Guilding the Lilly

Guild coat of arms of a smith

Guild coat of arms of a smith

Executive Peer-to-Peer Summary:

This essay is partially in response to Whither government regulation in a highly complex age? which questions the ability of a hollowed-out, privatized government to effectively cope with the increasing complexity of social and environmental crises such as global warming. What follows assumes some prior familiarity with the basic ideas of p2p culture.

Guild coat of arms of a shoemaker

Guild coat of arms of a shoemaker

I agree that the failure of government regulation to curb the destructive activity of large corporations is only likely to worsen with the increasing privatization of government and the increasing complexity of global problems. So what can p2p culture do about this?

1. Establish powerful, confederated P2P Guilds and Leagues based on various global commons of knowledge and expertise so that mitigations, adaptations, and other interventions can be crowd-sourced by massively distributed, parallel, and open networks of peers.

2. Establish many strong, self-reliant economies at the local geopolitical (or Eco-political) level by forming partnerships between the P2P guilds and progressive local communities. These partnerships would maximize economies of scope via peer production and  would also be strongly confederated with their peers bio-regionally, nationally, and globally.

3. One more maneuver that may be necessary to assist this process I will dub “castling”, a term borrowed from the game of chess. What I mean by this is a shifting of local populations between adjacent local geopolitical jurisdictions (such as cities and counties in the US) so as to create political, social, and economic majorities of p2p culture in the targeted locations. Those locations that are simultaneously abandoned by p2p culture are essentially “sacrificed” to the corporate predators. (Half a loaf saved is better than none.)

Guild coat of arms of a fisherman

Guild coat of arms of a fisherman

The resulting strongly confederated p2p cultural strongholds might stand the best chance of competing with the large corporate entities, excluding them from the “castled” commons, and limiting the scope of their environmental destruction.

How P2P Culture Might Save the Day

1. P2P Guilds and Leagues

Various authors have suggested the concept of “phyles” or “tribes” for characterizing horizontal organizational structures in p2p culture. See for example the Las Indias cooperative movement. (

I am not opposed to these , and in the end it is important for peer groups to self-identify with the descriptions they

Guild coat of arms of a tanner

Guild coat of arms of a tanner

prefer; but I think I prefer the idea of confederated GUILDS and LEAGUES, and perhaps I can make an argument for these terms that will be persuasive to some.

A guild can function just as envisioned for a phyle (from Greek phulē — tribe, clan) but does not carry the same connotation as a tribe, clan, or phyle of having a primary basis in familial kinship, nor the historical reputation (in certain cases) of rebellion against central authority. The subtle but important difference is that a guild is all about practical know-how and about taking care of business– not about ideology or revolution (eh, at least on the surface…).

The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild by Rembrandt, 1662.

Typically a guild (German: Gilde) is an association of craftsmen in a particular trade. In the most general sense a guild is simply an organization of persons (peers) with related interests, goals, etc., especially one formed for mutual aid or protection. Historically guilds were any of various medieval associations, as of merchants or artisans, organized to maintain standards and to protect the interests of their members.

The Guildhall, London (engraving, ca 1805)

“The earliest types of guild were formed as confraternities of workers. They were organized in a manner something between a trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. They often depended on grants of letters patent by a monarch or other authority to enforce the flow of trade to their self-employed members, and to retain ownership of tools and the supply of materials. A lasting legacy of traditional guilds are the guildhalls constructed and used as meeting places.

“An important result of the guild framework was the emergence of universities at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford around the year 1200; they originated as guilds of students as at

Guild coat of arms of a mason

Guild coat of arms of a mason

Bologna, or of masters as at Paris.” (Wikipedia)

One point on which I think guilds differ from Las Indias’ conception of phyles (“In Phyles, Community precedes Enterprise” -David Uguarte) is that for guilds, community and enterprise are two sides of one coin. I think this fits well with p2p culture while also being relatively non-confrontational with mainstream corporate/capitalist norms. The ability of guilds and leagues (such as the League of Women Voters) to present a relatively “normal” outward face, may have occasional tactical advantages.

According to Phil Jones,

“One issue people have with the traditional Guild is that Guilds are demarcated by profession. They aren’t a grouping that implies a multidisciplinary team. Guilds are great for teaching, accrediting and providing a retirement policy but aren’t self-sufficient or “closed” economic loops.”

Guilds, phyles, tribes, etc. . . .each has extensive variation and we can pick and choose features of one or all and remix to

Guild coat of arms of a taylor

Guild coat of arms of a taylor

suit our purposes.  However, I think that overall, p2p relations have more to do with behavior and knowledge than with kinship. Guilds in the form of trade unions and academic institutions also have a rich history of confederation across multiple disciplines and locations, making the guild, IMO, a more appropriate basic raw material to further hack, improvise, and remix.

Michel Bauwens notes that “for lasindias, guilds can be phyles and are in fact the historical example for it .. the Venetian and Florentine guild councils, who originally ruled the cities, had international structures to support themselves, with halfway houses etc … The Hanseatic League is an interesting example. It never did have a constitution or formal membership as far as I know. Cities, guilds and towns just identified with it and co-operated in respect of matters of common interest, like suppressing piracy.”

Another interesting example is the Iroquois League:

“The Iroquois League, historically the Iroquois Confederacy, is a group of Native Americans (in what is now the United States) and First Nations (in what is now Canada) that consists of six nations: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora. The Iroquois (also known as the Haudenosaunee or the “People of the Longhouse) have a representative government known as the Grand Council. The Grand Council is the oldest governmental institution still maintaining its original form in North America. The League has been functioning since prior to major European contact. Each tribe sends chiefs to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole nation.” (Wikipedia)

Guild coat of arms of a carpenter

Guild coat of arms of a carpenter

Anyway, I like many (if not all) of the characteristics of leagues and guilds, and I like the anachronistic romance of the words. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Justice League of America. . . these could become the League of Extraordinary Peers and the P2P Justice League. Steal This Film is a film series documenting the movement against intellectual property that was produced by The League of Noble Peers.

We could also have P2P Makers Guilds, P2P Designers Guilds, P2P Programmers Guilds, and P2P Privacy Guilds. Such guilds would not be organizational stovepipes. Peers could affirm their interests and expertise by membership in as many guilds as they may qualify for.

Interestingly, many players of computer and video games have become familiar with guilds and their popularity continues to increase. “In computer and video gaming, a … guild is an organized group of players that regularly play together in a particular (or various) multiplayer games. These games range from groups of a few friends to 1000-person organizations, with a broad range of structures, goals and members… Numerous [guilds] exist for nearly every online game available today” (Wikipedia) In some cases the guilds are internal to the game play and sometimes they are external. Some gaming guilds have their own web sites. I don’t know if these gaming guilders are learning good guilding habits or bad ones from the perspective of p2p culture. My distance from the gaming community has obscured this information from me.

In any case, such guilds and leagues as may be created in the service of p2p culture will be able to confederate in any number of flexible ways. So too can those peer groups who, despite my valiant efforts of persuasion, prefer to call themselves phyles, tribes, clans, pods, schools, gaggles, or ganfaloons

In many cases peers will be able to join multiple guilds, leagues, phyles, etc. as appropriate to their interests and skills. In p2p culture most such groups, despite their other characteristics, will tend to be the peers of each other and will tend to practice the same cooperative individualism or cooperative autonomy that pertains amongst individual people peers. This will make a flexible and resilient network of peers and peer groups spanning local, regional, national and global topologies.

Occupy Wall Street Guilds

Numerous guilds have worked with OWS, including

  • National Lawyers Guild
  • Progressive Librarians Guild
  • Writers Guilds
  • The newspaper guild
  • Citizens Media Guild

The OWS NY City General Assembly ( has the following guilds in its Arts and Culture Network:

  • Architecture and Urbanism
  • Dance
  • Filmmaking
  • Graphic Arts/Design
  • Multi-Disciplinary Arts
  • Music
  • Painting and Drawing
  • Performance & Theater
  • Photography/Video
  • Poetry
  • Puppetry
  • Screen Printing Guild
  • Sculpture
  • Short Stories
  • Videogame

OWS General Assemblies (GAs) in each city already have committees or working groups with common themes. OWS guilds could be formed to help connect working groups in cities across nations and the world into networks of common skills and bodies of knowledge, such as:

  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Software Engineering
  • Banking and Finance
  • Education
  • Construction
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Transportation

2. Partnerships between P2P groups and local, regional, national, and international geopolitical (evolving into Eco-political) and non-state sovereign entities.

P2P culture will help to establish many strong, self-reliant economies at the local geopolitical (or Eco-political) level by forming partnerships between the P2P guilds, leagues, etc. and progressive local communities. These partnerships will maximize economies of scope via open, peer processes such as peer production and crowd-sourcing.  These p2p/geopolitical or p2p/eco-political  partners would also become increasingly confederated with their counterparts bio-regionally, nationally, and globally.

