Episode #64 Meeting our needs, healing the earth: Donnie Maclurcan of the Post Growth Institute
Suppose we already have all the answers to the crises that assail us? Suppose countless people, companies, non-profit organisations and local community groups were already working to change the way things work? And suppose we could knit these together into a movement for change? Donnie Maclurcan of the Post Growth Institute explores the ways we can find a generative future.
Donnie is a facilitator, author and social entrepreneur, passionate about all things not-for-profit. Originally from Australia, he moved to the U.S. in 2013, from where he coordinates the Post Growth Institute. As a consultant, he has worked in Egypt, Kenya, Fiji, Thailand and South Korea, helping 500+ not-for-profit projects start, scale and sustain their work, while his own initiatives include developing: Free Money Day, the Post Growth Alliance, the (En)Rich List, the Offers and Needs Market process, The Not for Profit Waytraining, Silent Skype team meetings, Project Australia, and the globally-used #postgrowth hashtag. An Affiliate Professor of Economics at Southern Oregon University and Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, Donnie holds a Ph.D. in social science.
He is passionate about the concept that we already have the answers to the current world, social, cultural, climatic, ecological and economic crises – and that if we can understand this fact, it will help us to work towards answers that will work.
In the podcast, he explores the ways in which we can spread this understanding, and build on it to create a generative future.
Manda: My guest this week is an executive director of the Post Growth Institute, working for a future that’s better, not bigger. Donnie Maclurcan is Australian by birth, but lives now in the northwest of the United States, where he’s an affiliate professor of economics at the Southern Oregon University. As you’ll hear, he’s also a facilitator, a consultant, author of the book ‘How on Earth – Our Future Is Not For Profit’. And he’s been part of developing things like the Free Money Day, the Post Growth Alliance, the N Rich List, the Offers and Needs Market, the not for profit way of training, silent Skype team meetings, and the globally used postgrowth hashtag. On top of all of that, he’s a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. So people of the podcast, please welcome Donnie Maclurcan.
Manda: So, Donnie Maclurcan, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. I actually have no idea where you are in the world, you’re West Coast US?
Donnie: I am in southern Oregon, just about 15 kilometres north of the Californian border in a small town famous for its Shakespeare, called Ashland. So Ashland, Oregon. And here we have snow capped mountains, but we’ve avoided somehow, magically, a lot of the vortex-related weather.
Manda: How is your town famous for Shakespeare? You have to tell us that before we go any further.
Donnie: There was an indigenous-led group of artists when colonial settlers sort of moved west throughout this nation, and I believe they teamed up. It was called the Chautauqua and created this sort of performing arts troupe that led to the development of a Shakespearean stage and and festival that is the oldest here in the U.S. And so we have a theatre in the round, as well as a number of other theatres. And I think it’s a bit, I could get the numbers wrong, but I think it’s been going almost 100 years.
Manda: Wow. That’s fantastic. Thank you. That makes my day. So leaving Shakespeare aside, those who listened last week, we listened to Richard Murphy talking about how money is created in our current system, how we use it, how we might choose to use it differently. And now we’re coming to you as part of the Post Growth Institute. And so we know that what you’re really focussed on is what’s already happening that is working. So let’s kick off from there. Tell us some of the things that are already working that we could build from.
Donnie: There’s such an amazing opportunity that presents when we actually look at the psychology of change and what works with respect to change. I’ve been running an experiment around the world for almost 12 years now where I would have a room come together, and split the room into half in a non-discriminate way. Just down the middle of the room, if it’s in person or indiscriminately with a group of people virtually, and I would then ask one of those groups to leave the room or move into a breakout room, for example, while I run an experiment. And I would read out or give to them on a screen or in person a short story about a character named Sophia. And then I would ask that group to rate Sophia very sort of crudely, very sort of broadly with the hope they have for Sophia and her team to address the major threat that was discussed in the little story, then I would ask that group to to leave. And we bring in the other group and they do the same thing for a woman named Sophie. I read a little story, how much hope they have that Sophie’s team can address the major threat and then we bring the two groups together and we get their data and we compare the data. And every single time for 12 years now, the data always shows that one group gives a significantly higher, almost of a 10 percent higher sense of the hope that this one person, Sophia, can address the major threat. And here then is the big reveal. Both groups are given exactly the same story, but in different sequence. So with Sophia, it says “Sophia has assembled an incredible team. The clock is ticking. The human population is facing a major threat. How much hope do you have that Sophia’s team can address the major threat?” The other group with Sophie has the same story in reverse order. “The human population is facing a major threat. The clock is ticking. Sophie has assembled an incredible team. How much hope do you have that Sophie’s team can address the major threat?”
The way we engage with content makes such a difference, and when we begin with content, when our brains take in messages, whether it’s in a podcast, whether it’s in an article, whether it’s in a book, whether it’s in an interpersonal interaction, the neuroscience of information engagement is such that when we engage with something that is positive or allows us to feel safe and secure, we take that in through the neocortex, the creative part of the front of our brain. And when we begin with what’s wrong and what makes us feel unsafe, we go as we, as many of us know, into that flight fight, fear space. There is such a powerful possibility that emerges when we begin talking about economic ecological transition from a space of what’s already good and working that we can keep, that makes people feel safe and comfortable, and that things are possible because there’s already something to ground their new explorations in. And on the contrary, historically, the environmental movement and progressive economic movements have done a very poor job and a disservice in many ways to people’s creativity by continuously beginning articles, stories, interviews with the problem and what’s wrong, falling into this problem-solution pathology, which is a secondary piece we can talk about if interested, but primarily because it takes people into this space of lack of safety, which is not where you’re going to get creative response or buy-in or uptake. And we wonder why people, so many people that I encounter feel so disenchanted and in many ways disenfranchised. Although that term obviously has a definition that’s connected with voting, it’s the same sort of phenomenon that we don’t feel we have agency often. And it’s no surprise, when we look at the psychology of how progressive movements have been trying to motivate people.
