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What does the next economy look like?
Alex Steffen, 16 Mar 09

A long-time argument in sustainability circles has centered around big-ness. Some argue that the big, centralized global institutions of industrialization are not going anywhere, so we'd best reform them into something less destructive. Others argue that bigness itself is the problem, and so we'd better build small, local alternatives that can weather the collapse of big-yet-brittle institutions.

I increasingly think this debate, while having played a useful role in its day, is poorly reflective of the reality of our crisis. I think it is a one-axis debate, when things are moving orthogonally. Heck, I can think of three new directions off the top of my head:

The first is that things are now interconnected. Even in a massive collapse of material globalization, we're still really unlikely to see an equally deep collapse in global connectivity. That means that the choice is not simply local and small v. global and big. Another option needs to be considered, which is materially local and informationally global. We don't even have good imaginings of what that might mean.

The second is that we are to some degree post-material. It seems to me that we tend to profoundly misunderstand our actual levels of need, vulnerability and exposure. People in the developed world, and a great many people in the developing world, are not actually that vulnerable to real privation in the way that our ancestors 300 years ago feared constantly. That is, if all we're talking about is the basic provision of human needs -- shelter, food, health care, education -- then we need to acknowledge that with the will to do so, we could provide those things with one economic arm tied behind our backs. We can provide them better, more sustainably, with a greater sense of preventive care -- we can better design the provision of basic needs (and also thus help meet the basic needs of billions of more people) -- but provided we don't drive straight off the ecological cliff, the basic needs themselves are not actually that difficult.

This makes possible a profound shift towards dematerialization of stuff (or of access as status), and means that how we provide meaning and pleasure, comfort and security can be seen as the real challenges ahead.

The third is that transparency technologies and techniques are opening up the direct personal costs and benefits of our use of the systems on which we depend. We can now easily track the financial performance of an investment, or monitor the cost of our home energy use, or quickly run the numbers on owning a car versus sharing a car -- and these are just the earliest manifestations. I fully expect that we're going to see not only an explosion of shared goods, loanership programs and other product-service and shared-service systems. But I also expect that we're going to see a big shift towards people wanting to see who profits from the systems in which they're embedded, and wanting to see more benefit from their involvement in for-profit systems (think mutual benefit groups and buying clubs) and/or participating in systems designed to benefit their users rather than shareholders (think of credit unions, for instance). I think participation is going to be increasingly seen as an asset, for which we need to be openly compensated, either with money or through the creation of a social good.

Anyways. Just some Friday afternoon noodling. What do you think?

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Comments

Wow, that was not very good, i beleive we are leveling out and should see more improvments in the next few months,worst case senario it is not going to get worse! you can have my word on that! after all who the heck I am anyway....


Posted by: Mike A Abuhatoum on 27 Aug 09

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