Chapter 4. A New Way of Thinking

A time of crisis is a time of uncertainty – of both danger and opportunity. Scholars seem to agree on the “danger” aspect of crisis, but a more accurate translation of the opposite aspect might be “a critical point in time” rather than “opportunity.” The various translations include “suitable occasion,” “crucial point,” “pivotal time,” “incipient moment,” “opportunity,” “chance,” and “key link.” Perhaps, a time of “new possibilities” would be an appropriate balance to the word danger. Regardless, times of crisis are times of fundamental change that require new ways of thinking that will have uncertain consequences for the future.

 “Yin yang” is a well-known symbol of the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. It represents the balance of opposites in the universe. When both are equally present or in balance, all is calm. When one is out of balance with the other, there is confusion, bewilderment, perplexity, and an inability to understand what’s happening or how best to respond. The conventional wisdoms don’t seem to hold true anymore. At such times, new ways of thinking are needed to escape the dangers and to grasp the new possibilities of a future of peace and harmony.

Most people probably never stop to think about why they think the way they think. When someone says, “Let’s get organized,” for example, they automatically think someone needs to decide what tasks are to be done, who will be responsible for each task, and who will take overall responsibility. However, this is a particular approach to organization: the industrial approach that has dominated thinking in the Western world for more than two centuries. Industrialization is a specific paradigm or mental model that is characterized by specialization, standardization, and hierarchical control. However, there are other logical and reasonable ways of organizing people and processes.

When someone asks, “How can we get people to do something?” many people automatically think of providing individual rewards or penalties. The conventional wisdom is that people do things that are in their individual self-interest. Businesses try to do things that are profitable and avoid things that might lose money. This also is a specific way of thinking: the economic way of thinking that has dominated the industrial world for at least the past thirty years. However, economic benefits and costs are specific kinds of motivation. There are other logical, reasonable motives for choices and actions.

People get in the habit of thinking in certain ways because they have seemed to work in the past. Over time, however, the “things that work” change, while the ways of thinking often stay the same. When a new way of thinking is discovered, it is used first in those situations where it works best. When those problems are solved, the same thinking is then applied in other situations where it works less well but still seems to work. Soon the new thinking becomes conventional wisdom; it is used in all situations, including those where it doesn’t fit and doesn’t work at all. Eventually, conventional wisdom not only fails to solve the problems but also creates more problems than it solves. Quite often, it is still used, without thinking, to try to solve the problems it has created, which inevitably creates still more problems. This is what happens when people don’t stop to think about why they think the way they think.

Industrial economic development, which now dominates global society, reflects a particular way of thinking about how the world works and the place of people within it. It has seemed to work, at least for the most part, for most of the past two centuries. It was first used in factories, where it created tremendous material benefits to society. Over the years, it has been applied also to agriculture and other living systems, where it invariably has unintended consequences. Today, it is being applied virtually everywhere, including education, health care, religion, and other places where it just doesn’t fit. Today, the conventional wisdom of industrial economic development is creating far more ecological, social, and economic problems than it is solving. To solve the most important problems of today, we must move into a new age of more enlightened thinking.

Today’s conventional wisdom has its roots in the late 1700s, during the age of reason, the culmination of a period in history commonly called the Enlightenment. During the preceding Middle Ages, the lives of common people had been dominated by the all-powerful “Church and State.” The Enlightenment had given birth to ideals such as freedom, democracy, religious tolerance, and reliance on reason. During the age of reason, logic and rationality were applied to every problem of society. The scientific method of intellectual inquiry and the belief in markets as fair arbiters of value are products of rational thinking. Eventually, the concept of truth became limited to those things that could be observed and measured empirically or derived through logic or mathematical reasoning.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment era saw the world as a complex machine. Descartes characterized the world as a giant clock – the most sophisticated mechanism of the time. Machines can be taken apart, piece by piece, and examined to discover how they work. Every part of the mechanism performs a specific function in a specific way; every action has a reaction, and every effect has a cause. Mechanisms can be repaired, replaced, and redesigned as new applications are found. During the Enlightenment, humans were viewed as separate from the mechanistic world; humans constructed and operated machines for their benefit. The machine provided the ideal metaphor for the specialization, standardization, and hierarchical control that later characterized industrial economic development.

