The Regenerative Economic Shaper Perspective Paper — Part 4
By Carol Sanford and Ben Haggard (with the Regenerative Economy Collaborative)
To start from the beginning, 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.
Understanding Levels of Paradigm as a System
In The Sciences of the Artificial, Nobel economist Herbert Simon quoted Voltaire, who said, “Better is the enemy of best.” Simon was highlighting the hazard that comes from trying to make systemic change through incremental improvements. Each time one makes something better, there is a built-in tendency to become satisfied with and attached to the improvement. In this way, improvements become barriers to finding radical, disruptive breakthroughs.
The Levels of Paradigm framework carries with it the same hazard, if it is misinterpreted as a list of options that can be applied depending on circumstances. For example, one can move one’s thinking from the value return to the arrest disorder level and immediately experience significant improvements in the scope and wholeness of one’s efforts on the ground. But if one stops there, satisfied by the better results one’s improved thinking has produced, one will inevitably fail to access the transformative change that comes from seeing the world through the regenerate life paradigm.
The regenerate life paradigm allows one to address the intentions that informed the earlier paradigms in a way that is coherent and whole, leaving behind the language, methods, and mindsets that fragment a living world. For example, the value return paradigm has a core intention to enable everyone to contribute something to society and, in return, receive an equitable share of the accrued benefits. But for this intention to be realized, the social system must be designed for this purpose. When instead it is designed to allow the extraction of value, concentrating the accrued benefits into the hands of a few, the system will eventually collapse.
Shifting paradigms, making a profound change in one’s assumptions and ways of thinking, should feel like stepping into a new world. From this new world, the old ways of framing reality no longer make sense. It becomes possible to see potential that was invisible before and to reconcile conflicts that seemed irreconcilable.
Without adequate consciousness, it can be all too easy to slide backward into an old paradigm, for example pursuing an arrest disorder approach when one had intended to regenerate something. In our experience, this is a common occurrence for many of our peers, who sincerely wish to work on regenerating social and economic systems in order to transform the ways humans inhabit Earth. Without more fully developing their mental capabilities, they inevitably attempt this work using paradigms that are inadequate to the task, inadvertently reinforcing the attitudes and practices that have led us into the current state of crisis.
Substitution of the language and assumptions of a lower paradigm for those of a higher is commonplace. Much current interest, thinking, and experimentation with regard to the next economy has its roots in one of the three lower paradigms. This severely limits the effect of work aimed at reconciling human economic activity with the evolution of life on our planet.
For example, the co-operative, slow money, and peer-to-peer movements are primarily about access to and participation in a value return economy. Doughnut economics seeks to find the sweet spot between reducing social inequity and reducing planetary impacts, making it a good example of an arrest disorder approach. The well-being economies movement seeks to establish a standard of health and well-being that communities and nations can endeavor to live up to, providing an example of a do good approach.
Every one of these efforts is worthy and has made a real contribution to the growing recognition of the need for profound economic change. Most of them have also adopted the language of regeneration, without a full understanding of the underlying principles that distinguish it. We propose that were they to rigorously apply the seven first principles to their efforts, they could become regenerative in their approaches. This application of principles would result in conceiving and committing to new levels of aspiration, rigorously examining and upgrading language and methods, and generating qualitative measures for the living effects they produce.
The localization movement, as one example, has enormous potential to work from the regenerate life level because of its deep commitment to and understanding of local places. The shift from a generalized belief in the importance of small-scale economies to an appreciation and even reverence for the unique essence of particular places could profoundly increase the transformational impact of these efforts. Places are examples of the whole living beings we spoke of as fundamental to the regenerate life paradigm. They are nested within larger systems, and each has some distinctive role that it could play. When this becomes the starting point for thinking about economic development, communities focus on differentiating themselves, rather than copying one another’s best practices. As communities come to define distinctive niches within their economic ecosystems, so do the individuals, businesses, and institutions that make them up. A collective community direction provides a coherent context within which community members can discover and align their own value-generating roles and developmental paths.
