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A new economic model for survival

Thoughts on the UN call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’

Wendy Talaro looks at how to make this happen

What is needed to take a global interconnected perspective on the issues and threats our planet is facing and start action? How can this gain traction and produce the desired effect?

The UN’s call for revolutionary thinking is a chicken-and-egg problem. Revolutions don’t start at the centre. Movement and change are at the dynamic edges, where the “establishment” patterns of thinking are tested by evolving reciprocal interactions at or just beyond permeable boundaries, whether those boundaries are physical as in cell membranes, political, social, economic or ecological. In ecology, this crossover zone where ecosystems meet is the ecotone and we stand to learn a lot from ecotones as models of flexibility and resilience in the midst of constant change, if we only collectively better understood the pattern language of nature. (As things are, I have had difficulty enough trying to teach ecological literacy and applied systems thinking to adults in my weekend workshops, which admittedly are too short to introduce new habits of perception and thinking, let alone reinforce them through practice).

The core of our problem as a species facing the interconnected immensity of the problems we have created for ourselves lies between the right ear and the left ear. The epistemological error of failing to recognize that economic prosperity is derived from and dependent upon ecospheric integrity has corollaries in other dysfunctional reductionism such as delimiting valuation to base economic terms and measuring progress by GNP growth (read “Epistemological Error and Converging Crises: A Whole Systems View” by Jody Joanna Boehnert, PhD.). As well-meaning as the call for change is, it’s still coming from the perception that if we only had the “right” economic model, our survival as a species would be ensured. Anyone who has lived life long enough truthfully knows that there are no guaranteed outcomes or failsafe buffers against uncertainty. Moreover, there is no “right” one-size-fits-all macroeconomic model since the expectation that the tenets and unspoken rules of a macroeconomic one-size-fits-all model should apply without exception or challenge has not only gone largely unquestioned but it has led us onto the crumbling economic precipice on which we have stranded ourselves.


Most of what our species has practiced since the development of stationary agriculture 10,000 years ago has been extractive economics with little to no thought for the long-term and minimal ecologically literate comprehension of the feedback signals nature has been providing throughout the millennia. For all of human cleverness and despite widespread acknowledgment that the status quo trajectory is suicidal, not much thought has been given to micro and macro restorative economics and how to make applications profitable within real-world contexts given our species’ comfort with the familiarity of the known, and preference for doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. This tendency wryly fits the functional definition of insanity. Gunter Pauli of ZERI gave his best shot at offering examples of restorative economics in his book, The Blue Economy, complete with some systems diagrams. It’s an inspiring book but has some gaps in aligning the vision with real-world social conditions and logistics. The rubber hits the road at the local scale where idealistic visions and entrepreneurial ideas must ground in order to survive and compete in ambient market conditions.

We have an Achilles’ heel in our perceptual hard wiring that we need to compensate for through conscious effort in order to help facilitate the sweeping changes that the UN is calling for – namely, the inability to recognize slow, long-term changes and to respond to threats that unfold at the same pace. For instance, empire after empire the world over has risen and inevitably fallen as they decimated their endowments of topsoil through self-defeating management practices that exacerbated erosion and depleted soil fertility. An inch lost in a millennia as a baseline rate of erosion is undetectable as is an inch lost every century, but lose several inches or more over several hundred years and the topsoil layer may well be gone altogether, implementing the foreclosure of continued human settlement and any vain hopes of growing food or forage.

As global warming progresses inexorably while gaining momentum, we arrive at the landgrab endgame. The pattern of renewed imperialism is currently happening in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America; multinational corporations and rich countries are buying up huge tracts of land through complicitous and/or corrupt government officials. We are currently witnessing the terminal phases of industrial agriculture and global capitalism as facilitated by opportunism – the appropriation and export of other countries’ soil and water resources through mechanized large-scale intensive chemical and fossil fuel dependent cultivation for the sake of food security. One would have thought, given the consistency of depopulation concatenated with accelerated erosion induced by intensive agriculture and excessive/inappropriate tillage for the past 10,000 years, not to mention the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, that we might have collectively learned by now how not to lay waste to the foundation of settled civilization.

