Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Christian Arnsperger started a new blog this April called Eco-Transitions: The Next Step Economy. Here's an excerpt from the 2nd post of 4/16/11 called “Why transition? A first look at concepts”:
"The transition model tries, in a sense, to steer a middle way between revolution and collapse. Transition can be compared to getting an airplane to fall from the sky in a fully controlled fashion -- an accomplishment known nowadays as "landing," utterly baffling and yet totally trivialized. The jet airplane neither falls abruptly from the sky, nor does it remain in flight while mutating into a completely different machine. Transition is intentional, just like revolution. It involves deliberating, tracing out possible scenarios, and then making decisions as to which one we think we can pursue. Transition also has a collapse-like flavor, in the sense that it consists in readjusting many crucial parameters of the incumbent system -- and that readjustment will usually have a "downward" feel to it. Some things need to be done without, in the short and medium run, and sometimes also forever more, but this can be turned into subsequent opportunities for a positive outcome -- namely, a safe landing after a downward-sloping path...
The originality of the transition model is that we deliberately choose not only the speed and deceleration of our landing maneuvers, but we also deliberately select the landing track on which we intend to touch down. In fact, Rob Hopkins, the initiator of the Transition Towns movement, regularly speaks of "energy descent." It's a fair enough expression, since there is no getting around the fact that reduction and rescheduling, as well as even a modicum of selective "de-growth" (I will touch on this in later posts), are indeed part of the transition model. The thing is, all these have to be intentional, hence deliberate and deliberated between the actors concerned. And they do not imply a directive on a predetermined set of "acceptable" ways of life; these are supposed to emerge creatively along the process of (a) touching down safely and (b) exploring the track one has landed on.
Transition links up very closely to the idea of conscious evolution: While the collapse model is often predicated on an ecological notion of "succession" -- that is, the idea that systems break down, go through a series of endogenous mutations, and reach a new equilibrium down the line (see Greer's discussion in chapter 2 of The Ecotechnic Future) -- the transition model relies on deliberate institution- and culture-building. It is, therefore, an intrinsically political model and it requires its politics to be spelled out precisely by those who are doing the institution-building, i.e., the whole democratic collectivity in the most desirable cases. So there is a point in common with the revolutionary model, although the similarity stops here: A transition is not a revolution because, basically, it does not follow an exhaustive ex ante blueprint. In fact, this is where the transition model hooks up with aspects of the collapse model, in the sense of relying on a rather organic and bottom-up conception of overall change. If I were not afraid of being misunderstood, I would surmise that a transition combines "deliberate collapse" and "decentralized revolution." Maybe this speaks to your sensibility, but if it does not, just don't follow the thread of that metaphor further... (Better metaphors for this distinctive middle path may come to my mind in later posts. Suggestions are welcome.)
What I see as particularly interesting in the transition model is that it allows us to think at two levels at the same time:
the level of what I will call framework conditions for change, i.e., the general features our institutions should have so that we can encourage change in the right direction
the level of the life choices for individuals and communities which given framework conditions make possible, and which are the substance of change
Framework conditions (such as, for instance, new modes of political government, a new financial structure, new legal frameworks for enterprise, or a new income-redistribution scheme) come about through a political process and are, therefore, deliberate and deliberated. Life choices (such as, for instance, voluntary simplicity, devoting one's research to the physics of renewable energies, changing one's mode of consumption, insulating one's house, or investing one's money in an ethical fund) are also deliberate but should not, if at all possible, be "forced choices." We all know situations where we think we are choosing freely but are, in fact, faced with a choice set containing only one possibility. If this is what the framework conditions end up doing -- i.e. if, for instance, the new incentives, rules, and regulations amount to an ecological dictatorship -- then we are no longer in a transition but in a revolution. The transition model relies crucially on citizens being given both the resources and the time to reflect and act, and this involves necessarily the possibility not to act immediately and in a rush. Life choices can be very difficult to make, and honoring the conflicting demands of our lives may mean that we might not want to become part of the "first wave" of pioneers who move quickly. The transition model can and should accommodate such situations; the revolutionary model is unable to (and history has, alas, shown abundantly how revolutionary factions treat the reluctant and recalcitrant).