Manda: Gosh, there’s so much I would love to unpick here. We may end up, this may be a rabbit hole or we may come back out of it very quickly. But I have a real personal interest in neuropsychology, in neuroscience. So my previous understanding was that we parsed most things at the level of the limbic system and the amygdala first because that’s fast. And then we provide post hoc rationalisation with our cerebral cortex later. But what I’m hearing from you is that in a very short space of time, if the only thing you flipped was the order of the sentence, then the parsing of Sophia has assembled an amazing team and then… Is that going in at a limbic level first and then we’re able to layer over it a sense of positivity, do you think? Do you know?
Donnie: It’s close to that. And thank you for raising this, because technically, you’re right. Everything is processed in the way you described. But what happens is the limbic system immediately in analysing that information is feeling a sense of relaxation, is doing that analysis and saying there’s no threat here. And because our systems are so quick, the comfort level has been secured by the time we get to what then is wrong. Now, with some people, the reason it’s not even more dramatic is because for a lot of people, the notion of safety actually brings up a sense of fear, of like, well, any time there’s calm, there’s something bad coming next. So it’s not universal in its ability to always move us into this space. But on the majority of circumstances, it receives a better outcome with respect to safety. But to me, there’s an interesting piece here which is around the creativity piece of where does the information finally end up landing. And the fact that people, we used to ask a question that was just like, “What’s your impression of these people in terms of their ability level?” And that was another interesting one where you see that starting with strengths makes people have a different opinion of someone’s capabilities. And I think that links into a whole lot of moralistic judgements and things that we sort of tend to associate with good and bad and abilities and these sorts of things.
But to me, this piece around that, the ability to make a difference, which I think really brings our creative thought processes into play of like, well, if someone has the capabilities, then what is possible? That to me is the interesting piece, because that’s where we get to the real root of agency. Do I have the ability in my own little world to make a difference that is meaningful? And the answer is absolutely. The belief about whether or not that answer is true is where there’s great divergence.
Manda: Unpick that last bit of divergence then for me, please.
Donnie: So many of the people I’ve encountered from all around the world don’t believe that they have the ability to make a difference, even if the reality is they do. Even if, for example. So you can tell someone, did you realise that moving a hundred dollars from your for profit bank over to a not for profit credit union moves way more than one hundred dollars because of the way that money is in most countries using a fractional reserve system, that I mentioned your previous guest might have mentioned, so that the bank can lend out much more than that one hundred dollars? So when you move one hundred dollars in the US, you’re more like moving well, I would say probably somewhere around seventeen hundred dollars, because you have one hundred dollars you moved from one side over to the other. So that’s the two hundred dollar difference in terms of the net difference. And then you have the multiplier for each of those things. So this bank can’t lend out the seven, the eight hundred and fifty dollars now but this bank can. Lots of people have one hundred dollars or less in their bank account and think I’ve got no ability to create change. But you do. That’s a massive ability, to change the financial course of your community with almost two thousand dollars difference with just one hundred dollars. To me, it’s not the truth of the story. It’s this piece around what have we been told? And we’ve been told the story that we have agency, but we haven’t been modelled in a way that makes us feel that we have agency. And that is where I’m so excited.
Manda: Ok, yes, we’re kind of back, I think it was Lincoln who said whether you think that you can or whether you think that you can’t, you are likely to be right. Was that Lincoln? I think. Anyway. So, yes, we’ve been told we have agency, but we have not been given a belief that we have agency, or shown how to have agency, or had agency modelled except in extraordinarily toxic ways that we don’t need to go into. So Donnie, give us some agency. What’s the next step? Having opened people to the concept that agency is possible, but we need it to be modelled. How do we model it? How would you model it?
Donnie: One of the ways that we found to be really powerful in modelling agency actually starts with the macro economics and then comes back down to the community. And sometimes we’ll start by saying, Have a look at what’s existing already in your community, using asset based community development to do a little mapping yourself and realise, oh, wow, we do have a lot of local small businesses that have existed and survived through challenges. We do have a strong family unit. We do have local sporting clubs, or we do have in the UK, for example, the number of Community Interest Companies limited by guarantee. Just blows my mind, the explosion of that movement over the last 15 or 10 years has been so powerful where communities have said we want to set up companies to do things through a social purpose lens, and we want them to run as businesses. And in the UK and particularly focussing here on the U.K. and something that happened that was quite magical. There was an option when you set up your companies under this new structure that was set up, this Community Interest Company structure to choose, do you want it to be what was called limited by shares, or limited by guarantee? Those are legal terms that can be translated as, do you want this to be for profit, with the ability for certain people to take the profit from the companies and to take it as shareholders, to receive a dividend? Or do you want this to be a not for profit company without shareholders? The vast majority, when I last looked, I think it was over 85% of the more than eleven thousand community interest companies that was set up, when I last checked a few years ago – the vast majority of 85 per cent chose the not for profit. Communities choosing community wealth and circulation over private interest. That’s one of the biggest success stories coming out of the 2008 financial crisis, out of Covid, is that we have a split. We’ve had wealth accumulation and the ongoing concentration of the Amazons of the world, the company, that is, and in terms of those conglomerates that have taken more and more power and extracted more money from the real economy. But at the same time, we’ve seen the dramatic rise of mutual aid, of community wealth, building initiatives, of people turning as often happens in times of crises to spaces of resilience. And I’m thinking here particularly about what happened in Greece during the 2008 crisis, when my colleague Jan Hinton was there and saw this explosion of people saying we need to look to peer to peer lending, to community supported agriculture, to local sharing and bartering networks. Our own work and the Offers and Needs Market, this 90 minute process where people come together and share what passions, knowledge, skills, resources and events they want to share with each other, has been amazing for us how that’s just exploded, including the online running of things.
