The Architecture of Life: Transforming Responsibility

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Friday, January 9, 2009

Transforming Responsibility

Transformational Economics III - First post in series is HERE

Like our societies, the global economy is a complex system that adapts to its environment. All such systems of relationship are made up of what systems scientists call “agents.”

Just as water molecules are the main ingredient of oceans - and homes are the most basic form in our built environment - individuals and families are the most basic ingredients of our economic and political systems.

Corporations, countries and financial markets are all made of people. What we have just seen in the global economy is an emotional and psychological "tidal wave" of anxiety.

A tidal wave is an “emergent property” of a group of water molecules. It occurs when a “society” of such molecules responds to a disruption in its environment. The same is true for a hurricane or a tornado. There is nothing in a tidal wave except sea water. It has no distinct material ingredients of its own and could not exist unless every single salt water molecule within it contained the properties that allow a massive wave to form.

The same is true about the relationship between human beings and the global economy

In a world such as I describe, the successes and failures of an economy, a country or a culture emerge from the characteristics of the individuals within it. Particularly in a democratic society, leaders arise from the shared realities of the people.

So only you and I have the power to transform our economy. Barack Obama cannot fix the problem. All of us - consumers, bankers, stockholders, the wealthy, the middle class, the poor, our international partners, academics and economists, hedge fund managers, members of Congress, the teen working at the fast food franchise and the guy on the automobile assembly line approaching retirement - will all have to work together.

It is up to us. Every individual, each family, each small business, each multi-national corporation and each government is an economy unto itself. If we are going to learn anything from this troubling experience, it is that each of us must take responsibility for our own relationship with money. We must face this reality because it is the only truly workable long term solution to our troubles. It is also moral and upright.

We must push through the self justification and scapegoating we use to avoid this responsibility. Blame and guilt are tawdry and unworkable mythologies that hamstring our efforts to make real change.

The media parrot and stoke our anxiety because that is what makes financial sense in a world where information is tied to profit. So we have to change the conversation ourselves. These facts mean we must give up the “one size fits all” stereotypes we use to fix blame without ignoring the realities of human nature.

We are profoundly social and collaborate with one another instinctively. Human beings are also deeply emotional. We look to those around us to assess how we should react to the world. If our neighbors are afraid, fear spreads like a virus. The same is true of optimism and courage.

People must first see the possibility of a positive change before they can strive towards it. To accomplish that in government, we must learn to distinguish the good public servant from the bad. If we want responsible corporate behavior we must reward those corporations who are responsible and give back and distinguish them in our conversations from those who are exploitative and predatory. If we want our President to be successful, we must be balance our demands for change with some sense of our own responsibility in the matter.

We must face the realities of a global economic system and understand the interdependence inherent in our global economy. "Foreigners" are not stealing our wealth. The Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Taiwanese and Brazilians aren't stealing our jobs. The global economy is the result of our efforts in the developed world, often imposed against the wishes of the citizens or even the leaders of those nations.

We in the West are hoist on our own petard. The impersonal realities of the marketplace are redistributing our wealth to those who compete most effectively. This occurs in the capitalistic system of value we in the West created.

We - the rich and powerful - fuel that redistribution with our endless desire for more toys, more experiences, more consumption and more status.

And there is no turning back. This trial we face is not temporary. It is the new reality. Turning our southern border into an Iron Curtain won’t save us.

Isolation and protectionism are just ways to hide under our beds and ultimately impossible to achieve in an age of open borders, international trade and monetary systems and the Internet.

The desperate cry of the old order – “spend, spend and spend” – is the pusher trying to entice the addict. We need to go “cold turkey” and re-examine our personal and cultural values.

Tamping down rampant consumerism does not mean our economy cannot be vibrant and diverse. It only means that we must balance our needs for profit with a vision for an economy that works for all classes, all peoples and our planet as a whole.

Again, all we have to do is change the conversation....and the rest will follow. The only real difference we can make is in our own lives and is expressed one person at a time, one family at a time. Cooperation enables us to collectively transform our systems of value. We must work together because such actions are the only solutions that will protect our descendants and the only true road to peace. We live on a planet with fixed resources but unlimited possibilities and the only workable path forward is to begin creating a world that works for everyone.

You may not care whether the “poor people” in the developing world eat or not, but you do care about the survival of your own children.

You may not like it that human society has reached the point that your survival is dependent on the survival of the impoverished masses of Africa, Asia and South America, but it is. You may pine for the good old days when we could prop up our lifestyles on the back of the “third world” but now the "third world" holds our bank notes.

That time is gone. You may not care about the state of the global environment; or that terrorism, extremist ideologies, pollution, global warming and the cascading extinction of species in stressed ecosystems around the planet are inextricably linked to economic inequalities.

But you will care when the first nuclear weapon goes off in a major western city, or the first deadly virus is released in your neighborhood by a disaffected extremist.

This is not just an economic downturn. It is a global economy in the process of transformation. We stand on the threshold of a new world order. This change will either be the beginning of a new and fairer global economic and political order; or we will see more violence, privation, destruction of the environment, all ultimately leading to the slow death of Western culture as we know it.

An analysis of user patterns on the Internet makes it clear what is to come. In developed countries, over 70% of the population is currently connected to the Internet, yet they account for only about 18% of all people online. In the rest of the world, less than 17% of the population is connected and that is changing at a rate in excess of 300% per year.

You do the numbers. We in the West cannot live in our "own little worlds" any longer. Oceans and massive weapons systems cannot protect us. Small bands of extremists have fought the most powerful military on earth to a draw. The long feared day has arrived and we only have two choices. The first and best is to take the lead in creating a world that works for all. The darker path is to withdraw into fortresses of isolationism and self interest, a choice that means our children and grandchildren will inherit a world much less hopeful than the one we knew as children.

I choose the former. My family too has been hurt by this economic downturn. We have had to give up many things we care about in the face of it. But those are just things. We are all still eating, laughing and loving one another. Many on this planet do not have that opportunity. I choose to take this experience as an profound opportunity, a necessary and beneficial adjustment to a changing world that offers new found hope and opportunity for everyone.

What will you do? Will you let fear guide you? Will you make a stand for what is right according to every moral and religious tradition on earth? Will you choose what is workable, pragmatic and honest – or will you choose to hide your head in the sand?

Will you stand with the dying husk of a world built on illusion, hollow consumption and self-interest or will you stand for our children?

Or worst of all...will you lie on the couch lost in cynicism, fear and self-interest and take no stand at all? After all, that is the path most taken, the easiest and most traveled. If so, remember this. Inaction is action in itself. You are creating the world every day with your words, your attitudes and your behavior.

One way or another, what happens in your life and our world is up to you.

It may seem impossible to make any real difference. It may seem too overwhelming to even contemplate, but truthfully you do not have to know what to do or how to do it to make a powerful commitment.

All you have to do is pick yourself up, realize you have the power to control your words...and change the conversation.