The transition model figures prominently in one of our decade's most influential books, Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth, which originally (in its report version) had as its subtitle: "The Transition to a Sustainable Economy." Although I do not agree with all the proposals set out by Jackson, and I believe he is leaving out some crucial areas of reform (more on this in later posts), I do believe his book is a definite landmark because he is one of the first economists of this new century to have put on the table the twin issue of framework conditions and life choices, attempting to link them together into a coherent whole through a macroeconomic framework that can allow for microeconomic changes. (He draws part of his inspiration in that area from a somewhat less well-known book, Peter A. Victor's Managing Without Growth.) One of the key questions that needs to be asked as we reflect, and act towards, a transition is: What framework conditions are we going to deliberately create so that the forced economic growth that is currently built into our economic system releases its stranglehold? This implies a deep modification of certain key framework conditions (most notably, credit and money as well as income redistribution) but it does not imply a preordained set of ways of life to be forced on citizens in the name of "sustainability" or whatever other slogan we might cherish. The transition model rests on a fundamental trust in human nature: If framework conditions change in the right way, there will be an emergence of the "right" or "sustainably feasible" ways of life. People are not homo economicus: They are caught in a system and they willingly go along with it, but if macro-conditions change many are prepared to investigate alternatives. It's just a question of unleashing that "natural" inquisitiveness of citizens, which the current economic conditions and constraints tend to stifle (except for a small minority of pioneers). Of course, this fundamental trust is open to discussion, and I sense that adepts of the collapse model harbor much less trust in human reason. But this will be one of the key issues to be discussed on this blog.
In the next posts, I would like to gradually unravel the key aspects of what I see as a credible model for a transition towards a more ecologically and socially viable economy. I call it the "Next-Step Economy" simply to emphasize that although I believe we do have to make deep changes in our institutions -- and hence create some radically new framework conditions -- these changes cannot imply that everyone's lives will be overhauled completely and brutally. If Rob Hopkins's Transition Town movement is any indication, this concern is shared by many of those who are busy reflecting on feasible and desirable pathways out of the current quagmire. (See Hopkins's remarkable Transition Handbook.) Life choices there will have to be, but the transition model carries the hope that they can be effected in a reasonably gradual and progressive way. This hinges, of course, on there still being enough time to avert the dangerous cumulative processes which the collapse thinkers are rightly emphasizing. I am not minimizing the relevance of collapse scenarios. But perhaps, as suggested by my colleague Jean-Pierre Dupuy (see his remarkable book, in French: Pour un catastrophisme éclairé: Quand l'impossible est certain, which can be translated as Enlightened Catastrophism: When the Impossible Is Certain), we can use the threat of virtually certain and inevitable collapse scenarios to act in such a way as to avert that threat. Just maybe. But we can never be definite about it. And that, too, is part of the somewhat tragic ethos of the transition model. It's also part of what makes that model so fascinating for those of us who seek a democratic, reasoned, but also critical and emotionally engaged, pathway out of today's blind alleys."
good ideas, man.
Globalization and its centrifugal power is actually initiating major changes in our planet. The end of economical imperialism of the last century, the exclusiveness of western powers, is obvious and past dominated nations through the leadership of some powerful emergent countries, even if they are at the moment not ideal types of democracy, have learned now to be more and more independant and claimed more and more openly their rights to have a fair sharing of resources. So changes are operating by common necessity in front of very uregnt survival issues.
we are now entering this transitional domain. We are going to soon see a huge revolution in eco-technologies at all levels, a sort of tetra-meshing in the four quadrants. The great specter of collective Death and resource scarcity is triggering a stronger Gaia consciousness in people´s minds all over the planet.