But to come back to your very question about where is the agency? And what I said we do first is we start with the macroeconomic and we move down to what I’ve been describing it, those sort of more communal levels. What we do is we conduct an experiment where we have people, and maybe your listeners, if they’re interested, can follow along with this as we go. We have people draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper to split the page into left and right. And then in the top right, we have people write the word future. And in the top left we have people write the word present. And if you’re listening to this podcast and you want to do this experiment, you might want to pause at this point and just go through these steps as I speak.
Manda: I am doing it as you speak. So line on the page, future on the right, present on the left.
Donnie: That’s right. On the right hand side, we ask people, we’ll do this experiment as if it’s in real time. So take a moment to imagine a future that is working for everyone. People and planet and economy that’s in service of people and planet. And once you’ve imagined that drop further down into the body, out of your head and down into the body and feel it, what does it feel like in that economy? And once you’ve connected with the feeling, draw a symbol or a shape on the page, on the right hand side, without lifting your pen, that represents the feeling of that economy. Draw a similar shape, without lifting a pen that represents the feeling. And now once that’s done, we move over to the left hand side. And we ask people, connect with the current economy, how does it feel? And now draw a symbol or a shape that represents, without lifting your pen or a similar shape, that represents how the present economy feels.
Manda: Ok, done.
Donnie: So what’s interesting, and I can’t obviously see your results or any of the listeners’ results if they’ve been doing this drawing experiment. All around the world across demographics, what we found is that people constantly draw one of four things for the future, and one of four things for the present, irrespective of their backgrounds, irrespective of gender, of age, of culture, etc.. Inclusive, I should say, irrespective of their social position, with respect to finance. So we’ve done this experiment with people who are in the one percent who are heads of Fortune 500 companies, as well as people who are anarchists living on the streets. So full spectrum and people always draw the same thing, or close. For the future, they will always draw either a circle, an infinity symbol, a spiral or a heart. What did you draw?
Manda: OK, I drew a spiral.
Donnie: Right, and sometimes they draw a combination of these things. For the present, they either draw a jagged line, an arrow pointing down to the bottom right hand corner, a triangle or a mass of lines, which is sort of lines cutting across each other in sort of a messy kind of way. What did you draw?
Manda: I drew a cross, but it was joined. So like an X, but the bottom right was joined to the top. Right. So with another line, it would have become an arrow pointing down to the right. Really interesting.
Donnie: So it had sort of maybe some try a triangle in there somewhere.
Manda: Yeah. So I wonder why that triangle, the arrow points to the bottom right. There’s a whole PhD in that – unless you’ve already worked it out.
Donnie: Well, you’ll notice that even when we have these slight variations, the same theme persists. What do you notice about the difference between the right hand side and the left hand side?
Manda: The right hand side is flowing and circular. On the left is jagged and linear, which which is a mirror to how I was feeling inside.
Donnie: Exactly. We’re dealing with non-linear versus linear. And the insight here Manda that we had, that really talks about the strengths based approach is that we already know what we need is a circular system. We need the circulation of money, power and resources. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a free market capitalist or a peace loving anarchist, you’re inherently connecting in with the wisdom that knows that all living systems thrive on circulation and they die when that circulation is not there. And again, irrespective of your ideological leanings, you could be a diehard Tory, or you could be a dyed in the wool Labour supporter in the UK, and you’re going to draw something linear for the left hand side. In other words, no one ever draws anything circular for the present economy, even people who say the for profit capitalist market is fantastic at circulating goods in an efficient way. Well, then how come you’re not drawing something circular for the left hand side?
Manda: Yeah, and how come your arrow is always pointing down?
Donnie: How come… that gives us what we need to feel that we actually have the answers ourselves. We don’t need economists to explain the details for us to actually feel the truth. The more we can actually realise that the answers, the deep wisdom about systems and what change is needed is already there, and then to connect that story with the story that we know that. For example, if we think of the circulation of resources and you think about your family unit, if you have a family, let’s say in this family, it happened to have children and you had those children turn maybe 17, 18, there’s no family that I’ve ever heard of in the history of the world where the parents, at the age of 17 or 18 when the kids might be leaving the home in a permanent way, let’s say, in a Western nuclear family, There’s no story I’ve heard of where the parents say, OK, and here’s the bill. Here’s what it cost, and this is what you owe us. Why? Because we understand that there is a reciprocity and a gifting and a circulation of wealth, resources, power, that’s built into a healthy family unit for it to function. And the same is what we feel at the community level. If you live in a community where people aren’t helping each other out in some way, you’re going to probably leave that community. You’re going to feel how shallow and vapid and unhelpful it is. On the flip side, if you live in a community where people help each other and there is this flow, it feels good. It meets the range of needs that Manfred Max-Neef and his team highlighted, are so much more than Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that we have these needs for creativity, for security, for a sense of identity, and that our communities, by recognising the importance of circulation of power, money, resources and other things, we find inherently the wisdom of why we commune. Why we connect and relate with each other in the ways we do at the community level that we can achieve at the global level with our economy.
Manda: Ok, so let’s look a little bit more deeply at Max-Neef, because I think this concept that we need creativity and a sense of identity and all of the things that he talks about, we actually need those. I think that in many arms of our culture, in the areas of our subculture, in our assessment of who we are, it’s very easy to cruise along thinking that we just need more money, more stuff, and we’re fine. And the idea that actually to survive as human beings, we need more than that, I think that in itself is quite radical and quite transformative. So tell us a little bit more about Max-Neef, and what he elucidated.
