Caught in Our Own Words


natural economy cycle

System diagram of the vicious cycle of the Industrial Economy (red, top) and the virtuous cycle of the Natural Economy (green, bottom)

Jeff Clearwater and Ferananda Ibarra* led a presentation on (Charles Eisenstein et al’s) Sacred Economics and Sharing Economies the other day while I was in Eugene OR (thanks to fellow communitarian and alternative economies enthusiast Tree Bressen twisting their arms to add Eugene to their current West Coast speaking tour). One of the ideas they presented that I found particularly inspiring was this:

Much of what we believe, and much of what we are trying to change, is rooted in the terminology, the language we use to discuss it. If we want to change our own ideas , beliefs and worldviews, we need to stop using that terminology, because it leaves us anchored in the paradigm we are trying to escape.

This idea is consistent with George Lakoff’s idea of “reframing” conversations, because as long as you are talking with someone who has a different frame or worldview about a subject, you will never achieve an understanding or appreciation of the other person’s perspectives and beliefs, or what underlies them. So for example, liberal and conservative views on abortion and gay marriage are framed either in terms of women’s and minority rights, or in terms of protecting traditional morality. The two sides cannot meaningfully converse because they have totally different worldviews that come from irreconcilable beliefs about how the world really is and what drives human behaviour.

So what Jeff and Ferananda are saying is that, similarly, when we try to discuss radically new approaches to a topic (such as economics), we can easily get trapped in the old-paradigm language about that topic that drags us back to accepted (and often dysfunctional) intractable ways of thinking about that topic. That prevents us from explaining the new ideas clearly and compellingly to others, and can also trap us in our own thinking, preventing us from really boldly imagining and seeing the full potential for such new ideas.

If you want to change your thinking, they say, you must first change the old-paradigm words and expressions you use. In the case of economics, these are words like: customer, supplier, production, marketing, sales, financing, revenues, income, expenses, assets, property, debts, capital, and, most important perhaps, money. Many of these terms are non-essential and even nonsensical in many of the alternative economies being discussed these days, and there is a need for some new terms for concepts in these new economies that don’t currently exist in our language.

I’ve written a lot about such economies over the years (type “natural economy” or “gift economy” into the search bar in the upper right of this blog if you want to read more). Lately I’ve stopped, not because I think the industrial growth economy is worth saving, but because I think it’s naively idealistic to believe we can transition to a new economy before the current one collapses, or to believe that an economy can be ‘designed’ and ‘implemented’ in our complex modern world any more than a new political system can. Such systems evolve in uncontrollable ways, and generally become dysfunctional as they become larger and more entrenched, until they collapse, when new systems evolve to take their place.

Notwithstanding my skepticism, I think Jeff and Ferananda are on to something. One of the failings of my own book Finding the Sweet Spot was that it tried to explain the concept of Natural Enterprise (and how to create one) using the language of traditional competitive marketing-driven growth-dependent business. Natural Enterprise can’t properly be described in terms like “competitive positioning” or “marketing strategy” or “venture capital” or “return on investment” because these terms are meaningless to cooperative enterprises that have no need to compete, or market, or raise funds. But try explaining this to anyone in business, or business school, or government (or their banking and accounting friends)! Or try writing a book of only a few chapters that explains why this is so!

The best way to convey the nature, value and potential of a Natural Economy (or a Sharing or Sacred or Gift or Generosity Economy or whatever name you choose for it) is to build a small-scale model of one that works, or tell a story that explains how it works, without reference to the language or concepts of the existing industrial growth economy. That’s why Jeff (who has spent his life organizing Intentional Communities) has teamed up with Ferananda (who has studied and written about alternative economics and currencies), in the hope that Intentional Communities will volunteer to be ‘laboratories’ for a new economy, models that others can observe and hopefully follow (and where failures of these models, when they occur, will be non-traumatic, fast and educational).

I remain skeptical that such models will ever evolve to be able to replace our existing economy at any significant scale, but I’m on the record on this blog as a believer in models and stories as powerful instruments of change (and a believer that Intentional Communities are already learning the skills we will all need when our industrial economy collapses), so I certainly wish them well, and will support their new economic experiments in any way I can. If you’d like to help support Jeff and Ferananda you can contact them at Co-Creating Community Wealth. Or if you’re in the Eugene area you can support that community’s local new economy initiative, under the leadership of my friends Tom Atlee and John Abbe, at Let’s Talk: Our New Economy.

What kind of non-old-paradigm language could we use to describe such a Natural Economy, and the Natural (Post-Industrial) Culture such an economy would be a part of? And what kind of stories could we tell to depict such an economy (a pre-industrial, indigenous or non-human existing “economy”, or an envisioned one growing up in parallel to, or as the successor to, the industrial growth economy)?