Today, many young researchers are going into nanotechnology level and they see through this new access undreamed realms opening themselvess in environmental as health issues as well. Changes in value perceptions on how to preserve the beauty, the abundance, richness and wisdom of Nature is stronger than it has ever been before. Governements need to support the creative efforts of these people. Step by step, can we start to reflect about the importance and place of unreflected and self-destructive greed in our lives. True cooperation based on respect for human life is a key word.
Hey Xibalba, it's all Arnsperger above. Though he is reiterating some of the ideas I've been promoting in this forum for some time, like in the global capitalism, Rifkin and progressive economics threads. And yes Balder, looking over your last post on Swimme I talk about that below.
A few quick comments on Arnsperger’s opening salvo above. He notes the two-pronged enaction of visioning new frames of political economics as well as individual choices toward that vision. I’m in agreement with both per my prior posts and particularly agree that we need to envision the new “next-step economy” to guide us into the future rather than just trying to upgrade the existing capitalistic system a la kennilingus.
I do however question this premise: “The transition model relies crucially on citizens being given both the resources and the time to reflect and act.” How many citizens, working under capitalist task-masters (myself included) have the resources and time for such reflection and action? I make the time mostly because I’m have a celibate monk lifestyle, but most others have not only the full-time (over-time) job I have but families or lovers to engage what little free time they have left after the daily grind. Where can they possibly find the time and energy to get politically involved? And without this involvement his democratic economic polity cannot get off the ground. And of course this is exactly the agenda of the capital owners, to keep us working so many hours so that we cannot empower ourselves in this way.
I also question this: “The transition model rests on a fundamental trust in human nature: If framework conditions change in the right way, there will be an emergence of the ‘right’ or ‘sustainably feasible’ ways of life.” This is based on the above commoner having the time and energy to get involved from the bottom up to input into this new framework. He argues that it must come from this base and I agree. However per above if they don’t have said time and energy this undercuts the trust in us organically creating the necessary pressure for system change. I do not trust the capitalists to allow for this to happen, and I do not trust us laborers to get motivated to act when we’re already too busy and tired just surviving.
So given the above I don’t agree that it will just happen organically but rather indeed does need some top-down imposition of legislation, like more sustainable environmental and labor laws imposed on business. Which of course requires enough people to get involved in voting and putting pressure on legislators, and round we go in the vicious cycle of ignorance and apathy capitalism have consciously created. While I’m all for transition steps it seems we also need a bit more of the radical revolution in this formula. He does acknowledge that “I believe we do have to make deep changes in our institutions -- and hence create some radically new framework conditions” in a gradual and progressive way, but such changes cannot be too fast or too radical. He also recognized that “this hinges, of course, on there still being enough time to avert the dangerous cumulative processes which the collapse thinkers are rightly emphasizing.” This might be another luxury we cannot afford, that we really have the time to take our time with such changes. We’ll see as I read further into the blog.
T, you saying: " ---does need some top-down imposition of legislation, like more sustainable environmental and labor laws imposed on business..."
I totally agree on that, man.
As Habermas said so wisely, law is the true medium of the public sphere to establish, ensure, preserve and legitimate in depth the ongoing process of human emancipation, our lifeworld rising liberated from the colonial like forces of the system world, as the heritage of modernity and ancient wisdom since the early of gaian shamanism to the cosmocentric vision and maturation through Buddha and Christ to our integral age.
From the blog post "why transition, part 2":
"I want to argue here that the responses to the crisis...rely on, and presuppose the continuation of, the same logic as the one which brought about that crisis....There isn't so much a conspiracy at work (although some segments of the economic world are clearly pushing intentionally for measures which are designed to prevent deeper questioning and/or change) as there is a lack of vision.
"States were forced to invest or at least commit astronomical sums to bail out their commercial banking sector.... Rarely had such a massive transfer of public wealth into private hands -- and into the very hands which had initially caused the collapse -- taken place in such a short time.