Donnie: It is so radical and it is so transformative. Because, to cut to the end here, what Max-Neef shows us is that the reason we’ve been able to be sold a lie of our needs being linear through sort of the Maslowian pyramid that will come back to in just a second, has set up the dynamics of global capitalism such that you’re not enough. You’re never going to be enough. You don’t have enough. And this is not enoughness is what is leaving so many people around the world when in reality, many people don’t have enough as well, and a lot of.. and some people have more than enough. This disparity is creating a gaping hole for everyone. For some, it’s their physical needs not being met. For others, it’s their emotional needs not being met. But we’re all suffering under a system that doesn’t holistically, and when I say system, I’m talking here about patriarchal white supremacist capitalist colonialism that persists in many, many ways as a narrative of what is good and right in subtle and powerfully direct and clear ways around the world. It’s been exported around the world.
And what Max-Neef did was he said, all right, we’ve been told since the 1920s that there is an approach to progress and development that comes out of Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs. Some people may be familiar with Maslow and the hierarchy of needs, but what they might be less aware of is how Maslow developed this study and these results that influenced a century of development. And I hear Maslow brought up so often in economic discussions. It basically says, you have these needs at the base, and these needs have to be met before you can achieve these other means, or that there’s some linearity, even though it’s a little contested. Basically, we perceive this in my experience. We perceive this is right, a certain physical need, and then we move on to the so-called high level needs. And we use this as a sort of framing for international development. Oh, there’s an undeveloped country because they don’t have their basic needs met. Max-Neef realised Maslow designed this study based on analysing the autobiographies or biographies of 19 famous people, mostly white males in the US.
Manda: Really? Oh, my goodness, I had no idea.
Donnie: Can you believe? That was the scientific… he did a literary study and looked at their human characteristics, and that’s the basis on which our global development agenda has been based. And so Max-Neef said, hold on a second. Let’s go back and look across cultures and see what really are the needs that exist. He and his team in a longitudinal study in the 1980s realised, wow, there’s a much broader sense of needs. They’re interrelated, they’re interdependent, they include affection, understanding, participation, as well as the basic needs that the Maslow identified around subsistence and protection, but also things like creativity and identity and freedom, and that these are needed simultaneously, and that someone, for example, who’s living on the streets in India in what has been manufactured poverty could be self-actualising under Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, could actually have reached and be engaging with what Maslow said was impossible for someone if their basic needs weren’t met. So Max-Neef changed the paradigm for those of us who are interested in having that paradigm changed. We’re open to it. And what this means is that, the story we’ve been told is make money, have your material needs met. But there’s a whole lot of needs out there that can’t be met by the material market, or not met well. There’s been an encroachment by markets to try to monetise everything from counselling through to the way that we drive around or get transported around our communities. There’s not many spaces that haven’t been, that have remained immune to the reach of global corporatism.
Donnie: But, what a strengths based approach tells us and what happens when we get together with others and we join in in marketplaces that explore what passions, knowledge, skills, resources, events am I wanting to share with others? We remember that we have the ability, and not only the ability, we actually already do create so many avenues through which people’s protection, identity, creativity, et cetera, can be, their needs around those can be met in often non-monetary ways, or if they’re in monetary ways, it can be done locally. You don’t need to order something online necessarily to have a whole range of your needs met. And this is in no way, shape or form meant to take away from the realities of structural inequity and racialized structural inequities that exist around the world that mean people are living in deep, extreme manufactured poverty where their basic material needs aren’t being met. It’s not to have some kind of, what we would say here in the US liberal or left wing fantasy view that we can all hold hands together in communities and find our way through this. No, we have to address structural inequities at the macro level. But one of the most powerful ways we do that is by reminding and remembering we have agency to relocalise our economies, that can begin often as simply with just pausing and being guided in processes to remember, what do we have already that we share?
In that classic story that Rachel Botsman with her book about the sharing economy brought to light, that I think the average power drill, electric drill, is used in its whole lifetime, eight minutes, eight minutes of usage its whole lifetime. How many of us have power drills sitting around that we could be sharing? And this is where work of people like Sabrina Chicory with her tool libraries which have taken off around the world, and she runs the Tool Library in Brisbane, Australia, and others like the small little libraries movement where people are sharing books. We move that into the realm of the commons and those public services that really are about sharing and providing access to commons, as well as supporting the development of the commons as open source movements. You know, little things like moving your support with respect to your online usage from Chrome, Google’s Chrome, over to where able, to something like Mozilla Firefox, which is a not for profit foundation owned business. These are things we can do to support this remembering that we have the wisdom, the knowledge, the skills, and we’ve been told the story that we don’t. And knowing that story is a story is important, but then knowing that the next step in that journey is the remembering. That to me is where I get really excited.
Manda: Brilliant. And in terms of.. you clearly run a lot of workshops around the world, and it sounds like you’re talking to a lot of different people at either edge of the social inequity spectrum. Have you any kind of stories from the front line where people have done exactly what you said? Understood that it’s a story, taken the time to just sit and look around and then begun to develop things that will take us to a more flourishing and less profit driven future?
Donnie: Absolutely. So we’ll start at that end of the spectrum, with the one percent. I’ve had the luck to have engaged with individuals who are in very powerful financial positions where when I talk to them about the macroeconomics, and speak to them in a way that takes them on a journey so that they realise, wow, debt always expands in a capitalist system no matter what it’s for. And, this is looping back to last week’s presentation, that modern monetary theory cannot in itself address the problem of capital accumulation in a capitalist system. And I’ve had individuals like the head of the B Corp movement in the Latin America Sistema B, Pedro Tarak, sitting down with Pedro, getting to a point in the conversation – and this is a man who’s founded the movement for, one of the biggest movements globally for ethical business change. But these businesses are often for profit and still hooked into a capitalist narrative. I’ve had people like Pedro say, oh my God, you’re right. Now, whether or not that’s translated, I’m not sure. So I’ll give an example of where it has in just a moment. But just the very, I believe that just feeling the truth of the limitations of capitalism is for a lot of people, a seed that’s important to plant, because what it does is it allows us to deal with the cognitive dissonance that exists, and that cognitive dissonance comes from that experiment.
