Addressing the Underlying Systemic Issues
by Karl Wagner
Karl Wagner (Austrian, born 1952), biologist by education and environmental campaigner by training, has spent thirty years running environmental campaigns, nationally and globally, mostly for the World Wildlife Fund. He currently works for the Club of Rome.
The idea that I want to share is the notion that we all should not shy away from our global challenges, but engage in trying to change things on the meta-level of systemic issues. It is not only possible; it also is the future.
It is becoming more and more evident that the various challenges or crises humanity faces are in fact aspects of one single systemic crisis. Unemployment, inequality, financial crises, biodiversity depletion, degradation of ecosystems and life-support systems, climate change – you name it, they are all related to an out-dated worldview and a theory and practice of economics that has become counter-productive and detrimental for our future. This worldview has served us well for many years, but will need to be replaced with a new one if human society wants to transit into a sustainable and happier future on the planet.
Systemic issues can be seen as a hierarchical matrix where all levels are interconnected, or a holistic picture whereby each part contains the entire picture. These issues reach deep down in our biological make-up, where we find drivers as old as the biology of our hormone system or the evolution of our brain functions and capabilities. Added to this is the level of values, which guide our behaviour, and belief systems, which largely shape our perceptions of what we consider to be “the reality”.
Worldviews are changing as society evolves and today’s dominant belief systems (at least in the West, which has been influencing the rest of the world for many years) originate from the period of enlightenment. Unfortunately, what had started out as humanistic ideas with the wellbeing of the community in mind, has been distorted over the last couple of hundreds years and so we find ourselves in a world where competition is more important than cooperation; where material values trump over non-material ones; where caring for the community has been replaced by excessive individualism; and where liberty of mind has turned into the freedom of overconsumption and selfishness.
On a societal level, economics and governance has, over the last few hundred years, determined to a large degree the course of society. Economics has morphed into today’s material-driven, wasteful consumer society and a 1% versus 99% world. Democracy, while still the best political system around, has accumulated so many deficiencies that its capabilities to properly guide the development of human society has severely suffered.
The dynamics of our economy (and its associated environmental degradation, depletion, overconsumption, inequality, poverty, etc.) is upheld through specific tools and methods, such as the focus on GDP as a measure of progress of human society equivalent to sales of goods and services, or the lack of properly valuing of natural resources. At the end of the chain of consequences, we find all the effects of a system gone wrong, ranging from climate change to poverty.
If one wants to develop a pragmatic action plan to tackle the underlying drivers of these negative developments, where to start? On the one hand, as systemic issues are systemic and interrelated, any topic can serve as point of entry into the matrix. On the other hand, it is also obvious that the most powerful and decisive driver behind what’s going wrong is the prevailing economics. No matter which negative global development we want to stop, correct and alter, in the end we will have to replace our current economic system with a new one. Economics interacts with every person just about every day and it is a root cause behind every single crisis humanity faces on a global level.
The outlines of the new economy have become fairly visible and there is little doubt amongst a growing number of people, including economists and enlightened politicians, about the direction that it needs to take:
From a flow through economy to a circular economy;
From a quantitative material concept of growth to a qualitative one;
From an economy which serves fewer and fewer to one which serves a maximum of people;
From efficiency through more machines to more jobs for real people;
From more production to maintenance and repair;
From consumer to earth citizen; and
A regulatory framework, which makes sure,that the finance industry serves the economy and the economy serves the majority of people.
The new ideas are there and more and more people from all walks of life sense or understand emotionally, intuitively and intellectually the need to change economics and the direction we are taking. The failings of the current economics are becoming more and more self-evident, day-by-day.
A movement is already in the making, but those who benefit from the current system and do not want any change – plus all those who are wedded to the old worldview and cannot find their way out of it – effectively build a barrier against natural change happening. They force humanity directly and indirectly to stay on a detrimental course of rising inequality and looming social unrest, rising CO2 concentrations, waste and resource depletion. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent to maintain the old worldview through propaganda, PR, advertising and lobbying of opinion-makers and decision-makers.
What stops us from trying to change this by addressing economics? Would this not be the most sensible thing to do? Are there not millions of concerned and educated people who ultimately have created and are funding thousands of civil society organizations whose task it ought to be to make the world a better, safer and more stabile place?
What evidently stops us is the magnitude of the task as changing the global system of economics seems too big too handle, too nebulous and fuzzy and outright unrealistic and impossible. But what’s wrong with trying? Does this not have more to do with attitude, spirit, uncorrupted idealism, guts and vision of those who could make a difference than with the complexity of the task?
Have we – as individuals, as representatives of civil society and as concerned citizens – lost the vision and drive to tackle the real issues no matter how big they are? Are we all too much part of the system we would like to change and therefore unable to confront it fundamentally? Are we too concerned about growing in material terms ourselves – as individuals, organizations, institutions and businesses? Have we become a schizophrenic people, who intellectually understand perfectly well what would need to be done, while in daily life we are the ordinary hamster in the running wheel, having to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place?
If the apparent complexity is our challenge, then why not try to find a way through this complexity, which allows us to find clear and pragmatic lines of action and to change the global economic system as the key driver behind the global challenges we face?
This is the basic goal behind a process I have been invited to lead for several foundations concerned that they invest many millions of dollars into winning a war, while all they do is win skirmishes and a battle here or there. A first phase with initial concrete answers will be completed end of 2013.
The process made me understand, that
There is a powerful movement building up. The wave is forming and it will be about surfing the wave and not about creating it.
We should not be afraid of tackling the real drivers and the big, fundamental issues; it is after all the right and most sensible thing to do.
It is possible to devise clear targets, strategies and action plans to address underlying systemic issues
It will be about small actions taken by millions of ‘normal’ people.
It will be about small businesses and short distances.
It will also be about civil society overcoming self-built barriers, which focus their attention on the wellbeing of their organizations rather than on the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants.