The Long Boom?

Responses to the Dialogue of Paul Hawken and David Korten

Dialogue of Paul Hawken and David Korten

Capitalism and primal urges

I am increasingly looking at the power of the prevailing system, at its seductiveness and its creative spirit. As I am watching humans be at their most inventive putting incredible passion into work that at some level continues to contribute to the destructiveness Paul and David describe, I am wondering whether capitalism doesn't derive its success in some large part from its ability to bring forth the creative genius of humans. It's not that 98 percent of humanity is simply anesthesized; it's that some number of that 98 percent get to do and experience some really cool things - and by offering others the ability to "consume" the products of that creativity, they too can take part in that energy. It's a primal urge, I think. The strength of capitalism isn't just derived from capital and its distribution; it comes from its ability to fulfill primal urges. That's what makes it powerful - and hard to change.

David speaks warmly about the "mindful enterprises owned by real people & [who] operate small farms and bakeries, local convenience stores, health food stores." The current system has brought forth human endeavors (done by real people) in areas never before seen, such as network engineering, genetic manipulation, signal processing, nanotechnology, marketing, just to mention a few. These activities derive their energy in part from the fact that they have global reach, a wide impact. They are not "low-margin" activities. They are nurtured by the forces of a global consumer who is continuously hungry for the next "cool" thing.

I think Paul addresses this well in his final thoughts of "great foreboding & the long boom." I share that. To cope with that we need to get close to it, to understand the power of it. I don't think these are empty strivings. Primal maybe. Powerful and sustaining definitely. Hard to change, absolutely.

Herman Gyr is an author and corporate consultant living in Palo Alto, California.


Biocentric consciousness

A "long boom" in which economic growth continues to rocket for years to come seems precluded on a planet whose biosphere is no longer able to regenerate what we destroy and whose capacity to absorb and recycle the wastes we dump is way past being exhausted. How can "business as usual" continue in the face of increasingly violent weather events or the meltdown of the Antarctic ice shelves? How will we continue to feed growing populations to match the projections when 80 percent of topsoil is gone because of industrial farming methods and water is disappearing from deforestation?

We are already caught up in an ecological upset unique in the planet's history, and it is only because of our almost universal disconnectedness from the natural world that we can imagine things going on unchanged for any length of time.

I think, without being aware of it, we are still trying to hang on to a homocentric approach to life where developing a biocentric consciousness and acting on it is the only way.

There is only one certainty - there will be change. It's here. We are experiencing a big one as we talk.

Kurt E. Volckmar is a retired corporate executive and sculptor living in Humbolt County, California.

Breaking through

What an insightful interview! Both Paul and David are right on - which means it isn't either/or; It's both/and. I think they are right in that the corporation as we know it is incredibly destructive. But it is also true that phenomenal change is happening. As I learn more about the companies and NGOs that are evolving, I think of the image of a little plant in the sidewalk, pressing with such determination that it breaks through the tiniest crack in the concrete. Believing as I do in the basic goodness of the universe, I expect the dinosaurs will eventually die out, and we will find a better way. It is inevitable; we just have to hold the vision long enough.

Keep up the good work, all of you.

Maya Porter is editor of Perspectives, the journal of the World Business Academy.

Grassroot common sense

Fascinating questions were discussed by Paul Hawken and David Korten in the article "Corporate Futures." But Paul and Dave, your comments leave me unsatisfied. They edge a bit into criticism and blame of  corporations. Any kind of pity party is a red flag for me.

Common sense is what we all need. Tom Atlee quotes Paul Hawken, saying "We need a collective intelligence of a kind that may not have characterized the human species in the past; but we see no reason to believe that & a whole population cannot reach a stage of mature self-consciousness much as an individual does."

As the local population/sustainability committee chair for my environmental organization, I am delighted to report that our opponents often do a surprisingly good job of cooperating with us and learning with us. I trade books with one of the local Right to Life leaders. We work together on protesting economic globalization. Often corporate people and other opponents quietly slip into our environmental group to talk politics with us. Often we end up working together.