If we all feel that the future has to be circular, but we feel that the present isn’t, you will be able to then discern what actually circular feels like. And since when you’re promoting something that just continues and a more ethical, so-called ethical version of the present, and this is the work of, I’m thinking of Andrew White’s work in the UK, where he was working at Oxford with some incredible, he’s working with a lot of the the corporate executives of Fortune 500 companies around the world. And he was telling a story at Findhorn at the New Story summit many years ago about how the Executives he would get to would at the end of often a two hour process where he would probe and probe and probe and say, but that doesn’t sound sustainable. It doesn’t feel sustainable. He said repeatedly, something happened at the end. They would break down in tears consistently, mostly these are men, leaders of big corporations, they would break down in tears and say, “You’re right. It’s not sustainable, what I’m describing, what I’m promoting, but what’s the alternative?”
In other words, they were living the lie themselves, struggling with that. And so a story of success that I’ve had with this is working with the Egyptian company Sedco, which is the largest distributor of home appliances, a for profit company led by an incredible woman, Hadia Gábor. And she came to us asking for some insights on what it means to be an ethical corporation, and is in the process of adopting things like social theocratic governance, dynamic governance structures to flatten the hierarchy within a corporation, looking at avenues like steward ownership, where she would actually give up her equity and hand it back to, some of it to employees, and some of it into a foundation looking at ways to actually do Lean, so that she’s building in the best of business practises, but in ways that then can do Lean business, which is an approach to business that focuses on learning and testing your riskiest assumptions, so that she can ensure that her products are actually meeting the wide range of Manfred Max-Neefs needs, rather than just the basics as outlined at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. So I’ve seen this ability for people who are ready to be guided in processes where they feel what needs to happen. And then we talk about the practical applications with respect to the business community, etc..
Manda: Ok, this is reminding me a lot, I listened to Justin Harris, his podcast, Your Undivided Attention, and the most recent one was with Kate Raworth, who wrote the book on doughnut economics that I’m sure you’re familiar with. And she was describing something similar where she would be called in to the C suite of a company and she would say, OK, so what is what’s your motivation? What’s your company for? And they go, OK, here’s our charter, this tells you what we’re for. And it’s always something nice and light and fluffy and for the generation of procedures of humanity. And she’d go yeah, but don’t you have venture capital, and the venture capitalists require their money back multiplied by 10 within 10 years? And they’d kind of go, yeah. And she goes, so actually, whatever it says on your articles of association or whatever else, your actual motivation as a company is to increase your profit by a factor of 10 within 10 years to pay back the people who funded you. And she said in every circumstance, there would be people looking at the floor, looking at each other and wondering, is it OK to talk about this? And when she’d opened the space and they would talk about it, then you can begin to look at, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, what you’re doing is exactly as you said, you’re in this unsustainable linear system and I’m wondering, or I’m thinking that we have so little time, now. I think, and this this may be, I would be interested to see do you believe this, I have a frame and I would really dearly like you to challenge it, actually, that says we have about 10 years to turn things around because we’re heading for Eco-System tipping points that are likely irreversible. And I don’t want to test that likelihood. And so we need the number of people who actually get it to accelerate, and we need them to be actually doing stuff rather than going, yeah, right. Well, never mind. We’ll wait 10 years, we’ll pay off the venture capitalists at 10 times the profit, and then we’ll start doing good stuff. First of all, I realise that my frame is exactly what you said at the beginning, of don’t elucidate the problem, and then try and find the solution. So I apologise for that. But I live with this frame. It’s very hard to see around it. First of all, is it an accurate frame? And second, how do we accelerate the understanding? What’s happening at the leading edge of the things that you’re seeing, that can be iterated on a larger scale to help move things forward? Does that make sense as a question?
Donnie: It does, and it’s a great question. And I really thank you for the invitation to challenge it, because I’m going to go down a different route in answering your question than maybe your listeners or yourself might imagine. I have been really excited about what happened with our team a few years ago when I shared my views on this, the ability for us to avoid collapse, and then what it changed as a result of me sharing it. Our institute changed its strategy because my personal view is that we’re already too late to avoid collapse, full systems collapse. I think that we’ve gone past the point now. I think we’ve been saying for a long time, we’ve got 10 more years. We’ve got five more years. However many more years. I think there are systems from what I see in the data of financial and ecological collapse that are now locked in. Especially with the ecological piece. And I think we are living collapse right now, it’s just perhaps not apparent to us every day in the multitude of ways that it is showing up, because they’re distributed, and they’re often affecting those who have been marginalised and oppressed through the capitalist structure itself.
But we are living through collapse right now. You can look at the data on biodiversity collapse. You can look at the the data, obviously, on CO2. You can look at the data in terms of the changes in weather patterns. You can look at the data in terms of financial inequity. You can look at the data in terms of that’s been obscured by these notions of people being pulled out of poverty, which as Jason Hickel so beautifully explains. It has been so manipulated, the data that the World Bank and others have put to basically pat themselves on the back with their ongoing capitalist expansionist efforts. There are not so many people have been pulled out of poverty because the number of what the poverty line is, according to a US dollar figure, has not changed. I see as much poverty as ever living here in southern Oregon as ever before. And this was before Covid. So collapse is happening, in my opinion, it’s irreversible, and that’s an empowering position to take. And here’s why. When we recognise that we may not be able to save or salvage our current system, which would take, to shift from a capitalist to a post capitalist system without collapse, would take a heck of a lot of work and I think probably an unimaginable amount of effort, but to instead imagine what happens with what we rebuild from the ashes. What happens 30 to 40 years from now, because I think we’re going to see multiple economic crashes and it’s going to take time because the tendency after a crash is always, and we’re going to see this post Covid whenever Covid ends, whether it’s three or four years from now or in the coming years, we’re going to see people say, oh, now it’s time for capitalism on steroids. And some people will say, they’ll call that build back better, and others will say, let’s get the free market roaring again. And others will say, let’s have a heavily regulated market and focus on renewables. It’s still capitalism. It’s still going to see the concentration of money, and as a result, the expansion of debt in households, corporations and governments around the world.