Not surprisingly, mechanistic thinking worked best for those applications that were mechanistic in nature. The greatest accomplishments were in physics, chemistry, engineering, and electronics, in the “nonliving” world. Mechanistic thinking proved so successful in the physical sciences that it eventually was used to understand animals, plants, bacteria, and other living organisms. In the living world, it worked less well but still seemed to work, even though it inevitably resulted in unintended consequences. Social scientists wanted to be accepted as “real scientists,” so they began to use mechanistic approaches to problems in the thinking world – in economics, sociology, even psychology. In the thinking world, mechanistic thinking has created far more problems than it has ever solved. The original thinkers of the Enlightenment didn’t believe that mechanistic thinking should be applied to living things, certainly not to thinking beings. They obviously were right. Furthermore, as Albert Einstein observed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

We don’t need to abandon the logic and reason of the Enlightenment. The ideals of freedom, democracy, and religious tolerance are just as relevant to the challenges of today as during the Middle Ages. The American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution with its Bill of Rights also are products of the age of reason. We certainly don’t need to abandon such basic human values. We just need to respect the wisdom of the Enlightenment and restrict mechanistic thinking to things that actually are mechanistic.

Living things cannot be taken apart and examined piece by piece, even conceptually, without destroying the essence of the whole. To understand the functions of the various organs of living things, we must first understand the essence of the whole organism. A botanist needs to understand plants, not just parts of plants, and a doctor needs to understand the basic nature of people, not just specific human organs. Every part is interrelated with every other part; for every action there are countless reactions; causes and effects are inseparable. We humans are elements of and integrally connected with the living, organismic, ecological world. We cannot remake the world to suit our preferences; we have to learn to live in harmony with its other nonliving, living, and thinking elements.

We need to understand that we can’t make living organisms because they continually make and remake themselves. All life is a continuation of previous life. Living things rely ultimately on solar energy to renew themselves and regenerate their species, and renewal and regeneration are the only concepts of sustainability that we know. Mechanistic thinking is rapidly depleting the earth of the nonliving, living, and thinking resources that support life on earth. We need new scientific methods that are capable of revealing the truth of living things. We need new measures of social and ethical value appropriate for thinking, caring beings. To carry forward that noble idea, from generation to generation, that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance for their full measure of happiness, we must embrace new ways of thinking about how the world works and the place of humanity within it. We must embrace the new enlightenment.

A new world. The world is continually renewing and regenerating itself; it is a dynamic, living ecosystem. The evolution of humanity is both a part and a product of that evolutionary process. Only recently have the impacts of humans on earth become so great as to be undeniable, even in a scientific community dominated by mechanistic thinking. While attention thus far has focused on the damage we have done – global warming, fossil energy depletion, growing social inequity – we humans also have the capacity to create a new and better world. We cannot remake the world to be anything we might choose it to be. We can only remake the human part of the world. But in remaking our part of the world, we can change the essence of the world as a whole – we can create a new world.

To create a new world that will fulfill the promise of America, we must create a world that will sustain the quality of human life on earth. We must create a world in which humanity recognizes and respects the hierarchy of the natural world. Nature is the world’s highest level of organization. Human societies are components of the earth’s natural ecosystem, and economies are components of human societies. This hierarchy is not one of control, but rather one of possibilities and constraints. The resources of nature – sunshine, air, water, minerals, biological diversity – provide possibilities for human societies on earth for as long as there is an earth and a sun shining on it. The resources of society – working, managing, thinking, creating – provide possibilities for creating things of ecological, social, and economic value from the resources of nature. Within nature and society are the possibilities for sustainable economies.

However, the laws of nature place predetermined and unalterable constraints on the sustainability of human society. The laws of human nature or natural law also place unalterable constraints on the sustainability of economies. Laws of nature can be ignored, but their consequences are unavoidable and eventually become obvious. Global warming is a prime example of the inevitable consequences of ignoring the laws of nature. Likewise, the laws of human nature, including unalienable human rights, can be ignored, but the consequences of such ignorance are inevitable. Dysfunctional governments, civil wars, and international military conflicts are inevitable consequences of ignoring the natural laws of human relationships. The current global financial collapse is a natural consequence of widespread ignorance of the basic laws of nature and society, as well as the basic laws of economics.