There may be cases where such partnerships fuse into indivisible p2p entities and cases where they do not. Regardless of that, the objective is to weave the influence of p2p culture into the geopolitical fabric of the planet, concentrating first at the  the local level, at the most receptive local geopolitical “nodes,” and then spreading outwards. The levers which p2p culture will employ in this effort will be open knowledge, expertise, and methodology that will enhance the comparative advantages and capabilities of the geopolitical partners in contrast with those geopolitical entities which do not embrace the p2p partnership. In effect, p2p culture will come to the rescue of local entities that give us access. At the same time, we will redirect the public policies and practices of our geopolitical partners towards open and sustainable operations.

This follows the axiom that the only way to save ourselves is by saving others.

3. The “Castling” Maneuver

This is a shifting of local populations between adjacent geopolitical jurisdictions (such as cities and counties in the US) so as to create political, social, and economic majorities of p2p culture in the targeted locations. Those locations that are simultaneously abandoned by p2p culture are essentially “sacrificed” to the corporate predators. (Half a loaf saved is better than none.)

This kind of effort will involve brokering a lot of property on favorable terms for all involved. It will involve massive relocation of homes, small and medium businesses, farms, and  personal revenue streams. We will need the ability to concentrate the efforts of our global human and financial resources on as many concurrent locales as possible.

Our ability to accomplish such maneuvers will depend heavily on the quality of the organizations and networks we build and our technology toolkit. Our social networks, alternative financial systems, and complementary currencies will need to operate very well and very securely at scale. We will need the ability to perform large volumes of complex social organizing activity and complex economic activity in a highly secure and efficient manner.

As Elinor Ostrom wrote in Green from the Grassroots, the last post before her death on June 12:

“The goal now must be to build sustainability into the DNA of our globally interconnected society. Time is the natural resource in shortest supply…

We don’t have forever. Hopefully we have a decade or two. But we may not have even another decade to prevent unprecedented suffering and practically irreversible ecosystem collapse.

Poor Richard



Sermon on the Land

Animal husbandry, 2300 BC

Animal husbandry, 2300 BC (Photo credit: Marcel Douwe Dekker)

At the risk of being labeled a communitarian fundamentalist, and preaching at you, I think that our first duty both to ourselves and to this world is to participate in a localized, sustainable, self-reliant (within a global system of balanced, recursive self-reliance and interdependence), community of peers. Without a community that achieves a certain threshold of economic self-reliance, security, and basic independence for its members, either in urban or rural settings (but without being too large to be personally intimate and nurturing), one tends to become a victim, a serf, or even a slave, caught in a trap; and thereafter to sink deeper and deeper into tragic compromises of ones values and actions. This can happen even to talented high achievers. It has been called the rat race.

And without a certain degree of geographic localization of such communities, even if not technically required for solidarity, production, or economic self-reliance, “unoccupied” parts of the commons tend to get robbed. Even if resources are considered common property or non-property, belonging to all, good stewardship is seldom an absentee role.
English: Private Property.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Husbandry is also not the work of strangers. I have seen this in many situations over the years. And that’s why I agree with Aristotle that private property (conditionally, within reason) can promote virtue. But this only applies to property that is occupied or tended in a way appropriate to its type and in a way that is responsible to society and to future generations. Abuse, neglect, and absentee ownership are anathema.

I understand of course that many people don’t want to be tied to a particular place–people are increasingly mobile and globally oriented– and I think that’s fine as long as the rest of us are enough in number to keep the local places–all the city blocks, the paddocks, and the wide-open wild spaces– looked after, tended to, and deeply cared for.

Poor Richard
Packard plant

Packard plant by Ashley Dinges, on Flickr

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A Capital Idea Part 1

I’d like to introduce Robert Warden who will be posting here from time to time on topics of economics, politics,  and whatever else ails him. I am very glad to have his contributions.

Robert is also known as “Natural Lefty,” “Mucky T. Mudskipper,” and a few other aliases. He has a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside and teaches Psychology part-time at Moreno Valley College. His essays tend to focus on the application of psychology to a wide variety of topics such as politics, economics, philosophy, spirituality and all of science.  His  posts are mostly in the form of progressive series of short essays built around common themes.

Robert Warden also blogs at,, and the Thom Hartmann Bloggers Group on Facebook.

— PR

A Capital Idea Part 1

by Robert Warden, April 21 2010

It has occurred to me that the idea of financial capital has been used in the wrong way all along. This feeling has been reinforced by conversations with a number of my like-minded friends. According to my Random House Webster’s Dictionary, relevant definitions of capital include: “The wealth, as in money or property, owned or used in business,” and “pertaining to financial capital.”  The economic system based upon capital is known as capitalism, which my dictionary defines as “An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately owned.” I critiqued the use of capitalism as a basis for an economy in “The Immorality of Capitalism”   a few months ago. My moral critique of capitalism has its basis in academic psychology, which shows that unrestrained capitalism compels people to act at the lowest levels of morality. Basically, the pursuit of profit trumps all other concerns in capitalism, at least if it is not restrained in some way. Thus “might makes right” according to an unfettered capitalistic system, and whatever increases profits is morally justified. To use yet another platitude in the most appropriate possible manner, “The ends justifies the means.” Such a Capitalism encourages businesspeople to “rip off” their customers if they can get away with it.  As a result, business people typically operate on the lowest of the six stages of moral development described by Lawrence Kohlberg, a stage in which any outcome favorable to oneself is considered morally good, which normally applies only to young children, yet, shows a resurgence among wealthy businesspeople in adulthood due to the perverted economic system we suffer under, a system usually referred to simply as capitalism.

As a result, the question that has occurred to me is, how can we build a society with a more morally enlightened economic system? Not only would a morally enlightened economic system be far more fair, but it would also be more productive, because people would treat each other better within this system (which is the basis of morality in the first place), and be better rewarded for their efforts. Even more, since financial capitalism is basically an undemocratic system, we could build a more truly democratic society by changing our economic system. A related question is, what would be the basis for such an economic system? In order to build a more enlightened society, with a morally enlightened economic system, we must rethink its basis. An answer which I can only take partial credit for, although it occurred to me independently, is that there are different types of capital, not only financial capital. After having this idea, I discovered that some other authors have already written to some extent about certain types of capital other than financial (but not nearly as extensively as I plan to).

What follows is a non-exhaustive list of types of capital:

1. Financial capital (the current basis of our economic system and probably the only one that has really been actually fully utilized)

2. Resource capital (the valuing of our shared resources, in which a healthy environment is a wealthier one, as the basis of wealth)

3. Human capital (the valuing of our talents and skills — which innately belong to the individual and cannot be owned by others — as our actual wealth)

4. Intellectual capital (the valuing of ideas as the key to progress and as the basis for true wealth)

5. Scientific capital (the valuing of scientific knowledge and its application as the basis of true understanding and wealth)

6. Moral capital (the valuing of moral character and the nurturing of moral character as the basis for a happy, just and truly wealthy society)

7. Spiritual capital (the valuing of spiritual well-being and the quest for spiritual enlightenment as the basis of true wealth)

8. Well-being capital (the valuing of psychological happiness and well-being as the truest indicator of the health and wealth of a society)

9. Work capital (the valuing of actual work as the true basis of an economy, a bottom up approach which precludes people sitting around collecting money do to their exalted position in society)

10. Human health capital (the valuing of our health as prerequisite to any form of true happiness or wealth)

I thought of all 10 of these possibilities in about 10 minutes; there may be more to come. In any case, it is my plan to explore the possibilities for making these the basis for an economy, or at least, incorporating them into our economic system to make a more enlightened, balanced, and improved system. It is important to keep in mind that these types of capital are not mutually exclusive. The best possible economic system may well involve some combination of all of these. But at the very least, the time is long past due that we begin to recognize the reality and importance of these various sorts of wealth. It is also important to realize that some of these types of capital may already have a functional role in our economy. However, their roles need to be expanded and explicitly acknowledged. It is not just about money, which is essentially a human-constructed abstraction of the concept of value, whose acceptance as the basis of wealth means:

  • Accepting all the inequities of making inappropriate comparisons of value
  • accepting all of the human fallibility built into our monetary system
  • accepting a nondemocratic, autocratic system which has as its goal the creation of monopolies while hypocritically claiming to endorse competition
  • accepting that human beings have dominion over all life and all resources on earth, justifying the abuse of other lifeforms and our environment.

A truly healthy and sustainable economy means recognizing and appreciating the true bases of our wealth, and using a scientific approach to create a more enlightened, happy, compassionate, fair and environmentally friendly society.

Robert Warden


The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden) by Hieronymus Bosch. (Wikimedia) (Note: You can click the image, then click again on the image in the new window for a VERY magnified view)

“Welcome to your introductory tour of xTopia University.”

The emphasis of xTopia U is on the YOU— the student, faculty member, staff person, or other valued member of the xTopia University community!

My name is Podkayne and I was born here on campus, in the xTopia U-Natorium! And I’ve lived here all my life–15 years (that’s a bit over eight Martian years)!

Visitor #6: Podkayne, if you were born and raised here, and you’ve been in this place all your life, don’t you ever want to get away from it?

