24 November 2011

Demanding Change

Posted by Admin under: Community Development; Economy; Forum; Future; Global; Inspiration; Leadership; People; Story; Sustainability .

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is about demanding change, though there is some confusion about what changes it is actually seeking.(1) My objective here is to lay out a common framework for the change we need at this moment in history, and to show that the pieces that Occupy Wall Street is fighting for are parts of a coherent critique of the existing system and an emerging if as yet incomplete alternative to it.

Some of the alleged confusion is of course on the part of media pundits who are dismayed by a “leaderless” movement that appears to be demanding many things at once — meaningful and productive jobs, limits on the power of bankers and the top 1% to manipulate the government and the economy for their own benefit, reforms in education and healthcare and the environment. But there remains a need to articulate the shared vision of Occupiers and the great majority of those who support them. As historian Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University noted on C-SPAN recently, Occupy Wall Street belongs to a long line of “protest encampments” in the U.S., from the Hoovervilles of the 1930s to the Poor People’s Campaign in the late 1960s, and represents “a test of American democracy.”

At a deep level, the “thrust behind the movement” is the loss of the fundamental sense of fairness, opportunity, and progress that is the essential basis for “the American dream,” the idea that through honesty and hard work it is possible to prosper in one’s own lifetime and leave a better future for our children.

As many Occupiers now recognize, changing the players doesn’t alter the game; what we need to do is change the rules, or play a different game. The first is reform, the second revolution. Both have their place in history; the former is typically difficult and slow, the latter chaotic and sometimes dangerous. Yet both are needed, in different times, places, and ways.

What we face today is a challenge on many levels—ecologically, economically, and socially. We must come together as if we were facing a common enemy, because we are, even though in many ways that common enemy is ourselves. The threat is, as almost all of us recognize, a threat not only to our present way of life, but is indeed a potential threat to all life on the planet. Whether we agree entirely on the causes of the present ecological crisis, the challenges it represents are already being felt, and are evidently accelerating.

These challenges need to be dealt with on a practical level, but we may fail to do so unless there is a widespread change in knowledge, understanding, and human awareness. Thus far no civilization has managed to avoid or overcome ecological collapse. If we are going to be the first to do so we must change our behaviors, our technologies, and our ways of life. And we must do in the midst of a world that is itself already highly chaotic, riven by conflict, marked by vast inequities of power and wealth, of ignorance and of education and of wisdom.

This means “redesigning the world”: developing, for example, business models that don’t maximize shareholder value at the expense of customers, communities, or the environment. As Buckminster Fuller—who gave us the concept of “Spaceship Earth”—pointed out more than 40 years ago:

“The present top-priority world problem to be solved may be summarized as how to triple, swiftly, safely, and satisfyingly, the overall performances per kilos, kilowatts, and man-hours of the world’s comprehensively invested resources of elements, energy, time, and intelligence. To do so will render those resources – which at the present uncoordinated, happenstance, design level can support only 44 per cent of humanity – capable of supporting 100 per cent of humanity’s increasing population at higher standards of living than any human minority or single individual has ever known or dreamed of and will thus eliminate the cause of war and its weapons’ frustrating diversion of productivity from the support of all mankind.” (Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion, 1969, p.334)

This may indeed seem “utopian” (i.e., “pie in the sky”) but Fuller noted that unless we address these problems more effectively that we have done thus far, humanity seems destined for the trash heap of history. As noted in Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2005) the problem is not just climate change: we face a series of converging crises that require actions that are unprecedented in human history if we are to avoid the fate of earlier civilizations that made decisions that, in Philip Kohl’s words, “led inexorably to over-population and environmental degradation.” (2)

Consequently I believe that we can discern what is genuinely needed now to foster the emergence of a world that is sustainable, utilizes human and natural resources more efficiently, and meets the needs of a growing majority rather than those of a privileged minority (who are in many cases themselves feeling both guilt and contempt for the human stupidity that has allowed them to prosper). The prescription is “simple but not easy”: a world that works better for everyone, and for every being.

One area where I have personally focused is on reforming the economic system: reforming our ideas of value; altering the way we create, distribute, and use money; and understanding the role money plays in our current dilemma. But there are other areas as well:

  • We need a “cradle to cradle” design revolution (not just McDonough and Braungart, but a generation or more of ecological systems designers, taking biomimicry as their starting point, and giving new meaning to the phrase “appropriate technology”);
  • We need a new design for cities and towns, that makes them both more livable and more sustainable;
  • We need new technologies, materials, and business models that don’t maximize shareholder value at the expense of customers, communities, or the environment;
  • We need new educational models, and new models of science, work, and even religion; and above all,
  • We need a shared conversation about global change, cultural evolution, and collective human awareness

Putting these together is part of the task of the “great minds” of each generation. In the idea for a “Leading the Change...” series, I suggested that looking at the pioneering thinkers of our time—from Rachel Carson to Jem Bendell, from Paul Hawken to Bill McKibben, Herman Daly to Al Gore—could give us both the inspiration and the awareness to step into leadership roles of our own. The goal of the Sustainable Leadership Forum is to bring the experience of human transformation to the broader challenge of our times, to connect our most powerful tools for change with the most pressing needs of the planet.