"There seems to be no deep mutation of the banking sector on the horizon and within the mainstream circles making up the 'transnational capitalist class,' there is certainly no serious reflection on alternative modes of financing economic (including public) activities and/or on alternative ways of issuing money.
"Most people who lost their job were able to find a new one -- if at all -- only by accepting degraded working conditions or well-intentioned but often stigmatizing retraining and re-conversion trajectories, the underlying idea being that, in an economy completely geared to private profits and the growth imperative, worsening macroeconomic conditions require a more 'responsible' and 'flexible 'labor force.... The downward pressure on wages in the name of cost competitiveness...has tilted the balance of power towards the side of capital owners and movers.
"The logic of industrial and financial capitalism is, however, structurally incompatible with a wholesale overhaul towards renewable energy.... The rates of return which are being demanded on the markets, hence the growth rates that ave become mandatory at the macroeconomic level if the system is to go on churning out more goods with higher productivity, hence the extent of the required mobility of goods and persons, are simply too large for a renewable-energy economy.
"One could call it 'crisis capitalism' [recall Naomi Klein] with the idea that many of the key private and public actors in the system are attempting to jump-start the same old engine after having replaced some defective parts with newer, almost identically-shaped ones
"We need a new vision as well as new framework conditions."
From "why transition, part 3":
"The previous post ended with a call for replacing blind evolution (which has driven the genesis and succession of socioeconomic systems up to today) with conscious evolution. This is not some hazy new-age idea, although the expression 'conscious evolution' has been used in hazy new-age contexts, too. The recent history of the developed world, and in particular the emergence of social democracy between the two World Wars and especially after WWII, has shown quite clearly that we have reached a new stage -- a stage where the conscious design of mechanisms permitting free emergence has taken over from the older notion of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand.' Smith's vision involved the unconscious and un-designed emergence of mechanisms (e.g., the market) which allow you to realize your freedom if you're lucky enough to come out on the right side of those mechanisms. We need something more.
"Social democracy has been a first step in the direction of making the invisible hand more deliberate. I don't intend to argue that we should roll back those positive steps. Instead, we should push forward. The industrial-financial-capitalist version of social democracy which we are currently presented with as 'the' embodiment of a modern, progressive economy is actually just an initial stage of social democracy -- not its final achievement.
"I am not -- I repeat: not -- going to argue for centralized planning or any other authoritarian device. The transition we need is as far removed from any sort of crypto-Soviet model as you could possibly want.... It has many libertarian features and it emphasizes bottom-up decision-making as well as decentralized governance. We can't avoid top-down decisions and measures, but they have to be designed in such a way that they very quickly, by the very nature of their design, hand over power and energy to bottom-up processes -- indeed, that they actually create such bottom-up processes where they don't yet exist.... Needless to say, the current state of capitalist social democracy isn't in line with this requirement.
"The problem isn't trade per se -- not at all. Trading is a vital, and often enjoyable, part of economic life. Local market squares as well as shopping streets are among the richest places in terms of human interactions and enjoyment of life. The problem is the political-economy option we have taken, and inscribed between the lines of our macro-rules such as those of the WTO, of viewing any and all trade as potentially beneficial and not questionable as to the possibly perverse effects of excess mobility and of export-led 'development.'
"The wedge between self-sufficiency and relocalization is called subsidiarity. It means, quite simply, that political and economic decisions ought to be made at the level that is most relevant given the underlying issues. In this case, it means that whatever can be produced at level n should not be imported from any place located at a distance on level n+1.
"What I am advocating is not a vision of extreme localism. The relevant regions have to be large enough so that a significant division of labor can occur in them, so that a large number of goods and services can be forthcoming with the help of local talents, and so that economic activity is lively and vibrant, including the development of local 'short circuits' and local 'soft' transport options. The non-local, 'hard' transport options -- such as road or air traffic, which will still involve the use of fossil fuels for quite some time -- need to be reserved as much as possible for (a) whatever cross-border trade still needs to be carried out (and that may quite a lot, especially in the early phases of the transition) and (b) what George Monbiot, in his jarring book Heat, has ironically called "love miles": the travel of persons for the sake of family, affection, love, or other human bonds.
