Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Transforming the Materials Economy

The Materials Economy

The Materials Economy—it has been the driving force behind U.S. economics since the Second World War. The name refers to the raw materials from which its products are made. The marketing and sale of these products is what keeps the Materials Economy in motion, all the while exhausting natural resources and generating incalculable amounts of waste.
Consumer products manufactured and sold in the Materials Economy follow linear life cycles—cycles, which like natural resources themselves—are finite. Throwaway products are a key component to the success of the Materials Economy, as they provide an unending cycle of supply and demand. Planned obsolescence is the other key component, which ensures that yesterday’s hot buy quickly becomes tomorrow’s flop, aggressively prompting consumers to keep up with all the latest fashions and trends.
Just like the carrot leading the donkey, the manufacturer is always one step ahead, and the consumer can never get enough. Since its inception some sixty-plus years ago, the Materials Economy has proven to be both unsustainable and unacceptable. Excess and intemperance run deep in the Materials Economy, where more is better, and the idea of happiness and peace of mind are sold in the promise of tomorrow's purchase.
To better understand the impact of the Materials Economy on societies, cultures, and the environment, it can be helpful to examine the life cycle of any one of its products. The linear evolution of a product reveals the flaws of the Materials Economy itself, for the product is merely a microcosm of the system as a whole.

Product Life Cycles

Products in the Materials Economy follow a life cycle, just as living things in the natural world fulfill a life cycle by which they are born, grow older, and eventually die. The life cycle of any given product observes the following pattern:
Product Lifecycles in the Materials Economy
Take, for example, the cell phone industry. In 2005, it was estimated that there were almost 2.5 billion subscribers worldwide.1 That figure has undoubtedly risen dramatically since then, as cell phone usage continues to permeate everyday lives of cultures all over the world.
A throwaway product? The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2005 alone, 125 million cell phone were discarded, leaving behind more than 65,000 tons of waste.2 What about planned obsolescence? Today’s most popular models now include state-of-the-art features like high resolution digital cameras, mp3 players with high definition speakers, internet capability, and GPS systems. One leading manufacturer is promoting one of its newest products as “Thinner. Lighter. Better than ever.”

The New Green Economy

Circular DesignOut with the old and in with the new. Individuals, communities, businesses and organizations, cultures and societies can no longer depend on the Materials Economy. The planet cannot support it indefinitely. A new language of economics is needed—one that understands that product life cycles must mirror the circular life cycles as found in nature; one that recognizes the true value and worth of people and the environment; one where peace of mind and happiness are not measured in dollar amounts or through accumulation of materials goods. Product lifecycles in the sustainable economy are circular rather than linear—by design. Waste is eliminated—by design. And for energy, the waves, the sun, and the wind can provide clean and unlimited amounts of it—eliminating the need for electric bills, lowering food and transportation costs, and providing the opportunity for humanity to acheive one of its greatest challenges—a sustainable and meaningful quality of life for all its members.

The whole world is waiting for it.
It’s the New Green Economy.

 Link: http://www.thenewgreeneconomy.com/product-lifecycle-thinking

Feminine Capital Types and the New Language of Exchange 

According to the work of Bernard Lietaer, there are four different types of capital, two of which are masculine and two of which are feminine. In the western culture of the United States, the masculine capital types predominate, resulting in an imbalanced economic language.

Masculine Capital TypesMasculine Capital Types

The new, green economy must strive to achieve a balance of the male and the female capital types within its language.  After all, change can be too challenging if you do not have the language for it. We are all used to the masculine language: “How much money is in my bank account?” and “How is my stock doing?” and everyone’s favorite as of late, “How’s the DOW today?”  What are less familiar in our general discussions however, are measurements of “my community’s biodiversity” or “the next generation's welfare”.  As we move into the global culture of the 21st century, we must quickly begin to bring our natural resources and communities into the language of value in our economy.  As a species, strengthening ourselves now depends on our ability to work together, no longer on the ability of one individual or group to dominate another.  This shift in focus is going to create entirely new paradigms, among which are new types of business relationships, both business to business and between businesses and the consumer.

Feminine Capital TypesFeminine Capital Types

Interestingly, when relating to the feminine capital types, one is inclined to use plurals such as “us” and “we” rather than singulars like “I” and “me”, which points to the cooperative and shared nature of these capital types.  "Our community has clean drinking water" and, "we have a quality of life here that is rare." Lietaer mentions that feminine capital types are part of a cooperative economy. What is the meaning of a cooperative, collaborative economy? How do we integrate these capital types into our shared economic launguage?

Certainly there are groups and organizations that speak about feminine capital types and some that speak purely of the masculine.  As a culture however, we now stand to benefit by merging the economic dialogues into a more unified whole, capable of creating growth, innovation, and evolution, while at the same time functioning within the collective framework of the natural world, of which humans are an integral part.

For more in depth reading on Bernard Lietaer's perspective on capital types, read:

Non Profits: Keys to the New Economy

At a time when the very foundations of western economies are being questioned, and entire societies are looking for some kind of solidity and common sense in their systems of exchange, non profits hold an important key to moving forward. Previously, non profit organizations have been relegated to the sidelines of commerce, playing the role of "cleaning up the mess". 
The key that non profits present is that they deal in the languages of natural and social capital. These languages of value are archetypally feminine in nature and are an essential aspect of a balanced economic language necessary for humanity's integral functioning in the natural world. They provide clear examples of the value systems that for profit companies need to integrate into their economic models if they want to be truly successful. At the very least there needs to be an enhanced dialogue between for profits and non profits where there is recognition of the roles played and how those roles are part of single, larger picture.

A looming challenge for a consumer society is the ability to redefine and remember what is truly valuable. While non profit organizations tend to focus on social and natural value, many for profits exhibit an unhealthy and aggressive masculine tendency to disregard boundaries and limitations imposed on human existence by the natural world. In addition, entire industries are designed to warp human instincts in a way that encourages people to place value on things that have very little inherent value. These practices, combined with others, comprise an unsustainable and detrimental game, destructively shortsighted in its vision and execution.

In order to move forward into sustainable economic models, the basic dichotomy between for profit and non profit companies must be addressed. Value itself must be redefined and when one takes on the perspective of sustainability, non profits can be seen as most often dealing with what is inherently valuable: the natural world of which humanity is an integral part, and the various challenges of humans around the world as they struggle with the human existence.
The failure of a system is not the end of existence. It is simply feedback indicating what is not working. By developing and understanding sustainable values and practices, any company in the world has the potential to be abundantly successful. And by aligning with sustainable values, that abundant success will be shared by all the world's inhabitants, including future generations.