So what I am interested in is what seeds can we plant so that as the collapse, the cascading collapse over the coming decades continue to roll through as a ricochet, as an inertia of the last five hundred years, really, of extraction. As that shifts, but the ricochet continues, what seeds can we plant with enough people so that two things happen? Number one, people turn and reflect backwards and say, the problem was capitalist capitalism, and the problem was growth, and the problem was racialized capitalism, colonialized capitalism, patriarchal capitalism. They connect the dots and they say that’s what led to coronavirus. That’s what led to wet markets and overconcentration of animals in a marketplace that increase the chance of of something crossing between species. That’s what led to environmental devastation. That’s what led to another stock market crash, was capitalism, was the unsustainable linear notion of growth. That’s the first thing that we are, more people are able to identify what the real problem was, this notion of ‘never enough’ that’s been sold to us. That is an unsustainable notion.
And that secondly, that they realise we can build something different based on the best of what capitalism actually showed us, so we can have a market in a globalised economy. We need a market system. We can’t just have local economies. It doesn’t work when you have almost a billion people. We can use business practises to increase the efficiency and effectiveness within that marketplace, and we can draw on facts like what Jennifer Hinton and I have discovered with our work on not for profit businesses around the world that include consumer cooperatives, foundation owned businesses, nonprofits that run business activities, non-profit enterprises and government owned businesses that show that almost 20 percent of global GDP comes from not for profit forms of business where profit circulates in the real economy. That we can have an economy that functions in many ways similarly to what we see right now, there are businesses, there are structures, there are laws, there are certain ways that we go about doing these things. Many of those things can continue. We don’t have to have a system that abolishes debt based money creation, we don’t have to have a system that abolishes the corporation. We can keep advertising, we can keep things like fractional reserve banking and interest. If we have a system where money circulates and power circulates, all of those things we discovered flip and become very positive. We can rebuild a system that’s sustainable, but only if it’s post capitalist, and that’s going to take us some time to get to the realisation. And in the process there is going to be ongoing suffering. It’s going to be challenging, but it’s about for us at the Post Growth Institute, what seeds are we planting for a different future? A better future?
Manda: This is so interesting, this feels a lot, I’m sure you’re familiar with Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper. Rupert Reid, who’s a philosopher over here, is working hard on transformative adaptation, which is, must be in the same area because it’s, deep adaptation says basically everything is going to break apart. How can we, and then everybody’s going to die, but a few will survive, and then they can adapt. And transformative adaptation says we can adapt. And then when things fall apart, it’ll be OK because we will have pre adapted. I am really curious because you said we can keep a lot of the things: we can keep fractional reserve banking, for instance. We can keep, I think I heard you say, debt based money as long as it circulates and is post capitalist. So if I heard you right, if that’s what you said, what is the nature of post capitalist? How do we define it and really, how do we get there? Is there any way to create a softer landing to bring this faster?
Donnie: Absolutely there is. And I’m just going to go back to something that you said that’s really interesting, because I know Jim. I know Rupert. And six years ago, I sat down with Rupert and we ran a two hour workshop with him and six of his colleagues on asset based, strength based approaches. I can’t necessarily say that’s the credit for why he’s looking at transformative deep adaptation. But I know that since then he has been looking more at what exists already that we can build on. And there are so many things. Here’s how we get to a post capitalist system and soften the landing. When you look at a system right now and you say, what’s its fundamental problem? Why, if we all draw something circular for the right hand side for the future and we draw something linear on the left hand side, what does the linearity mean? The fundamental linearity is the one of capital accumulation, despite all the different definitions of capitalism. What I keep coming back to is that there is the ability for profit maximisation in a capitalist system and some companies, especially this is the case with B Corp movements globally. Some companies are trying to say is as in the example you provide with Kate Raworth and the corporation that she entered there and discuss things with, some companies might say we’re interested in both people, planet and profit, all those three things, a triple bottom line.
But the truth is that in a capitalist system, you have the ability and in fact, the driver that sits, the story, that sits underneath it says the primary reason we engage or can engage because not everyone does this. Lots of small businesses don’t buy into this narrative, for example. But the primary reason that large businesses exist is to maximise profit, and that you have the ability, whether it’s through land and rents on land, or through investment in a company, to maximise your return without limit. Ten times is just some of what venture capital does. Other venture capitalists, it’s a hundred times or a thousand times, in terms of they hit the jackpot, they hit what’s often referred to as a unicorn. Now, if the problem is capital accumulation, which let me be very clear, the problem is capital accumulation. That’s fundamentally what, if you go other than we’re talking about deep psychology and what the real problems are there, in terms of our economy, the problem is capital accumulation and specifically monetary accumulation, not wealth accumulation.
And this is a mistake that lots of economists in progressive areas make. Wealth accumulation is not the real problem. It’s money accumulation. Liquid money, as in money that we can access, and when that money accumulates in bank accounts of corporations or the wealthiest individuals, because it certainly doesn’t accumulate in governments around the world, they’re mostly all broke, when… they’re indebted, in other words, when it accumulates because money enters our system by way of being loaned by either central banks or banks, when you go and take out a car loan or home loan, new money and new debt is simultaneously created instantaneously, because all of the money in our system is matched by at least the same amount of debt. And in fact, it’s around two point four times the amount of debt in our system is there is money. Because of that, a capitalist system and monetary accumulation means we have debt accumulation elsewhere, which actually drives inequality because you see wage deflation. I’m going to jump into some academic jargon here, wage deflation, because you’ve got a whole lot of people wanting jobs and not a lot of money circulating in the economy to share with them, because those people and companies and governments are in debt. So they have to take out more debt to to pay these things. And a whole lot of money accumulation with the wealthiest corporations and individuals, which means we see asset prices inflate. It’s why we see Bitcoin inflating so much. It’s why we see whatever the choice of a country in terms of its favoured assets, whether it’s housing like in Germany or stock markets like in the US, we’ll see an inflation. So when you get wage deflation and asset inflation, of course, you have inequality. It means that people can’t buy their own homes. It means they can’t buy their own groceries. It means they can’t survive. And without taking on more and more debt, which is why the modern monetary theorists come in and say, oh, well, the answer to this is for government to just go into more and more debt. That does not address the problem of capital accumulation, of monetary accumulation. Because you’re still talking about a capitalist system.
