In natural systems, physical matter flows in cycles. Nutrients from one form of life become food for another. Organisms live and die, eventually returning to the soil or the sea where the cycle starts again.
Throughout history, but particularly during the industrial revolution, we invented a different modus operandi.
Industrialised, or mechanised production, was an innovative, rational response, to an escalating population of city workers requiring sufficient quantities of food, and whose labour, in exchange for wages, allowed them to buy goods from the new factories springing up at the time. This was the birth of the first phase of capitalism.
In simplest terms, the same system persists today. But now we can appreciate the unanticipated consequences of its impact across a number of socio-economic spheres – particularly as it pertains to the ethos of ownership and organising in our society. I would like to talk about just three of these spheres of activity. The first of these is making and growing.
- Making & Growing
Chemical, mechanical, and electrical means are consistently applied to the mass production and distribution of products, as well as the cultivation of food and food-stock for farm animals. But mechanised production is linear and extractive. It generates a great deal of waste, too, as raw materials are taken from the Earth and processed into food or used to manufacture goods.
When we finish using any product we expect to throw what is left away. But there is no such thing as away – everything we don’t want or become weary of owning, eventually ends up as refuse or waste.
While organic material like food decays quickly, most other forms of waste contain toxins and synthetic substances that decompose very slowly, continuing to contaminate and clog up the oceans and the rivers, the landfills, and the sewers, for decades if not centuries.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Biomimicry encourages the copying of complex patterns in nature – creating industrial ecosystems that are regenerative and restorative by design. Instead of creating waste in the process of using raw materials, natural systems reuse and recycle resources over and over again. If there is any waste, it is inconsequential.
That’s not a new idea. After all nature itself has been doing it this way for millions of years. It’s not even a novel idea in terms of industry and agriculture. With additive 3D printing it’s easy to fabricate products – ranging from human organs to entire buildings with such precision that no surplus is left over.
Likewise, using regenerative farming methods, it is possible for local farmers to eliminate the use of pesticides, fertilisers, and herbicides, in the process of restoring soils, increasing yields, producing crops that are more nutritious than is the case with large-scale agribusiness methods, and encouraging insects and other forms of life to flourish.
A distinctly contemporary issue in this regard is the problem of electronic waste. Higher consumption rates of electrical devices, as well as shorter life-cycles driven by planned obsolescence, are contributing to a rapid build-up of electronic waste. At least 44.5 million metric tons of unwanted electronic debris – including battery-powered or plug-tethered devices such as laptops, smartphones, and televisions – accumulate in waste dumps each year. By 2030, that’s projected to grow to around 74.7 million tons. Electronic waste often contains plastics, hazardous materials in smartphones, such as cadmium and mercury, and refrigerant chemicals that can leach into water catchments.
Little of this waste is recycled, although electronic debris represents a potential urban mine, containing valuable metals such as iron, copper, and gold, that can be recovered. The value of this e-waste was estimated at around $57 billion in 2019, only $10 billion of which was recycled.
- Relating & Organising
Following the industrial revolution, the automated factory became the standard model for organising almost everything – from school classrooms, clubs, and prisons to corporations. Within this rigid template hierarchies of individuals ensured that processes could be standardised, and efficiency pursued at all levels of the organisation.
In the world of business, this quickly led to employees being used as human resources, to be mined primarily for their manual labour and latterly for their knowledge. A totally new industry appeared out of nowhere to manage these frequently impulsive and recalcitrant resources, and to impose at least the illusion of orderliness.
When measurements were instituted, for example in the form of culture and staff climate surveys, executives began to rue the fact that all the theories they had learned in business school didn’t work in practice. Top-down structures were increasingly suboptimal and clearly the cause of massive skepticism and disenchantment among staff.
True to form, consulting firms leapt to the rescue. Barring the redundancies brought on by restructuring or downsizing, the solutions offered were typically a mixture of sanctions and rewards. Metrics of every kind now littered the industrial management landscape – from goals and objectives to key performance indicators, process efficiency standards, and retention targets. Anything that moved was measured. Talk about complicating matters!
As time wore on, and employees realised they were simply cogs in a machine designed to create wealth for others, that they were not trusted, and that even elaborate paraphernalia around personal feedback and development was a sham, loyalty and trust vanished.
Today large companies that are managed like factories face a situation where most staff (and according to recent surveys that is around 75%-80% of the workforce) are disengaged from the purpose of the enterprise, even when that is openly communicated and aligns with their personal values.
Smart enterprises realise that artificial structures cannot work. Organisations do far better by emulating nature – especially in terms of cycles, information flows, relations and aesthetics. Liquid forms of organising are adopted as a way of designing work to be more intrinsically motivating. Pointless work is eliminated. As the workplace becomes more flexible, recruits are invited to contribute to the overall goals of the enterprise as they see fit, finding ways to shape the culture rather than being required to fit into a pre-existing mould.
Many large corporations still resist this way of organising of course. The myth of top-down control remains pervasive in organisations that assume restrictive practices are best, instruct staff to leave their individuality at the door each day, and impose a variety of controls and performance indicators on people in a constant battle to get ahead of the competition.
- Owning & Earning
The field that most owes its credentials to arcane theories is surely economics. At its core, the idea of exchange within an economic framework is quite straightforward. But, as with industrialised production and organisational design, we managed to complicate matters by intervening clumsily in what should be a simple set of transactions.
By establishing discrete institutions to handle differing roles, introducing contentious notions like credit and debt, adding layers of complexity via tax and investment laws, and allowing the invention of impenetrable financial instruments, such as derivatives or credit default swaps, for example, which few people really understand, we’ve managed to turn the global economy into a casino. This has trapped us in a prison where we’re prevented from imagining anything better. Even the least radical ideas are pronounced contrary to the ethos of free markets, too expensive or counterproductive.
Meanwhile, instead of growing the resilience needed to provide solutions in the face of major societal shocks, like the current pandemic for example, or the massive problems we are going to encounter as a result of global heating, economic orthodoxy insists on skipping from controlling inflation to maintaining price stability in a myopic dance of ever-decreasing relevance.
It’s not as though innovative ideas for dealing with new realities are impossible to find. Beginning with Sweden’s Riksbank in 1668, central banks and their monetary policy tools have been available as lenders of last resort for ages – specifically to provide financial markets with the liquidity they need in times of crisis.
Nowadays it’s not hard to imagine the fiscal equivalent – state-funded employers of last resort. Imagine this as a job-guarantee program, comprising a living wage and benefits package. Because there is always work to be done, this program would become instantly available to anyone who wanted a job but was unable to find work in the private and government sectors. Especially in times of crisis of course. Such a scheme could be expected to eliminate unemployment and its associated cost burden, strengthen self-esteem and mental health, and provide additional care and protection for local communities and the environment.
Likewise, a Carbon Bad Bank, established by the state, possibly in partnership with central banks, to acquire and reassign stranded carbon assets from large fossil fuel corporations, thus leaving them with clean balance sheets for investing in renewables and associated products, is surely another idea whose time has come if we are serious about the rapid decarbonisation of the economy.
These few examples clearly illustrate how the crisis of imagination besetting us today can be overcome. But we need to move beyond the cognitive and emotional thresholds that keep us tethered to obsolete ideas or trapped in dispensable ideological compartments.
Nature can always show us better ways. Nature is complex – abundantly resilient, and its patterns easily replicated. Our tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be can be remedied by accessing complexity, designing our most life-critical systems in cycles and flows, using organising principles that are open and fluid, and thus avoiding the hierarchies and imposed artificiality of the industrial era and its practices.