The new world will be a fundamentally better world, because it will evolve from a growing respect for the hierarchy of sustainability. The global transformation will be an organic process, a transition of the whole rather than a linear, mechanistic, step-by-step process. However, specific tangible developments will mark different stages of progress in the global transformation. One such development will be the emergence of a system of “international law and order.” The new world of order will not be a new world order under the control of one government, as many people seem to fear. In fact, political power will be far less centralized in the new world of sustainability than is the case today.

The United Nations represented an important step forward in creating a system of international criminal justice. However, the United Nations remains essentially powerless because the most powerful nations retain an ability to veto or ignore UN resolutions. Resolutions condemning specific acts of terrorism, for example, are both rare and largely symbolic. Immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States missed perhaps its best opportunity to lead, rather than retard, the new global transformation. The United States had sufficient support from the rest of the world at the time to bring about the structural changes needed in the United Nations to treat terrorism – as distinct from guerrilla warfare – as an international crime against humanity. Those responsible for the 9/11 attacks could have been captured by an international police force, brought before an international court, and subjected to internationally sanctioned punishment. The whole process might have taken time, but a global system of criminal justice could have been created under the auspices of the United Nations that could have functioned indefinitely into the future. Instead, the United States remains bogged down in two regional wars, and the instigators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are still at large.

International laws need not threaten the sovereignty of nations anymore than local, state, and national laws threaten the sovereignty of individuals. International criminal laws need only apply to crimes against humanity, such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, and other violations of basic human rights. A UN Declaration of Human Rights already exists and could serve as the foundation for an enforceable international code of criminal justice. A body of international laws defining crimes among nations already exists, most of which relate to rules of war. However, no international means exists to enforce these laws, and they are typically enforced only by the victor upon the vanquished, and then only after the conflict ends.

The only major stumbling block to establishing an international rule of law is the refusal of offending nations to submit themselves and their citizens to the same rules and judgments as they would have imposed on the nations and citizens of nations who offended them. This refusal violates one of the most fundamental of natural laws, the Golden Rule. Nations refuse to treat other nations as they would have other nations treat them. This natural law can be ignored, but the consequences of its violation cannot be avoided. In a sustainable world, natural laws will be respected and encoded into an international rule of law.

Under the international rule of law, there will be no justification for offensive military forces. National defense will still be justified, just as personal self-defense is justified. But the offensive threat must be clear and imminent, meaning no more wars of preemption or wars to acquire territorial buffers. Responses to attacks must be no greater than is necessary to hold off attackers until international reinforcements arrive to repel the aggressor. No nation will be justified in maintaining large standing armies, just in case they might be needed at some time in the future. During the transition to international law, the number of nuclear weapons will be dramatically reduced, and those remaining will be under international control, as a deterrent to nuclear terrorism.

Another major mark of progress toward the new world will be effective social and ethical restraints on the global economy. Multinational corporations today are essentially beyond the rule of law. If one nation threatens to impose ecological or social restraints on corporations, they respond by threatening to move their operations to other countries. There will always be a few people in any society who are willing to exploit others for economic gain; that’s why we have laws against robbery and fraud. There will always be a few national leaders in the world who can be bribed or coerced into tolerating the extraction and exploitation of their nation’s natural and human resources. That’s why we must have laws against corporate exploitation of nature and society. As with robbery and fraud, such laws must be enforced, consistently and fairly, if they are to be an effective deterrent.

In the new world of sustainability, the leaders of every nation must be afforded the right to protect their resources and their people from exploitation. The world benefits from free trade only under conditions where nations are free to “not trade.” They must be free to choose. Trades based on misinformation, coercion, financial pressure, or veiled threats of reprisal are not really free trade. The world benefits from international loans and corporate investments only when nations are free to choose other means of economic development. Using loans as leverage to open the economies of countries to outside corporate exploitation is not sustainable economic development. Only when the economic sovereignty of nations is insured can the world realize the true benefits of a global economy.