The development of a “Common Framework” for this collective dialog is therefore a major step forward. It grew out of the concept of a “Common Currency” and a “Common Currency Exchange,” a way to compare and exchange the value of local and alternative currencies, and to evolve, interactively, a way of managing a competing sector of the economy—a “better model” that leads people to abandon the old one as obsolete, allowing it to dissolve peacefully like the old Soviet Union (or more violently, as in the uprisings of the Arab Spring). The idea that there is a common framework within which people can translate their visions, objectives, and desires is our primary working assumption, along with the belief that each era gives rise to the response needed to meet its challenges—and indeed, can only address those challenges it learns to recognize.

I’m not suggesting that the elements of the framework are in any sense original. All of them have been expressed previously and much more ably by others; in some cases they are also part of what Huxley called “the perennial wisdom,” and have been articulated and combined many times. Just as I was completing this post I noticed one of a batch of Herman Daly books I’ve been reading and re-reading, this one cited as the “New Options Best Political Book of 1989”: For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (co-author John B. Cobb, Beacon Press, 1989). This could in many serve as well as any other as a framework for thinking about societal change.

What’s important is to seize the moment when there is a vocal demand for change, supported by a majority of people, and provide a vehicle to articulate and channel this demand into practical action that addresses the underlying issues. This framework itself needs to be put forward by people with a sense of history, shaped by continuous engagement, and articulated in a way that is inspiring and compelling, and calls forth the voluntary abandonment of old assumptions in favor of a more harmonious and holistic path. We are at an inflection point; let’s use it.

(This article is the basis for a slightly longer and more technical version posted here, as part of an initiative to define the elements of the alternative economy we need now, and to provide the basis for a Common Currency and a Common Currency Exchange. Please note that this is still at a very early stage of development.)


1. In fact, some Occupiers are opposed to the idea of making demands at all:

“Inherently, in asking for demands, you are accepting that there is a power greater than yourself, which is something that this movement is categorically against,” Patrick Bruner, a 23-year-old protester, told the group. “This movement is founded on autonomous action and collective wisdom.” (See “To demand or not to demand? That is the ‘Occupy’ question: Reaching a consensus proves difficult for leaderless group when some resist the premise,” by Miranda Leitsinger for MSNBC, November 17, 2011.)

But others disagree:

“If you don’t want to make demands, what do you wish?” asked Alvin Rodriguez, a 55-year-old personal trainer from the Bronx, rejecting Bruner’s suggestion that the group had created hierarchy in the leaderless movement. “There is a financial system that is in the process of disintegrating on all of us. It is hopelessly bankrupt and brutal austerity measures are in place right now, and you don’t want to make demands? … It’s not a hierarchy, it’s called leadership, and why don’t you join us in that leadership to form those demands so we might take back our government of the people.”

As the 19th century social reformer Frederick Douglass argued (as quoted in a recent New Yorker piece), “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

But there is a value to not leaping too quickly into a “list of stated demands” (e.g., as recently put forward by Lloyd Hart, which includes both sane and sensible measures along with some, like blanket protectionism, that are much less so); and that is the value of continuing an open-ended dialogue. As our friend Ted Hall put it:

“My major concern for the longevity of the movement is essentially making something that becomes divisive … I agree with a lot of these things (in the plan), on different time scales though,” said the protester, Edward T. Hall III, who also proposed turning the demand into a question. “We want to create dialogue instead of create a focal point of criticism.”

Just to be clear, therefore, the “Common Framework” proposed here is not a list of proposed demands for Occupiers to get behind; it’s a framework for asking the right questions and encouraging people to strive together for meaningful answers.

2. This fate is certainly not inevitable, and more nuanced historians have insisted that “societies exhibit considerable resilience [and] the ability to adapt to new circumstances; many lasted for centuries, or, in other words, for far longer than other societies deemed successful by Diamond.” But as Kohl also concludes, “The more complex accounts of societal “collapse” presented ultimately make it easier for us to discern what is truly unique and frightening about our current susceptibility to global environmental collapse.” In other words, the case that no civilization has ultimately evaded ecological collapse may be overblown; but this doesn’t alter the urgency of our own current reality.

3 Comments so far...

Changing the Game | Altonomy.com Says:

25 November 2011 at 12:20 pm.

[…] a related post on the changes being demanded by the Occupy Wall Street protesters, I noted […]

Jonathan Cloud :: Life, Examined » Blog Archive » A Common Framework for Global Change? Says:

26 November 2011 at 6:48 pm.

[…] can find the original article here: Demanding Change, and the experimental work on the new economy here: Altonomy.com. I welcome your thoughts and […]

Changing the Game | Altonomy: The Prize Says:

3 April 2015 at 10:06 am.

[…] a related post on the changes being demanded by the Occupy Wall Street protesters, I noted […]

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