If unregulated capitalism has failed us in the context of sustainability of natural resources and community health, are their other financial systems that might enable us to reformulate value and reward new behavior with more employment, responsible return, equity and justice? The Next System Project was initiated to answer that question by identifying alternatives, fostering conversation, evaluating fresh ideas and proposing hybrid or new solutions. According to their first project report, "A political economy is a system, and today's system is not to meet basic needs but to prioritize the generation of corporate profits, the growth of Gross National Product, and the projection of national power."
From my perspective, we live with the benefits and the consequences of that fact every day. But what can we do about it? Who are we to make a difference? How do our actions contradict corporate power where shareholders cannot force the corporations to divest, adopt sustainability practices, uphold environmental and safety standards, tell the truth. How can we influence something as formidable as Gross National Product? How can we counter military incursions and financial impositions on countries without our economic or military resources, but nonetheless vastly rich in the natural resources that we require to continue and expand our higher standard of living? How do we delimit such projections of power, the resultant social devastation and consequence, when we don't have the facts or a government representative of our collective will, or leaders who will stand for transparency and justice even when it threatens their re-election? "Our goal is not to answer all the questions," states the Next System Project report, "...we seek to define sufficiently clear options...so that we can radically expand the boundaries of political debate in the United States and help give greater clarity of long term direction to activists, researchers, practitioners, and to millions of others -- young and old -- who are increasingly angered by the immorality and insecurity of the existing system and want to somehow realize America's long unfulfilled promise of freedom and democracy."
The number of alternative theories and structures is surprisingly large. Here is a partial list as enumerated by the report: 1. Worker Ownership and Self-Management; 2. Localism, a small scale, decentralized, ecologically oriented sector of entrepreneurial individuals, small businesses, and households; 3. Reinvigorated Social Democracy, a continuation of some capitalist endeavor tempered by strengthened regulation, industrial policy, full employment, and national economic planning; 4. Beyond Growth Ecological Economies, a decoupling of well-being from natural resource consumption toward prioritization of resource efficiency, renewable energy, consumption taxes, and changed to the historical market economy; and more.
Clearly there is much theoretical work to be done. But what might be the tangible outcomes? I was drawn to the embodiment of the Next System Project plan to be made manifest in fully articulated models of how one city, one state, one region, and one nation might be reorganized today on the basis of these new ideas, institutions, strategies and principles.
Now, wouldn't that be a world for our children to live in? Is it so idealistic as to be impossible? I think not, in that this kind of creative thinking represents known and unknown strategies by which to invent our way out of a dilemma. And, as we have often discussed here, there are many examples of individuals, groups, companies, communities, regions, and states that have found ways to apply these ideals in spite of the contradiction around them. Suddenly, you hear the phrase "bottom up" everywhere, a reflection of this growing populist re-organization of ideas and power that mostly relate to local well-being and success and defy the existing "top down" paralysis.
But here's a problem: it can't all be just about systems. There needs to be substance, a real organizing principle around which all these system in whole or in part can combine and recombine to make palpable, measurable, successful, sustainable change in government, institutional, community, and individual behavior.
What is that substance, you might ask? It is water.
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