By way of another example, the well-being economies movement is sophisticated and embraces a plurality of place-based approaches and solutions. However, it is missing two dimensions that are critical to moving up to the regenerative level, the first of which is essence-sourced potential.
Essence serves as a kind of intellectual antidote to the modern tendency to classify, categorize, typecast, and commoditize. It is almost impossible to overstate the extent to which contemporary cultural systems condition their members to sort people, the world, and even personal experience into generic categories. For instance, every time one classifies an acquaintance’s behaviors or anxieties with some popular psychological diagnosis, one assumes that something meaningful has been said about them. Yet the underlying lived experience of a singular individual has been lost in the process.
When one sees the universe through the lens of essence, then the singular and particular become the starting point for one’s thinking. One first tries to understand and appreciate what makes a living being unique, before even considering the possibility of applying general rules to it. Anchoring to the essence of a place, for instance, allows one to work in ways that are harmonious with its nature and character. It also allows one to discover and then develop its inherent potential based on what it is rather than what one wants it to be. One’s relationship to the world changes when one is attuned to the nature and potential of people, their places, and the lifesheds in which they are nested. Instead of imposing one’s own will and ideas about how to improve them, one adopts a stance of deep, experientially based co-exploration of their potential.
Learning to discern the essence of things is not a casual undertaking — it requires discipline and a willingness to be reflective. It is not a capability that is widely understood or valued in modern culture, and so for the most part people are not educated in how to do it. Nevertheless, today’s economic systems are rooted in centuries of industrial thinking that have placed humans in terrible conflict with the natural world. New, more harmonious systems will need to be designed from entirely different patterns of thinking, and we believe that essence is foundational to these.
With regard to well-being economies, our point is that well-being is a characteristic of individuals (people, communities, institutions, whole places, living systems) and that individuals must be educated and enabled to manifest it. The work of the collective is to grow the capability and the capacity of its members to participate and contribute to the well-being and essence-sourced potential of the whole. They do this through the ongoing development of their own essence-sourced potential.
This leads us to the second critical missing dimension that we believe limits the regenerative potential of the well-being movement, the developmental imperative. Given how deeply engrained the tendency toward generalization is in every aspect of modern culture, it takes significant effort to replace it with an approach that focuses on the unique character of the specific phenomena one is encountering. One must become skillful at managing one’s own state and thought processes if one is to counteract one’s conditioning. In our experience, such an effort requires both sustained will and a commitment to remaining conscious. This inner development is not easy and it requires support, but there is very little recognition of its centrality to transforming economic systems, and virtually no institutional infrastructure to enable it.
Conventional educational programs are not adequate to the task of building the capabilities needed for a regenerative economy. Such programs emphasize imparting knowledge rather than encouraging self-reflective observation of the structure and source of one’s own thinking. This emphasis on knowledge transfer reinforces existing cultural patterns because that is exactly what it is designed to do.
If one seeks to introduce a new, transformative pattern, then one must build an entirely new, developmental approach to education, one that grows regenerative literacy across communities. This developmental approach, to be an effective engine for change, needs to be pervasive, showing up in everything from parenting to schools to workplaces to political institutions. This is why we refer to it as a developmental imperative. For those whose work is designing new economic systems and instruments, it is imperative to build development of thinking and self-management into every aspect of the process.
This last thought reflects an underlying theory of change — the most effective way to create change is not by encouraging more and more actions but by building the thinking capabilities that enable discernment about which actions to take. Without these capabilities, old paradigms are unconsciously dragged into almost everything that people do, severely limiting what they see as possible and desirable. The fastest way to bring profound change to our economies is to interrupt this tendency to think in familiar and comfortable ways. Over and over again, people and institutions need to be invited up to a regenerative way of viewing things. Through repeated disruption of their patterns, they will begin to transform their thinking processes and, ultimately, the world they are able to image, long for, and create.