David Korten, LEF December 2013 Report
A planned cutback in travel and conventional media appearances freed time and energy to push the boundaries of New Economy thought and action through writing, electronic networking, and exploratory engagements.
One defining development of 2013 has been the broad public attention that the Occupy Movement has drawn to inequality, reinforced by messages from Pope Francis and President Obama.
Strategic Role and Priorities
For several years, Living Economies Forum (LEF) has organized around a three part strategic frame, each with a particular strategic partner: 1) Change the framing stories of the culture (YES! Magazine); 2) Create the new reality from the bottom up (BALLE); and 3) Change the rules to support the transition (New Economy Working Group). We focused much of the work with each of these three partners on institution building.
We now have largely moved out of more operational institution building roles. Consistent with that decision, I rotated off the BALLE board the end of 2012.
Our distinctive LEF contribution comes through working with leaders at the apex of what Gideon Rosenblatt calls the Pyramid of Engagement to conceptualize and articulate a living systems New Economy frame. This strengthens the ability of these leaders, through their organizations, to communicate larger frames using language and methods appropriate to their distinctive constituencies.
A New Story for a New Economy
Since we joined in founding of YES! Magazine in 1996 much of our own work has been based on the premise that the upstream cause of deepening economic, social, economic, and environmental crisis is a failed economic story based on false values and baseless assumptions. More recently, we have focused on what we perceive to be an inherent and compelling human need for a sense of the sacred, of what is most important, most worth of our human respect and care.
In the absence of a credible and compelling sacred story that gives meaning and purpose to daily life in modern high-tech, mass consumption society, we turn to money as our ultimate measure of value, embrace the making of money as our life purpose, and look to the market as our moral compass. Money and markets have become our objects of sacred veneration. The institutions of finance have become the temples in which we worship. Economists have become the priests to which we look for moral instruction and absolution from our sins against life. Pope Francis correctly names it an idolatry of money.
The consequence is a terminally lethal human relationship with Earth’s community of life. We will almost certainly continue this lethal relationship for so long as we remain in the thrall of the sacred money and markets story. The most promising cure is a more accurate, compelling, and attractive story.
New Economy Story Themes
We have been developing a series of papers through a collaborative process that engages a constantly expanding circle of thought leaders in conversations around leading edge themes intended to increase the coherence of and push the boundaries of the New Economy frame. These themes all build from a basic self-evident truth:
“Without nature there are no people; without people there is no money, no markets, and no corporations. Money, markets, and corporations are means with no legitimate purpose other than to serve life.”
The New Economy story themes at the fore of our work as we move into 2014 include:
- Sacred Life and Earth Community: Our shared sacred stories shape our common humanity. We need to reclaim our human sense of the sacred and displace a sacred money and markets story with a sacred life and Earth community story.
- Earth Law Jurisprudence: The established property rights jurisprudence gives corporations more rights than people and gives nature no rights at all. It must be replaced with a rights-of-nature/living Earth-commons jurisprudence that recognizes our essential human dependence on the integrity and vitality of Earth’s living generative systems.
- Living Earth Economy: The established economic system values life only to make money and seeks to control and suppress the natural systems on which human survival and well-being depends. To have a viable human future, we must displace this system with one that works in co-productive partnership with Earth’s natural systems to provide the essentials of a healthy meaningful life for all people in perpetuity.
- Living Earth Economics: The neoliberal economics discipline that dominates higher education and public discourse rests on a foundation of false values, invalid assumptions, and intellectual fraud. There is desperate need to replace it with an economics grounded in a recognition that Earth is a sacred living commons and that its health and well-being are essential to human health and well-being. Unfortunately, the effort to create a discipline of ecological economics that began with this intention was corrupted by economists who, instead of learning to think like ecologists, taught ecologists to think like economists.
- Cooperative Ownership: The only legitimate purpose of business is to serve the livelihood needs of people in balanced relationship with Earth’s living systems. The current system of absentee ownership delinks ownership from moral sensibility and public accountability and compels even socially conscious corporate managers to operate in ways contrary to the common good. A living Earth economy requires conversion of any for-profit business of more than modest size to cooperative ownership. Our immediate focus is on exploring the possibility of unions using private-equity leveraged-buyout tools to buyout publically traded corporations and convert them to worker cooperative ownership.
