Change the World by Changing Economics

We live in a world of opportunity – the opportunity to use the insight generated through the multiple crises humanity finds itself in to transit into a much more liveable, sustainable and equitable society.

A paradigm change seems to be taking place, a movement for change seems to be in the making, but at the same time there is a widespread feeling that things are getting worse instead of better and there is no guarantee that change will lead us into a better future in the next few decades.

To effectively guide the direction of change we need to address the root causes of today’s global challenges and take a close look at what drives human society and human beings. In doing so we realize that we are looking at a holographic picture which contains different layers, which are interdependent: Human biology; values and belief systems; the changing narrative underlying the development of human society; economics and governance and the many tools as well as special interests, support and uphold the outdated paradigms.

The one element which influences all people nearly every day and is behind just about each and every crisis is the theory and practice of current economics. The article explores the debate on current economics and proposes mechanisms of change.

1. Introduction
We live in one of the most dynamic and important periods of change humanity might have ever seen. A time of fundamental change comparable with the change from a hunter and gatherer society to an agricultural society, the change from a feudal society to a democratic society or the change from an agricultural society to an industrial and technology-driven society. What is different in these periods of change are the speed and the geographical scope.

But we also live in a time of multiple crises and negative developments and trends. Unemployment, inequality, the financial crisis, biodiversity depletion, and degradation of ecosystems, climate change – you name it, we have it. There is a growing feeling amongst civil society representatives, foundations and citizens from all walks of life that we are winning skirmishes and battles, but losing the war in our strife for a sustainable, equitable and just world – despite the multitude of positive initiatives and the billions spent on good causes. Or at least, light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t seem to be appearing yet.

The reasons for this feeling are manifold but lie certainly in our current inability to address the roots of the problem. Even thinking about fundamental approaches is not encouraged. The debate constantly revolves around “what goes wrong” and “where we should be” and ignores the crucial question: “How are we going to get there?”

This short paper is the result of a process that I was asked to guide by a couple of foundations that were not satisfied anymore with winning small battles alone. Their question was: “If we are really serious about winning the war, what is it that we should do?”

Few dare to even ask such fundamental questions, as those who ask them tend to be regarded as victims of their own hubris or as outright crazy. However, this key question should be explored and addressed without taboos on a broad scale, foremost by civil society organizations, many of which believe and claim that they do this anyway, but looking closer reveals they rarely do so.

It is becoming more and more evident that the various challenges humanity faces are in fact aspects of a systemic crisis, which to a large degree is related to our current economic theory and practice and our underlying values and belief system. If we want to change the world for the better we will have to find ways of addressing the real causes of this systemic crisis and we will probably have to be content that there is no “magic button”, no “silver bullet”, but plenty of “silver buckshot”.

What stops us from trying? For one it is evidently the magnitude of the task, as underlying root causes seem too fundamental, big, nebulous and fuzzy to tackle. But if the apparent complexity is our challenge, then why not try to find a way through this complexity, which allows us to identify clear and pragmatic lines of action, like trying to change the global economic system, which stands out as the key driver behind the global challenges we face?

A second key reason is directly linked to ourselves: Civil society, which should drive the process, has become sectoral and institutionalized to a certain degree. Instead of pursuing a vision for the world, it is increasingly absorbed in its own vision. And, let’s face it, we all are somehow caught in the system we want to change and opting out is not an easy undertaking. Being a hamster in a running wheel and having to go faster and faster just to remain in the same place have become widespread feelings, especially for the Western middle class. And for many, the sheer complexity of the world seems too much to digest, so they have stopped trying to make sense of it.

Those who benefit from the current system and do not want any change plus all those who are wedded to the old worldview and have difficulty finding a way out of it, effectively build a barrier for natural change to happen. They force humanity directly and indirectly to stay on a detrimental course of rising inequality and looming social unrest, rising CO2 concen­trations, waste and depletion unless we, the concerned and committed citizens of this world, change this course.

The resulting brainwash is so subliminally intense, that it is difficult to free one’s thinking to a degree that enables us to dream and realize a different and much better world in earnest. We are to a certain degree moving within the conceptual framework of systems that we know we need to change.

The bad developments are and seem to be massive and tend to block the view on all the positive aspects of development, which are as massive but differently structured and not that easy to spot in their entirety.

Hundreds of millions of people are engaged in making this world a better place. Every­where around the world, groups of people try to prevent damage from occurring or helping those in need by healing. This is a web of life, largely invisible, stronger than one might think.1 Consider the sheer number and the scope of initiatives for a world that works better in the long run for all humans. Still, the planet is staggering.

A movement is already in the making. Organized civil society might not be on the move (the smaller the organization the less powerful it is as institutionalization seems usually linked to size), but “ordinary” people certainly are powerful. Beliefs are changing in a big way; segments of a new “earth citizen” lifestyle are becoming part of everybody’s life; paradigms are changing in front of us and if there weren’t any special interests that profit from the way the world runs downhill we would already be in a different and more sustainable world.

The aim of this paper is to open a debate on how foundations, civil society and committed citizens can address the root causes of the global challenges facing humankind − moving from short-term thinking, acting and investing in sectors that are involved in long-term engagement on systemic issues and analysing consequences from root causes. Actually doing it will require a fresh approach, characterized by entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to take risks and to move outside the box of well-established programming and way of doing things.

We should all team up to create an exciting drive towards a transition into a sustainable and equitable world – one so exciting that artists, creative professionals, intellectuals, concerned citizens and movements engage in a peaceful revolution to create a sustainable, fair and equitable world. It will require cooperation and working together and therefore a return to a vision for the world as the main objective for civil society. And it will require personal commitments – no matter how small.

It is impossible to speak in general terms for all people and cultures across the world. China, India, Brazil and Russia, to name a few, are on a very different trajectory and experience their own paradigm change. However, the roots of the problem originate to a large degree from the economic thinking and practice developed, promoted and exported by the West and if we want to change things at the fundamental level, then it makes sense to go to where it all started. The West could be in a unique position to be a driver of change towards a sustainable and equitable future.

Karl Wagner: Director for External Relations, Club of Rome
1 Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest (London: Penguin Group, 2007)

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