With the tenth anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ collapse around the corner, economists are talking again about a “Goldilocks” economy – just right. Employment statistics appear strong, reported inflation remains in check, and the stock market is near all-time highs.
Yet America is in the grip of despair, with ever clear evidence of systematically widening inequality, entrenched racism, sexism and misogyny, unconscionable gun violence, a student debt crisis, accelerating health epidemics, and weather-induced disasters now the norm. A complex, war- and climate-triggered global refugee crisis has gripped Europe in fear, with no easy answers. In response to these cascading pressures, our politics have gone from uncivil to tribal, and collapse—social, economic, or political—must no longer be viewed as some remote possibility. Indeed, we may even be experiencing the unfolding of an early phase of collapse already.
America’s past prosperity was derived from the dynamism of capitalism, but evidence of a dark underbelly reveals the truth about its expansionist and extractive core. Expansion has physical limits, and extraction has social limits. We have reached both and are now in desperate need of a new source of prosperity. Yet the mainstream public debate offers a false choice: a kinder, more communitarian capitalism with aggressive wealth redistribution and a stronger safety net from the left; or a competitive, nationalist, us-versus-them fight to the finish from the “freedom”-loving, self-reliant right. Both sides accept economic scarcity as the unquestioned basis of the debate. Both sides are blind to the source of our future prosperity.
It is true, we have reached the end of a road. The half-century-old Modern Era, grounded on Cartesian logic and the brilliant advances of the Scientific Revolution, with its reductionist method of analysis in which we break down what’s complicated into understandable parts is reaching its inevitable limitations. The collapse of communism a quarter century ago and the collapse of finance a decade ago should be understood as the reinforcing evidence of the end of Modernity that it is. This next great era, the integral era, will force us to shed our human arrogance (equally shared on the left and the right) that says we can manage complex systems through objective analysis without creating ever greater problems with our solutions. Of course, this is not the popular view. Instead, to borrow from Vaclav Havel, “we are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivism.”
Our future prosperity lies in giving up the illusion of our separateness from one another and from our environment, and instead, reconnecting the now broken parts into the true wholes of reality, unleashing untold potential and prosperity in the process. Our bodies, our ecosystems, our businesses, our economies, our societies are far more than the sum of the parts we currently use to analyze and manage them, as true for cancer research as it is for equity research. And they are far more complex than we can objectively understand, much less manage. Instead, we must learn to work with the complexity, to understand how it works, and to discern its underlying patterns and principles.
It is not, therefore, new technologies that will save us. It’s a new way to think!
With more integrated, “integral” thinking, we will learn to see our economies through these universal patterns and principles. In the process, we will learn to unlock previously unseen potential, consistent with our true reality of abundance if we only had eyes to see it. We’ve been telling this story for years as we observe it unfolding on the ground in the particulars of place. It’s real, and it’s emergent, enabling us to see human economies as the diverse, complex, self-organizing, living systems that they are in reality and not according to some outdated economic theory built on flawed assumptions such as utility maximizing man, markets in equilibrium, and normal distributions for non-linear complex causes.
Regenerative economies share common patterns and principles, such as the central role of relationships over transactions, the balance of efficiency with resiliency, and the source of new life and potential at the edges between sectors where there is more opportunity for diversity of exchange. The structure of regenerative economies follows a fractal pattern, facilitating healthy and complete circulation across all scales and regions of the system; their subsystems are all empowered to participate in the health of the entire system, for the sake of systemic health. Such principles are “universal” to all healthy living systems, yet they manifest in each context in their own unique and beautiful ways, informed by culture and geography.
This integral approach to economies is ready to scale, but not through some top-down political mandate led by politicians on the left or the right with their bumper stickers. It will be led by us—ordinary citizens—if we accept the responsibilities our rights and freedom entail. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” It is scaling through learning networks, from the bottom up, just as nature herself drives all systemic change at scale. I yearn for the day when politicians from the left and the right engage in productive, evidence-based debate around which creative policies will best support the emergence of regenerative economies while helping to ethically hospice the inevitable decline of Modern Era, extractive businesses, and economies.
This is the beginning of a “new story” that will replace the old story of whence prosperity comes in what Thomas Berry called “The Great Work.” It will define the Integral Era.