- Community Based and Accountable Financial Services: A Wall Street money/banking/finance system devoted to maximizing financial returns for Wall Street financiers through unproductive financial speculation, manipulation, and fraud serves no beneficial purpose. A living Earth economy is best served by a service oriented, locally owned and accountable Main Street financial services sector designed to support productive local investment.
- Living Metric Economic Performance Indicators: Evaluating economic performance against financial metrics like GDP and stock market indices makes sense only if the intended purpose of the economy is to make money for the already rich. The performance of a living Earth economy is appropriately assessed against living metrics of the health and vitality of people, community, and Earth’s essential living systems.
Contrasting Old and New Story Frames
The underlying frame of our New Story for a New Economy work juxtaposes two stories briefly summarized as follows:
Sacred Money and Markets: Time is money. Money is wealth. Making money creates wealth and is the defining purpose of the individual, business, and the economy. Material consumption is the path to happiness. We humans are by nature individualistic and competitive. The invisible hand of the free market directs our insatiable competitive drive to ends that maximize the wealth of all. Inequality and environmental damage are regrettable, but necessary collateral damage. Economic growth will eventually create sufficient wealth to end poverty. Technology will ultimately eliminate human dependence on nature.
Sacred Life and Earth Community: As living beings, we survive and prosper only as contributing members of a living Earth Community within a living, self-organizing cosmos evolving toward ever-greater beauty, complexity, awareness, and possibility. It is our human nature to care and to share. Making time to experience life and to serve life within a context of equality, community, and connection to nature is essential to our happiness and well-being.
We are awakening to the reality that the only legitimate purpose of any human institution—whether business, government, or civil society—is to facilitate the healthful cultivation and expression of our true nature. The economy has an additional function: to support us in creating our essential means of healthful living and well-being in co- productive partnership with the other members of the Earth Community to which we all belong.
Life is sacred. Earth Community is sacred. Money is just a number. Money and markets backed by rules and an ethical culture can be useful means to facilitate beneficial forms of exchange; neither is an end in itself.
The Framing Essay
In January 2013 we posted “Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time” on the YES! Magazine website along with a background reflection and selected commentaries. This essay was our most serious LEF examination to date of our commonly recognized sacred stories and their influence on shaping the human course.
We have now nearly completed a new and expanded version of this essay tentatively titled A New Story for a New Economy: Finding Our Human Place in Earth’s Community of Life. Our current priority is to finalize and post on the YES! website in January 2014.
The new version begins with a clear statement of why an examination of sacred stories is foundational to the search for a New Story for a New Economy and brings in an important distinction between the Mystical Unity and Integral Spirit story frames that the original essay overlooked. The new version also goes much further in developing the Living Earth Community and Living Earth Economy narratives and connecting them to the Integral Spirit Cosmology narrative.
Circles of Influence
Organizationally, the nexus of our work increasingly centers on the New Economy Working Group (NEWGroup), which I continue to co-chair with John Cavanagh, executive director of the Institute for Policy Studies. With the addition to our NEWGroup core team of the New Economy Coalition (formerly the New Economics Institute) and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, NEWGroup is facilitating an important informal dialogue among groups at the leading edge of New Economy thought and outreach. Together we continue to strengthen and expand the communications reach of the New Economy movement’s common frame.
By our agreed division of roles, the New Economy Working Group (IPS, New Economy Coalition, Living Economies Forum, YES! Magazine, Democracy Collaborative, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, and Gus Speth) has the lead on New Economy framing. The New Economy Coalition (NEC), with upward of 50 nonprofit organization members engaged in popular education, mobilization, and policy advocacy, has the lead on New Economy outreach.
Together NEWGroup and NEC sponsor New Economy Transition (NET) sessions, a series of invitational two-hour think tank webinars that bring together leading edge thinkers and activists in pathfinder conversations on critical New Economy themes. LEF is giving significant attention to framing topics and organizing increasingly high-level panels for these webinars. 2013 NET webinar topics included:
- Promoting a New Economy at the Global Level
- A New Economics for a New Economy
- Divesting from Fossil Fuels and Investing in the New Economy
- From Corporate Law and the Rights of Property to Earth Law and the Rights of Nature
Future topics currently planned include:
- Conversion of Publically Traded Corporations to Cooperative Worker Ownership through Union Led Leveraged
- In Search of Progressive Libertarian Consensus on an Appropriate Public Response to the Next Wall Street Crash
Kat Gjovik is working with our NET partners on the formation of a New Economy Communications Working Group to capture and communicate key insights from these sessions to a general audience as elaborated in her 2013 report to the LEF board.
