Paul Raskin’s Journey to Earthland is the most articulate and concise rendering of our predicament I have encountered, written by a man who has lived in this existential question over a long period of time, and worked on it with his uncommon intellect as well as his heart. Let me try to offer a few reflections that come up after reading this important book that I will share with my children and draw on in my work.
(1) No doubt, some kind of global, or at least multinational, citizenship movement will be necessary to shift the institutions locked in the current suicidal system. As Raskin writes, the current system is a “failed state.” So count me in on the global citizens movement and the ignition of the exercise of rights and responsibilities that citizenship demands. Powerful institutions have only undergone profound changes as a result of some external, existential threat to their survival. Fear of bankruptcy works well for individual businesses, and public demands (under threat of revolution) for political institutions. This nicely follows the laws of energy flow: systems change in respond to pressure.1 Energy laws are increasingly working in our favor as we enter the turbulent decades ahead.
(2) Paul Raskin rightly dismisses the “Conventional Worlds” scenarios—both Market Forces and Policy Reform variations, along with what he calls “the false god of moderation that invites us to passively drift down the garden path to barbarization.” Of course, this is precisely the path we (collectively) are on, with all the well-meaning focus on “green growth”; internalizing “externalities” (an oxymoron); greater market transparency with Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) metrics (our idolatry of markets and their ability to guide us is a deadly confusion of means and ends); Divest/Invest campaigns; quantifying in monetary terms ecosystem services offered by vital and priceless ecosystem functions; circular economy manufacturing processes; impact investing; carbon demand-side reduction targets; more progressive taxation regimes; and on and on. All are essential incremental changes and must be part of any ultimate solution. All are important work. But mostly, what they accomplish is the extension of our runway, rather than systemic change, because they do not involve a fundamental change in the way we think. They could lull us into false confidence that we are on the right track. Collectively, they are the result of our intellectually lazy or simply ignorant preference to worship that “false god,” or simply represent the only way we can have our voices heard. We must see this for what it is: our ongoing 500-year-old Modern Era (and thus deeply ingrained literally into our DNA) reductionist mindset of treating symptoms like carbon emissions rather than seeking and then addressing root causes, holistically understood.
(3) The holistic approach Raskin calls for requires a description of our advanced “Integral Era” holistic understanding of what is—of how the world actually works—rather than just prescriptions of what we want it to be—when we consider a pathway back from the brink, or a pathway to a political economy beyond the brink, i.e., the Great Transition. In the Integral Era, these are more patterns and principles than the simpler mechanical physical laws that defined our understanding in the Modern Age. The description of “what is,” as Raskin knows at a nuanced level, begins with energy flow laws, extends up to the modern physics and chemistry of the material world, to the web of life biology and ecology of the non-human living world, to the social sciences' understanding of our humanity and world cultures (with our unique ability to cumulate knowledge exponentially within one lifetime, differentiating us from other living systems), to the growing insights into the non-material world of consciousness, and even all the way to the patterns that define the Universe itself.2 And as Pope Francis so beautifully laid out in the Encyclical Laudato Si', this modern science is now reconnected with the core values and insights of our wisdom traditions that have stood the test of time (after a 500-year separation). At this critical time, in this new Integral Age, it is all coming into much clearer view, integrated. This is the Great Transition we are looking for, is it not? So we must ask ourselves, if the human political economy, clearly a root cause of our many interconnected challenges, is to be “sustainable” over a long period of time, in accordance with the core values that most people from all walks of life and all ideological beliefs share, must it not follow these same universal patterns and principles, always adapted to the local cultural and geographic context—like how all snowflakes are unique yet follow a similar pattern? Unless someone can make the case that human political economies are the one exception to the rule that all systems that sustain themselves over long periods of time follow common patterns and principles, I would suggest that our Great Transition work is clear: discern these common patterns and principles, and then bring our political economy into alignment with them. Develop clear metrics—measures of intrinsic health to complement the outcomes measures such as Paul describes—to measure our progress and inform our policies. Treat unfailing steady progress to alignment as the life-and-death matter it truly is. No different than our realization in the Modern Age that no matter what we may want to do, we must obey the law of gravity.
