Systems Transition through Living Wisdom

Schumacher College, MA Ecological Design Thinking

Ahmed Buasallay
11 min readJun 9, 2019

Module 3 Assignment | Social and Political Economy: From System Maintenance to System Transformation

What is our situation

In the wake of our current economic and ecological instability, we (the human species) are confronted with a deep questioning of the way we interact and create together, along with our fellow Earth’s inhabitants and systems. In this essay I will be exploring the current dominant paradigm within Economics and its failures to serve human needs. I will explore alternative economic models and the difficulties they face in becoming part of the mainstream paradigm. Through these explorations I will begin my inquiry into the role of living wisdom in creating a strong and long-term transition into the new economics culture, especially looking at the context of an individual’s lifework (or life’s calling).

The current mainstream economic theory and practice has moved far away from the original definition of economics that emerged from the Ancient Greek thinkers. The word of economic is derived from the Greek word oikonomia, meaning “household management” (Amemiya, 2007). Our current economic system, predominantly built on the theories of Adam Smith from the Wealth of Nations, concerns itself more in the creation of wealth (with an abstract definition of its value) through constant economic growth (Hoffman, 2012).

This seems to be a confused and misguided interpretation of “household management”. Aristotle described household management as two parts: one is concerned with human relationships and the other with the procurement of necessary goods. The keywords here are human relationships and necessary goods, elements that are very well missing in the current economic system (Amemiya, 2007).

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the detachment of our global society from the Greeks’ original values and purpose of economics have become very clear. The world economy was not based on human relationships nor necessary goods, rather it was based on speculative value and highly risky activities that played with people’s lives and ignored the well being of its society (Kotz, 2014).

This detachment can be clearly seen in the inequality of income (and wealth) distribution and its focus on growth through an arbitrary performance indicator (the GDP). In addition, this growth is highly anthropocentric, and completely ignores the Earth’s biophysical constraints in our interactions and extractions of our home’s resources (Hoffman, 2012). This shows, within the sphere of its own theory, that macroeconomics is failing itself in proper management of the human (and ecological) household. The issue becomes even more problematic when the system creates an illusion of resilience, unable to self-reflect on its own failures and act accordingly. An example of this delusion can be observed In a report by the UN “World Economic Situation and Prospects” (UN, 2018), as it boldly quotes in the executive summary:

As these crises [2008–2009 global financial crisis and 2010–2012 sovereign debt crisis] and the persistent headwinds that accompanied them subside, the world economy has strengthened, offering greater scope to reorient policy towards longer-term issues that hold back progress along the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

Where are we moving

In reaction to the inadequacy of the macroeconomic system in serving our needs (in the short and long term), new theories of economics have emerged to give us hope of a better future. I will be looking investigating two approaches: New Economics (under the model of the New Economics Foundation) and Gaian Economics (under the model of Gaia Education). These will provide my theoretical and practical framework for the transition model I am exploring.

These two alternatives systems not only focuses on economic values on human relationships and necessary goods for the betterment of humanity, they also look at our long-term well being within the Earth through including the preservation and sustainable management of our natural resources and ecosystem services as an essential element of our economic system.

The New Economics Foundation formulates a wealth of theories in creating an ethical, just and ecologically sound economic system. These theories include the work of John Ruskins, E.F. Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics, Gandhian Economics, spiritual aspects of William Blake, localism of G.K. Chesterton, among others (Boyle, Simms, 2009), to illustrate a collective desire to move closer to what economics really is ought to do: A system that works for people and the planet. The New Economics Foundation starts from a theory base, focused on economics, yet expands in all aspects of human interactions between each other and with the natural world (New Economics Foundation website).

Similarly, Gaian Economics explores an economic system inspired by a want to create new systems of management within Ecovillages around the world. The Gaian Economics theory is built by experience, by many thinkers and practitioners that either live in an Ecovillage, and/or have worked with small communities around the world. As a deeper holistic perspective, Gaian Economics is one corner key of the four keys defined by Gaia Education as the four dimensions that enables sustainable development and design (Gaia Education, 2010). This model is education-based, and is transferred through courses and degree programmes that give practitioners and ecovillage residents the global wealth of information and methodologies to establish sustainable human systems.

