Through a largely non-consensual process we humans have created an economic system with characteristics that most resemble those of a cancerous tumor. The challenge before us is to heal ourselves by eliminating the cancer and restore healthy by creating an economic system that mimics the structure and dynamics of a healthy ecosystem.

It turns out that an economic system that mimics the structure and dynamics of a healthy ecosystem would look rather much like a healthy market economy supported by an ethical culture and a framework of sensible rules established by a democratic government. Nothing radical. Nothing unfamiliar. Just the practice of basic values to which most of us already claim allegiance.

The following are some elements of a systems framework for a socially and environmentally viable society based on the design features of healthy ecosystems.

Design Element 1: Human-Scale Self-Organization.  Economic and political life in a post-corporate society are built largely around self-organizing processes based on the smallest feasible decision-making units. Thus by preference the governmental functions are assigned to the lowest and smallest unit of government appropriate to that function. Similarly, the preference is to organize economic affairs on the basis of large numbers of relatively small enterprises owned by local stakeholders such as workers, managers, suppliers, customers, and members of the locality in which the business is located.  Most individuals have an ownership stake in the enterprise from which they obtain their livelihood and a long-term interest in its viability.

Living Economy Design Elements

  1. Human-scale self-organization
  2. Village and neighborhood clusters
  3. Town and regional centers
  4. Renewable energy self-reliance
  5. Closed cycle materials use
  6. Regional environmental balance
  7. Mindful livelihoods
  8. Inter-regional electronic communication
  9. Wild spaces

While economic relationships are structured primarily on market principles and use market competition to spur efficiency and innovation, firms also work within a larger framework of rules, community cooperation, and the sharing of resources and technology. Ethical standards in economic, as in other relationships, are highly valued and those who violate these standards are held in low regard.

Design Element 2: Village or Neighborhood Clusters. While the basic model varies by local circumstances, typical human settlements are neighborhood oriented, organized more on the pattern of a village than that of the disbursed, auto dependent suburban housing tract. Many of the layouts are modeled on successful eco-village and co-housing experiments. A typical pattern involves modest row houses of varied designs, based on local materials and adapted to local climate, clustered around courtyards with lawns, playgrounds, and flowerbeds. Spaces between housing units are used for small gardens, composting, and raising small animals. Most living clusters approximate the age-structure of the population as a whole, with older folks helping with housework, gardening, and child care and families sharing in turn with elder care. Basic food and convenience items are available from local shops owned and operated by local residents.

There may be cooperative office facilities with shared equipment and support staff for those who would otherwise work out of home offices—thus reducing the need for larger homes and individual office equipment. Some villages have small local industrial parks that offer shared support facilities for various kinds of small productive enterprises. Most villages have a local elementary school, a holistic primary health care facility, and a community arts and meeting center with a small library and public electronic research, reading, and communications facilities in easy walking distance of the residences.

Each village has its adjacent green spaces and agricultural enterprises. In more urbanized centers, most clusters consist of multi-story, multi-family dwellings or apartments organized around parks and green belts interspersed with urban gardens. Each village cluster is a place for living, relatively self-contained with regard to more basic needs and sufficiently small in total area that walking and bicycles are adequate to meet most transportation needs. The elderly and disabled get around easily on small electric carts. Pathways, parks, and public  squares facilitate informal human interaction.

Design Element 3: Towns and Regional Centers. Typically there is a larger town center within bicycling distance of each village cluster that features a wider range of medical services and sports facilities, a high-school, small production facilities, repair services, specialized shops, administrative offices and a variety of public services.  Small shuttle buses link villages to their nearest town center, which are in turn linked to one another and to larger regional centers by bus and light rail public transit. Colleges and universities, more specialized hospitals, research centers, firms engaged in larger-scale production, and governmental offices responsible for serving the region are located in the regional centers. More difficult-to-produce high technology goods such as pharmaceuticals, medical and scientific equipment, machine tools, and computer chips are generally produced in these regional centers, with different regions specializing in different products to the extent that larger-scale production facilities are required.

Design Element 4: Renewable Energy Self-Reliance. The basic model of village, town, and regional center clusters connected by efficient public transportation largely eliminates the need for private cars, resulting in major energy savings and freeing up large amounts of space for human use. Most villages have a few commercially or cooperatively owned high efficiency solar or hydrogen powered cars and trucks available for sharing or renting for special trips for which public transportation is not suited. Large garden and power tools used only occasionally are owned cooperatively for use on a shared or rental basis. Housing units feature energy-conserving architecture, insulation, solar collectors and photovoltaics that make each group of houses largely energy-independent. Bottled biogas or solar hydrogen provides supplemental energy as needed. Each settlement grouping seeks to be as self-sufficient as possible in energy through the full development of its solar resources.