(4) Perhaps the hardest aspect of these common patterns and principles for us to integrate into our human political economy is our management of power and the healthy hierarchy necessary to support our complex systems such as the modern human economy. Humans have a pretty solid track record of mobilizing for change when it gets bad enough, then creating new power structures in response to prior ones becoming corrupt and not serving the needs of the whole, only for these new power structures themselves to become corrupt over time. In the West, this pattern goes back at least to the Romans, then the Church/Monarchy, and now the intertwined Corporate/Financial/Political elite (particularly in the United States, the effective ideological leader of Paul’s “failed state") utilizing the false ideology of market fundamentalism. I suspect a careful study of all human cultures would lead to similar patterns of power degenerating into corruption over time, with the exception of many (most?) indigenous cultures. How will we educate and coax a new elite to govern holistically, understanding that like the top of any food chain, systemic health demands that the powerful use their power not to better their own position at the expense of the rest through ever greater degrees of corruption, but to serve the interest of the whole, and as a result their self-interest as well? I don’t know. But we already have a name for it: “servant leadership.” We don’t need to invent it. We simply need to remember what we already know.
(5) With regard to leverage points, our focus should be countering the confused and reductionist ideology of wealth, rooted in the consciousness of scarcity and separation, and our consequent catastrophic confusion of means and ends in “high” finance. This genuine but ignorant ideological belief is far more dangerous than Wall Street greed, as destructive as that is. We must simultaneously raise the human consciousness that gave rise to our current system of political economy and evolve our economics based on a more accurate theory that is aligned with our Integral Era understanding of how the universe actually works, which will then allow us to the critical leverage points to focus on. With clear enough thinking, we will find leverage points so powerful that when you pull the right straw, the whole paradigm collapses on its own contradictions, allowing us to comprehensively tackle our complex and interconnected array of “problems” collectively, all symptoms of our failed system design.
It is all overwhelming. Incredibly, failure most likely leads to Raskin’s Barbarization scenarios. Logic suggests that this is where we are heading as a civilization. We are either asleep, mindlessly content with “the false god of moderation,” or left with a sense of helplessness despite a greater level of understanding. And yet, it is in the regenerative potential that surely exists everywhere—in individuals, ecosystems, communities, organizations, and entire economies—the same regenerative potential that explains why systems that sustain themselves manage to do so, where I find my hope. In our years of work documenting regenerative economies, we see green shoots everywhere there is pressure for change.
Just as water (and all life that it enables) is derived from the potential that existed with the right and mutually beneficial relationship (another regenerative principle) between three simple lower level “pieces" of matter (H + H + O) that no reductionist mindset could have imagined in advance, there is vast untapped regenerative potential in our political economy we will never see or predict or put into a future scenario until it organically emerges. Think of what Wikipedia means for empowering global society to participate in the advance of the human project (empowered participation is another principle) that we could not have imagined prior to search or prior to the Internet. Less well understood, I’m told by a founder of the open source software movement, is that Instagram and emojis are the first expressions of mass circulation the empathy (pictures communicate emotion rather than mere information) that several in this conversation have rightly called for. Robust, healthy circulation (of energy, matter, money, information, and now even empathy) is a core principle of all regenerative systems too, evidence that the telecommunications revolution can be seen as a dimension of the emergence of regenerative political economy, the Great Transition right under our noses. And by following regenerative principles, our crop and pasture agriculture is in the midst of profound discoveries that actually regenerate soil and potentially offer carbon sequestration possibilities on a planetary scale not yet even considered in the IPCC process. This is the hopeful potential that awaits us in the Great Transition if and when we align our unique and always context-specific political economies with the universal patterns and principles that best describe what we already know—science and spirit—but have forgotten or chosen to ignore.
1. Sally Goerner, Regenerative Development: The Art and Science of Creating Durably Vibrant Human Networks (Greenwich, CT: Capital Institute, 2015), http://www.capitalinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/000-Goerner-Regenerative-Development-Sept-15-2015.pdf.
2. Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011); Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).