Podkayne: Oh, I like to explore other places, but I always want to come home to University. I feel more alive here than anywhere I’ve ever been. We are told that our project was named University because our purpose is to facilitate a universe of possibilities. xTopia University started as one of those possibilities, a project conceived and carried out by, for, and of a conscious community of artists, engineers, scientists and philosophers. I grew up in this community, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

We learn in the histories, and know that in many places still today, education has been separated from general life, often made compulsory and relegated to specific times, places and procedures. Corporations took on the tasks of research and product development for a profit, while politicians were responsible to craft projects of benefit to the community. At University projects are constantly being started, executed, sent out to find those who can now benefit from what has been accomplished. Someone or ones snag onto an idea and start to figure out the steps from here to there. A call is given out to anyone who is interested or has relevant skills to join in. We learn what we need to know each step of the way and bring in others as the project progresses. We have the background structure of xTopia University to draw upon, where learning of all kinds is constantly in session.

From the time I was very young, from my first moments of remembered consciousness, I knew any of my questions would find serious response at University. There are the libraries, record chips of any subject imaginable, everything explained from the simplest child’s vantage point up through the most learned of scholars in the field, fully illustrated in animation and live action, as appropriate. More importantly, there are the people, the scholars, engineers, scientists, artists, each with their passions that they are so very happy to share.

University is the busiest, bubbliest, energized and enthusiastic environment to grow in. No one says: “it can’t be done.” It’s always: “well, what’s the next step we need to get there?”

Well, are you guys ready to get started?

[Nods, grins, eager murmurs, and a few blank stares]

OK. But before we actually start the tour, I want to give you some background on the beautiful and somewhat exotic  name of our alma mater. (BTW that’s Latin for our bountiful mother.)

If you don’t have your Google-eyes on, please put them on now so you’ll get the video and hyperlinks and stuff as I talk.

Ready? OK. The name of xTopia U is derived (obviously) from the word Utopia.

Sir Thomas More coined the word from the Greek οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”), or “no place” for the title of his 1516 book.

The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (“good” or “well”)  and τόπος (“place”), means “good place”. The identical English pronunciation of “utopia” and “eutopia”, gives rise to a double meaning– a good place that is no place.

Thus a Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect social, political, economic and legal system . . . that doesn’t exist.

Utopian societies don’t exist on terra firma, either because they are places described only in works of philosophy, fantasy, or satire; or because the Utopian communities which have actually been founded from time to time here on planet earth have utterly failed to thrive or to persist.

“Chronologically, the first recorded utopian proposal is Plato‘s Republic. Part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, it proposes a categorization of citizens into a rigid class structure of “golden,” “silver,” “bronze” and “iron” socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the “philosopher-kings.” The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear.”(Wikipedia/Utopia)

Utopias in Economyland

Among the many varied species of Homo Utopianus, some have invented perfect economic systems that never existed, or which existed in humanity’s distant, romanticized past.

“[C]apitalist utopias do not address the issue of market failure, any more than socialist utopias address the issue of planning failure. Thus a blend of socialism and capitalism is seen by some as the type of economy in a utopia. . . .  According to the Dutch philosopher Marius de Geus, ecological utopias could be sources of inspiration for green political movements.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Holy Utopia!

Yet other Utopian visions have been based on religion, science, or a combination of both.

“Inter-religious utopia is a condition where the leaders of different religions accept science as a part of human life and agree to abolish all baseless superstitious beliefs. In more extended theories it goes up to the level of different religious leaders setting-aside their differences and accepting harmony, peace and understanding to unite all religions within one another. . . .

“Intra-Religious utopias are based on religious ideals, and are to date those most commonly found in human society. Their members are usually required to follow and believe in the particular religious tradition that established the utopia. Some permit non-believers or non-adherents to take up residence within them; others (such as the Community at Qumran) do not. . . . In the United States and Europe during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century and thereafter, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which all aspects of people’s lives could be governed by their faith. Among the best-known of these utopian societies were the Shakers . . . . (Wikipedia/Utopia)

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Scientific Utopias are set in a future day when science and technology have created all manner of wonders and cured all human maladies.

“Buckminster Fuller presented a theoretical basis for technological utopianism and set out to develop a variety of technologies ranging from maps to designs for cars and houses which might lead to the development of such a utopia.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Extropianism, also referred to as the philosophy of Extropy, is an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition.

“Extropianism describes a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactive approach to human evolution and progress.

“Originated by a set of principles developed by Dr. Max More, The Principles of Extropy,[1] extropian thinking places strong emphasis on rational thinking and practical optimism.

In 1988, Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought was first published. This brought together thinkers with interests in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, life extension, mind uploading, idea futures, robotics, space exploration, memetics, and the politics and economics of transhumanism.” (Wikipedia/Extropianism)

Where does xTopia University fit in all this?

We have taken this historical sidetrack so I can put xTopia U in context and explain what it is and is not. It is not a Utopia. It is not based on a preconceived idea of perfection. There is no preset formula, blueprint, or master plan. Instead, the ongoing evolution of xTopia University is symbolically represented by the mathematical variable “x”, which also stands for “experimentation“.

“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake)

But xTopia is not a single experiment– it is an evolving place and resource base through which we cultivate an endlessly-developing and diversifying ecosystem of experiments, observations, discoveries, connections, and production processes. One metaphor for this physical and intellectual ecosystem and its ever-spreading,  interweaving networks of roots, branches, and nodes is the great Tree of Life.

Yggdrasil – The Tree of Life (Wikipedia)

The scientific method and the art of empirical experimentation was first pioneered in ancient times by gifted individuals. It gradually developed into a systematized and teachable craft, and then evolved into a science and a technology. I don’t refer to technologies employed within particular experimental fields but to the evolving and recursive science and technology of experimentation itself. By experimenting on experimentation xTopia extends the science of science. At xTopia, continuous improvement applies to the methods as well as to the products of science.

On the other hand, from the outside xTopia doesn’t look or act much differently from other communities centered around a large college or land-grant university. In ancient Rome a collegium  was roughly analogous to a corporation, a club or society, or a group of persons living together under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”).

“Land-grant universities …are institutions of higher education in the United States designated by each state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering (though “without excluding … classical studies”), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on [Religious or] abstract Liberal Arts curricula. Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities. However, some land-grant colleges are private schools, including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” (Wikipedia)

In addition, xTopia U has intentionally copied many of the features of the University of Virginia, the school established in 1819 by the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. More than 200 years later UVA is still considered one of the best universities in the US.

University of Virginia (Wikipedia)

On January 18, 1800, Thomas Jefferson…alluded to plans for a new college in a letter written to British scientist Joseph Priestley: “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

Other universities of the day allowed only three choices of specialization: Medicine, Law, and Religion, but under Jefferson’s guidance, the University of Virginia became the first in the United States to allow specializations in such diverse fields as Astronomy, Architecture, Botany, Philosophy, and Political Science. Jefferson explained, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

(Wikipedia/University of Virginia)

Keep that last sentence in mind. I’ll be coming back to that after I say just a little more about Jefferson’s approach at UVA.

Jefferson centered UVA around the “Academical Village” consisting of a vast, terraced green surrounded first by the residential and academic buildings and then by the gardens, The Range, and the larger university. The common bonding of faculty and students in residency is considered integral to establishing peer discourse. And of course Jefferson’s university was originally surrounded by extensive lands which provided local sources for many of the economic necessities of life.  xTopia U is  fortunate to have adequate land holdings of our own. When we purchased our campus (then it was called the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) from The State in 2019, we were able to acquire nearly 22,000 additional acres surrounding the property. Much of the area around xTopia U still remains largely undeveloped and rural. In addition to the pre-existing towns nearby, a number of Eco-villages have grown up around us.

In all these ways xTopia U is very similar to Jefferson’s vision which in some respects may have been a pretty darn good approximation of a Utopia. The big difference is that xTopia might have started in almost any arbitrary configuration because its core principle is innovation, adaptation, and evolution. It doesn’t hurt to start with a great foundation, but the emphasis is not on a preexisting design–the emphasis is on continuous improvement.

Colleges and schools

xTopia’s initial organization was patterned after Jefferson’s UVA in the arrangement of its colleges and schools.

  • College of Liberal Arts
  • College of Arts & Sciences
  • School of Architecture
  • School of Business Administration
  • School of Commerce
  • School of Continuing and Professional Studies
  • School of Education
  • School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • School of Law
  • School of Medicine
  • School of Nursing
  • School of Leadership and Public Policy
  • Center for Chemistry of the Universe and Radio Astronomy Observatory

Of course we continuously extend and improve all the curricula and add new schools and centers of our own design which I will go into a little later on.

Now, when The State put Alabama A & M up for sale it was a historically black university with a lot of history. It was originally established by an act of the Alabama State Legislature in 1873 as the State Normal School and University for the Education of the Colored Teachers and Students. By the time it was purchased by us, it had about 6,000 undergraduates and graduate students from 44 states and 11 countries and a faculty of about 300. Quite a few of the A&M faculty and staff are still here at xTopia U, but now there are about 10,000 students, 2,000 faculty, 5,000 people on staff, and about 10,000 other independent free-lancers and family members in residence. The folks here now are of every imaginable ethnic, cultural, and national origin.