Two examples illustrate the way in which the circles of influence are playing out.
- Fossil Fuels Divestment: The New Economy Coalition joined with 350.org to mobilize university students behind a fossil fuels divestment campaign aimed at university endowment funds. In NEWGroup conversations we raised the issue that divestment is unlikely to catch on unless paired with feasible alternative investment opportunities. This led to a flurry of conversations, including an NET webinar, focused on New Economy investment vehicles.Foundations and local governments have since jumped into the divestment/reinvestment conversation. Student groups formed to promote divestment are raising broader questions challenging the content of their economics courses and, more generally, the failure of university programs to prepare them to lead the transition to a just and sustainable human future. I made presentations at student conferences at the University of British Colombia and the New School in NYC that brought in these broader themes.
- National People’s Action (NPA): The NPA, which was founded in 1972, is an informal association of more than 200 grassroots organizations mostly representing working-class families. George Goehl, NPA’s executive director, has been a regular participant in NEWGroup and NET conversations as he guided NPA through a five-year participatory planning process that recently produced a long-term agenda for a New Economy that translates our NEWGroup frame into a clear, practical, and sophisticated plan of action for grassroots policy advocacy. My December 3, 2013 blog on the YES! website highlights six lessons from the NPA experience for other grassroots initiatives.
We devoted significant attention in 2013 to two exploratory engagements. In the end, the major contribution of each was to my own learning.
Bhutan Happiness Indicators Working Group
As noted in my 2012 report to the LEF board, on August 23, 2011, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring happiness a fundamental human goal and invited the Kingdom of Bhutan to lead a discussion on the topic as a contribution to the United Nations development agenda. In response, the Prime Minister of Bhutan appointed an International Expert Working Group (IEWG) to elaborate the details of a new development paradigm in which well-being and happiness indicators, not GDP, are the measure of success. By invitation of the Prime Minister, I serve as a member, as does fellow LEF board member Frances Moore Lappe.
The shift to new indicators is foundational to the transition to a New Economy. The Bhutan indicators are perhaps the best example we have of an approach to assessing economic performance based on living, rather than financial, metrics. Excited by the possibility that the Bhutan report to the United Nations might make an influential contribution to advancing the transition to a fundamentally different approach to assessing economic performance, this initiative became one of my top priorities beginning in mid-2012.
Unfortunately, a group among the Working Group’s members attempted to high-jack its process to promote their old paradigm ideas cloaked in new paradigm rhetoric. Ultimately, the Secretariat reasserted its control to prepare and submit to the United Nations a report reflective of the Bhutanese vision and experience. A national election in Bhutan in the midst of this process resulted in a change in government.
The implications for Bhutan’s Happiness Indicators and development model remain unclear. The experience of this connection with Bhutan further deepened my appreciation for the importance of a shift from economic to living indicators and the barriers to advancing the new paradigm economic frame.
Faith and Spirit Communities
In December 2012, we were in conversations with a number of influential faith and spirit organizations that responded enthusiastically to the themes of my draft essay on “Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time.” This momentum continued to build through the first half of 2013.
The groups involved included the Contemplative Alliance, New York Riverside Church, Union Theological Seminary, Wall Street Trinity Church, Pasadena All Saints Episcopal Church, and the Temple of Understanding. There seemed to be a basis for building and engaging an informal alliance of these and other faith and spirit groups to advance a national New Economy sacred life and living Earth faith and spirit challenge to old economy money and markets idolatry.
The Contemplative Alliance came forward with a proposal to host an invitational conference in New York in June 2013 on the theme “A Spiritual Narrative for the 21st Century: Becoming a Sacred Earth Community.” That two-day conference, which became a focal priority for us during the first six months of 2013 and the centerpiece of a June trip to New York, brought together some 200 leaders from faith and spirit, environmental, and New Economy organizations.
