Understanding Commonwealth Economies & Re-interpreting Darwinism

Let’s dig deeper into dynamics of a commonwealth economy.

Normal economic frameworks want you to believe that an economy is just about the participants competing in their own self-interest. Sadly, this perspective only yields scarcity-based economies which are doomed to collapse and it misses all the dynamics of thrivability-based economics which can create upward spirals of increasing possibilities.

Life on this planet has successfully created upward spirals of increasing capacities, resources and possibilities. Clearly this is the kind of economy we actually want for ourselves, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, so it seems pretty important to understand what Life is optimizing for in its economy.

Unfortunately, to understand this, we need to unlearn a bunch commonly accepted “wisdom” which is faulty and impairs our ability to see what is actually happening.

(Mis)Understanding Darwin

Darwinism is typically understood as describing the competition between individuals and species where only the fiercest competitors survive.

Another way to understand it is that the fundamental interplay between participants in an economy is about the balance between “Get mine” and “Grow ours.”

There are two important and distinct responses to dealing with scarce resources:

  • Get Mine.
  • Grow Ours.

The first is about grabbing your bowl of soup in case there isn’t enough to go around.

The second is about learning to stretch that stone soup further, so it can provide greater nourishment to yourself and others.

Get mine points to the everyday phenomenon of getting what you need.

Grow ours points to our ability to stretch resources, to reuse, reinvest and recycle them, and to have your “output” provide more value for everyone.

(Mis)Understanding Darwin (Take Two – written in 2003 in a Soros Foundation proposal)

“Survival of the fittest” is commonly interpreted refer the critters which are best at get mine so they can successfully compete at grabbing up the goodies. But this is a “might makes right” interpretation to justify greed and selfishness. A couple of blog posts ago I discussed how in fact gift economies are alive and well and provide the means for our whole competitive commercial economy to function.

“Survival of the fit” provides a much better understanding, because the best fit in a system means requiring the least get mine to produce the most grow ours.

Our unfortunate acculturation about this, makes this difficult to see about species in nature, but if we examine this principle in the realm of business, it is plain as day. A business has a huge advantage if it requires less materials, energy or cash to provide greater value or productive output than a competing business.

That principle which is true for businesses in the market ecosystem is also true for critters in the natural ecosystem. Organisms which overtax their environment by requiring more of get mine than they provide of grow ours die off. Typically this happens by devastating their host environment until it can no longer support them. Cancer is a clear and vivid example of the broken balance between #1 and #2. The contrast makes it easy to recognize that “healthy” cells are defined by their ability to share resources in the spirit of grow ours.

However, for some strange reason, we not only allow, but idealize and reward, this kind of behavior among corporations which maximize profit with utter disregard for the health of their host communities and ecoystems.

Humankind faces a pressing question of where we stand with respect to the balance of our #1 consumption and our #2 effect on our environment. In the past few hundred years since the industrial revolution brought capacities for massive production (which involved massive resource consumption) we have been like trust-fund babies who have been splurging the principle built up in the earth’s bio-bank. Our whole market economy rests on the ability to consume these readily available natural resources - schools of fish, hillsides of lumber and fields of fertile soil. We use the energy from bio-stored sunlight to fuel our production and distribution - oil, coal, bio-diesel and natural gas. We are currently consuming these things much faster than they replenish. The cumulative effects have become visible in the form of over-fished seas, clear-cut landscapes, depleted soil, strip-mined hillsides, diminished oil reserves, dwindling aquifers, polluted oceans and poisoned rivers.

So, are we a cancer that is killing our host? Or are we beneficial species who can harness our skills and intelligence to benefit the collective whole?

Part of the answer to this question may lie in another important and current transition. Just as new production efficiencies emerged from industrial equipment, fossil fuels and mechanized processes, the same kind of benefits emerge from new informational capacities. “Information” is not just bits of data floating around, more importantly it is patterns of organizing - transferable knowledge, techniques, efficiencies, expertise and specialization.

This is extremely significant. Although we’ve diminished natural external stores of energy, complexity, diversity and possibilities, society has been engaged in a process of internalizing complexity, diversity and possibility. For the “downward spiral” of resource consumption, there has been a corresponding “upward spiral” of technology development, specialization and physical and intellectual capacities. Unlike industrial equipment, informational resources are not scarce and can be organized around collective benefit (#2 responsibilities) since sharing information does not deprive the supplier of any of the expertise being supplied. Finally, instantaneous electronic communication (Internet, twitter, cell phone, etc.) disintermediates expensive layers of “expertise middle-men” (such as corporations, guilds and universities) connecting producers of information directly to its consumers.

This has the potential of creating much greater efficiencies in production, distribution, energy use, resource allocation, education and every other domain that information effects. This presents us with a precarious opportunity. Will we use these new efficiencies only to increase our abilities to consume more? (#1 only) Or will we harness them to restore the balance and create greater collective benefit? (performing our #2 responsibilities)

Our current monetary, economic and financial systems glorify #1 while marginalizing the importance of #2. If we continue to reward cancerous behavior (e.g. the companies collect the most profits while externalizing the most problems) the future holds increasing conflict over decreasing resources. However, if we can harness the technological tools developed in the #1-focused competitive economy to build new infrastructure for a #2-focused collaborative economy, we may be able to restore a healthy balance. This is the importance of the toolset for currencies and resource flows that we are building called OS-Earth.

We lack strong systems for flow that facilitate #2 while we have rigorous built and robustly fine tuned systems that facilitate flow for #1. For flow to facilitate #2, we need to trust the group rather than just ourselves. Reputation, feedback, rating systems, and currencies can be used to catalyze #2 similar to the ways these have been used to catalyze #1. It isn’t the tools that focus on #1, it is the way we apply those tools. OS-Earth offers alternative flows for catalyzing #2 efforts.

Back to Commonwealth Economies

— Rough notes still to flesh out —

Just think about how tribal societies actually work. Most resources are shared. Very few are held as personal possessions and most of those are artistic in nature or a valued part of a flow of gifts which rarely stays with one person for too long.

Illustrate how commonwealth economies work… like ecosystems and organisms to take care of the whole.

Show how this is a sacred pattern/purpose.