build a national initiative that uses the California SB375/AB32 legislative and my local organizing experience in Fresno in reducing carbon emissions through sustainable, resilient communities as part of the new urbanism. I want to be in discussion with my former colleagues in HUD, EPA, USDA, Commerce, Transportation, and the White House in relation to the federal SC initiative. I want to contact representatives of the worldwide sustainable urbanism movement in other countries, as I have already done in Australia, to link our stories with theirs.

5. Emerging story. With help from my faith-based and contemplative friends, I want to keep nourishing the global emerging narrative, which includes the mission, values, and vision for a sustainable economy within a sustainable ecosystem.  I want to continually learn through more listening and research as in #1.

Help me, please. Tell me what you think and especially how to improve my thinking and my action.

A final note:

I read Ray Kurzweil and other thinkers about the Singularity and the technological "End of History and the Last Man." This would possibly be the new species towards which we are evolving. Francis Fukuyama following Hegel sees the Last Man coming through liberal, democratic political economy. My own choice (as outlined in my Ethicsof Integrity) is to never have the End arrived, but always arriving through our choices now. That is, we renew and celebrate human existence as the tension between past and future time, inner and outer space, self and world, personal individuality and collective community, reality and ideality that we indeed are at this and every moment here and now and with. Integrity with our self, with each other, with the world, and with our dynamically changing universe is the story of our existence and our most urgent challenge.  Let's go for it.