A Failure of Imagination for Global Development

Every one of us alive today is a slave to the mental habits that shaped our minds.

A diversity of people from the world of international development have spent the last few years creating their vision for the future in the framework for Sustainable Development Goals. Sadly, by ignoring history, they are unable to envision anything outside of the current economic paradigm. This “failure of imagination” caused them to leave out the key elements for a successful transition to sustainability.

Read through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and you will note a complete absence of any reference to history prior to 1990 — the date chosen for comparisons of global poverty and hunger rates. What this means is that they are not characterizing how things came to be the way they are. More importantly, they are not showing us that a different kind of economic development is not only necessary but is possible to achieve.

We can get to a future where no one starves to death and everyone has their basic needs met. But any claim that this future is attainable with development-as-usual is as poorly informed as the climate deniers who cling to the belief that business-as-usual will be good for the planet in the long run. My conflation of anti-science views is intentional. All evidence points to the reality that inequality went up and poverty increased as the economy grew larger in the last 40 years. The belief that more of this kind of unequal growth — 95 cents of every dollar going to the already well-off since the financial collapse of 2008 — will somehow bring poverty to an end belongs in the same place as other childish fantasies. It is no more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

One major reason why the SDGs have nothing to say about the new paradigm is that they were forged in a process that presumed the current one is all we can hope for. Any student of history would be able to tell you that things haven’t always been this way. We have seen many epochs of social organization in the past and all have been replaced by something more fitting to the times that followed. Our task as a globalized civilization is to recognize this process of cultural evolution and see that late 20th Century capitalism is nothing more than a pulse in a long history of crashing economic waves.

“The future is blind, but hindsight is 20/20.”
— Author Unknown

The earliest times were spent in bands as hunter-gatherers. The principle mode of economic activity was a kind of tribal egalitarianism where would-be dictators were kept in check by the group as a whole. This is what the work of anthropologists like Christopher Boehm have discovered in their studies of Pleistocene economics. Later came the informal trade networks of nomadic herdspeople, followed by the rise of agrarian city states with distinct social pyramids where strong man dictators ruled with an iron fist. This was followed by the rise of empires and dynastic orders — another form of social hierarchy where the masses remained poor and wealth was syphoned to the top.

This process of wealth accumulation achieved scientific precision in the transition from slave-powered empires to the more recent emergence of colonial nations built on the pillaging of conquered lands. It accelerated in the form of industrial capitalism during the last few hundred years, producing unimaginable wealth for growing portions of the industrial societies while producing inconceivable amounts of mass poverty for the much larger populations in those parts of the world where pillaging occurred as a counterpart to economic growth.

Seeing this parallel process of wealth creation alongside its shadowy counterpart of poverty creation is essential for getting at the root causes of inequality that exist in the world today. Market systems in the current paradigm are made to syphon resources up the social ladder. Democratic governments work in the opposite direction as the pumps that resupply the base of the pyramid in a basic circulatory flow, much like the way the human heart pumps depleted blood back into the lungs where oxygen is restored before sending it out to the body.

This is the basic argument laid out in Money, Blood and Revolution: How Darwin and the Doctor of King Charles I Could Turn Economics into a Science by George Cooper. When we recognize that the year 1776 was both the publication date for Adam Smith’s monumental work The Wealth of Nations and the writing of the Declaration of Independence in the soon-to-be-formed United States — we see that the explosive economic growth that followed in the next few centuries was driven by open innovation processes in market structures, scientific research, and crucially the “market corrections” of representative democracy that held parasitic capitalism in check.

We need to be able to imagine that things can change at the foundational level of economic systems, metaphors for reality, and value systems that constitute a worldview.

Why is the history of economic systems so important right now? Because, as the SDGs rightly acknowledge, the global economy of today is dangerously harming both people and planet on the largest possible scales — from climate disruption that threatens us all to the 4.3 billion people living in abject poverty who are actively exploited or ignored by business-as-usual development. We need to know how these harms were created if we want to un-create them. And we need to be able to imagine that things can change at the foundational level of economic systems if we want to replace the paradigm of extraction with its successor, the paradigm of regeneration.

This second condition is only met by taking a look at history to see that human social organization has already been transformed on many occasions. This tells us that a new economic paradigm IS possible. Close scrutiny of that history also gives us hints about how to create an inclusive economic system made for all people alive today. More importantly, it also shows us that the future we want is one that finds harmony with the Earth we belong to and on which we depend for our survival as a species.

Others are beginning to chime in about the transition to “post-capitalism” in some amenable form. Paul Mason has been talking about it recently (see his video here). Jeremy Rifkin wrote an entire book — The Zero Marginal Cost Society — about how profit-seeking is itself winding down because the system is too efficient at what it does to continue much longer. The Next System Project is mobilizing thought leaders to envision the new economic paradigm. Evolutionary biologists and complexity researchers are mapping out its intellectual foundations in the Evonomics Project (full disclosure: I am one of the co-founders).

Other trends point the way to new possibilities as well. The rise of cooperative ownership, deflationary currencies, commons-based management, the Nordic countries that thrive on social democracy. All of these models show us that a different paradigm is not only possible, it is rising up in the places where the current Neoliberal system has failed.

Financial systems bloated with debt. A global web of instruments for tax evasion. Trade agreements designed by elites, for elites. These are part and parcel of the problem. They cannot continue to do their dirty deeds in the name of sustainability and social justice. The people of the world have already started organizing in the many social movements of recent years. Digital communication technologies are empowering us to “organize without organizations” as media expert Clay Shirky has eloquently described in his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody.

Leaders in the field of international development may have suffered from a failure of imagination. Lucky for us, there are many other luminaries out there showing that something different — something better — is available for us to create together. We can create a world without poverty. But we will never know how to envision it if we ignore all that has come before.

Hindsight may not really be 20/20. But it is a lot better than flying blind without ever looking back. It is time to rectify this situation. Look back into the annals of history and combine what we see with the thrilling possibilities and knowledge of the present. This is how we can be inspired to imagine anew.

Onward, fellow humans.

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