We’ve done a lot of new construction but we also retained some of the original Alabama A&M facilities. The original Learning Resources Center is a 75,000-square-foot building with over 50,000 real paper books. There were originally half a million hard-copy books in there but we had to get rid of most of them to make room for the necessary digital equipment and facilities  like the interactive Distance Learning Auditorium and the conference rooms, study lounges, labs, multimedia production studios, etc. We also kept:

  • The State Black Archives Research Center and Museum, housed in the James H. Wilson Building, a national registered historical structure.
  • The Small Business Development Center (now specializing in incubating Co-operative enterprises)
  • The Agribition Center, designed to host almost any kind of event, including trade shows and agricultural events.
  • The Campus Health and Wellness Center
  • Louis Crews Stadium is now the home of the xTopian Olympic Association and the Better Angels Football Club. The multi-purpose stadium seats 21,000 and is the sixth largest stadium in Alabama.

Credit: Wikipedia

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System which was based here when we bought the school back in 2019 is still here working in partnership with xTopia U. They work with our scientists, farmers, and foresters on developing and testing sustainable, organic practices and providing research, education, and technical services around the world. We are a major permaculture center and there are so many other sustainable and ecology things I don’t even have time to talk about it on the tour. You can get the details that interest you online.

Solar Power Station (Wikipedia)

We have also added some things Jefferson’s UVA or Alabama A&M never dreamed of. We have two concentrating solar-thermal power stations that supply all the power for the campus. We produce the bulk of our own food and forestry products. We have our own water wells and rainwater catchment systems. We have a variety of cottage industries and light manufacturing facilities that make things like electric vehicles, solar roofing tiles, and photovoltaic films and coatings.

xTopia has become a leader in the production of ethanol from grasses and waste cellulose. We not only sell ethanol in our local market but we also export our ethanol technology around the world.

Visitor #2: “My brother in law is a rocket scientist, and he told me it takes more energy to make ethanol that you can get out of it.”

(Rolling her eyes) We don’t have time to get into that side track right now, but when you get a chance, look at this debate between Doubting Thomas and my father, Poor Richard: Fermenting the Ethanol Debate.

Democratic Economics

A large number of xTopians from many disciplines participate in R&D for sustainable, ecological economic models. Consistent with our experimental approach to everything, we test a hypothesis with controlled trials in real-world situations. We often experiment on ourselves because the entire xTopia campus is a laboratory, wired for massive data collection, and we carry on a wide variety of economic activities that provide convenient test-beds for new ideas. (For a quick intro to sustainable, scientific economics, check this link: Escape from the Planet of the Economists.)

xTopia is, in part, a federation of co-operatives.  Many of xTopia’s tangible and intangible assets are collectively owned by  members of its cooperatives. In many cases workers participate in collective bargaining, although in some cases (such as certain xTopia faculty and staff positions) the pay scale is computed according to an algorithm (I’ll explain in just one minute).

A janitor who has worked at xTopia for 10 years may earn considerably more than a janitor in the mainstream economy, so many people might want to compete for the job. What keeps xTopia from firing a highly paid janitor and replacing her with a low-paid janitor? Something akin to a tenure policy. Most xTopia labor contracts permit firing only for “just cause” as determined by democratically governed labor councils of working xTopia peers. Labor councils also deal with issues of labor standards, job descriptions, workplace conditions, etc.

Although our experimental orientation leads to a lot of diversity, fringe benefits are often provided through member-funded mutual benefit associations. A fringe benefit that everyone loves is the sabbatical. For every five years I work, I get a year of paid leave. We consider this as much a benefit to the community as to the individual.

xTopia is a also a leader in the development of alternative and complementary currencies and banking methods. Many xTopia members and contractors who work with xTopia have agreed to be compensated in xTopia Happy Hours (HH) for their labor. Several coops use a scheme in which each hour worked earns one HH (plus an additional .00033HH times the total cumulative number of hours a person has worked for xTopia in their lifetime), up to a maximum hourly rate of 30 times the hourly rate of the lowest paid member,  regardless of the nature of work performed. Thus each successive hour worked earns slightly more HH than the hour before, and the rate doubles approximately every three years (6,000 hours). The maximum rate is reached in about 15 years.

Additional HHs may be paid for certain finished products, goods, or services over and above the labor involved. These rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. HH credits can be exchanged for a great variety goods and services on the xTopia campus, at many places in the surrounding communities, and at numerous sites online.

Naturally other schemes are constantly emerging and evolving as much (or more) through trial and error as by design.

(BTW, at xTopia U we are constantly developing the art, craft, and science of the experimental method itself. In other words, we even experiment with the process of experimentation, so new and different experimental methods and styles are always emerging and evolving here.)

Advanced Social R&D

The last thing I’ll include in this part of the tour is just a brief mention of some of xTopia’s unique social R&D centers. In addition to basic research, these centers help to develop new pedagogic methods and curricula and provide guidance for public policy:

  • The Center for Intentional Community
  • Center for Cognitive, Social, and Cultural Re-engineering
  • Center for Self-Study (study of, by, and for the self)
  • Center for Ecological Economics and Re-localization
  • The Center for Open Source Government and Culture
  • Center for Peer-to-Peer Process and Organization (C3PO)
  • Center for Social Entrepreneurship

So that’s the bird’s eye view of the xTopia campus with some of our history and organization in the physical sense.

The xTopia approach

The group that started xTopia, including my father, Poor Richard, came from many walks of life: Occupy Wall Street, MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, The Wikipedia Foundation, Google, the Integral Institute, the AHA! Foundation, the Gurdjieff Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, and too many others to list. They were a community of collaborators with expertise in psychology, linguistics, media studies, education, neuroscience, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, and innovation design.

A few minutes ago I quoted Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” That’s really the key to xTopia U. We don’t know what a Utopia might look like or how it might work, but here we are working towards a happy and sustainable future, as close as we can come to Utopia perhaps, one day and one experiment at a time. You might say its an enlightened trial and error approach.

Of course we always have lots of experiments going on all at once. Its a massively parallel multiplayer game. And almost everyone here at xTopia is a volunteer guinea pig, including the faculty and the families. Every school, college, research center, and every other organization and individual on campus is both a conductor of research and a subject of research. At the same time that we study math or science or music, or work in the labs, farms, or other facilities, we also study ourselves. We capture, analyze, and experiment with everything about ourselves– everything we do, everything we say, and a lot of what we think and feel– all the time.

This approach evolved out of various “Extreme Life Logging” projects back in the 2000’s. In 2003 it was estimated that as much new data was being generated about every two days as had been accumulated in all of history up to that year. By 2015, the rate of accumulation reached about 8 zettabytes (1 ZB = 10^21 bytes) per year, or about 18 million times the total digital assets held by the Library of Congress just five years earlier. At our current logging rates the xTopia community is generating that much new data on a monthly basis.

Such volumes would have been utterly toxic to the Metanet 20 years ago, yet it was the expanding “data deluge” (or “Great Flood”)  that initially lead to major advances in artificial intelligence and turned the scientific method on its head for about a decade while machine learning systems churned through growing backlogs of undigested data. This was called the Fourth Paradigm of Science. In those days about the only “science” that could get funded in the Corporate States of America was experimental data mining methodology and new human-readable presentation techniques. Until fairly recently the financial return on investment for improvements in data utilization remained orders of magnitude higher than for data collection.

The Virtual xTopia

The Google-eyes we use here are our own special design. We call them “peepers”. They do all the things your regular Google-eyes do and a lot more. They constantly record what I look at and what I say, and they record my brainwaves,  blood pressure, pulse, temperature, galvanic skin resistance, and lots of other bio-metric stuff. We call it the quantified self. They also record things going on around me for context.

Visitor #5: “Don’t you ever have any privacy, Podcayne? It sounds like Big Brother is always watching. How can you stand that?”

It isn’t like that, really. All the information my peepers collect is psuedo-anonymized. That is, recorded under an encrypted account. The audio and video that is collected of me, and other people around me, is stored in a way that protects the real identities. If a scientist views the data from my peepers today, or from any of the other millions of recording devices around campus, she will see and hear realistic, computer-generated, anonymous avatars instead of seeing and hearing the actual people. The body language, facial micro-expressions, voice metrics, bio-metrics, etc. will be equivalent but she won’t be able to identify the actual people involved unless she has access to the encrypted reference data in someone’s personal profile to compare it with. That personalized data is very carefully protected, and personal identities can only be accessed and used with each person’s permission. I’m sending your Google-eys some of the computer-rendered video of us right now so you can see what its like.

Visitor #8: “Wow, Podcayne. I love your costume!”

(Grinning) Thanks! I designed that Avatar myself.

Visitor #1: “Doesn’t that give away your identity, then?”

Only to you guys right now and other people who know me and know how I have customized my avatars. A lot of us do it. But our customized avatars are only used when and in ways we allow.

BTW our hypergrid is the best three-dimensional virtual world in the known virtual universe. Its a lot like the Star Trek holodeck, but with our peepers we access it from anywhere. We use it for recreation, research, and education. We have a hypergrid version of the whole campus, and most of our distance learning is done “in-world”.  After our tour is over, you’ll be able to continue exploring xTopia U in-world all you like.

