By now it is clear: 2020 represents a new phase in the monumental transformation of the human project. History will judge its ramifications as more profound than the agricultural, industrial, or information revolutions, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Civil Rights and Woman’s Rights Movements. Perhaps greater than all of these combined. For now, a sixth great extinction is underway, this time humans being the cause rather than an asteroid. It’s a transformation yet to be named, but irreversibly in motion. The ultimate outcome is unknowable, triggering The Great Anxiety of the moment. Yet if we summon our collective wisdom, and find some humility, our future will be graced with unimaginable potential.
The Beginning of the End of a System
Although it seems ages ago, 2020 began with Australia on fire. We’ve seen record-setting heat waves across the Northern Hemisphere. Apocalyptic floods. Authoritarian regimes rising; including a racist crime syndicate led by a small, miserable, ignorant narcissist now occupying the White House, surrounded by minions (meant apolitically – in the way Bush, Romney, Cruz, Rubio, Bolton, the Generals and the Lincoln Project would, and some do, say it). The global pandemic causing unimaginable death, destruction and dread, requiring self-imposed depression era unemployment, and savaging our communities’ small businesses and finances. The absurd fragility of our global economy, our brittle public health system, and our corrupted systems of governance have been exposed, with deadly consequences. The burden of this broken system falls unfairly and grotesquely on poor, black and brown communities, where resiliency has been worn down by our oppressive and degenerative economic system, and on our heroic healthcare first responders. The grim prognosis for the developing world just entering the pandemic crisis is unbearable to ponder.
And then, just when things could not get any worse, the full weight of a white cop’s knee snuffs the life out of a handcuffed black man lying on the pavement, face down, just months after Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were horrifically killed, ages 27 and 26 respectively. George Floyd’s torture and killing while this strong grown man called out for his Mama took 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Sheer agony to watch, unimaginable grief for his family and friends, and as events have revealed, for all conscious people across each and every one of our United States and indeed the world. Justice, it turns out, is fundamental to our humanity. Racial injustice is part of a long, ugly pattern, even as it alters its expression over time. A pattern that traces all the way back to slavery, and to the genocide of Native Americans, the very foundation upon which the conceit of “American Exceptionalism” rests. Yes, America is an unusually great and blessed country. But we have a systemic shadow, and the chickens have come home to roost.
The crying demand for systemic transformation, not incremental reform, is in the air. Capital Institute was founded a decade ago with a mission “to promote a more just, regenerative, and thus sustainable way of living on this earth.” We recognized early the vital difference between problem solving and system shifting. Our so-called problems, from climate change to public health to inequality to the injustice of racism, are all in fact symptoms of the same unhealthy and failing system. It’s actually one “problem,” and collapse of this broken system is underway.
One could say we are failing at our mission, since conditions are irrefutably worse than when we began. But our mission is not a project to be completed in our lifetimes. Our mission is to participate in what Thomas Berry called The Great Work, the shift in perception from seeing ourselves as separate from one another and from nature, to seeing the unity of all life. Nora Bateson likes to quote Leonardo Da Vinci who observed, “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” I might add, all of our ignorance too.
We Have Reached Boiling Point
My awakening from ignorance began after I left Wall Street two decades ago. With a decade of searching and now a decade of joining The Great Work through Capital Institute and my various impact investment initiatives, I’m left with more questions than answers. I’m humbled to even try to imagine the challenges in the decade ahead. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to The Great Work at this historic moment when there is so much pain in the world and so much to be done. Our lives find new meaning as we all find our little part to play in the Great Work.
I have no easy answers for racial or any other form of injustice. But I do see in this moment an explosion of justified rage that signifies the kind of pressure which causes consciousness to shift and systems to change. In systems speak, they will transform to a higher level of complexity or they will collapse. Just like a pot of water boils if you turn up the heat long enough. And the transformation to a boil happens suddenly, with agitating bubbles serving as a warning as the old system destabilizes. We are in such an unstable moment.