What is an “economy” anyway? The old-paradigm definition (defined in that economy’s own terms) is “the state of a country or region in terms of the production, trade and consumption of goods and services and the supply of money” (that’s the Oxford definition). Using such a definition, it’s a tautology to say that our economic “health” is best served by maximizing production, trade and consumption. Money, the measure of that “health”, is everything.

I’ve taken to cynically defining economics as “the rationalization of the absurdity of unemployment”. Jeff’s alternative definition is that politics is the process of understanding and appreciating each other to make decisions in our collective best interest, and economics is the process of taking care of each other and the planet to optimize our collective well-being.

If we were to use that language, if we were to measure our collective well-being (including the well-being of non-humans and our planet as a whole), what kind of language would we use, and what concepts would emerge that need new words or new appreciation? How would we ‘design’ a system whose purpose is to improve our understanding and appreciation of each other and to make decisions in our collective best interest? It certainly wouldn’t involve voting, lobbying, corporate campaign funding or ‘representatives’ thousands of miles away whose only responsibility is to get re-elected by doing more self-promotion and seeming less offensive to a majority of people than the one Tweedledee alternative who can afford to be on the ballot.

And how would we ‘design’ a system whose purpose is to optimize our capacity to care for each other and our collective well-being? It certainly wouldn’t look anything like the system we have today, or any of the alternative systems that nations have tried to implement (well-intentioned or not).

There have been many books written about such systems, and I will not attempt to list them all (Herman Daly, Charles Eisenstein, Richard Douthwaite, Peter Brown come to mind. My own Natural Economy vision is illustrated by the graphic at the top of this post, which I won’t attempt to rehash or embellish here. Suffice it to say that such systems would require us to live every aspect of our lives very differently from the way we do today. I think it is doubtful that we will ever get enough people to think about and talk about their economic (and political) lives in a way that, “natural” though it may be, is so foreign to most people’s experience as to be unimaginable and untenable.

But there may be an opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility, for those of us with the capacity to do so, to constantly challenge ourselves not to use language that gives credibility to dysfunctional established economic and political systems, either in our conversations with friends and foes, or in our personal writing and thinking about these topics. And instead, to develop ‘scripts’ of new terms and expressions that, as challenging and even bewildering as they may be to many who will listen to or read our words, will be consistent with a more natural, empathetic, healthy and radically critical worldview of how the world really works, and will enable us to truly imagine, and creep our way towards, a realization of systems that embody such a worldview.

Imagine a world, for example, where:

  • There is no need for ‘money’ or currency of any kind, because people trust that the gifts they receive from others, without charge, will balance their gifts, without charge, to others. Not a barter system, a system of generosity and trust. No accounting necessary. No need to ‘value’ anyone’s time. No transaction fees.
  • There is no such thing as ‘property’. The land and the resources that come from it are sacred and don’t ‘belong’ to anyone. Instead people ‘belong’ to the land and to their community.
  • There is no such thing as a ‘job’, or ‘work’ or ’employment’. People continually self-organize to determine and co-create and give what is needed.
  • There is no such thing as a ‘stock market’ or a ‘bond market’ or a ‘debt’. People give what is needed. They don’t expect or need ‘profit’ or ‘growth’.

Hard to imagine, isn’t it? How would we describe what we ‘do’ (which for many of us is the first thing we relate to others in today’s society when we introduce ourselves — we equate it with who we are) when there are no ‘jobs’? We would have to say instead who we associate with, what we love and care about, what we ‘play’ at — a very different way of relating to strangers. What if we were to think of that world and that economy as natural, and our current one as an aberration, and start to introduce ourselves to others that way now, and invite them to do the same — “Hello, I’m Dave and I really care about X.” And if they insisted on telling you their “job”, what if we just politely acknowledged and then ignored that and asked them what they were passionate about?

And if someone were to complain about the “unemployment rate”, what if we politely explained that that data is really meaningless because in a healthy society there would be no such thing as jobs or employment or unemployment, and that if we could only all agree to develop it it is entirely possible to have an economy where everyone does what they love and what they’re good at, and most of the day is free for play, and then ask them, when that society comes to pass, what will they play at?

And if someone with a roof over their head and good health were to tell us that they dreamed more than anything else of winning or inheriting some money so at last they would feel secure and happy and good about themselves, what if we told them a deliciously credible story of a world where no one had any money and no one owned anything, yet everyone felt secure and happy and good about themselves?