Visitor #1: “Hey, I look like a dork!”

Podcayne looks at an image that her peepers project on the floor and makes a few gestures: How’s that?

Visitor #1: “Ahh, sick! Thanks.”

With virtual reality we do a lot more than teaching and learning (or goofing off). Its more like coaching, training, and practicing. There is only so much you can get from a text or a lecture. You sure can’t learn how to play basketball from a book.  But with VR we can put you on location and in the action. You don’t just get information, you develop skills. One of my favorite xTopia massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) is the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The whole setting, including the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the surrounding area of 1482 Paris, represents the landscape of the mind. All the characters are potentially parts of your own identity. Playing roles in the game helps you to to see yourself in others and others in yourself.

For kids of all ages we have some fun things like the Virtual Fables. These are based on classic fairy tales and folk tales like Aesop’s Fables, Tales of Br’er Rabbit, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One of our most popular games is Animal Farm 2.0, based on George Orwell’s classic allegory. The players can become any of the characters in the stories. The stories that we select to make into games all have important morals, lessons, cognitive skills, or social skills for the players to discover and practice.

Our role-play games all give individualized feedback on the players’ social and cognitive skills, cognitive biases, implicit associations, etc. This feedback helps players develop skills and capabilities very rapidly.

xTopia’s secret sauce

That brings me to the point where I can explain the special mission of xTopia U. The recipe of our secret sauce: self awareness. xTopia is founded on the belief that humanity does not face a crisis of the environment or energy or population or even a lack of ideas. Technical solutions to our economic, political, and environmental problems have been sitting unused on the shelf for a long time. Instead, humanity faces a crisis of human nature.

Human nature is a product of evolution. The Origins of Human Nature are found in the evolutionary contest between individual and group selection. We also have a lot of cognitive idiosyncrasies, such a tendency towards certain kinds of predictable irrationality.

Human culture has always evolved more rapidly than our anatomy. But even the rapid progress of our culture in the past few centuries has begun to fall behind the pace of changes and challenges we now face in our crowded societies and  our ravaged environment. Rather than rising to meet these challenges, our social institutions show signs of actually breaking down and becoming less effective. Increasing competition over land, water, food, and other resources is likely to favor increasingly authoritarian institutions. While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of highly authoritarian corporate neofeudalism (privatized government).

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Paul Gauguin

Faced with such prospects, some of us should be choosing to explore the boundaries of the brain’s ability to examine and extend itself and to accelerate the evolution of culture with the same kind of intensity and effort that it takes for the military occupation of the Middle East or sending a spacecraft to the Moon.

If we live or work together long enough and closely enough we may begin to establish what we call human broadband connections. This may evolve further as we keep house, interact with nature, travel, solve problems, share adventures, meet challenges and survive crises together, until we can finish each others sentences. We are beginning to realize that such intimacy can gradually change the chemistry and structure of the nervous system and allow for progressively increasing inter-personal communication bandwidth and synchronization. One example is menstrual synchrony.

Neural connections in the brain –

Some might consider this an interpersonal spiritual connection, but it is a natural phenomenon that we call bio-cognitive development (bio-cognitive = body + brain) and psycho-neuro-synchronization.

To achieve continuous improvement and positive quality control, we systematize and instrument our intentional community of self-study and self-development. We consciously formalize our group dynamics in a context of systems science and rigorous experimental design.

In addition to the shared activities mentioned above, some of the possible tools and techniques for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization include:

These and many other tools can be used for increasing adult brain plasticity and promoting emotional and physiological states that enhance learning, memory, and neural network integration. Conducted in groups they can also promote  psycho-neuro-synchronization and bio-cognitive group intimacy.

“Self Observation”

All this provides a matrix for accelerated cultural and cognitive evolution that is independent of gross  brain anatomy. (Lets face it, we aren’t getting bigger brains any time soon.)  Nonetheless, there is good reason to hope that radical self-knowledge, bio-cognitive development,  neuro-physiological practice, and psycho-neuro-synchronization may all work together to promote developmental changes in the brain’s micro-structure and its operational patterns. In other words we can re-engineer and re-program the brain’s operating system and its “apps”, even though much of all that is unconscious. We can try to examine and consciously modify various aspects of our irrationality, automaticity, implicit associations, cognitive biases, etc. With all these tools and techniques we may have a shot at developing a kind of persistent group consciousness capable of hosting perceptions and representations of reality and establishing behavioral innovations and capabilities well beyond the confines of the mainstream culture and language.

Micro-cultural Exchange

We need a diversity of experimental colleges and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

“Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”)” (Wikipedia: college)

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, at xTopia U we see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard

[Portions of Podkayne’s dialog by libramoon.]

Related PRA 2010 topics:

Additional Resources:

a quiet revolution unfolds

Virtual Worlds, Avatars, free 3D chat, online meetings in Second Life

RSA Animate – The Power of Networks (YouTube)

Framing the Market

Market failure diagram showing deadweight loss

Market failure diagram showing deadweight loss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m tired of  the market hype from the right and the left. The 1% relentlessly pushes a free market (invisible hand) mythology and the left has begun pushing a post-market (new-age invisible hand) mythology. Each form of market/anti-market fundamentalism will fail for the same reason: denial and wishful thinking (two sides of the same coin).

Is the market guilty as charged, or has it been falsely framed by both sides?

MYTH: The Free market.

FACT: There is no such thing as a free lunch or a free market. Every market is manipulated by the strongest players. The private sector cheats, steals, lies, and bullies. The state regulates according to a mixed set of public and private interests. If those interests get out of balance, either the public or private sector (or both) will suffer.

“Markets are not provided by nature. They are constructed — by laws, rules, and institutions. All of these have moral bases of one sort or another. Hence, all markets are moral, according to someone’s sense of morality. The only question is, Whose morality? In contemporary America, it is conservative versus progressive morality that governs forms of economic policy. The systems of morality behind economic policies need to be discussed.”    AlterNet / By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

MYTH: The Invisible Hand.

FACT: There is no such thing. There are only real, material “hands” that we either cannot or will not look at.

MYTH: Government is the problem, not the solution.

FACT: The solution is maximizing utility through appropriate checks and balances. Government has a role in 1) providing regulatory counter-balance to private concentrations of power which amplify the cheating, stealing, lying, and bullying; and 2) socializing some of the costs of education, R&D, infrastructure, public safety, national defense, etc.

MYTH: Markets are the problem, not the solution.

FACT: Ecosystems behave like economies with markets. Natural markets tolerate large amounts of power asymmetry (aggression) and information asymmetry (deception). What is not found in a natural ecosystem is an externality. They do not exist there. Externality in human economics is an entirely abstract fiction. An externality is where someone gets something for nothing and gets away with it indefinitely. That doesn’t happen in an ecological economy. If it did, all life would probably be extinct.  Instead, nature is stubbornly resisting and postponing its extermination at our hands. It actually doesn’t happen in the real human economy, either. It only happens in human economics, which is riddled with a variety of naive or intentional accounting errors which are generally explained by economists as externalities or market failures. Naturally, externalities and other accounting errors inevitably produce market failures.

MYTH: Living systems are not machines.

FACT: Living systems are at least in part machines, or they are at least in part LIKE machines. So living systems and machines have some things, if not everything, in common.  They need inputs, they have outputs, and they have interlocking working parts, many of which are essential for their continued operation. Living things may not be 100% material, if you like, but they are material enough to be subject to the laws of nature. Whatever else they may be, living systems work much like machines of comparable complexity.

Post-market theology

I won’t dwell on the myths of “economics as if only the 1%  mattered,” because they are now fairly well understood by many. We have given the invisible hand a very long trial. It’s had some episodic success but it is now failing badly. But there is lately a “new age” invisible hand that some are appealing to as an alternative.

I recently published a piece with the alternate title of  “Escape from the Planet of the Economists.” In that piece I made a case for “economics as if people mattered” and “economics as if the biosphere mattered.” I drew from writers like E. F. Schumacher who argue that the human economy is part of the ecosystem, not vice versa. This is currently being called sustainable or ecological economics. I completely agree with the particular arguments of the particular authors I cited. But some economic pundits are embracing this general framework without adequate understanding of what the ecosystem is or how it works, and without adequate understanding of what markets are or how they work. They seem fairly sure that you can’t shoehorn nature into a marketplace, and fairly sure that that one idea explains everything.

The premise seems to be that since the market has not historically conserved and enhanced the biosphere, the biosphere must work on non-market principles. The problem is that the second conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. It is a non sequitur. First, the nebulous thing we often call “THE market” doesn’t exist. Instead, the economy is an aggregate of many markets. Because many (or nearly all) of these markets are distorted or flat-out broken, it appears that markets per se are unworkable. Its as if someone in the middle of a vast junkyard of broken cars concluded that all cars were inoperable. In fact, with the right knowledge and tools, many of those cars could be fixed. But my imaginary character doesn’t have that knowledge. He doesn’t have the right tools, either.

