The Regenerative Economic Shaper Perspective Paper — Part 2

A Framework for Architecting the Next Economy

By Carol Sanford and Ben Haggard (with the Regenerative Economy Collaborative)

Find part one of this series here.

The problem with the global economy isn’t how we do it, it’s how we think about it. The dysfunction and destructiveness of the current economy is all the evidence one needs for how bad our economic thinking is. Yet human intelligence has the inherent potential to create an economy that activates life — for people and the planet — if we shift the paradigm from which we’re thinking.

This paper is for those who want to create profound economic change. It provides a framework from which to innovate designs for the next economy.

Levels of Paradigm

One of the most effective ways to see the distinctions among different economic approaches is a framework that we call Levels of Paradigm. We define paradigm as a cognitive framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a group.

Donella Meadows, in her well-known article “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” concludes that the most powerful change occurs when one transcends the paradigm one operates within. This insight borrows from the work of Thomas Kuhn, who proposed that science advances through shifts in paradigm, so that what couldn’t possibly be conceived in one era (The world is round!) becomes accepted truth in another. By calling people’s attention to the new paradigm, he aimed to awaken in them an urgent sense of the importance of supplanting and replacing the old one. However, one of our observations is that old paradigms don’t necessarily disappear. Even when their truths have been proven false (The world is flat!), they nevertheless continue to exert an unconscious influence. And, because paradigms are mutually exclusive, this can cause people to act in ways that contradict their own better judgment and even to become psychologically debilitated.

For this reason, individuals cannot live simultaneously in multiple paradigms and maintain coherence. Small wonder, then, that so many people and institutions resist moving to a new paradigm; it requires them to sacrifice too much of what they’ve held to be true, comfortable, and desirable. Yet, once a paradigm has introduced a new, internally consistent way of understanding reality, it inevitably supersedes the earlier version. And then the resisters attempt to absorb the new language and ideas into their existing understanding of reality, which results in further dissonance and debility, and even in violent clashes, internally and externally.

This clinging to familiar ways of seeing the world is common, even though it diminishes people’s ability to face and work with reality. Therefore, we want to state clearly that from our perspective, transforming the paradigm from which one is thinking is not just desirable or beneficial, it is absolutely necessary at this moment in history.

The following framework delineates a comprehensible and recognizable set of paradigms that regularly affect current thinking and discourse. It also illustrates the idea that transcending one’s paradigm is the result of a disciplined effort to move up levels. Because each level of paradigm represents an evolution of understanding beyond the paradigms that preceded it, work at the top level yields the greatest power and leverage.

Levels of ParadigmRegenerate Life
Do Good
Arrest Disorder
Value Return

A framework like this one allows individuals and institutions to discern which paradigms are informing their decisions, giving them the opportunity to discover the dissonances between what they intend and what they actually do. Ultimately, this enables them to release old paradigms and step fully into the new.

As a hierarchy, each new level enables a different order of capacity than the one below it in terms of managing complexity and integrating systems. Whenever people approach work from within a lower paradigm, they limit the potential that can be seen and pursued, and the kinds of value that can be created. It is simply not possible to see the values held at a higher level without letting go of the old paradigm. With regard to this framework, then, the most comprehensive, systemic, and leveraged place from which to work on economic practice or policy is at the regenerate life level.

It is important to understand that this framework does not depict levels of doing or activity. Using it in this way can be a trap, as it evokes the reasonable thought that different natures of activity are necessary and even complementary. This obscures the fact that paradigms are about mentation, not activities. Paradigms shape the ways people receive and perceive information, how they make sense of it, and the possibilities they are able to conceive as a result. This means that the same subject or activity will look completely different, depending on the level of paradigm through which it is engaged. Two of the biggest challenges to moving to a new paradigm are the need to rigorously apply a new way of thinking to familiar tasks and habits and the need to unlearn and abandon patterns of thought that anchor one to the old paradigm.

Value Return

At this level, the focus is on me and mine (including the family or tribe with which one identifies). The concept of wealth collapses into financial assets or money. This causes one to engage the world transactionally in order to gain the resources needed to secure the well-being of those in one’s inner circle. One invests one’s energies in order to receive some value in return, hoping that the value that comes back is greater than the value invested so that wealth can accumulate. This is the foundational idea for most current economic thinking and the basis from which both mercantilist and capitalist theories (and their ongoing elaborations) arose.

A corollary of this idea is that those who are willing to take greater risks deserve greater rewards, should their risks pay off. In this way, the value return paradigm enables self-interest to become a driver for expansion, discovery, and experimentation, all of which can at times provide social benefits. Unfortunately, self-interest and the accumulation of wealth has also historically been the driver for a host of social ills, many of which still persist into the twenty-first century. Sweatshops, child labor, poisoned water and air, mountain top removal, abandoned towns, and collapsing ecosystems continue to plague humanity, even in an era of unprecedented material abundance and technical capability.

Arrest Disorder

The arrest disorder paradigm introduces restraints on the predatory self-interest associated with value return, but in doing so it creates its own set of unintended negative consequences. At this level, one expands the scope of one’s attention and awareness to include relationships within systems, which allows one to see the effects one’s actions are having on others. One becomes concerned with achieving balance and the long-term sustainability of human endeavors. As a result, one seeks to correct the systemic problems created when people or institutions pursue their own narrow self-interest to the detriment of others. Many of the world’s laws and regulations, including everything from environmental regulations to the oversight of banks, are specifically designed to limit the negative impacts of unrestrained application of the value return paradigm. In the same way, socialist economic theories emerged in response to the devastation created by unfettered capitalism.

With this paradigm, the focus has moved from direct transactional benefit to systemic benefit, which represents a significant conceptual expansion based on an equally significant expansion of perception. At this level, self is no longer all there is to consider, or looked at another way, one’s sense of self enlarges. Once one has achieved this shift, dropping back to the value return paradigm represents a regression, a collapsing down to a narrower and more impoverished view of the world. There is nothing that can be worked on at the lower level that can’t be accomplished in a more wholesome and inclusive way at the higher.

To see the effects of one’s actions on something larger than oneself requires a new level of awareness, an awareness that is inaccessible when one is focused solely on one’s own benefit. This awareness is an important first step in the development of consciousness. At a political level it has led to a series of historically significant movements and reforms, including the abolition of slavery, the establishment of unions, and the fights for civil rights and environmental protections. It is the source of social safety nets that address such issues as child poverty and lack of health care.

By its nature the arrest disorder paradigm comes into conflict with the value return paradigm, which it is designed to correct or restrain. Every political effort to address disorder in our societies ends up placing pressure on those who wish to enjoy as much liberty as possible in pursuit of their own interests. In this way, activists who view the world from within an arrest disorder perspective always build opposition to the improvements they are seeking to make. Also, this paradigm’s problem-solving orientation leads to approaches that are programmatic in nature, severely limiting the kinds of creativity that become available at higher levels of thinking.



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