So the answer, and how we, getting back to your question of how do we get there and how do we soften it? We look to what are examples of business where the money doesn’t accumulate. And here, Manda is the gold. Because you discover examples like Brak, the Bangladeshi organisation that is almost a billion dollars turnover, has one hundred and twenty thousand employees, mainly women, that works with 10 million people worldwide providing health care, education, other services, and it generates over 80 percent of its income by running businesses, crafts stores, artificial insemination scientific laboratories, runs a printing press. It has a range of businesses where the profits go back into the fulfilment of the purpose driven social outcomes for education, for health care, et cetera. You look at Bosch, the engineering company, you look at IKEA, you look at the Guardian newspaper, you look at Mozilla Firefox. You can even look at football clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, which even though they pay their top sports stars big salaries, they don’t have any private individual owners who are extracting capital. And it’s not wage differences. And this is a misnomer in the world of economics and the public perception. It’s not wage differences that are the real problem. They’re problematic. But the bigger problem is what gets extracted by private shareholders, private individual shareholders. That’s the reason it’s the bigger problem is not only is it a bigger amount, it’s invisible. Right? You don’t hear about how much someone got paid. How much did Bill Gates gain from the dividends from his corporations this year? Very few people know that story versus what so-and-so salary at the biggest corporation in the UK or in Australia or in Canada right now. Those are much more commonly presented. The story of extraction is hidden, but the story of circulation is also hidden. There are businesses that circulate money in our economy. And so here’s what you do about that to create that world faster. One, we move our money to those businesses. You find your not for profit bank, whether it’s a credit union, whether it’s a community bank, they go under different names in different countries. You move your money to that bank.
Number two, if you’ve got any investments, you move your money out of the stock market and into things like bonds for schools, for hospitals, for these sorts of things, that you’re going to pay a smaller return, or you move your money into supporting community based initiatives where small organisations often are needing finance. You find places… you even can go, as Michael Schuman says, all the way through to if you have a family member who’s trying to pay off a mortgage, and you’ve got money in stocks, you would be better off for your community and family in the world to pull the money out of stocks and finance your family member so that they’re not dependent on a bank. Give them a lower rate. You can still get a return, but you’re doing it then in a way that is much more circulatory. So you move your money is number two.
Number three, you look in your community and you say which places are actually not for profit? Do they have a business model? Is there a local gym or community centre that actually has ways that I can buy things, goods and services from them? Because you know that that purchase is going to circulate money to the local economy. If you know a local non-profit that doesn’t have a business model, ask them, have you thought about adding in a business so that you can be less dependent on philanthropy and on government grants and things like that? There are all these ways and the very final ways that you can move your agency as a volunteer, as an employee, move out of a for profit company over to a not for profit. You can find ways to volunteer and support these groups. You can help promote their business activities to friends, to neighbours. These things combined help us realise we have huge economic agency in a spectrum of ways.
Manda: So I’m wondering for people listening whether there are resources online. Because even knowing that we need to go and look these things up is going to be news for some people. Are there places where there are lists of things that would be useful? Or should we start making those lists and rendering them available to people? Because obviously it’s a very local thing.
Donnie: The strengths based approach says there’s probably already some list somewhere. And so for each person in each country, the kind of terminology you might want to look at is do you have a social enterprise guide? And social enterprises can be for profit, not for profit, but they’re closer on this end of the spectrum. That’s what we’re talking about. So often around Christmas time in certain countries that celebrate Christmas, you’ll see people will put out a social enterprise guide of where you can just… I just set up my own not for profit directory of my community. I just started by saying, OK, I’m going to look at all of the not for profit businesses. I’m going to list what services they provide. And then I put it up as a document online. And we can begin with what we have by just looking around and seeing what’s there.
Manda: Yes. And that definitely, I think that’s things that people could do and share. And you could crowdsource that and turn it into a group thing that you did. I’m thinking in a wider sense, this is us changing the broken part of capitalism in terms of the accumulation of capital, which, if I understand correctly, is simply because it’s being taken out of the system, are no longer circulating. For me, I hark back to Miki Kashtan a bit, who says that the wounds of the patriarchy are separation, scarcity and powerlessness. And this gives us a sense of agency. And it might change the separation and possibly the scarcity, but what I get stuck on is, is things like when I was doing the Masters at Schumacher, we looked at IKEA. And one of the things that came up for us was it’s a good company run with good aims, but it still has a growth model, which means that if it continues on its current growth trajectory by a certain time, I think 2033 or something, it will use all the wood in the world, like every tree in the world will be going to IKEA, which clearly isn’t going to happen. It has to stop before then. But we’re still within the solving capital accumulation, as far as I can tell, and I’m suspecting I’m not seeing the whole here. Not solving people accumulating stuff, we’re not solving the extractive nature of capitalism.
