Sustainability and Cooperation

February 4, 2008 at 6:53 pm Leave a comment

I think many people resist the notion that they are part of a system, but our modern society seems to be growing the influence of those systems into our lives whether we like them or not.  In our current systems of government and consumer based economics, we are all seen as “consumers” and the account numbers that fill our lives and are now more our identity than our own name.  Now, if it worked, I’d probably have no objections.  But, signs of its failures are proliferating and evident in the poverty, homelessness, lack of health care that surround us, as well as the unrelenting stress we place on our environment.

I’d like to share a few of my personal observations.  One, by investing in unsustainable systems, governments are expanding their sphere of responsibility for their citizenry.  Two, by taking on this added responsibility, governments are mandating future revenue streams (i.e., taxes) in order to provide for these services.  Three, these fiscal mandates raise the minimum levels of productivity needed from each citizen to meet budgetary needs.  As a result, this raises the probability of poverty over time.  The key is: if we want to constrain the size and limits of government, we need to also constrain its responsibilities.

Americans resist cooperative systems.  That’s fine, but it has consequences and that is to strengthen the role of an intermediary (i.e., government) to coordinate between separate interests.  While it may satisfy our short-term (sighted) sense of independence, it erodes at our long-term goal of private freedoms.  One result has been a “safety-net” system which is great in theory until the gaps in the economic system allow more than a very small number of people to fall through.

I’m a pragmatist.  I don’t place my faith in “isms” but in what works.  There are tremendous inefficiencies built into our government and economics today and none are contributing to our individual happiness.  It seems to me that the role of government should not be to provide all the answers.  But should be to frame systems that are built and supported from the ground up – from individuals to their communities and those communities to our greater society so that we can sustain ourselves with minimal intervention.  But in order for it to be successful, people have to voluntarily coordinate and cooperate with each other to a degree that we are presently unaccustomed.

Corporations are present day examples of cooperative systems, but are at least dictatorial if not pathological in nature.  What leap do we need to make as a society to coordinate our actions in a more democratic way?  Examples do exist.  Open source software such as Linux is created and improved by people working together voluntarily.  Again, such a system may require more self responsibility and initiative than we are currently accustomed to.

The lynchpin to the success of a cooperative system is trust – a quality sorely lacking in competitive systems.  But, trust can’t be imposed or willed into existence, it has to be built upon our shared experience.  I think if we are going to achieve sustainable solutions, it will have to be a grass roots movement built by us and for us. And, government will have its role – to coordinate and build those structures that are beyond local means. But I end with a curious thought: that the underlying motivation of a society might determine its social character.  And, if today’s world mirrors the greed and fear that motivate competitive systems, what would a world based on trust and responsibility look like?

Additional Reading

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan

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Entry filed under: Economics, Leadership, People, Philosophy, Sustainability.

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