"A crucial component of the transition has to be the deepening of decentralized, participatory, bottom-up decision processes that can be summarized under the heading of 'participatory economics'....The basic idea of participatory decision-making is that nested popular assemblies send 'up' to level n+1 data about level-n consumption, work, and production plans, the data get aggregated and sent 'up' to level n+2, and so on.
"Total regional self-sufficiency is illusory...what we really need is a multi-layered governance structure which allows various coordination agencies at the municipal, regional, national, and international level.... Neither central planning nor the competitive market are able to perform the complex qualitative-cum-quantitative tasks that democratic coordination can. And just as democratic coordination needs nested decision-making that goes all the way down to small localities...by the same token it needs national and supra-national decision-making instances as well. Democratic (and possibly participatory) decision-making all the way down, as it were, but also all the way up."
From part 3:2:
"If I have learned one thing...it's that the revolutionary idea of replacing industrial-financial capitalism wholesale with one single new, shiny, 'post-capitalist' model is an absurdity. It just won't work, ever.... Transition is all about keeping industrial-financial capitalism alive and well as long as possible, letting it go green if it sniffs out new profit opportunities there, but using the proceeds of the resulting taxation of private profits to usher in a plurality of non-capitalist alternatives, grounded in heterogeneous conceptions of what prosperity means: cooperative economies, solidaristic community economies, ecovillage networks, 'plenitude'-driven self-provision economies, intentional economies of various sorts, all endowed with their own legally sanctioned and legitimate criteria for what value creation means -- and, therefore, frequently at odds with the idea that to create wealth a firm, a community, or an intentional collective has to ultimately sell something in legal-tender dollars at a profit. That way, we might sustain a green-capitalist economy for a while and then gradually see it dwindle by itself as more radical alternatives become viable."
One immediate problem I see with the last statement is that we're going to invest in alternatives with "the proceeds of the resulting taxation of private profits." WTF? Does he not realize that the likes of GE don't pay any corporate taxes but in fact rather get billions of dollars in rebates instead? And said rebates are because of supposed research into alternative energy when if fact they use the research to sabotage such projects, insuring they never get off the ground.* The current tax structure penalizes the rest of us while letting the possible big revenue generators off the hook. So where is the money going to come from to fund alternatives again? Not from the likes of companies that don't want to see such alternatives ever happen.
* Recall his statement above: "The logic of industrial and financial capitalism is, however, structurally incompatible with a wholesale overhaul towards renewable energy."
Here's more from section 3:2:
"In order to effectively organize a ‘pluri-economic’ society, we certainly will need certain particular, top-down, across-the-board framework conditions to be put in place. The framework conditions we will need in order to get a genuine transition off the ground are not quite the same as the ‘mono-economic’ conditions ruling today's capitalist social democracies….this means that the mechanisms of both parliamentary and participatory democracy have to be monitored and scrutinized by transition-oriented citizens' organizations. So in the end, it all comes down to how we are going to generate sufficient awareness of the requirements of transition in the population at large -- and that, regardless of how much one might be attracted to bottom-up perspectives, is a top-down issue….the top-down decisions instigating changes in framework conditions are bound to flow from bottom-up activism!"
First off I appreciate his recognition of the top-down framework imposition, which I noted earlier. I also appreciate citizen political activism and do what I can on this front, partly by generating these online discussions to hopefully motivate political involvement. But it still seems more than a bit naive to me to think that the likes of citizen activists can generate anywhere near the political influence that giant money from corporations can, especially since the Supreme Court has given such corps free-reign on spending for such purposes. See for example Maddow's recent clip on this.*
* The irony of the clip is that the commercial lead-in is by Exxon...