With rights come responsibilities. International standards must be set for conserving global resources and ensuring the economic rights of all people of all nations. Such standards must be based on a global consensus on the measures necessary to protect the natural and human resources of the planet from economic exploitation. Such standards should evolve over time as existing problems are resolved and new challenges arise. Nations should be encouraged to set higher standards but be required by international law to meet minimum standards of sustainability. To sustain human life on earth, the basic laws of nature and humanity must be respected.

A new global society. Industrial development requires standardization and thus tends to homogenize cultural, social, and political values. Industrialization is a Western paradigm. In the industrial world, Western culture has become the dominant global culture. Sustainability, on the other hand, requires diversification. The new sustainable society will be a diverse global community with a wide diversity of ethnic cultures, social values, and government structures. In the new global community, sovereign nations will be held together by a common commitment to a set of shared core principles. These principles will reflect a common understanding of the natural laws that must guide positive relationships among people and between people and their natural environment. This understanding already exists. The commonalities just need to be rediscovered and respected in human relationships.

These core principles include ecological principles, such as holism, diversity, and interdependence; social principles, such as trust, caring, and courage; and economic principles, such as value, efficiency, and sovereignty. The means by which these principles are expressed and reflected in human relationships may be new, but these principles are as old as human history. They are understood and accepted among thoughtful people in all cultures and societies in all parts of the world. These things are old; these things are true.

Throughout human history, people have been misled and coerced into focusing on their differences, rather than their commonalities. Many people have benefited, at least politically and economically, from conflicts among people and nations. Religious zealots do not want a world of tolerance and mutual respect; they want to win hearts and souls to their specific religion. Those involved in the military-industrial complex don’t want to see an end to war; they want to substitute war for international diplomacy. In the new society, there will still be cultural and military conflicts, but they will occur less often and be less costly. Threats of global chaos will have awakened people to the necessity of a shared commitment to the sustainability of humanity.

Diversity will also be valued within and among communities in the new world. During the industrial era, the mindset best suited for success was that of the stereotypical old, white, European male – linear thinking, independent, competitive, aggressive, controlling. This type of thinking can be found in people of all ages, races, nationalities, and genders. However, there is little doubt why those with the most power and influence in the industrial world have tended to be old, white men. Others who have succeeded usually possessed or acquired ways of thinking characteristic of the dominant stereotype. This kind of old, white, male thinking is the primary reason for the lack of sustainability in today’s society. In the new global community, diversity will be respected and valued. As within nations, people within communities will retain their own preferred cultural and social values but will be held together by a shared commitment to a common purpose and a common set of guiding principles.

Contrary to popular opinion, the new population will be more geographically dispersed than today. Cities are relics of industrialization; masses of workers had to be gathered in central locations to work in the factories and offices of large industrial organizations. Cities were built near sources of raw materials, including fertile farmland, or on rivers or seashores for cheap transportation. Cheap fossil energy allowed the cities to survive long after their initial economic advantages were lost. Raw materials could be shipped to cities from anywhere, and products could be shipped from cities to people anywhere. But the days of cheap transportation are over.

Most cities will survive but as clusters of densely populated urban communities rather than as central cities surrounded by suburbs and exurbs. Contrary to popular belief, it will not be more energy efficient in the future to concentrate the population in a few large metropolitan areas. In the future, the day-to-day needs of people – work, school, shopping, recreation – will be accessible in their own communities on foot, by bike, or by moped. Communities within a metropolitan area will be accessible by metro-rail or small electric cars. Trips among metropolitan areas will be made by “bullet trains” powered by electricity from renewable energy sources. Air travel will be limited to connections among the world’s major cities.

None of today’s cities will be able to escape the inherent problems of concentration. Nature is not only diverse; it is also dispersed. Too much of anything in one place – solid wastes, chemicals, gasses, animals, people – inevitably creates environmental and social problems. Whence comes the saying “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Such problems cannot be avoided, and their mitigation will continue to require large amounts of increasingly costly energy. The logical response will be population dispersion – not the urban sprawl of today but instead dispersion to densely populated rural communities integrated into the energy-efficient transportation network.