These economic models have provided powerful and cohesive knowledge on the ways we can “manage our households”, and strong foundations to give us a vision that helps us understand what we are moving towards. Although there seems to be a struggle in how we apply the theories and practice of New Economics and Gaian Economics within the current dominant macroeconomic world. The New Economics has focused its work primarily on publications and campaigning, an important role to bring this new paradigm into existence. Yet it lacks concrete practice and application within the daily lives and work of people that have a longing to see such an economic model become the norm. The New Economics Foundation does a great job at “naming” the issues and areas we need to work with, and in providing diverse knowledge in what needs to change in order to create this change. Although I (or any working person) find myself unable to comprehend the “how” of doing this transition in my daily life and practice within the context that I live. This is due to the reliance on written language (usually with lots of terms and concepts one needs to be familiar with) to transfer the knowledge to practitioners in the respective fields. What is missing is the “how” application of these ideas and concepts in the everyday life of a practitioner who has one foot in the current macroeconomic paradigm. In his “The Politics of Everyday”, Ezio Manzini brings this issue to light: “How people will act and what everyday-life policies they will be capable of putting into practice in the evolving contexts in which we find ourselves operating.” (Manzini, 2018).

Gaian Economics has the same issue. Although it gives attention to the practice of economics, it restricts the context to creating these systems within semi-isolated ecovillage communities. These communities are focused on creating alternative systems in parallel to, but not in collaboration with, the mainstream global community, even sometimes isolating themselves from communities they live amongst. While this might provide meaningful and fulfilling spaces for the communities’ residents, it disconnects these communities from the global context they exist in. The theories themselves focus on the creation of new systems, rather than the transition of existing economic systems.

How do we transition

Going back to the Ancient Greeks (while remaining aware of potential romanticisation of the culture) Xenophon, a philosopher and student of Socrates, talked about the concept of Oikonomikos (or Oeconomicus). It is an adjective that describes those who are “experienced in the art of household management” (Amemiya, 2007). In Xenophon work, knowledge is intimately tied to knowing how to do things, especially the more organised kind of knowing-how designated by technê. Technê, as defined by Xenophon, is a person’s art, craft or work (Parry, 2014). Here I recognise the missing piece within all economic theory (or in the way we live and work in an organised manner): the lack of transfer in the “the art of doing” or “the how of”. In other words, the wisdom that comes through the experienced movement between practice and reflection, that in which is adaptive to changing context and ready to expand through new knowledge and insight.

As we have observed at the start of this essay, economics started with the concern of human relationships and the procurement of necessary goods. We also saw how that our current macroeconomic system have deviated away from this role. This detachment from its original purpose I would argue comes from the lack of transfer of wisdom, or the art, of practicing economics. The new economic theories (New Economics and Gaian Economics) have come about to expand the meaning of “household management”, through extending “house” to mean the whole planet. These have indeed responded to our expanded awareness of what constitutes “us”, as humans and as living beings in the universe. What the new economics provide is a blueprint of a potential culture that sees humans as a species of cells that are part of the Earth body. Knowledge and practice are elements of this realisation, but they have no use (especially in the long-term) if they are taught and done without wisdom.

Wisdom plays a crucial role in our transition to the new economic culture. This can come through many forms in our everyday life and work, yet it comes most strongly when theory and practice are integrated in spontaneous space and time. For wisdom to emerge, we must be conscious in the ecosystems we create around us.

This transfer of wisdom may have indeed occurred in the past, potentially through the transfer of theory and practice of a profession from one expert to the other. This is done through a teacher (or master, expert) explaining what and how a student (or apprentice, junior) ought to do a certain profession in a certain way. The teacher focused on giving the student knowledge on how others have done it, yet more often than not, the student is not inspired to discover their own way of work. For a person to thrive and find their role within the Earth body, they need to have a balance between understanding and recognising the wisdom of the experts, and a space to enable their own expression and discovery of their lifework.