From section 3:3:
"So there is clearly a libertarian flavor to my vision here. I think libertarianism, understood in the right way -- which essentially means non-right-wing libertarianism -- is a major resource for progressives. I have always been struck by how right-wing libertarians are deeply correct when they emphasize that a free society is one where initiatives emerge from the bottom up, made possible by a constitution and legal and social rules which liberate people's creativity and inspiration, and how they then blow it by equating freedom and creativity with the latitudes offered by the capitalist, private-profit accumulation system. Much worse than the right-wing libertarian thinkers (such as Hayek or, more recently, Nozick) are the neoconservative pundits and their political partners, who systematically collapse the free society, the market economy, and the logic of capitalism into one big, indistinct blob."
This reminds me of the discussion in the thread on the political compass discussing the dual dichotomy of liberal/conservative authoritarian/libertarian. And how Chomsky identified with liberal socialist libertarianism. Also recall here where Chomsky saw the original invisible hand jobber, Adam Smith, as coming from that same tradition.
From section 4:1:
"Thanks to the market's automatic mechanisms (and provided all resources are private property), 'green capitalism' will supposedly generate productivity increases in 'clean' sectors, which will usher in a new era of 'green growth'.... This purely market-based vision of green growth has been challenged by many social democrats who are skeptical of the market's ability to induce, on its own, the required reorientations (a) quickly enough and (b) in an equitable fashion.... We need ecological priorities to be integrated into prices, in particular through taxation schemes that force polluters to pay the full and complete price for their long-run impact on the environment.
"In a nutshell, according to many skeptics of the free market, green growth needs to be decoupled from mere green capitalism and has to be integrated into a much more demanding 'green social democracy.' It is up to the State, not the market, to guarantee the conditions of economic growth in such a way that, though R&D and through re-orientations prompted by the change in the structure of prices, investment and trade decisions fully integrate the economic reality of resource scarcity and the political imperative of doing more than maximize short-run financial surpluses. But can a social democracy that remains anchored in capitalist wealth creation -- albeit, now, 'green' wealth -- actually deliver on this ambition? I doubt it.
"Free-market green capitalism postulates that human mentality need not change. More precisely, it postulates that it should not change: In the eyes of free-market defenders of green capitalism, the condition for market self-regulation to work optimally -- in the form of the proverbial invisible hand -- is that the timber of humanity remain adequately crooked.... What matters ultimately is that the growth imperative, as a structural and 'genetic' necessity of capitalist social democracy, stop being seen as the foremost imperative guiding political decisions. But this, of course, means that the hegemony of capitalistic bottom lines has to be broken down .
"Questioning the growth imperative in the name of a general reduction in 'toxic economic emissions' is very much akin to questioning the industrial practices of the day in the name of reducing toxic gas emissions. Toxic economic emissions include the alienating effects of consumerism on consumers as well as on workers, the alienating effects of productivism on workers and on managers, and the culturally destructive effects of growth-driven world trade."
In the last post we can see that green capitalism is a step in the right direction but of itself is not nearly enough. The first reason is its adherence to private property. He doesn't explore this item above but it's a key factor. The green commons needs to be owned by the commons, not by private capital owners. Hence objection (b) that such capitalism will not be equitable with private profit as the bottom line. I appreciate that he agrees that green growth needs to separated from the capital market, that it is a State responsibility, since the State ideally is "the people." (That it isn't really is another story.)
I also appreciate that he recognizes that green capitalism, while maybe having multiple bottom lines, still doesn't require a fundamental change in capitalist structure, an assumption of the kennilingus capitalists. And that such structure at root maintains "the alienating effects of productivism on workers" when they have no ownership and control over their workplace while being worked to the bone in the name of profitable "productivity." The same dominating and hierarchical management structures remain in place where the worker is seen as just another mechanistic cog in the financial equation of, and when used up by overwork and stress at the disposal of, the capital owners. Green capitalism being no exception but rather more insidious, since it hides behind the facade of really, really caring about the planet (but no so much its workforce).