We held a report out gathering at the Wall Street Trinity Church webcast to satellite discussion groups around the world. I lined up meetings in New York with the head of the Union Theological Seminary, a presentation and workshop at Riverside Church, and conversations with the heads of Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Novo Foundation, and Atlantic Philanthropies.
The conference featured a series of short, individual presentations. Reflecting the Contemplative Alliance membership, most of the speakers were teachers of contemplative practice in the Mystical Unity spiritual tradition. Their shared commitment was to advancing individual spiritual practices intended to suppress the ego to meld the individual spirit with the universal spirit to end alienation, violence, and suffering.
Some within this group responded positively to my message regarding the need to address and dispel the threat to human viability from the institutional violence of global corporations and financial markets. Dismissing the institutional systems frame, most dismissed the spiritual case for system change as an unwarranted and disrespectful attack on the inherent human goodness and dignity of the people who staff and profit from the institutions of corporate and banking sectors.
A few CA members understand and embrace the larger living Earth/living universe frame and the essential importance of institutional transformation that I had understood to be the intended defining frame of the conference. I hope to continue working with these individuals in whatever way they may find useful, but there existing organizational support for such action is more limited than I had come to believe.
Over all, the New York trip proved to be an important educational experience that led me to three conclusions.
- Spiritual Practitioners. The original version of the Religion, Science, and Spirit essay did not take specific note of the Mystical Unity cosmology. Prior to the conference, I had subsumed the Mystical Unity cosmology within in an Integral Spirit synthesis. In my earlier conversations with leaders and members of the Contemplative Alliance constituency, I had assumed we were all talking about the same thing. For some, that was true. For many, however, it was not. The distinction between the Mystical Unity and Integral Spirit stories is critical for reasons spelled out in the new version of the essay now titled “A New Story for a New Economy.”
- Steeple Churches. Many of the most influential and prominent religious institutions are preoccupied with their own internal issues and lack the energy and resources to lead initiatives relating to foundational societal moral issues. Many bear the financial burden of the need to maintain sometimes grand and expensive physical facilities in the face of declining membership and growing demand for pastoral services and charity created by the economic system failures. They may also be reluctant to risk offending wealthy church members on whose financial support they depend.
- Progressive Foundations. Most foundations face the financial stress of declining returns on their endowments as a consequence of near zero interest rates and struggle to fulfill commitments to established grantees. They do not easily initiate consequential new commitments for which established leadership, funding, and institutional capacity are not already in place.
Consequential leadership from established institutions in any of these categories is likely to be more limited, diffuse, and episodic than I previously anticipated. We continue to work out the implications.
LEF 2014 Priorities
We will continue our well-established strategy of selectively responding to promising opportunities as they present themselves. I expect the following to be among our top priorities during 2014.
- YES! Magazine: I’m very excited about the potential of the YES! restructuring to significantly extend the YES! reach with New Economy I expect to have a particular role in working with YES! to develop a clearer and more public articulation of what we mean by “The YES! Take” and to build it more solidly into the cultural fabric of the organization.
- IPS and the New Economy Working Group: I expect IPS and the New Economy Working Group to continue to be primary partners of the Living Economy Forum and YES! Magazine and the leading vehicle through which we continue to shape the New Economy movement. I expect that much of my contribution will be through organizing and shaping the New Economy Transition webinars that John Cavanagh and I lead together. Kat Gjovik will be helping to document and share the results through the New Economy Communications Working Group the New Economy Coalition is establishing.
- Webinar Based Educational Outreach: Organizing physical gatherings, particularly of significant size and reach is a significant drain on time and money. We intend to make increasing use of electronic conferencing facilities as a primary vehicle for drawing large numbers of people into the conversation.
- A New Story for a New Economy—The Book: I sense that a next step with the sacred stories essay is to turn it into a short general audience book that presents a clear, inspiring, compelling, and practical vision of a New Economy grounded in the new human story. The NET sessions are taking shape as forums in which to develop the key themes.
I closed my 2012 report with the observation that “Given the dynamic nature of the emerging process, the only thing I know for certain is that how it plays out in 2013 will likely be very different than anything I might currently anticipate.” That turned out to be quite true. I expect that the same will prove true for 2014.