The Toolkit (the How)
Non-hierarchical Tools for Complex Systems
The organizational tools and processes that built our current hierarchical, dominating, exploitative, destructive, i.e. ecocidal system have created our current plight and therefore will not serve to create a sustainable alternative. To complete the basic framework, here are a set of tools that can be pressed into service for the paradigm shift to a sustainable future.
First a little bit of groundwork. Reclaiming our sovereign power is an act of being. It requires participation. Fortunately, people love to be asked to participate. In fact it’s really the only way it works. This is an important concept to keep in mind as we learn how to manage change in self-organizing systems.
Margaret Wheatley says there are three necessary conditions to access organizational intelligence and adapt to changing conditions: identity, information, and relationships. Our identity as a movement comes from our common vision, mission and values; our shared purpose. Information is the nutrient of self-organization, and when the framework is equally accessible to everyone, the results can be amazing even though unpredictable. Finally, relationships form the pathways of the organization and hold the information. They are the conduit through which information flows and as more people connect to each other, strength and resiliency grows. If these three conditions are in place, the organizational system –because it reflects how healthy natural systems work--will flourish even under changing conditions.
What’s Wrong with Hierarchies?
While advocates of the status quo argue that hierarchies are not only natural but are nature’s highest form, and while the consciousness movement tries to make a distinction between hierarchies of domination and hierarchies of actualization, analyzing hierarchical structures from a systems perspective reveals glaring flaws. They are inherently inequitable. They tend toward narrow self-interest. They discount other views. They are linear, static, and focus on the preservation of control and class structures. They support centralization and consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of the elite. In every way possible they move in the opposite direction of life.
The Alternative to Hierarchies: Networks of Mutual Support
There is a better, more life-affirming way of building relationships and finding our place in the world that is both specifically and inherently non-hierarchical. This alternative is the network model of mutuality exhibiting emergent qualities that are sensitive to their environment.
There are a number of practical, functioning examples of this basic concept. Non-hierarchical organization patterns and process models based on the patterns and cycles of the natural world have been used for millennia and are being used today to organize communities, organizations, boards, teams, and events.
Non-hierarchical communication and conversation methods present ways that build empowerment and honor a diversity of voices. They work from small groups up to entire communities. We can even bring our physical bodies into the conversation through a form of intentional body language that allows the meekest of voices to be recognized and heard. A natural emergent outcome of non-hierarchical organization and communication is shared leadership.
When added to the above forms of organization and communication, non-hierarchical decision making becomes a breeze. It becomes almost an afterthought for ceremonial purposes. Although when necessary, the formal consensus process is a powerful tool when practiced and applied properly. I have developed a form called Natural Consensus, which is a natural systems refinement that effectively deals with blocks, helps clarify intent, and builds trust with other individuals and the organization itself.
These non-hierarchical tools all also seamlessly combine to facilitate running effective, quick and efficient meetings when combined with a few specialized tools that have been developed for the meetings themselves.
Strategies and Actions
To finish out the framework for a paradigm shift congruent with natural systems, there are a number of strategies and actions that can be put into play that support the transition to living with a living planet. Here are a few of them in no particular order.
Developing a Community Assessment and Sustainability Inventory (CASI) is a way communities and bioregions can determine their economic and environmental carrying capacity as a way to get growth under control and build resiliency. A CASI also helps assess where a region is on the path to sustainability and identify roadblocks to progress. Permaculture, ecocity development and Transition Initiatives are among responses communities can undertake after assessing where they are.
While it’s true that the best use of our energy isn’t in fighting the old paradigm, its worst harms must be stopped before they do further damage to innocent lives and the planet. Stopping the growth lobby, abolishing corporate personhood, stopping toxic processes, and reclaiming the commons are examples of this. Even if we’re slow to give up nation-states, something along the lines of bioregional wisdom consensus councils that look at other than arbitrary political boundaries, particularly ecosystems and watersheds, are urgently needed for a more connected governance.
Along those lines, the ability to vote our conscience would be a major improvement over what we have today in electoral politics in most industrialized countries of the world, whether they are allegedly “democratic” or otherwise. As elections are another arena where privatization has no legitimate claim, Instant Runoff Voting and public funding of elections and candidates are two changes that would further the path. When natural systems principles, Cultural Creatives, and the Earth Charter are combined, a new force in politics becomes possible. While not a political party, my formulation of Naturally Creative Earth Politics is one way to approach a true progressive agenda of this type.
In many ways the elephant in the living room is overpopulation. While consumption and waste are equally large problems in their own right, they are all so intimately intertwined that it’s almost impossible to tease them apart. William Catton says with the technology available at the time, we went into overshoot--the area beyond ecological carrying capacity--at about the time of the American Civil War. Alas, people don’t want to talk about taking away anyone’s right to breed. But that’s not necessary. All any society that wants to consider itself civilized really needs to do is give everyone the right to family planning and sex education, return to women the right to control their own bodies, and provide the universal right to healthcare. Societies that tend to allow even minimal aspects of the above exhibit birth rates that are generally below replenishment levels.
There’s a long argument over whether Industrialism is the root problem or whether civilization itself is. I don’t think civilization is really the core problem. In fact, compared to the Industrial Growth Society, a civilization based on natural systems principles would be a pretty damn good idea. The partnership way proposed by Riane Eisler is one alternative for an equitable civilization, as would be a society organized around Rational Spirituality.