What if we stripped the poisoned words of our ruinous, mindless, acquisitive and unsustainable economy, and our corrupt, irresponsible and dysfunctional political systems, from our vocabularies — refused to use them, and “translated” them when we heard or read about them, and in our discussions of economics and politics steered the discussion persistently and gently to how we might better understand and appreciate each other so we could make decisions together in our collective best interest, and take care of each other and the planet to optimize our collective well-being?

And when we get raised eyebrows and looks of incredulity in response, what if we just smiled and explained that that, after all, is what a healthy political and economic system does for its citizens?

It will take some writing and rehearsing of new scripts and stories free of the adulterated language of old paradigm thinking, and some practice telling them. But Jeff and Ferananda have persuaded me it’s worth it — it’s the work of liberation.

And for those who lack the patience and speaking ability to do this, an alternative is to write stories and plays and songs in this new “language” about a society in which such an economic and political system is a reality. Word Plays. Theatre of the Possible. Or perhaps, in today’s terrible, impossible world, Guerrilla Theatre.

*Ferananda is Fernanda Ibarra’s new first name. She has added the ‘a’ to create a less common name, one that means (in Spanish and Sanskrit) “steel bliss”. Online you’ll find both spellings of her name.

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7 Responses to Caught in Our Own Words

  1. CoCreatr says:

    Well yes. And no. First, to add another frame, consider the definition of a fundamentalist and how it relates to curiosity. (5 minutes video)

    Yes, no, Yes, no, on this: “…terms like “competitive positioning” or “marketing strategy” or “venture capital” or “return on investment” because these terms are meaningless to cooperative enterprises that have no need to compete, or market, or raise funds.”

    If you want to be in business at all, serving society or your market in a noncompetitive way, you need to connect to your markets. Having a strategy for that helps a lot, and it would embrace the non-competitive positioning.

    You may not need venture capital, but you invest your energy, or seeds, your time or your fellow’s, and you need a return on that investment a bit larger than what you put in to survive, and a moderate abundance to thrive. Which would warrant to explore the spectrum of business nonsense, business sense, and giddy greed.

    Agree, “the best way to convey the nature, value and potential of a Natural Economy (…) is to build a small-scale model of one that works.” Why are the two examples you share worth exploring, supporting, joining? If you spread word about these Intentional Communities, are you, ahem, “marketing”?

    I like this term, “non-old-paradigm language”, it feels recursively self-explanatory. Yes, we knew what we didn’t want when we saw it. The need for clear wording to describe where we aim to go – unknown territory with new experience awaiting – calls for co-creation of fresh words or stripping language of some of its baggage allowance. Lots of good questions you put there.

    Let’s collectively improve on the bankrupt definition of “economy” and raise the vision of where we wish to go. WIth the framing you provide, I propose a slight changeto Jeff’s alternative definition: politics is the process of understanding and appreciating each other to make decisions that further our collective interest, and economics is the process of taking care of each other and the planet to enhance our collective well-being. I took liberty to replace “best” with “further” and replace “optimize” with “improve” because the superlatives “best” and “optimize” presuppose anyone or the collective knows what that is. I presuppose we don’t know it until we see it, hence the need to let go of some worldview ballast and experiment. And even then what’s best and optimal for some isn’t so for others, opening a spectrum for continual collective learning.

    We might even change from “ruling by law-making” to “collaborating by crowd-coding our principles”. Are we untangling our own words? Attempting right here and now.

  2. CoCreatr says:

    Jessia Margolin co-authored a management hack addressing similar questions.

  3. Thanks so for this wonderful Blog review Dave. So appreciated your presence and your insights rock. I look so forward to working with you more!

  4. Excellent post Dave! People rarely appreciate how much the language we use frames our thinking. Each word brings with it whole clusters of associations. So new words are needed, and this post helps a lot with that.

    Also, the first comment, by CoCreatr, also raises the point that we don’t necessarily want to throw out the old concepts, because there may be useful points within them that we want to keep, but within a new framework.

  5. Sandwichman says:

    May I offer a ray of hope, Dave? Looking at the entanglement between the environmental crisis and the economic, it really seems to me that the terminal crisis of capitalism is at hand. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean an imminent transition to paradise on earth or even a marginally more harmonious way of life. But what it does suggest is that “economic growth” is becoming not only undesirable but technically unfeasible. Expanded reproduction and accumulation of capital requires two conditions: a positive rate of profit and sufficient aggregate demand to absorb the increasing productive capacity.

    It might not be terminal but it seems to me that the conjuncture of Greece, JP Morgan and the London Whale and the over-hyped Facebook IPO could set off the “perfect storm” of financial collapse and if not… well it seems there’s always another Greece, London Whale and Facebook waiting in the wings.

  6. ok disregard my previous post, I found your links to email and such.

  7. Give my regards to Fernanda. It’s been years since talked to her.

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