Businesses often promise us money, power, and privilege in reward for our passionate service. That con doesn't help. I wish that everyone would laugh at the idea of killing ourselves to get ahead in the world - that we wouldn't take our jobs so seriously. Our simplicity circle helps us examine if what we sacrifice is worth it. And environmental organizations too often prophesy Armageddon and promise long-term salvation. Our people are often terribly devout and compulsive in their devotion to the cause. And not too realistic, honest, and sensible about it all. In short, both business and its critics need to get a life and learn to laugh at themselves.

Nan Hildreth lives in Houston, Texas.


Rewire the game


Korten and Hawken get to the heart of the matter when they assail the monomaniacal pursuit of money as the measure of all things. That's more to the point, in my opinion, than what Korten refers to as "the often heard claim that corporations will lead the way to social and environmental health if government would just remove the regulatory barriers that hamper responsible behavior." (Maybe I've been asleep, but I've never heard that claim. The more typical critique of government regulation is that it doesn't allow business to do whatever it wants.)

And there's the nub of the matter. Korten speaks about "enterprises that are accountable to the communities in which they are located," but the challenge is how to forge that accountability in a way that is both effective and non-bureaucratic.

It's not that "corporate types" don't care. (Like most of us, they're gasping for hope. The biggest surprise for this 60s-activist-turned-corporate-consultant is that there are people in there, with much the same passions and common sense as any other cluster of people, as Hawken's spaceship story demonstrates.) It's that, in a game that's wired to maximize short-term return on capital, they can'tcare - unless they find ways to re-wire the game.

To some degree, that can be done by finding profit opportunities in the margin - the Factor Ten work that Hawken and Lovins have been writing about. But ultimately it will require "truing up the prices" - teaching the price signals on which market cybernetics depend to reflect what economists so conveniently dismiss as externalities - namely physical reality.

Gil Friend is president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.


Farms and capitalism

David Korten's and Paul Hawken's criticisms of the ways capitalism shapes corporate behavior are equally applicable to farmers. Capitalism's competitive atmosphere creates economic selection pressures which favor the most ruthless exploiter, regardless of whether one is producing tires or tomatoes.

I believe that to make our economy sustainable, we will have to radically restructure property ownership so that many more people have a say over how productive resources are used. We should decentralize production of many products. We will also have to begin to properly value nature's resources and services.

A great deal of small-scale experimentation is needed to get us from where we are now to where we need to be. I live and farm in the international, experimental township called Auroville, in South India, where we have largely decommodified the labor of our 1,300 members. Also, the land of Auroville is not the private property of any single individual. Such innovative arrangements have considerable consequences for how our time is spent and how we relate to the land.

Brooks Anderson lives in Auroville, India.


A new Catch 22

My wishes are captured succinctly by one of Paul's closing comments, "I want to work with people who do not use money to measure anything, especially their life. I want to work where there is more heart and less greed; more laughter and less pride; more options and no stock options."

The trouble is, most of us are stuck in a brutal new kind of Catch-22: While we yearn to enter that world Paul describes, we must "succeed" in the money establishment to create the space necessary to breathe and express ourselves fully. That is, we need to succeed at "what is" to work toward "what needs to be," particularly in places like Northern California, where real estate prices continue to zoom beyond any notion of common sense and affordability, homogenizing entire regions into bedroom communities of "successful" business executives and other highly paid professionals.

What is most needed is a rich "roots oriented" philosophy that ideally should grant people with little or no resources real options for participating in a world in which money does not measure anything, especially the value of life.

Alternative models for doing business provide some hope, such as the winery on Bainbridge Island described by David, but they are not enough. Often these businesses cater to "upscale" folks who earn their high incomes in the booming corporate economy. And relatively few people truly have the "entrepreneurial" option. They have no land, limited access to funds, or little of the specialized knowledge or connections required to breathe life into such an enterprise. In other words, they are stuck getting a job in a world that undervalues many of the most critical skills needed to revitalize our lives: teaching, child care, organic farming, the practice of art, care for the elderly, to name a few, while rewarding hyper-aggressive corporate behaviors with handsome sums, even fortunes in many cases.

