In case you hadn’t noticed, there are some big changes happening right now in the wider world… Lots and lots of them, at every scale and in just about every major context, from political to social, environmental to technological, and much else besides.
Myself, I look at all of these things with an enterprise-architect’s eye – looking at entire economies, societies, cultures, as literal expressions of ‘enterprise‘. And beneath all of that turmoil, there’s one underlying theme that I’ve been tracking for many years now – one really obvious theme, yet oddly one which very few people seem to have noticed, or fully acknowledged its implications. It’s the way in which almost everything in our society – its economy, its cultures, its relationships, its idioms, its concepts of property, and perhaps most of its deep-myths – is ultimately founded on a notion of ‘rights’ of possession. And yet in all of my studies, over all of those years, I keep finding myself returning to one seemingly inescapable fact: there is no way to make a possession-based economy sustainable.
It’s true that a possession-based model gives better short-term results than most alternative (responsibility-based) models; but it does so only at the expense of longer-term sustainability. In effect, possession ’succeeds’ by borrowing – or stealing – from the future, often in ways that are very inefficient and ineffective – hence what I sometimes call ‘the worst possible system‘, and so on. So the only way that a possession-based model can be made to seem sustainable is by running it as a pyramid-game, powered by an illusion of ‘growth’. When there’s nothing more to pull in at the bottom of the pyramid, the illusory ‘growth’ comes to a grinding halt – at which point the model has no choice but to cannibalise itself, all the way back until there’s nothing left. From all of the signs around us, we’re perilously close to that point now – if not already over the edge.
There are of course many people trying to tackle aspects of this, yet to me it seems that most of them are doing little more than wittering and whittling away at the edges of this problem. For example, there are many, many groups on working ideas for ‘alternative currencies’ and the like: yet none that I’ve seen so far resolve many or even any of the drivers for That Worst Possible System. Currencies are a crude mechanism to attempt to resolve the fact that point-to-point barter – what I call ‘double-entry life-keeping’ – simply cannot handle the complexities of real-world resource-exchange. So currencies don’t work because barter doesn’t work, and barter itself is an overlay on possession-based assumptions that also do not and cannot work. And it’s very frustrating to see so much care and effort lavished on so many variations of a core idea that, by definition, simply cannot work.
There are also many, many groups working towards environmental sustainability: but without tackling the problem of possession, we’re always going to slide back to something that’s inherently unsustainable. To put it in its simplest form, we cannot have sustainability without a system of law that supports it – which it certainly doesn’t at present.
And as we can see on the news every day, there are also many groups struggling to rein in various of the many ‘robber barons’ of the physical and financial and political and other spheres – and yet a possession-economy will always create new ‘robber-barons’ to replace them, because it’s inherent in the ‘winner-steals-all’ structure of the model. So to be blunt, important though those actions are, they’re all doomed to futile failure unless we go right down to the roots of the problem.
Surface-level politics is equally irrelevant here. At this kind of level, those endless arguments about capitalism versus communism versus socialism or whatever are almost entirely irrelevant: they’re merely variations on a theme of possession’, in effect down to little more than arguing about the positions of individual deckchairs on the Titanic. As history shows all too well, redistributing ‘possessions’ will make barely any difference in the longer term: our only chance for real change is to change even the idea of possession.
Which, to say the least, is going to be difficult. It’s not just that so many people are seemingly possessed by their possessions, but that our entire culture is possessed by possession itself. Look around at all those instances of the simple possessive-adjective ‘my’, or ‘mine’: every one of those is ultimately an illusion, because in the end we all die – and we ‘can’t take it with us’. (Hasn’t stopped many half-crazed kings from trying to do so, of course… ) The only viable alternative is a responsibility-based economy, but for most of us, possession is the only model we’ve ever known: “possession is nine-tenths of the law” and all that. Getting people to understand that possession does not and cannot work is not going to be simple. And we’re not just talking about a few people here: it’s a change in worldview that needs to be taken up, taken almost literally to heart, embedded in every action and interaction, by everyone in the entire globe.
In short, a mythquake of almost unimaginable proportions. But if that change doesn’t happen, the entire human species is dead – not just some of us, all of us. It really is as fundamental as that…
But it’s not an impossible task. In human terms, possession-based economies seem to be a relatively recent innovation – or aberration – stretching back no more than a few thousand years. (Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B suggests that we can pin the start-point geographically and temporally as somewhere near Babylon at around 3000BCE, but it’s more probably an artefact and side-effect of agricultural settlement just about anywhere and anywhen.) Obsessive possessiveness is also a natural stage in child-development – the ‘terrible twos’ and the like – though usually tempered in later development – typically 5-8 years old – as awareness of social context comes in. (Some children never reach that stage of awareness, of course – which is one of the major drivers for the collective problems we face right now. Even worse, many cultures actively reward childish possessiveness and will often even punish a more adult sharing – a huge disincentive against creating an efficient and effective economy!) The point is that change is possible, and it’s a change to a worldview that arguably is more ‘natural’ in human terms than the literally childish myths of ‘possession’.
The catch is that it’s a change that has to happen fast – far faster than any other cultural change in human history. At a fairly conservative estimate, we have perhaps as few as ten years to get everything in place and starting to have a real, tangible impact on many people’s lives – because even an optimistic estimate places the fundamental failure of current ‘business as usual’ at no more than fifty to a hundred years. (The current upheavals in the Arab world, and relatively recent collapse of the old Soviet states, are and were all messy enough, but will seem almost trivial by comparison with what is likely to happen if or when the real resource-wars start happening later this century…) So in real terms we really don’t have much time at all: we need to get started now.
The alternative to a possession-based economy is a responsibility-based model: one in which we ‘own’ something because we declare responsibility for it and manage it accordingly – much like the notion of ‘process-owner’ or ‘project-owner’ in a business-context, but on the scale of an entire global economy rather than solely within one organisation. There’s a lot more that could be said on this – what it is, how it works, the challenges that need to be resolved, and so on – but for now it’s worth noting some of the real practical constraints that we face:
- the only cultures that have long experience of responsibility-economies are those that are often currently derided as ‘primitive’ – and they don’t have much if any experience of an economy on the kind of scale and complexity that we need
- worldwide we still run much the same kind of ’slave-economy’ that was typical in Roman times: the main difference is that our ’slaves’ are machines and systems that use prodigious quantities of energy – mainly some 10-100,000 years per year of trapped solar energy, in the form of oil, gas or coal – which in itself creates perhaps even more problems than it solves
- the change will require a much greater awareness of systems-level impacts of actions and inactions: and whilst we do know how to teach this to pre-school children – such as in the well-known HighScope project – we have little or no experience of doing this on a large scale with adults already embedded in the possession-economies
- despite the desires of so many dictators and would-be reformers (not that there’s much difference between them at times… ), cultural changes cannot be imposed from outside: to succeed, they have to be chosen as an act of personal free will – which means that we have to find a way to show that this worldview is preferable by and for everyone
But we’re architects: we’re used to constraints, in fact for most of us it’s the kind of challenge that we relish. Yet this is definitely ‘The Big One’: the greatest architectural challenge any of us will ever face. So what will this challenge mean to you – professionally, personally, in every other way? And what part will you play in this?
Any comments, anyone?