All communities, urban and rural, will have their own local economies. These communities will not be self-sufficient, but locally owned and operated businesses will be capable of meeting the basic day-to-day needs of the community. The large corporate manufacturers and retailers of the industrial era will be secondary or supplemental providers of goods and services, if in fact they survive. Local farmers will provide sustainably grown foods. Local builders will provide affordable, energy-efficient housing. Manufacturers of consumer durable goods – washers, dryers, refrigerators – will provide additional local employment but will supply regional, rather than national or global, markets. Energy-generating residents and locally owned utilities will meet most of the community’s energy needs with wind-, water-, and solar-generated electricity.

Communities of the future will be neither independent nor dependent; they will be interdependent. They will form relationships of choice with other communities and with outside investors, rather than relationships of economic necessity. People will deal with people in other communities whom they know and trust. Communities will not be forced to submit to economic exploitation but will engage in relationships that are mutually beneficial. The new communities will be economically sovereign.

Perhaps most important, the social relationships among people in communities will also be interdependent. They will share a sense of common purpose for their community, not just an individual purpose to be fulfilled within the community. They will appreciate the fact that their lives are made better by relating to each other in ways that are mutually beneficial, not by relationships that benefit one at the expense of another. They will understand that a community is more than a collection of individuals, that relationships are essential aspects of communities.

In the new communities, people will understand that their own quality of life is linked directly to the quality of life in the community as a whole. They will not focus solely on their own success but will help each other succeed, so the community can meet the needs of the present without compromising the future. They will nurture the children of the community, as well as their own, for the long-run benefit of the community. They will devote time and energy to the community, as well as to their own endeavors, for the continual betterment of the community. Each generation of leaders will nurture the next generation of leaders, with each generation committed to the long-run sustainability of the community. They will understand that it is in their own enlightened self-interest to help sustain a desirable quality of life for the community, both now and in the future. Together, sustainable communities will create a new sustainable global society.

A new economy. The new economy will be real, not the economic illusion of today. It will include only those things that are useful to individuals, in the sense that they enhance the individual quality of life of people. Such things contribute to the economic well-being of society, as the aggregate economy is simply a collection of the economic benefits and costs of individuals. However, benefits that are purely social in nature, such as personal friendships and social justice, are not part of the individual economy. Likewise, things done for purely ethical reasons, simply because they are right and good, do not contribute to the individual economy.

Many of today’s economic decisions have impacts on society or nature that are not reflected in dollar-and-cent costs or benefits. The costs and benefits accrue to someone other than the decision maker. In the new economy, these “external” benefits and costs will be credited to or imposed on those who create them – through government subsidies and penalties. However, many externalities are social or ethical in nature; they impact the community or society as a whole, not individuals, and thus have no economic value. These externalities are not a part of the real economy and will be accounted for by other means and addressed through public policies.

The costs of such things as law enforcement, health care, national defense, social welfare, environmental cleanup, or even financial bailouts are consequences of past mistakes, misjudgments, or basic human frailties. Such things cannot be linked to any single cause or source, their economic costs cannot be internalized, and society as a whole must pay the costs. In the new economy, such costs will not be lumped together with the costs of things that create healthy lifestyles, global peace, self-reliance, a healthy environment, or financial security. In the new economy, both will be counted, but they will be counted separately, one as a measure of economic success, the other as a measure of economic mistakes. Sustainable economic development will require that we pay close attention to both, rewarding the successes and penalizing the mistakes.

The new economy will function within the social and ethical constraints necessary for economic sustainability. Those making economic decisions will respect the basic laws of nature and human nature. There will be widespread agreement that economic development must not compromise the opportunities of those of the future while meeting the needs of the present. The vast majority of people will be inclined to do the right things, even without government restrictions. Legal prohibitions and regulations will be necessary only to restrain those who are unwilling or unable to abide by the consensus of society. Those who violate the intent of the law, though complying with the letter of the law, will be condemned by society rather than praised by their contemporaries for their cunning.