If there were some realistic option for living richly outside the current money paradigm, not only would we have a trickle across the border, but a flood, a massive migration of people of all ages, colors, denominations, creeds, and political persuasions. Incentives built into the society need to shift so that people at the "bottom" and in the "middle" are encouraged and rewarded for taking actions that save themselves and the world. As Paul and David imply, creation of such incentives will fall outside the realm of the so-called "free market" forces so worshipped today.

So where will the incentives come from?

In a time in which government and centralized institutions of all sorts have let us down, the incentives need to be grass-roots, community-based, innovative, perhaps not replicable from one situation to the next, exciting, flexible, people oriented, life giving, and perhaps most daunting of all, compatible with existing power structures.

All of us need to be thinking and reaching, willing to listen and learn, experiment and take risks. In the meantime, go out and earn enough money to pay your exorbitant rent!

Jeffrey Black lives in Sebastopol, California.


Needed: Human-sized capitalism

It's difficult to overstate the dangers inherent in the rich-get-richer nature of present-day capitalism. During one recent 12-month period (September 1, 1997 to September 1, 1998), the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans soared $114 billion. On average, that's an additional $285 million for each of the nation's already-wealthiest. What social or economic contribution could plausibly justify that?

If that were wages earned at 40 hours a week over a traditional 50-week year, that would be $97,603 an hour. That puts the hourly increase in their wealth at 18,416 times the federal minimum wage. Good work if you can get it.

This is hardly a novel phenomenon; only the eye-popping figures are new. Projections through 1997 indicate that 86 percent of stock market gains between 1989 and 1997 were pocketed by the top 10 percent of households while 42 percent flowed to the most well-to-do one percent. A rising tide lifts all yachts.

From 1983 to 1995 (the latest Fed figures), only the top five percent of households saw an increase in their net worth while only the top 20 percent experienced any increase in their income. Average wealth fell for everyone else. Median financial wealth (net worth less home equity) was $11,700 in 1997, lower than in 1989. In 1996, the Census Bureau reported record-level inequality, with the top fifth of households claiming 48.2 percent of national income while the bottom fifth gets by on just 3.6 percent. The middle class now has enough savings to maintain their current standard of living for all of 1.2 months (if, for example, they lost their jobs). That's down from 3.6 months in 1989.

With 76 million baby-boomers, voters all, barreling toward retirement in a grotesquely undercapitalized condition, the fiscal implications attending these economic disparities are staggering, as are the implications for price stability.

It's time for us to take this country back. Nothing less than a radical redesign of free enterprise will do. If we aim to have a sustainable capitalism, we must have a capitalism that's comprehensively peoplized, profoundly human-sized, and at least partially localized. Absent that, it will never become truly community-wise, the only true measure of sustainability.

Today's divisive, disconnected, and dumbed-down system is a caricature of the "self design" that Adam Smith envisioned. The corporation as a legal person responds to values chosen by its shareholders. At present, most publicly traded corporations operate largely in "default mode." That's because, with more than $17 trillion in the hands of money managers, it's no longer self design but "money on automatic" that's the animating feature of global capitalism as institutional investors comb the globe for the best financially denominated returns.

Ironically, the element most obviously missing in this self-designed system is the self. Instead, today's "show me the money" mentality means that financial values have become an accepted proxy for a vast array of other values, including social and environmental values. As a nation, we've become progressively less interested in making the world safe for democracy. Instead, today's finance-speak "economism" has driven us to become consumed with making the world safe for financial capital.

The good news is this: today's model is certifiably broken - despite the beguiling optics of a raging Dow. That means we can begin to fix it. Much of the market's run-up is doubtless attributable to a demographically sensitive pay-in phenomenon (as baby boomers age), yet with no concern for what happens when this demographic bubble shifts into draw-down mode. Just who is going to buy all those securities? Now is the best chance we may have for a genuine paradigm shift.

Jeff Gates is former counsel to the US Senate Committee on Finance and author of The Ownership Solution (Addison Wesley, 1998).

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