essays & posts

Let’s Bypass ‘Business As Usual’ and Create the Next System

Paula Downey, downey youell associates

May 10  ∼ 8 minute read

‘Business as usual’ leads us to a place we don’t want to go. Our economic model is sinking the planet, but Covid-19 gives us a rare opportunity to reboot our system.

Before the chorus to ‘restart the economy and get back to normal’ becomes a mindless mantra could we pause and ask, what are we learning about our ‘normal’?

While our economy has been sleeping, nature has been quietly renewing. Cleaner air. Clearer water. Returning wildlife. The sound of silence and birdsong.

If our environment improves when our economy fails, what does that teach us about the economic mind set driving everything?

Photograph: Tee Farm / Pixabay

Economic ‘common sense’

Conventional economics describes the economy in terms of ‘inputs’, ‘outputs’ and ‘flows’, a bit like a machine. According to its theories, this machine is sitting inside… well, nothing at all really. It just floats about in empty space.

The conceptual sleight of hand by which economists manage to defeat gravity in this way is to disappear things that don’t fit the theory by labelling them ‘externalities’ and then basically ignoring them.

The beating heart of conventional economics – the point of it all – is ‘growth’ and a key mechanism for achieving this efficiently is ‘competition’. Inside this theoretical world, the best solutions win the day and the ‘invisible hand’ of the ‘market’ allocates resources efficiently and guides our selfish interests towards beneficial ends.

That’s the basic idea.

 

Photograph: Jaesung An / Pixabay

Nature’s ‘common sense’

In contrast, the beating heart of nature is not endless growth but increasing capacity and complexity, which increases the system’s ability to keep on keeping on. Via a web of interdependent relationships nature’s self-organising, self-regulating processes maintain the health of the system as a whole.

In nature, complex co-operation not competition, is the name of the game.

Comparing the way nature works with the way we work is eye-opening. Comparing the results is sobering. The way nature works has improved the whole system over time while the way we work has made things a whole lot worse.

 

Overwhelming evidence

The assumptions baked-in to theories like ‘competition’, the ‘invisible hand’ and the ‘market’ are roundly defeated by the evidence. Instead of floating all boats our economic model is in the process of sinking the entire planet, turning rainforests into deserts, plasticising the oceans, disrupting the climate and unravelling aeons of evolutionary work through which nature’s processes transformed a chemical soup into an Eden.

The fact is the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. But faithful to economic logic we’ve built careers, professions, businesses, technologies and whole industries that survive and thrive by dismantling nature’s firewalls, crashing through its limits, invading ecological space and ransacking its resources.

Seen through a systems lens, zoonotic diseases such as Sars, Mers, Ebola and Covid-19 that are transmitted from animals to people are part of a larger cultural pattern that includes Californian forest fires, Australian bushfires, a submerged Venice and city-sized locust swarms devouring vast tracts of the African continent.

But in the wall-to-wall Covid coverage there’s no mention of this larger context to help us make sense of what’s happening.

“That so much is wrong signals something fundamental is broken.”

That so much is wrong signals something fundamental is broken.

The idea that the pursuit of self-interest would ultimately promote the common good may work in the abstract world of economic models, but applied to the real world – the one we actually live in – it’s turned out to be completely harebrained. Just because economists believe these theories and politicians and business executives apply them doesn’t make them true, any more than fourteen hundred years of believing the sun revolved around the Earth made that true either.

Suggesting the economy sits inside larger human and natural systems that have limits is a seismic shift in the world of economics, because for classical economists – and that’s most economists – it challenges the foundations upon which their profession exists and confronts them with questions they cannot answer. Not without changing their entire paradigm.

And when your salary, career and reputation depend on something being true – even when it’s not – it’s hard to change the world inside your head.

Image: Pete Linforth / Pixabay

And it’s not just mainstream economics that suffers from harebrained ideas. It’s mainstream everything.

Theories of evolution and complexity have long transformed our understanding of reality but for all practical purposes these revolutions of thought have not yet happened. Because evolution is still taught largely as a biology subject and complexity is taught hardly at all, these new ways of making sense of the world have not yet transformed how we think about or teach economics or finance or education or healthcare or manufacturing or technology or design or farming or management or public administration … or pretty much anything.