The earth will be valued as the foundation of all economic value. In the new economy, the depletion or degradation of the air, water, minerals, soil, or biodiversity will be subtracted from the economy’s assets, just as the value of buildings and equipment are depreciated on business balance sheets. Increases in the health and productivity of the earth’s physical and biological resources will be added to the natural assets of the real economy. While some natural resources are inherently nonrenewable, new technologies may make the remaining resources more useful and thus more economically valuable. Furthermore, some kinds of economic activity may actually enhance the economic value of air, water, and the environment.

Society provides the primary means of enhancing the economic productivity of nature’s resources, as well as extracting economic value from nature. People work, manage, and think of new ways of doing things. They must be nurtured, socialized, educated, and trained before they can create the new technologies needed to increase the economic productivity of nature. In large part, these are functions of society, rather than of individuals. Thus, the capacity of society to create new and better ways of doing things is an asset that can be either depreciated or enhanced by economic activity. In the new economy, the increased productivity of society will be credited to the real economic balance sheet; the costs of social degradation will be subtracted from it. Changes in ecological and social equity will be an important measure of the economy’s ability to meet the needs of today without compromising the future.

The structure of the new economy will be a reflection of the new sustainable communities. People will form communities that are first ecologically sound, then socially responsible, and then will find ways to make them economically viable. They will be “intentional communities,” in that people will choose communities where they want to live and then find a way to make a living where they choose to live. Most communities today are formed “accidentally,” as consequences of places of employment. In the new society people will understand that local economies can be sustained only within ecologically and socially sustainable communities.

The old corporate structures of the industrial era will have either dismantled themselves or have been taken over by government. Economic and political power, rather than economic efficiency, is the primary motivation for large corporate organizations today. Their primary economic advantage comes from their ability to impose a significant portion of their costs on nature and society, while extracting a significant portion of their income from workers, customers, and taxpayers. Once these advantages are removed, through enlightened public policies, most large corporations will begin to break themselves into smaller, more socially responsible business organizations. The various operations will relocate and become parts of local economies in communities where they can operate sustainably.

In cases where it is not in the public interest to break large corporations into smaller businesses, they will be nationalized and thus become public agencies. Corporations that manufacture automobiles, large aircraft, or military equipment might fall into this category. Some large financial institutions, particularly those that make up the Federal Reserve system, may also be prime candidates for nationalization. If corporations cannot be operated in the public interest, they will not be allowed to operate. Almost certainly there will continue to be bureaucratic waste and occasional fraud. However, corporate executives of the past thirty years have made government bureaucrats look like amateur pickpockets when it comes to wasting and stealing taxpayer dollars. Private stockholders in nationalized companies will either be bought out or given equity in the new state-owned corporations. In essence, these corporations will become public utilities. Public utilities are not new to democracies; they have just been out of fashion for a while.

Government policies of the future will give priority to sustainable local communities over interstate commerce and international trade. People in communities will be able to implement public policies that show preferences for local businesses whenever such policies are in the long-run best interest of the community. Communities, like nations, will have both the right and the responsibility to protect their resources and their people from extraction and exploitation. Inner-city communities will not remain “prisons without walls” for those who are rejected by the rest of society. Rural communities will not remain the dumping grounds for the animal waste, solid wastes, toxic substances, or criminals created and then rejected by the rest of society. Communities will accept responsibility for mitigating their own mistakes and shortcomings but will cooperate with other communities for the betterment of society as a whole. Intercommunity and interstate commerce will take place only when it’s mutually beneficial.

Most businesses in the new economy will be individual proprietorships, partnerships, or small family-owned or locally owned corporations. Even today, small businesses provide more than half of the new jobs, and that proportion will likely be far higher before the current economic crisis is over. The people who own and operate small businesses will be real people, not faceless corporations, and most will be responsible members of their local communities. Their business decisions will reflect not only their individual self-interests but also their interests in the well-being of their communities and the future of humanity. They will be enlightened thinkers who understand that their well-being is inseparable from the well-being of society and humanity. Small business owners and their enlightened customers will be the real architects of the new sustainable economy.

This vision of a new society and economy may seem an impossibility to many people today, but that’s only because they remaining trapped in old industrial ways of thinking. A new and better world is possible, but only if we choose a new way of thinking.