We Moderns, with our achievement culture, 24-hour news cycles and continuous social media feeds, quarterly earnings and elections around every corner, find it almost impossible to think in decades much less centuries. Four months ago, the focus was on climate and rising inequality. Four weeks ago, we were all forcing ourselves to become epidemiologists. Now white people like me are all educating ourselves on racism, bias, and questioning our privilege. Yet we struggle to make sense of the moment, the year 2020, much less the decade ahead and the still young century that began with the shock of 9-11. How will this unique time fit into the long sweep of history?
To make sense of the moment, to continue our ability to cope, we need to learn to see in a whole new timeframe.
Capital Institute’s contribution to this challenge has been to refine and promote a simple yet profound idea — the idea of applying a living systems framework to economic and financial system theory and design. Living systems by definition have evolved to sustain themselves over very long periods of time, unlike all human cultures except indigenous cultures. Hmm…This is not an original idea, but it has been largely relegated to a quaint metaphor by most who even consider it.
At Capital Institute, we treat this idea as if our lives depended on it —they do! — and we follow wherever it leads, which means stubbornly questioning many “absolute truths” of conventional wisdom, beginning with the idea that exponential growth can go on forever on a finite planet. In particular, we have honed in on the regenerative process of living systems as the critical design requirement. It must be applied at the level of each individual, enabling us to manifest our potential. From there it must be applied to our communities, to our institutions, to our economics and finance which is our focus, and extending to all civilization if our goal is a just and sustainable world for all, extending for centuries to come and beyond.
New Decade, New Website
As we enter this next decade, Capital Institute is launching a new website today. You’ll find a theme of trees. Why trees you ask? Because trees operate within a long timescale, one that would behoove us to adopt in our thinking and our being if we are to thrive into the distant future.
One of the oldest trees on this earth is a spruce in Sweden, thought to be 9,500 years old. Think about that. Same tree, same spot, breathing, living in rhythm with the four seasons, ten millenniums. For every year in our lives, that tree has experienced over a century! What can we learn from trees about the living system process that allows them to be “sustainable” over such long spans of time? It turns out, a lot.
We know that trees, like us, are remarkably social beings, sharing resources among each other. Isolated trees have shorter lives than trees connected to others and best of all to forests.
Trees in a healthy forest are in constant communication, via the “wood wide web.” It’s the underground network of fungi and soil that enables a forest to communicate information and share resources. Trust, cooperation not competition, and altruism rule; a lesson for us is it not?
Understanding the complex, regenerative relationship between fungi and plants is on the scientific frontier. The relevance to human communities will include material applications and product designs — we already have our own WWW after all. But perhaps most important will be to understand the process these self-organizing, self-maintaining, self-fueling, ever evolving living systems follow. It’s that same regenerative process that enables a single life to extend thousands of years and thrive, that enables mature forests to continue virtually indefinitely into the future, and most important of all, to serve as an essential partner in the larger and more miraculous living system we call Earth, without which there would be no forest, no life.
The Work Ahead
Our work in the decade ahead will be to clarify using concrete examples, and better communicate this regenerative process far and wide. We must demonstrate that it is essential not merely to agriculture which of course is foundational. It is equally essential to every human being if we are to tap into our unique genius, to every enterprise, to entire human economies, and indeed to the beautiful and essential diversity of human civilization itself. We work in service of the emergence of a network of place sourced regenerative communities across the globe, each locally led and unique to their particular context. Perhaps most challenging, we work to shift the mindset of those directing financial capital flows with the power of the regenerative process, and the necessity of discovering what regenerative finance might be. Systemic transformation will emerge out of these and complimentary efforts, all part of one emerging energy field.
The future cannot and will not look like the past. It is this regenerative potential that must displace degenerative growth as the source of human prosperity if we are to thrive well into the future. As we awaken to this truth, we discover that it is really no different than it has always been if only we had eyes to see it.
As I ponder the next decade, I’m comforted by this reality: Inflection Point 2020 is really about rediscovering what we already know. And that will make it so much easier.