If the first error is a false analysis of the problem, a second error inevitably follows–a false solution. The reason all the old cars (and old markets) in the economic junkyard are broken is that they were not maintained in a responsible fashion because they were only on temporary lease to their operators. Lets say all those irresponsible operators were just following the example, and sometimes the advice, or direction, of their betters, the 1%.

And now this two-faced 1% is getting caught in the act of green-washing their activities. They are pulling the strings of their politician manikins, sending them to international summits on hunger or the environment or global warming, campaigning for austerity or resource management schemes full of tricks and loopholes big enough to drive a fleet of deep-water drilling platforms through.

Many conclude that these amoral capitalists have nothing to offer but more waste, fraud, exploitation and abuse. Which is pretty much the case. So its only natural for a movement to gravitate around respect for the 99% and for the environment, and then go looking for post-market methods for shaping society and finding harmony with nature. They turn to gift economies and sacred economics drawn from mankind’s romanticized past, or imagine societies that function on harmony and good will instead of greed and accounting. They may be inclined to imagine bountiful commons that manage themselves the way nature manages itself. I’m sympathetic to the sentiments and the philosophy, but that doesn’t satisfy me. I want the skills and the tools to get broken markets and broken ecosystems back on the road to thriving.


GB.MEX.10.0143 (Photo credit: balazsgardi)

Of course what goes by the name green often isn’t (including some versions of “green economics“), and the only solution for that  is eternal vigilance against green-washing. “Big Green” would be dumb not to appropriate certain language from Natural Capitalism, for example–its just so easy.

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it, and a moral code that glorifies it.” – Political economist Frederic Bastiat, The Law [1850]

We are well-advised to be wary of giant green snakes and wolves in green clothing sneaking into the people’s garden; but not to be prejudiced against all applications of  market thinking in ecological economics. Is there any reason the 99% cannot “occupy” and democratize markets?

I can believe that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) projects are (or are not) clever tricks to disguise continued exploitation. Either way, the effort to scientifically quantify natural systems, as in  approaches to sustainable or Natural Capitalism, is not in itself a sinister scheme. It is required for good management of any system, whether fishery, forest or farm. No doubt the language of pending high-level agreements may be obfuscating some ulterior motives. I’m very skeptical of trading permission-to-pollute credits. But what is often proposed as the alternative is not exactly transparent, either.

Here is a fairly typical example from a writer who rejects Natural Capitalism and similar approaches because he fears a slippery slope to green-washing. He proposes an economic system based on:
  • peace, harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, equality and social and environmental justice;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism
There are lots of ambiguities there. Such ambiguities can easily morph into obscurities and obfuscations which can provide cover for abuse and exploitation of people or natural capital or both. Not even the ban on colonialism and interventionism really holds up to analysis unless we go back to being hunter-gatherers and stop colonizing or intervening in nature. As one of my peers pointed out to me recently, appeals to optimality are really arguments that we’re living (or will be)  in the best of all possible worlds; or would be if only we’d regulate or deregulate or something.
Inquisition 2.0?

How will we draw the lines between good-faith green economics and green-washing? No simple answer, but that’s the kind of thing that empirical science, at its best, can be good at. The alternative to science may be a kind of post-market fundamentalism whose dogma demands belief in a new-age invisible hand. I am already seeing omens of an Inquisition 2.0 which will torture disciples of sustainable capitalism until they confess to sins of  green-washing and recant their faith in science.

An ecological moral philosophy is useful, but a new version of the invisible hand (even a spiritual one) is not. A real science of sustainable economics is needed regardless. Such a science won’t be achieved just by good will and wishful thinking. It will require deep observation, painstaking metrics, statistics, and very complex accounting.

Confusion of tongues

The original Green Revolution was guilty of so many sins it may have cast a permanent cloud over the word “green”. Modern corporate and political green-washing darkens that cloud even more.

The battle for the soul of the word green reminds me of the confusion of tongues (confusio linguarum), the fragmentation of human languages described in the Book of Genesis 11:1–9, as a result of the construction of the Tower of Babel.  And George Orwell charicatured the authoritarian appropriation of language with  Newspeak in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, it refers to the deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state. (Wikipedia)

I’m not convinced that the left is not impoverishing the conversation on sustainability in another way with its glittering generalities about sacred economics and effortless abundance.

In a nutshell, without the rhetoric, the  moral or spiritual approach to economics boils down to:

  • reducing the scale and scope of markets
  • expanding the scale and scope of the commons
  • putting more emphasis on the public sphere

All that really means to me is there is no unitary, all-encompassing market and certain things aren’t on the auction block. Markets shall have circumscribed scope or boundaries, including appropriate regulation and no more archaic, grandfathered externalities. But the notion that everything should evolve from markets toward something else is pure speculation. Well-regulated, democratically-managed markets might be natural and desirable even within many local commons. An agricultural land trust might want a big, bustling produce market, and why not?

What we must add to the moral philosophy is an ability to mimic the balance between steady-state and development in living systems.

We need to start seeing markets, commons, and ecosystems alike as complex adaptive systems requiring appropriate (e.g. transparent, dynamic, and democratic) constraints and regulatory mechanisms both internal and external. We need to see them as layered, overlapping, recursive, and locally differentiated by environemntal niches.

These systems are almost unfathomably complex and I wager that all our current models and subjective interpretations barely begin to scratch the surface of the objective reality. Any notion that we can re-engineer the whole market ecosystem from the top down is the height of hubris. Instead it will take a great deal of inspired trial and error from the bottom up and from the inside out.

In our efforts to upgrade our economic consciousness, plenty of kumbaya will be essential, but it won’t be sufficient. Humanity cannot live on love and peanut butter alone.  I think many of the innovators  who will fertilize the science and technology of sustainable markets may come from the highly experimental (and less theoretical) hacker, re-mix, peer-to-peer (p2p), and open source cultures.

Ecological economics can also be thought of as integral economics, a framework that includes but transcends existing fundamentalist market frameworks, integrating local econo-diversity with global interdependence–i.e. reinventing economics for people and place.”

Neither markets nor economic anarchy seem to scale well by themselves. But I think they might scale indefinitely in balanced proportions.

Poor Richard

“They want us to believe the choice is the “free market” or government, when in fact it’s one system because government sets the rules of the market. And the real choice is between a system that works for the many or the few.

They want us to think people are paid what they’re “worth,” when in fact people are paid according to how the moneyed interests have organized the market — to their benefit and against most of the rest of us.

They don’t want us to see the upward pre-distributions hidden inside the market that give them a big chunk of our paychecks, as we pay more than we should for everything from drugs to Internet service to food.

They don’t want us to know how much their pollution is sickening us, their devastation of our lands is imperiling us, their sacking of our communities is ruining us, and their takeover of our democracy is robbing us of our capacity to set things right.” 

~Robert Reich


Robert Ryan is a Graduate Student Assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. Class of 2013 · PhD · Structures and Foundations · Business Environment, Ethics, and Public Policy · Strategic Management

This is my online interview with Robert Ryan on 5/22/2012:

Poor Richard: Robert, I’m curious what you think of my very unscholarly take on markets and green economics in “Framing the Market.”

Robert Ryan: The simplest way to summarize this problem is “optimization under constraint”. In the same way that engineers perform constrained optimization problems, it is generally assumed in markets that individuals do the same, each using the same rationale as an engineer of their own personal consumption functions. Markets (here we are referring to idealized, perfect ones) are non-coordinated mechanisms for spot transactions to optimize utility under budget constraint. What this generally means is that the only two important variables are individual level preferences and budgets. As you have mentioned, this doesn’t hold true if you have more important variables like information, time, transaction costs, bargaining power, etc. Simply put, there is no “environment” in traditional market models, period, which is what separates them from evolutionary ecosystems. Ecosystems aren’t just individuals. There are group level dynamics where individuals interact with “BOUNDARIES” of the system. For example, consider how tides in a sandbar ecosystem is a boundary condition for the survival of a population of sandbar-dwelling animals. The very existence of tides shapes behavior. The list of natural system boundaries for markets include, but are not limited to: Rationality (what Herbert Simon called bounded rationality)…environmental entropy and finality (in the sense that some resources tend to be not only scarce, but decaying and non-renewable, and that some resources have critical inflection points where they pass between sustainable in supply and not……power (which is delineated by human institutions, including knowledge, law, etc.)…technology (which is the level of possible combinations of resources to create final goods)….etc…..notice that all of these constraints can be put into the economic system, but economists struggle to do so because of the complexity problem causing indeterminacy (the mathematics of chaos takes over, essentially, when everything ids dependent on everything else recursively). The simplest way to escape the problem of chaos is to hold some things constant over time. So, this is what people do to solve problems- hold things constant that may or may not BE constant. Their biggest error in the modern age occurs when hey hold constant essential SUPPLY SIDE problems, such as pollution externalities being ignored. An externality as you defined it is not quite right. An externality really is when one individual’s action that maximizes THEIR preferences impacts the entire economy negatively. For example, if a polluter pollutes, everyone else picks up the tab. The simple way to deal with externalities is to regulate against them, but that requires common agreement among everyone in the regulation.

Poor Richard: Robert. I appreciate and agree. Could I add your remarks as a comment to my blog post? (I was being a little flip with my definition of externalities. Maybe I should tweak it.)