A society organized on sustainable principles would exhibit right livelihood, a concept that differentiates “jobs” (making money for someone else while you attempt to scrape by) and “work” (a means to responsibly contribute to one’s community). In a technologically advanced society, it would likely not require more than about 15 hours per week to provide a living wage for a family of three or four. This would allow us to discover the very real differences between true quality of life and its wholly inadequate substitute called standard of living. This would also set us down the path of recovering our natural health and wellness and overcoming the wounds of empire. After all, this is pretty much what the Occupy movement was all about.
So, what might establishing the needed conditions and applying the non-hierarchical tools reasonably be expected to look like in various realms? I don’t know for sure, but here’s a rational guess using the battle against growth and the peace movement as examples.
The Growth Battle
I’m sorry folks, but battle is the only proper terminology for it. Within the prevailing paradigm there are those who assert that destruction and killing in the name of a dynasty, or persona acquiring more and more stuff, can be justified. The normal bounds of decency are unknown to them. Unless someone can come up with another way to disarm and neuter them, a battle strategy—whether coupled with force or not—is going to be part of the mix.
Growth is one of the primary issues keeping us from becoming sustainable. Advocates of growth insist that growth is not only good but that it’s actually necessary for prosperity and progress. But even elementary classical economics shows there is a point beyond which growth becomes uneconomical, and the math shows that we passed that point a while ago. It must be realized that growth demands irreversible commitments of natural resources--land, energy, and water as well as public infrastructure--which are costs to the community not covered by the growth lobby. The average cost in public facilities for a single new home in America is $24,500 (2012). Anyone know of a city council with the courage to demand that amount for a development impact fee? Spec housing would come to a screeching halt if they did.
The direct and indirect costs of growth tends to raise tax rates and divert money from public services. Bigger cities tend to have higher per capita tax rates and job creation ironically tends to increase unemployment. We cannot grow our way out of the problems caused by growth.
Limiting and even reversing growth can result in a better distribution of affordable housing than market driven approaches. The pressures of rapid growth are a main driver in increased housing prices. Environmental protection also contributes to economic prosperity and does not hinder development. States with strong environmental regulations consistently outperform states with weak protections on economic measures.
Finally, the environment is not a special interest. It is a public interest. It is life. The special interest is the growth lobby that pretends it is operating on free-market principles while ignoring that it can only function when heavily subsidized and when economic incentives are counter to the public interest.
Development is the sustainable alternative to growth. There are many ways we can develop as individuals and as a community, such as developing our creativity, compassion, and our respect for diversity while learning how to fully appreciate and enjoy ourselves, each other and the natural world. Because human desire is truly infinite, as well as our capacity for love, it’s physically impossible for a finite universe to provide fulfillment through material means alone. We can build things to last and be easily repairable. We can remember the benefits of sharing instead of the pathological drive to acquire one each of everything for everybody. It’s long past time to hold technology to its long unfulfilled promise of increased leisure time, instead of working longer hours to buy leisure wear, so we have the time for what really matters. Like becoming better, not bigger.
The Peace Movement
Peace will be a natural outcome of a truly sustainable paradigm. The example for the peace movement starts with the fact that peace on Earth requires peace with Earth. The mindset of exploitation and domination that carries selfishness and arrogance must be countered wherever it is encountered, whether that be clear-cutting forests or carpet-bombing people in sovereign nations.
Let’s be honest. Wars are fought to protect lifestyles, and the Western lifestyle based on Industrialism is engaged in turning ever more natural resources into stuff. Pretty soon your own resource base is scraped bare, so you have to go take control of someone else’s resources. The most efficient way to do this is just go full bore into Empire as that’s the military scale required to feed global corporatization.
Starting with my basic axiom that there’s no justice without sustainability and no peace without justice, a culture of peace, ecological integrity and social and economic justice must be founded on basic democratic principles. These are all emergent attributes of true sustainability. In order to embody these ideals, sustainable human societies must model themselves on the only truly functional example of sustainability that exists: healthy, vibrant, and resilient ecosystems.
A truly sustainable world will be a world at peace but the reverse is not necessarily true. We could quite peacefully and “greenly” consume ourselves into extinction. Remembering how to think and act the way nature works is a cornerstone for the path to a peaceful and sustainable future. Thus, stopping our war against nature and all else that is naturally fulfilling would be step one for the peace movement.
The next step would be to move as quickly as possible to relocalized communities and economies that are organized non-hierarchically. When fair trade and staying within carrying capacity boundaries are the norm and partnership is the guiding principle in creating relationships, the incentive to go beat someone over the head and steal their firewood or co-opt their favored idols decreases dramatically.
Another issue that must be dealt with is the single issue focus of many progressive activist groups. With regard to peace, it seems that individual wars like Vietnam or Iraq can grab people’s attention but not the underlying mission of empire and hegemony. What peace groups must do is help people connect the dots between cheap beef, cheap gas, cheap clothes, plastic bags, sprawl and the use of our sons and daughters as cannon fodder in service to corporate or other elite profit.
When one truly understands sustainability and all it entails, including the interconnectedness of all beings, it makes one more afraid of hating than of dying. And I can’t think of a better foundation for an effective and lasting peace movement than that.