We believe ourselves to be so modern but the scaffolding of our lives is positively Newtonian.

If our minds have been shaped by incorrect and harmful assumptions then it shouldn’t surprise us when our work does harm. Nor should it surprise us that the moment we stop doing what we’ve been doing, our Earth home breathes a sigh of relief and begins to recover.

Image: Nika Akin / Pixabay

Change begins inside our heads

The world just doesn’t work the way we think and unless we change the world inside our heads we’ll never be able to address the complexity and destruction we’ve created. We need an entirely new economics and a completely new way of thinking and working to get us out of the hole we’re in.

What follows the Covid crisis is not an economic recession but a collapse. Many of us will lose our businesses, our jobs and the future we imagined for ourselves. Because we’re fearful and want our lives back there’s a danger we’ll swallow the fairytale that this will pass and life can resume as normal.

But business as usual leads to a place we don’t want to go. Nature is foreclosing on our culture.

Business as usual leads to a place we don’t want to go. Nature is foreclosing on our culture.

James Shaw, Climate Minister, New Zealand

Photograph: Ross Giblin / stuff.co.nz

It’s Time to Bend the Curve on Our Culture

In New Zealand, the country whose Covid-19 strategy has inspired us, Climate Minister James Shaw stood up and said, let’s not get back to normal. Instead he’s called on governments, regions and cities around the world to raise their game and think far more ambitiously than just ‘business as usual’.

This begins by consciously designing the invisible hand with a purpose worthy of our collective efforts. The shared purpose that has galvanised us in recent months has been to ‘Bend the Curve on the Virus’. Beyond this crisis, our shared purpose might be to ‘Bend the Curve on our Culture’.

Imagine using this once in a generation moment to reboot our entire system. We could stop our current political bickering over half measures almost guaranteed to hobble our progress and choose instead to really go for it with urgency and conviction, collaborating and competing in a new direction just as virologists are collaborating and competing 24/7 to find a vaccine.

Image: John Hain / Pixabay

The Power of Shared Will

Just weeks ago it would have seemed inconceivable that humanity could move in unison but in our flawed, faltering, uneven way, we’re doing it. And look at all we’re discovering.

Politicans cowed by laissez faire market logic have found their mojo. They have more power than they believed to make bold decisions for the sake of the common good.

As citizens, we’ve found our agency too. Everywhere, citizen-inspired initiatives are playing a legitimate part in national efforts. We’ve witnessed the power of shared will and learned that when we move in the same direction, as one, we can change the whole system. This crisis has surfaced a depth of capacity that was there all along, qualities that mainstream economics refuses to value but without which life is impossible: empathy, kindness, generosity, self-sacrifice, compassion, care.

Organisations of all kinds have become living experiments in system change, at scale. These may be temporary but they demonstrate what’s possible and they’re teaching us what change really looks like. Collaborative, messy, self-organising reality has overwritten the Newtonian dream of strategies, plans, milestones and gant charts and achieved bigger change, faster than we thought possible.

A more subtle but important lesson is humility in the face of the unknown and the power of learning our way into the future. In the teeth of complexity, it’s okay not to know. In fact, acting while not knowing for sure is the only alternative to paralysis. As there are no experts in what we’re experiencing and no experts in what the future holds, the only realistic way forward is step at a time, together.

 

Image: Mike Enerio / Unsplash

Cultural Crossroads

Behind ‘business as usual’, in the nooks and crannies of every organisation and institution, there are people who know deep down that the work they do is part of the problem. They don’t want to dedicate their professional lives to what novelist Arundhati Roy calls our “doomsday machine”. They want to be part of the solution.

And they can be.

We can be.

Like it or not we’re at a cultural crossroads and the road ahead is a choice. We can walk into the future weighed down by the baggage of beliefs and assumptions that have brought our civilisation to its knees. Or we can walk away from business as usual and fight instead for a world where we use our work and workplaces, skills and talents to shift the pattern of our entire culture.

It’s a journey that begins where all human change begins, inside our heads. Overcoming our denial of dis-confirming truths is the hard part. What comes after that is easier. Even exciting.

 

This Essay was originally published by The Business Post.

Now and then we observe the world through the lens of living systems and our CultureWork perspective.

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