Robert Ryan: Many people don’t know that economists indeed do solve such problems. The most popular field of economics for dealing with this problem is the economics of contracts. A market is a special case of contracts where all tricky bits are held constant. However, contract economics is generally specified so that you can account for ANYTHING. But, the math is really tricky for even the simplest of contracts. Contract economics presumes a bunch of agents are trying to negotiate a solution to an economic problem, and at least one of them is a principal. This is basically the mathematical representation of social contract problems: “we all get together before birth, or before the veil of ignorance, and devise a social contract to solve problems” – is how my professor Lawrence Ales puts it. For example, there may be some golden ratio of consumption of farmland that if you pass beyond you begin destroying future farm output. In order to prevent this, the principal is granted the ability to distribute to farmland (forming your constraint) and then the agents can auction for their slice of production. In this fashion you cap the use of farmland. Easier said than done, because it is hard to know exactly how this problem works in the real world–the chaotic inter-dependencies of the precise use of farmland and the precise use of other kinds of resources (water, air, etc…what technical combinations are employed in production, etc. ) are hard to know, and the equations of their interdependency are recursive. Carbon caps are an attempt to do exactly this, and the logic for it comes from contract economics, not market economics. To summarize again, you can solve these problems one at a time by holding other problems constant, but you get the “law of unintended consequences” even in contract economics in a complex world. Solving one problem can often pass the problem into another domain. Solving carbon problems can, for example, pass the problem on to other kinds of supply issues, rent-seeking behavior, arbitrage, etc. However, we can still do some of this with economic engineering (combinations of market and contract rules) if we use a kind of Pareto efficiency rule– start with the biggest problems first and work backward– permit the little inefficiencies to exist and simply engineer human solutions to the tough problems. When the problems of the world are explained thusly, then it becomes obvious that ethical solutions to market economic problems are certainly obtainable, and only ignorance or immoral behavior can explain why we don’t engineer problems of public goods of such nature. This means our real problem is NOT economic but political/social. Ironically, everyone keeps blaming economists when the real blame lies in the power structures of political reality.

AS a general rule, one would say that markets should only be the appropriate mechanism where externalities and supply side inter-dependencies are trivial. When they are major problems, markets will inevitably destroy whatever environment you are dealing with. They eat themselves. They are cancerous. However, if you can contain and isolate markets from the ecosystem so that they are in “remission” essentially, then they are optimal. Ecosystems do suffer from cancerous market-like problems, too. The main reason why ecosystems tend to survive in the long run is that the entire system adapts to starve the cancer. Human markets aren’t designed to adapt to starve the cancer efficiently. They will in the long run, but in the long run we’re all dead. A troublesome species like humans can simply write themselves out of existence. Well, if that’s not an acceptable endgame solution, then we have to constrain our own cancers before we eat ourselves. This is why we need social contracts, and if we cannot make adequate ones, we need to break into subspecies (tribes, etc.) and exterminate the cancerous subspecies that are indigenous to the problem in order to save the species. That sounds awful, but true.

Poor Richard: I agree with you about the difficulty of the math. Fortunately massive data collection and pattern detection may soon give us a new way of doing science, and replace a lot of difficult mathematical modeling. I think we should take about 10% of all scientists and mathematicians and put them on that critical path.

Robert Ryan: We are reaching a state of the world that definitely calls for a technocracy in the similar sense that Plato wanted us to have philosopher kings. Truly the smart people of this world could be put to work solving our problems in a fashion far superior than is currently being done, and this is a big part of my political platform I advance. I call it the Pragmatist party (or New Bull Moose).

Poor Richard: I like the sound of the Pragmatist party. How would it handle the 1%?

Robert Ryan: By appealing to the top 20% instead. One of the big fallacies is that the 1% can out-bully the entire middle class. They can’t. No middle class and there is no economy, no military, no institutions to exploit. The middle class has not really shrunk. Its the lower middle, or working class, that has been getting worse off and shrinking as more people are falling to the lower class. The real middle class is really the professionals, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, petite bourgeoisie. There is no political party designed to appeal to them directly. In fact, both American parties preserve power by going around them completely. Most of the real middle class are independent and non-extremists. The pragmatist party basically says: enough is enough. These are the real job creators, the innovators, the creatives of society. Without them there would be no economic growth. So, let’s appeal to them pragmatically and say they can deflate the 1%, and in exchange for gaining more representation, they must take better care of the lower classes than the 1% has. Our target audience is thus the people who truly dominate campaign donations, charity donations, and our communities, but have been so fractionalized and “suburbanized” so as to think of themselves as independent instead of a class. If they were to think of themselves as a class again of sane people of balanced reasoning, then the middle class could save us.

Poor Richard: How can you appeal to such a class without insulting or alienating the rest of the 99%? And isn’t there a good reason that the middle class doesn’t make waves?

Robert Ryan: Yeah– I’ve had this discussion many times before. Well, we are reaching a point where, for the first time in American history, their prospects are not looking to get better, and they all mostly know that their nation is crumbling slowly, and that there is no good reason for this to happen. There are already plenty of instances of these people getting together to get the job done on a smaller scale. Typically you see this in university/business/local govt. cooperation. Various entities have gotten together to plan to save Detroit, for example. And they’re already on the right track. These sorts of cooperative efforts to socially contract new, smarter solutions do happen, and when they do, they tend to be more localized. This is part of the sensibility of the authors out there writing about the urgent need to revitalize our cities– cities are the places where, historically, the top 20% collaborate to make great places to live for everyone. The 1% typically help finance everything and provide resources flowing into these cities. But the very history of the city is the history of the yeoman specialists and master tradespeople getting together and making economies tick. The role of the larger federal system is to provide resources to these self-organizing activities on a more local level– such as infrastructure banking, research grants, development money, etc…but the activities have to be more local and less centrally planned. There seems to be an optimal scale efficiency of central planning, and it is when you have diverse interests willing to throw their hat into a common state interest– in the US, this has never been the federal level because of a lack of common identity. Regions and states are more apropos. Richard Florida is one man who understands this and would be an ideal candidate for such a party.

Richard Florida | Creative Class Group

How Detroit Is Rising

You’ve heard the story of the city’s downfall. This is the story of its comeback.

Multimedia showcase | Creative Class Group

mimicking the balance between steady-state and development in living systems

Escaping Economyland

(Alternate title: Escape from the Planet of the Economists)

Economyland is a place on the flat world of  Reductio Ad Absurdum where the Economical Bestiary’s mythical beasts run wild in a free state of nature. Economyland is the true center of the universe around which the sun, planets, stars, and all the rest of the universe revolves. Economyland was created by God and placed under the dominion of man,  a sort of Disney-esque theme park for economists of all species. In ancient times Economyland was known as Economia:

In the Eastern Orthodox, Greek-Catholic Churches, Latin Catholic Church,and in the teaching of the Church Fathers which undergirds the theology of those Churches, economy or oeconomy (Greek: οἰκονομία, oikonomia) has several meanings. The basic meaning of the word is “handling” or “disposition” or “management” or more literally “housekeeping” of a thing, usually assuming or implying good or prudent handling (as opposed to poor handling) of the matter at hand.  (Wikipedia)

War of the World-views

Pius conservatives are fond of accusing science of being reductionist, of reducing the divinely-wrought human being and the world of nature to an oversimplified, materialistic machine.  This is, as always, the conservative pot calling the kettle black.

Liberal economists don’t do much better. Most economists share a model of the economic world that is simplistic, reductionist, and naively anthropocentric.

<– click on the image for a closer view of Economia

Capitalism defines the economic system in terms of the dynamics of capital and labor; production, distribution, and consumption;  or as it is often framed, the supply and demand of goods and services. The natural world is seen only as a supply depot for raw materials. The production and consumption of goods and services of and by the biosphere , is treated as a giant externality. And that view is a giant existential blunder.

Of course, it is a conveniently self-serving (if short-sighted) blunder in some quarters; and we need not wonder too hard about how and why this oversight has persisted for so long.

In contrast, “economics as if people mattered” (see below) has to begin with economics as if the biosphere mattered. The biosphere can not be treated as a free supply depot and waste dump. The ecosystem cannot simply be seen as a magical black box that God put here to provide for all human wants and dispose of all human garbage. You’d have to be either a moron or a person with serious conflicts of interest skewing your judgment (or both) to hold such a view. Yet that is just the view of most economists, for whom nature is simply a part of the human economy rather than vice versa.

One of the first widely respected economists to correct this misapprehension was E. F. Schumacher who published Small is Beautiful in 1973, which placed the study of economics where it belongs, inside the study of the ecology of the biosphere. His ideas were of course treated with contempt by most conservative economists and they are generally still ignored by or unknown to most liberal economists.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher.

Schumacher was a respected economist who worked with John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith. For twenty years he was the Chief Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board in the United Kingdom, opposed the neo-classical economics by declaring that single-minded concentration on output and technology was dehumanizing. He held that one’s workplace should be dignified and meaningful first, efficient second, and that nature (and the world’s natural resources) is priceless.