Just the mere suggestion to convert the world to no-till, non-petrochemical organic agriculture will be met with massive resistance even though this measure would revolutionize our relationship to the land and constitute a huge leap in the direction of sustainability. Multinational agricultural interests would be in complete uproar with lawsuits at the ready if perennial polyculture was proposed as a replacement for conventional monocultural agriculture as a step beyond non-petrochemical organic no-till, yet this is the eventual direction agriculture must go to become sustainable – that is, more aligned with long-term natural patterns of material/energy stocks and flows.

We have 5 great plastic garbage gyres, well over 1,000 oceanic dead zones (reference to the research of Nancy Rabalais and R.E. Turner), and an estimated annual soil loss of 24 billion tons worldwide (David R. Montgomery, Dirt, p. 4) – about 3.5 tons for every one of the 7 billion plus men, women and children alive. I pick these examples because they are largely out of sight and out of mind precisely because they are geographically and temporally abstract to most of the people who inhabit this planet. Intellectually, humans grasp abstractions but there is no impact on perceptions, values, or ethics that influence behavior unless abstractions are grounded viscerally and emotionally within the concreteness of a person’s immediate reality. Not many of us in rich industrialized countries are living with obvious, direct environmental consequences for our addictions to entitlement, consumerism, convenience, and capitalism. Each physical manifestation of destruction in aggregate is the result of imperceptible, incremental contributions.

Figuring out how each of us specifically contributes to and what to do about complicity in this global mess is a labyrinthine pursuit for those who are determined enough to want to understand material and energy stocks and flows. However, the average avid recycler living in a place with a municipal collection service doesn’t know and doesn’t care whether an item was designed and manufactured for easy utilization as a feedstock for the manufacture of other products – the recycler just wants to have someplace to put the material so that it “goes away” (out of sight and out of mind), presumably under the pretense that the discards are somehow going to be nominally recycled (downcycled, really) through remanufacturing, which isn’t often the case when it comes to plastics. If this unpleasant fact should burst the eager recycler’s reality bubble and remorse and guilt corrode the defenses that keep conscience confined within, we have cognitive biases and a brain wired for self-justification that soften, even negate, personal responsibility in order to protect our self-worth and egos.

Recall Einstein’s admonition, paraphrased here, that a problem cannot be solved by the same thinking that created the problem in the first place. The atomized, fragmented Cartesian worldview that advanced modern science and advocated the domination of nature in the wake of the Enlightenment is the intellectual legacy we have lived with ever since. Although science and religion have frequently been at odds, mainstream religious dogma reinforces an ethic of domination of, rather than partnership with nature. The attitude of disrespect is echoed in the doctrine of St. Augustine, which stated that to know God, one had to deny the world and detach from it. This had the effect of also giving Christians globally license to rape and denigrate the planet and nature, which were deemed evil because obviously God wasn’t on Earth. The Cartesian worldview, will to dominate and control, and spiritual disconnection from nature are implicit in Western culture, so much so they are rendered invisible by mundane omnipresence. If our inheritance of linear, technologically addicted, hubristic, profit-greedy, abusive, short-sighted perceptions, beliefs, habits, and attitudes is the source of our self-generated dilemmas and problems, more of the same will not bring relief from what we as a species have created for ourselves or reprieve from what we are inflicting on future generations and other species. Rather than browbeating ourselves with guilt-ridden self-flagellation for our legacy of perpetuating poor choices, we need to stop self-justifying our choices to soothe the dissonance between what we actually do and what we need to do.