Design Element 5: Closed Cycle Materials Use. Each community is also relatively self-reliant in materials use. To the extent possible, necessary resources are harvested and processed locally and then maintained in a constant state of use, reuse, and recycling. All packaging materials are reused. Bottles are refilled locally. Products are designed to be repaired locally and ultimately to be recycled. Organic matter is composted in local vegetable gardens. Sewage is biologically processed, used to generate biogas, and recycled onto agricultural fields. Products such as appliances, vehicles, machines, and electronic equipment are leased rather than sold and returned to their local manufacturers at the end of their useful life to be repaired, upgraded, or broken down into their basic material components for recycling. Virtually no waste is dumped into the environment.

Design Element 6: Regional Environmental Balance. Each region structures its economy to live in balance with the limits of the regenerative capacity of its bio-system and seeks substantial self-reliance in its use of environmental resources. Income and sales taxes have been eliminated in favor of resource, pollution, and land use fees that encourage conservation and local self-sufficiency. High taxes on imported fuels limit the use of other than locally generated solar energy. Energy fees keep bulk transportation costs between regions relatively high, thus encouraging local recycling and a general reliance on regional resources and regionally produced goods.

To encourage economic efficiency and innovation, market competition is maintained within regions through rigorous anti-trust enforcement and the use of regulatory and fiscal tools that favor human-scale firms. There are also sharply graduated taxes on the value of the productive assets owned or controlled by a single firm to create a bias in favor of the small.

The fiscal and regulatory policies of national or inter-regional levels of government are designed to encourage each region to adjust to its natural carrying capacity. One of the more important functions of national and global governmental bodies is to facilitate the negotiation and mediation of agreements with regard to cross border pollution and unbalanced trade relations between regions. Such agreements are designed  to assure that one region cannot live beyond its own means by unfairly stressing the environment of another region.

Design Element 7: Mindful Livelihoods. Since work centers on providing the goods and services necessary to a good life and available paid employment is equitably shared, there is no need to encourage the production and consumption of harmful and unnecessary products simply to sustain the economy. Work is as much a source of fulfillment and an opportunity to participate in the life of the community as it is a source of income. Eliminating the production of harmful and wasteful products in turn eliminates most needs for large-scale production. Production for most needs is local and human-scale. There is also a flourishing of artistic and artisan craft production.

The benefits of increased productivity are shared through some combination of increased incomes and the sharing of available paid work by adjusting the hours worked by each individual in paid employment. This means people have much more time for recreational activities, sports, participation in the arts, intellectual and spiritual development, family life, and community service. This results in a rich family and civic life. Many community services are maintained largely with volunteer labor. Most communities have local currencies to facilitate the monetized exchange of goods and services within and among the villages affiliated with a given town center.

Design Element 8: Inter-regional Electronic Communication. Since most investment and production are local, the international movement of goods and materials is greatly reduced, as is the need for long distance business travel. The pricing of energy at its true cost makes the physical movement of goods and people between regions costly and acts as a natural tariff barrier. There is serious attention to international and cross-cultural exchange to build human bonds that transcend one’s own locality. An experience abroad is considered an essential part of a basic education and most adults engage in some form of extended voluntary exchange activity to share ideas, friendship, and cultures, but the pattern of frenetic long distance air travel for brief business meetings and resort tourism is a thing of history. Most long distance travel is by energy efficient public water and rail transport—which reduces its frequency, but makes it more relaxed and meaningful. For reasons of energy efficiency and environmental health, air travel is infrequent and reserved largely for emergencies and high level diplomatic exchange.

Most inter-regional communication is electronic and every individual has ready access to electronic communications facilities through which they can interact almost without cost with people and cultures anywhere on the globe. Easily accessible and high quality video conferencing virtually eliminates long distance travel to meetings.

While the nine system design elements necessarily result in people developing strong roots in communities of place, the electronic networks intensify communications among people beyond family, community, regions and nations for exchange of friendship, technology, literature, experience, ideas, and political initiatives. The combination of strengthened local autonomy and open communication supports substantial cultural diversity and differentiation, a well developed appreciation of the ways in which such diversity enriches the whole, and a sense of common interest and destiny. It also creates the values, social structures, and technologies supportive of the emergence of an intelligent, self-directing global intelligence.

Design Element 9: Wild Spaces. The use of physical space honors the needs of other living creatures for wild spaces in which non-human life may flourish in its own way with minimal human disturbance.  Core wilderness areas are separated from core human populations by buffer zones of greenbelts and ecologically significant open spaces, intensive mixed cropping organic agriculture and sustainably managed forests so that human communities merge seamlessly with surrounding natural communities. Wild spaces are connected by wildlife corridors that facilitate natural evolutionary processes, with appropriate mitigation measures taken where transportation corridors between settled patches cross wildlife corridors.

Adapted from The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism, pp. 126-132.