Schumacher proposed the idea of “smallness within bigness”: a specific form of decentralization. For a large organization to work, according to Schumacher, it must behave like a related group of small organizations. Schumacher’s work coincided with the growth of ecological concerns and with the birth of environmentalism and he became a hero to many in the environmental movement.  (Wikipedia)

The Happiness Index (E.F. Schumacher Society/New Economics Institute)

The E.F. Schumacher YouTube Channel

Another writer, Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, is making an effort to put the study of economics into a modern scientific perspective. Following are a few excerpts from a pre-publication version of his book The End of Growth:”

The classical [economic] theorists gradually adopted the math and some of the terminology of science. Unfortunately, however, they were unable to incorporate into economics the basic self-correcting methodology that is science’s defining characteristic. Economic theory required no falsifiable hypotheses and demanded no repeatable controlled experiments. Economists began to think of themselves as scientists, while in fact their discipline remained a branch of moral philosophy—as it largely does to this day.

…For help, we can look to the ecological and biophysical economists, whose ideas have been thoroughly marginalized by the high priests and gatekeepers of mainstream economics…

The ideological clash between Keynesians and neoliberals (represented to a certain degree in the escalating all-out warfare between the U.S. Democratic and Republican political parties) will no doubt continue and even intensify. But the ensuing heat of battle will yield little light if both philosophies conceal the same fundamental errors. One such error is of course the belief that economies can and should perpetually grow.

But that error rests on another that is deeper and subtler. The subsuming of land within the category of capital by nearly all post-classical economists had amounted to a declaration that Nature is merely a subset of the human economy—an endless pile of resources to be transformed into wealth. It also meant that natural resources could always be substituted with some other form of capital—money or technology. The reality, of course, is that the human economy exists within, and entirely depends upon Nature, and many natural resources have no realistic substitutes. This fundamental logical and philosophical mistake, embedded at the very heart of modern mainstream economic philosophies, set society directly upon a course toward the current era of climate change and resource depletion, and its persistence makes conventional economic theories—of both Keynesian and neoliberal varieties—utterly incapable of dealing with the economic and environmental survival threats to civilization in the 21st century.

Another giant of economic empiricism and innovation, though not an economist per se, was W. E. Deming.

William Edwards Deming (October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and consultant. He is perhaps best known for his work in Japan. There, from 1950 onward he taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing and sales (the last through global markets, through various methods, including the application of statistical methods.

Deming made a significant contribution to Japan’s later reputation for innovative high-quality products and its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Despite being considered something of a hero in Japan, he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death. (Wikipedia)

Though still virtually unknown and unappreciated in the US, Deming was almost solely responsible for the transformation of Japanese industry from having, in my childhood, a reputation for manufacturing cheap junk goods to, by the mid-70′s, a reputation as the maker of the world’s highest quality and highest value automobiles, electronics , and many other consumer goods. Though his ideas of continuous improvement were originally widely rejected in the US until recently because they did not fit with autocratic US corporate culture, in the 80′s and 90′s US industry imported many Japanese manufacturing consultants  due to the reputation for quality and efficiency that Japan had gained, ironically, as a direct result of adopting Deming’s ideas.

Demings methods, rejected by US captains of industry for decades, swept through the entire Asian world and are largely responsible for the fact that Asian manufacturers are still kicking US industry’s ass today in markets as diverse as cars, cell phones, personal computers, and solar cells.

Where would American workers be without such enlightened and visionary corporate management? Perhaps still in the middle class instead of in unemployment lines or among the the ranks of the working poor. The story of W. E. Deming proves yet again that a profit is without honor in his own land.

The US Is Becoming an “Underdeveloping Nation”


While President Obama tapped former corporate executives to become his top economic team, many economists question the path the United States is on. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now speaks to the acclaimed Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. He won the Right Livelihood Award in 1983, two years after the publication of his book Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics.

“We are simply, dramatically stupid. We act systematically against the evidences we have. We know everything that should not be done. There’s nobody that doesn’t know that. Particularly the big politicians know exactly what should not be done. Yet they do it. After what happened since October 2008, I mean, elementally, you would think what? That now they’re going to change. I mean, they see that the model is not working. The model is even poisonous, you know? Dramatically poisonous. And what is the result, and what happened in the last meeting of the European Union? They are more fundamentalist now than before. So, the only thing you know that you can be sure of, that the next crisis is coming, and it will be twice as much as this one. And for that one, there won’t be enough money anymore. So that will be it. And that is the consequence of systematical human stupidity.”

“First of all, we need cultured economists again, who know the history, where they come from, how the ideas originated, who did what, and so on and so on; second, an economics now that understands itself very clearly as a subsystem of a larger system that is finite, the biosphere, hence economic growth as an impossibility; and third, a system that understands that it cannot function without the seriousness of ecosystems. And economists know nothing about ecosystems. They know nothing about thermodynamics, you know, nothing about biodiversity or anything. I mean, they are totally ignorant in that respect. And I don’t see what harm it would do, you know, to an economist to know that if the beasts would disappear, he would disappear as well, because there wouldn’t be food anymore. But he doesn’t know that, you know, that we depend absolutely from nature. But for these economists we have, nature is a subsystem of the economy. I mean, it’s absolutely crazy.”

“The principles of economics should be based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

  • One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
  • Two, development is about people and not about objects.
  • Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
  • Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
  • Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.
  • And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under any circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.”

View the entire interview with Amy Goodman and Manfred Max-Neef.

Keeping It Real

Modern economists need to get over their hair-splitting theories, self-serving technical jargon, and their detached, ivory-tower naïveté, and get real.

As E. B. White once aptly advised, “Bend down, Librarians, and taste the page.” I think it was also he who said “All their biology is Latin names.”

That is the message of the Economical Bestiary, which ridicules the brand of economics which persists to this day as little more than, as Richard Heiberg calls it, moral philosophy. The moral hazard for economists is succumbing to the personal, financial, and academic conflicts of interest between the cognitive corruption of their profession and the objective imperatives of reality.

Poor Richard

Framing the Market (PRA 2010)

Ecological economics (Wikipedia)

Environment Equitable Sustainable Bearable (Social ecology) Viable (Environmental economics) Economic Social

Ecological economics is a transdisciplinary field of academic research that aims to address the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space. It is distinguished from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, by its treatment of the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem and its emphasis upon preserving natural capital. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing “strong” sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital.


Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution is a 1999 book co-authored by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins. It has been translated into a dozen languages and was the subject of a Harvard Business Review summary.

Their fundamental questions are: What would an economy look like if it fully valued all forms of capital? What if an economy were organized not around the abstractions of neoclassical economics and accountancy but around the biological realities of nature? What if Generally Accepted Accounting Principles recognized natural and human capital not as a free amenity in inexhaustible supply but as a finite and integrally valuable factor of production? What if in the absence of a rigorous way to practice such accounting, companies started to act as if such principles were in force. (Wikipedia)

The principles used by Natural Capitalism Solutions are:

1. Buy time by using resources dramatically more productively.

This slows resource depletion, lessens pollution, and increases employment in meaningful jobs. It lowers costs for business and society, halts the degradation of the biosphere, makes it more profitable to employ people, and preserves vital living systems and social cohesion.

2. Redesign industrial processes and the delivery of products and services to do business as nature does, using such approaches as biomimicry and cradle to cradle.

This approach enables a wide array of materials to be produced with low energy flows, in processes that run on sunlight, emulating nature’s genius.  It shifts to circular economies in which materials are reused, remanufactured and waste is eliminated.

3. Manage all institutions to be restorative of natural and human capital.

Such approaches enhance human well-being and enable the biosphere to produce more wealth from its intact communities and abundant ecosystem services and natural resources.(Natural Capitalism Solutions)

Normal Schnormal

The older I get, the crazier I realize that I am. Despite some evidence that I am getting smarter at peeling back layers of reality and seeing more of the big picture, the more clearly I see myself, the worse I appear in my mental bathroom mirror– full of neuroses, false narratives, revised memories, self-deceptions, obsessions and compulsions, unconscious associations, and cognitive biases.

If I’m right that each age and each age group suffers from its own set of individual and collective self-delusions, the only rational behavior would be for all of us to abandon our faith in normality, whatever we currently think it is, and work together in multi-generational, multi-disciplinary groups to re-explore the world and to prospect for new nuggets and veins of reality together.

Homer statue at the University of Virginia

Homer statue at the University of Virginia (Image via Wikipedia)

Prospecting for reality…

I think this is what Thomas Jefferson hoped would happen at the University he established. He doubted the value of simply handing out degrees as certificates of competence. He wanted to create an ongoing, living experiment–a diverse demographic of people living and laboring together in a common cause: questioning normality and learning something new about reality every day. I don’t think the University of Virginia has lived up to that hope over time, but time isn’t all over and done, yet.

When I suggest abandoning normality, I’m not proposing anarchy. I’m really talking about “beginner’s mind“. Of course, there may be some babes worth saving from the dingy bath water of normality and tradition. But normality is  missing something we need to keep the whole bathtub from going over a cliff: We need a diversity of experimental colleges* and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, I see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard


* “Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”); indeed, some colleges call their members “fellows”.” (Wikipedia: college)

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