Even when what we intellectually and consciously know we are doing is killing us and ripping out chunks of the finely interconnected ecosphere as we efficiently muddle along, we can’t and don’t stop ourselves because a paradigm of integrated ecological, social and economic sustainability fundamentally scares us more than the consumptive paradigm – a choice easily rationalized because we’re already living with the unfolding consequences in the now and we’re adapting to the familiarity of self-destruction as we go. “Mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. It prolongs and widens rifts between lovers, friends, and nations. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can be harmful to the public.” (Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made, p. 9-10)

To “take a global interconnected perspective on the issues and threats our planet is facing”, means possessing the capacities for whole systems thinking and ecological literacy and the application of both when neither are widely socially supported nor culturally taught from birth. We have first to honestly reckon with ourselves as we are in all of our layered complexity, which means that introducing a globally interconnected perspective needs to 1) be informed by and tailored for the worldview and cultural context of the targeted audience, 2) be conscious of the benefits and limitations of our neurological and emotional wiring as humans, 3) recognize that change follows a replicable pattern, and 4) be based upon an accurate mental map of reality.

The consumptive paradigm of economics must die to allow regenerative paradigms the space and resources to grow and mature – birth is as natural and as necessary as death. There are no global-scale leverage points that are simple to implement within our economic system, even by those who have substantial power and influence. The scale of substantive change is hyper-local, resting in the mysterious alchemy of heart, mind, soul, choice, and circumstances. The best that we can do as neighbours and friends is to courageously support one another’s authenticity and to be generous enough to stop judging others by the quality of the toys others possess or lack. At the local and bioregional/watershed scales, we can support self-sufficiency and create business opportunities that have cascading beneficial social, economic and restorative ecological outcomes. The best we can do en masse as a society is to be culturally receptive to supporting change, at least among those who see its necessity and desirability. At the regional and national scales, we need policies to allow institutional, financial, and legal support for a paradigm that hasn’t been allowed to thrive and proliferate up to now – a flexible, dynamic, yet resilient worldview patterned after natural rhythms, networks, cycles, and flows which are paradoxically and simultaneously impersonal and yet intimate.

Ideas only start revolutions when enough people are inspired by ideas that speak to the heart as well as the mind, when people are intellectually clear about the next immediate steps to take and when they have the backbone to act. The energy of inspiration is volatile and subject to rapid dissipation in frustration if a person hasn’t a clue what to do next or if peer pressure snuffs it out. Those ideas that have the power to spark large-scale change have to be tailored for who is listening and one can never predict exactly what combination of words and ideas will end up igniting a spark in someone’s heart; all anyone can control is the clarity of one’s intent and honesty. We are additionally responsible for being aware of our personal agendas, whatever they may be.

Many human created systems, just like the natural ones that we evolved to emulate, have tipping points. Trust that those social tipping points are there, waiting to be activated. Strategize to consciously use tipping points in the direction of desired positive objectives by utilizing networks of social connections, remembering that almost anyone is reachable even though overcoming degrees of separation is a strategic, though nonlinear, numbers game.

There are no silver bullets, no quick fixes and no one-size-fits-all solutions that won’t generate a hydra of unanticipated and unforeseen consequences. Our pitfall is hoping that sweeping changes can be induced through the implementation of a new system – one that is subject to the same shortcomings as the old because of patterns and habits of thought and perception. No system we attempt to design can compensate for unwillingness to accept responsibility for the power of our choices or for shortsighted misapplications and frailty of character. No economic system will ever wring out the insidious impulse to dominate and control the ecosphere and other life forms, just as religion, spirituality, philosophy, psychology and sociology never will quash our human potential for manifesting evil, here defined as willfully inflicting harm but not caring. Our advantage is that human cultural evolution can happen quickly but it’s up to us to determine whether the pathway leads us in the footsteps of Rwanda and Turkey (genocide) or Germany’s Third Reich but with an eco-friendly twist (ecofascism), or whether we choose to tread new pathways that tailor ecologically informed, inspiring, wildly creative approaches to regenerating natural capital while restoring communities socially and economically at the same time. Those of us who aren’t waiting for an apocalypse to wipe the slate clean as an indirect means of absolution of personal responsibility for complicity in our collective mess can fortify our personal reserves of courage, integrity, and personal and political will. If we don’t have the backbone to muster these now, what occasion will present enough merit?

Wendy Talaro, M.A
Sustainability Integration Specialist and Consultant
Cornucopia Sustainable Designs and Urban/Suburban Ecoliteracy
Real solutions for real people for a sustainable post-carbon economy

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