Great thanks are due to Paul Raskin for providing a hopeful perspective on our currently troubled future in Journey to Earthland. A key task before us is to determine how to make people better understand the severity of our current situation so that they become willing to take action. What will motivate the emergence of a global citizens movement that could foster necessary policy changes and new perspectives on the role of economies and societies?
The large system change needed demands a multiplex approach because the issues we face are embedded in complex adaptive social and ecological systems that are fraught with wicked problems. In such circumstances, there simply is no magic, single-pronged solution that will work. Complex systems and wicked problems share similar characteristics of dynamism; indeterminacy; interrelatedness of issues; lack of clear beginnings and stopping points; the presence of stakeholders with differing perspectives on desired ends, means, and outcomes; and path dependencies (once solutions are tried, there is no going back to the original state).
Since no single “solution” will work, multiple actions by multiple actors are needed. Further, the need for connection both with the message and with others suggests that technical solutions, new metrics, and probably even more information will be necessary but insufficient to move people towards the necessary changes in our economies and societies. Because “control” and centrally planned initiatives are unlikely to succeed in large system change, what is most likely needed is that a critical mass of people and initiatives agree on a common (enough) agenda that they are willing to act to move their part of the system in the desired direction by finding key leverage points for change. As Donella Meadows reminded us, the most potent lever for system change is changing mindsets.1 Emotional engagement—the heart and soul of change—is vitally important in getting people to act. The best we can hope to do, working at the mindset level, is—arguably—to generate a new story about humans and our relationship to each other and the Earth (Earthland), as Raskin has attempted to do, that guides actions and provides a cohesive picture of the desired future. This narrative then shapes attitudes and beliefs, and ultimately guides actions.
The question then becomes, how do mindsets shift? From a “heart and soul” perspective, we humans respond to stories. Consider origin narratives that tell us about our place in the world, and stories like the hero’s quest (which Joseph Campbell reminds us are both ubiquitous across cultures) that help us find our own efficacy.2 Such stories or narratives are built on core memes, which, as work by Susan Blackmore argues, are the basic artifacts that shape culture.3 Memes are things like phrases, ideas, images, and symbols that are readily recognizable, resonate broadly, and transfer from person to person relatively unchanged. Memes are the often unrecognized link to both shifting mindsets and effecting system change, because they can underpin and shape the narratives or stories that we tell ourselves about how the world works.
We need to better understand both social movements and how they begin and the tenets of large system transformation and transitions in the context of complexity theory and wicked problems. Underpinning such transformations is a shift in the narratives, supported by new memes, that guide the manifold actions of numerous actors in the desired direction—without necessarily being able to control the outcomes or the actions.
Consider, for example, that we now live under a dominant economic narrative that shapes our relationship to the world about us and influences even what we think about how societies operate and how humans operate within them. This narrative has become ever-more prominent around the world since the Mont Pelerin Society unleased its own “manifesto” in 1947, arguing that free enterprise was under attack and developing the narrative and memes we now associate with neoliberal economics (e.g., free markets, individualism, laissez-faire government, free trade, endless growth, globalization).4 This “manifesto” was supplemented by a then-confidential strategy document written by Lewis F. Powell to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1970, which details how the neoliberal narrative might be deeply embedded in thinking. The strategy laid out in the memo has been carefully followed by many in different forms and venues, with differing objectives that all seem to rely on this narrative and meme set, for decades.5 Indeed, so dominant is this narrative today that we hardly realize that it is simply a story we tell ourselves about how the world—or at least our economies—works.
We can and need to change that story—and its associated memes. That is the work of a new coalition of initiatives called Leading for Wellbeing.6 This coalition of thought leaders is attempting to develop a new counternarrative to the neoliberal narrative, one that emphasizes an economy (and societies) in service to life with dignity and well-being for all at the core. The general idea is to create a new narrative and set of associated memes to which the wide range of initiatives that are already working for constructive change towards a better world can potentially coalesce around, so that new stories, narratives, ideas, and memes support the types of actions that are needed for the world’s people and institutions to move in directions of flourishing and well-being for all, or what is coming to be called an economy in service to life. Think of new memes for economies and societies in service to life that include and, as a colleague said, transcend the existing ones, such as flourishing or wellbeing for all, fair markets, responsibility for the whole, collective responsibility, effective governance, and glocalism. Starting these important conversations about our core narratives and memes is one of the things that GTI has done over the years, that Raskin’s Journey to Earthland does in particular, and that the Leading for Wellbeing consortium is attempting to do in bringing together a network of networks for action on the very issues Raskin so powerfully raises.
1. Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008).
2. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (2008; New York: Pantheon Books, 1949).
3. Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
4. Mont Pelerin Society, “Statement of Aims,” April 10, 1947, http://www.montpelerin.org/statement-of-aims/.
5. For more information, see http://www.reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis/.
6. For more information, see http://www.natcapsolutions.org/leading-for-wellbeing.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.