By lifework I mean to describe the type of work that drives a person for their whole life. Some may call it a person’s mission, destiny, or calling. Or as Manzini describes it (here as Life Project): “A life project can be seen as a sequence of conversations and actions intended to achieve results pertaining to one’s own life, or part of it. This entails weighing up one’s own personal resources and the context characteristics; focusing on a feasible vision of what one would like to achieve; and having the relational system and necessary tools at one’s disposal.” (Manzini, 2018)

In our current structures of work, as employees, we are placed in an environment where we have to obey certain rules and ways of working, defined by a hierarchical head (whether a founder’s vision or a manager’s strategy). These forms of working are operated under a conventional set of rules and forms that create an ecosystem of “following and obeying” the expert’s way of doing things. This form of work creates dependence on others or a system, and disables a person from engaging and exploring their lifework.

In order for us to enable a strong and decisive transition into the new economy, we must create ecosystems that enable the emergence of lifework within the individuals involved. As an initial investigation, I will be looking at two main elements: the collective form of fluid corporations (as in the original meaning of corporation: persons unified in a body for a purpose), and the role that the transfer of living wisdom from embodied practitioners to budding professionals has in the evolution of culture.

In the collective form of fluid corporation, we may look at forms of networks (or collectives) of professionals that work in a project-based organisational model. Some examples of this form exist, such as Enspiral, a network of multidisciplinary professionals that are looking at new forms working together with trust and respect to share money, information and control as openly as possible (Enspiral website). These forms of work gets rid of the hierarchical structures (that are often exploitative) to replace them with horizontal and autonomous ones. This enables each professional to be responsible for their own work (without someone telling them what to do), allows autonomy in their practice, and allows freedom in what kind of projects (and at what time) they are want to engage with. This has the potential of creating a working structure that engages with a person’s lifework, and creates potentials for the living wisdom to emerge from the interactions of a person with different people every time they enter a new project.

Within such a corporation model (or even potentially within the current forms of corporations), we find spaces where living wisdom can be transferred between embodied practitioners and budding professionals.

Many of established practitioners that look at the new economics (and ecological) culture as a way forward have worked within the mainstream macroeconomic model, and have experienced a form of transition within themselves to move away from the current destructive model into a regenerative one, from an anthropocentric perspective to a Gaian one. These practitioners have an important understanding of the “old economy”, and rich experience in the “how” movement into the new economy. What is needed for this transition is to consciously connect practitioners with embodied experience of that transition with budding professionals who are still (and will be) discovering their form of lifework. This transition of wisdom from an experienced practitioner to an apprentice is the foundation of creating a culture in which the new economics can emerge from.

Conclusion

This essay is a mere exploration of a bigger idea into the human potential and role within the Earth. This is seen from a Gaian perspective of the Earth as a living entity (or body) that contains elements (cells) in which it enables its operation and regulation. New economics peaks into the window of human organisation and how we might realize our place in Earth’s operation, not as consumers that look at the natural world as a resource, but as a collaborative species that contributes to the health and growth of its shared home.

This certain way of being for the human, cannot only come through the words I write, or through the words we read of others. It may only come through the living wisdom in the constant movement between practice and reflection, within a web of relationships in society and with nature. To enable this transition we must start here and now in the way we operate in our work environments (and many other areas, such as educational institutions, governmental operations, social life). How to do this, remains floating in the ether to be further formulated.

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References

Amemiya, Takeshi (2007) Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece: Routledge Explorations in Economic History; first published in 2007 by Routledge.

Hoffman, Robert (2012)On the Need for New Economic Foundations: A Critique on Mainstream Macroeconomics; published in Cadmus journal: Volume 1, Issue 5, October 2012

Kotz, David (2014)Roots of the Current Economic Crisis: Capitalism, Forms of Capitalism, Policies, and Contingent Events; paper presented a Session on “Marxist Perspectives on the Causes of the Crisis of 2008” sponsored by the Union for Radical Political Economics, at the Allied Social Science Associations convention in Boston, January 5, 2015

UN (2018)World Economic Situation and Prospects 2018; published by the United Nations in 2018

Boyle, David; Simms, Andrew (2009)The New Economics: A Bigger Picture; published by Earthscan in 2009

New Economics Foundation — https://neweconomics.org/about-us/

Gaia Education (2010)Gaian Economics: living well within planetary limits; edited by Jonathan Dawson, Ross Jackson and Helena Norberg-Hodge; published by Permanent Publications in 2010

Manzini, Ezio (2018) — The Politics of Everyday: Life Projects that change the world; version 2 19.03.2018

Enspiral — https://enspiral.com/

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