Donnie: That is a great point, and the first thing to note here is that there are multiple stories that are changing simultaneously, and when one piece changes, it affects the change elsewhere. So, of course, if we just had a world where IKEA continues by itself, then you’re right. We have a problem of natural capital extraction, although it’s worth noting that IKEA recently has been launching and has been a pioneer in launching second hand stores and a return policy, not only return policy, a return programme where people are, where they’re really pushing the reuse piece. And interestingly, it wasn’t published online, the head of IKEA, I believe in I think it was the Netherlands, recently gave a talk where they actually said his goal is to reduce consumption overall. Not just reuse and repurpose and reengineer, but to reduce consumption overall. Who would ever think that a CEO of a big company would say something like that? The only other close example of that is Patagonia and also the consumer cooperative here, REI, which has its day every year on Black Friday where they say, please don’t purchase from us. And in fact, we’re going to make it easy for you because we’re closing stores today and we’re not selling anything. Go out and enjoy the environment. So coming back to this thing of the narratives are shifting simultaneously. I sat down with the heads of IKEA’s sustainability unit and I asked them, without them knowing who I was or my beliefs, about the future.
I asked them, does being a not for profit change anything with respect to your approach to the environment and sustainability? And they almost in unison said, yes, we get to think about the environment from a space of not having the pressure to address the shareholder needs. I’m not convinced when people say that the IKEA growth model is the problem. I think that if IKEA lived alongside a world when all the other businesses in the furniture manufacturing space were not for profit, there would be the ability for them to do even more. And I don’t think that IKEA wants to just keep growing, growing, growing. I think IKEA wants to create a world where people have access to certain products. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re producing them all. I could see IKEA moving into being the world’s largest Second-Hand marketplace outside of places like Goodwill Industries, for example. So that to me is where there’s, we can’t really get a sense of things until we realise that all of these pieces need to change together and already are. Consumers need to be seeing things differently, which they are. They’re more interested in the ethical. Manufacturers need to see things differently, but the economics needs to be different and the whole ecosystem as it changes. This is the key piece that Jen Hinton outlines in our work together in How on Earth that’s forthcoming.W hat happens is we can move from a vicious cycle, which we’re in right now, to a virtuous cycle where we see so many of the things where not for profit businesses are pushing. What you hear is, oh, here’s something good, but it’s still exists in a for profit system. Or when the system switches over that all of a sudden this pushing against becomes flowing with. And the IKEAs of the world then become even more the leaders of the new system that allows for things to move even faster and faster.
Manda: Right, right. So then we do hit a tipping point that becomes a virtuous tipping point rather than a catastrophic tipping point. Brilliant. So we’re heading to the end of our time. And this has been really, really instructive. I’m going to have so many links in the show notes for people. But is there anything as last parting words to really give people a sense of agency and go out in the world and know that we can make a difference. And this is how we’re going to do it?
Donnie: Well, I’ve so enjoyed our time together and my thoughts are: we are enough. We can have enough. A sense of what enough is can expand, perhaps in our communities, our families, our neighbourhoods can really meet a lot of our needs. And we can have a system that is designed for enough when we build on what’s already working. Just taking a look through a lens of, for example, for profits versus not for profit and asking, is that a for profit company? Is it accumulating money in the system? Is that a not for profit company? Is this activity actually meeting the wide range of my needs or is it part of the story that I’ve been sold about what I need? All around the world, more and more people are asking those questions, they’re seeking ways forward, I think more than ever before. We have a sense of the cognitive dissonance and people willing to take the step and say something doesn’t feel right. And not just something, lots of things don’t feel right, and what’s beautifully coinciding with that is that around the world, creativity is springing forth. So many responses that actually are believable in terms of their ability to create change. Why? Because they tap back into this notion of circularity, which feels good in nature. Oxygen and nitrogen circulate through our atmosphere in a way that maintains homeostasis without human influence. Blood circulates through our bodies in ways with oxygen as well, that allows us to survive rather than moving into spaces of necrosis.
We know that the circulation is what works. And so when we spot something and when we experience something, especially if we’ve had the reminder of circulation embedded, that remembering embedded into our cells, more conscious sort of areas of memory. It hits us in a way that says it’s possible. Wow, that’s what it feels like to be giving and receiving love. That’s what it feels like to be giving and receiving goods and services. That’s what it feels like to be giving and receiving in ways that aren’t just about personal gain and personal accumulation. We are enough, we can have enough, we can be part of a system that is enough. When we begin with what’s working, remind ourselves that we’ve got so much good in this world, that’s the gateway to exploring what’s not good in this world from a space of safety. And with that combination, we can look with fresh eyes to the things that are happening around the world that we want to accelerate and support more, and the things around the world that are happening that we want to lessen our support for and therein discover ever greater agency as individuals in this incredible cosmos.
Manda: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Donnie. That’s been really, really good. I fully expect I will get a whole lot of questions from people, so we may invite you back for a second time to answer them. But in the meantime, thank you very much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Donnie: Thanks, Manda. And thanks to all of your listeners.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Donnie for bringing home the fact that we do have the answers. We just need to bring our minds to bear on the fact that the future isn’t going to be a continuous iteration of today, and it’s certainly not harking back to yesterday or last year or last decade or last century or last millennium, wherever our nostalgia takes us. That was a golden era in our past. That’s over. Tomorrow is what we make of it, and we don’t have to keep swimming in the sea of our current economic system. We can create an economy that works for the health and welfare of all of the people and all over the planet, rather than most of us being enslaved to a system that has us all working for the health of a broken economy that enriches those very few who can accumulate the value to the top. So, as Donnie says, switch your bank, look at local investments, see how you can work with your local community to keep the value created locally circulating in your local economy, and look at your life and see how you can make it more regenerative. We are not powerless as people. Go for it, do what you can, create networks, create communities of place and have purpose. I heard a quote from a Marge Piercey poem the other day that said, ‘it starts when you say we and know who you mean and each day you mean one more’. And that has sat with me ever since. It could be double edged. It could apply to the madness of QAnon, and all of those who seek to trivialise our narratives. But if we expand the ‘we’ to the whole of the human and the more than human worlds, then it is a rallying call that makes sense, so take your ‘we I know you mean’ and make it one more every day, and together we change the world. And with that in mind, we will be back next week with another conversation.
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