Getting Real

What’s reality? Low-low tech indigenous peoples don’t talk much. It interferes with their acute abilities to directly tune in the reality of nature around them. By contrast, modern humans drenched in media 24/7 must usually determine reality through abstractions like statistics. Our “nature sense” or even “street smarts” never become as well honed.

Indigenous people are knowledge intense of everything they can sense. Their paradigms include feeling fully alive as part of nature, a reverence almost alien to media soaked moderns. On the other hand, indigenous peoples could never detect distant galaxies or strands of DNA – no technology to expand their senses of detection. Indirect sensing transforms things unseen into “things” we can interpret. These images may be numbers, symbols, graphs, words, videos — but can we grasp reality through all this abstraction?

We think using symbols and images. One definition of math is formal symbolic logic. To other symbols we form emotional bonds. We dream in images, and have a start upon waking from an especially realistic dream. Some humans can’t distinguish dreams from reality. “If you can dream it, you can do it” is a popular adage, but even those of us who fancy ourselves rational and realistic picture our future in images.

We all have self-images of what we are and what we would like to be. These images symbolize our beliefs, and beliefs set the standards by which we judge how things work, or ought to work, what is important, and what not. Some of these images come from our society, or our group. The common features of this imagery constitute the paradigm, or working beliefs of a group – a society, a tribe, a business community, a company – and we may not be aware the deep assumptions inherent in them. They just are. Questioning these beliefs is a deep search for reality.

A shallow search for reality does not question the working beliefs of our present paradigm. Questioning a paradigm provokes very fundamental questions, like: What is the common bond? What ethics are expected (truth tests and trust tests)? What represents efficiency? Effectiveness? Success? Value? Status?

Most people will agree that such questions are critical, but abstract sociological mush. To bring them alive, we need reference points and examples. We can’t conjure images without something specific to relate them to, and specific images are from our past. Images of an unknown future are ill formed, so we try to project clear symbols from the past into the unknown – to go back to the future, so to speak.

However, deep questions are pressing on us because we live in a turbulent, uncertain time. Will the global finance system crash again? Without violence can we bridge gaps between rich and poor, different ethnicities, and different religions? Can we all survive when the planet is degrading from multiple causes? (Climate change is just one.)

Several projects are imagining this new world. The Tellus Institute’s Great Transition Initiative is one. The Next System Project is another. Initiatives like Ecodistricts have visions. These scenarios have common themes: Circular economies; local economies; large reductions in resource use; resolution of human conflict that inhibits dealing with environmental issues.

Other peoples’ visions help, but everyone taking action has to create their own, and each one has to escape the economics of today. That’s scary, because by just living in today’s world, we follow its paradigms to drive, buy food, etc. So how do we cross this divide in belief systems? Let’s call existing beliefs, economic man. Label the new beliefs realist man. How can we intellectually and emotionally cross that divide?

Although stereotypical, some contrasts between economic man and realist man are:

Attribute/Assumption Economic Man Realist Man
1. Intent Economic expansion Long-term resilience
2. Economic assumption 1 Nature is unlimited Nature’s resilience is limited
3. Economic assumption 2 The future pays for the past Precautionary principle
4. Stakeholders Investors #1; Customers #2 Everything the system affects
5. Common bond Trades/debts will be honored Relationships over transactions
6. Trust tests Verify; audit everything Local process transparency
7. Value 1 Knowledge is proprietary Few secrets
8. Value 2 More is better Better need not be bigger
9. Truth tests Profitability, market tests, ROI Accord with reality
10. Success 1 Going big, cashing out Regenerative survival
11. Success 2 Possessions Processes: quality of life to all
12. Status Wealth, net worth Contribution; what you can do
13. Vision Global markets Small circular economies
14. Global visions Global information & markets Global understanding
15. Incentives Primarily monetary Life satisfaction
16. Operational goals Efficiency (low unit cost) Total process effectiveness
17. Primary efficiency goal Lowest cost Min. material & energy use
18. Time horizon Short, years at best Long, many generations
19. Economic organization Independent companies Collaborative work entities
20. Economic mechanisms Assume efficient markets Life cycle efficiencies

Twenty points of contrast, but anyone with business experience, giving thought, can greatly extend this table. At present, the economic man paradigm permeates our lives in an advanced economy. Doing almost anything requires abiding by it to some extent.

On the other hand, words to describe the attributes of realist man need to be coined because old terms conjure old images. Welcome to the new paradigm; you can help shape it.

These contrasts in paradigms are not little tweaks. Bold changes in thinking are needed – quickly and peacefully. Mankind has never been able to do that before, so of all our challenges, that one is key. Can we purposely question old assumptions while increasing our civility and level of civilization? Can we create a truly different human?

Just as a primer let’s examine economic man’s assumptions in a few points in the table in more detail, noting some implications. A few key questions are prompted, but the full implications are endless, so more issues will be explored in future posts.

Illusory Assumptions

  1. (Points 1 and 8 in the table.) Assuming that more is always better: Bigger returns on investment, market share, earnings, organizations, and supply chains – tracked by Big Data. Any limits to system scale can be surmounted. (Not true. Take big scale farming. Soil readily absorbs small piles of poop. Big piles of poop “burn” soil locally and pollute waterways for miles.) Corollaries: You can never make enough money. Growth can’t be limited. Why? That would wreck the system!

So what happens when assuming that bigger is better becomes long-term brutal commodity competition? Monopolies? Subsidized industries? Subsidized households?

A system needs a better purpose than just keeping itself going, so what should it be? Endless growth in consumption is unwise, while renewal and regeneration – learning to adapt and improve – is necessary for survival. So what system does that imply?

  1. (Point 9 in the table.) Assumption: return on invested capital is an acid test deciding whether a proposal is worthwhile. In public projects it’s cost-benefit analysis. However, per CSI Market, industry returns on invested capital are telling: Old capital intensive industries run about 3% ROI; software and internet “unicorns” about 12%, so where does hot money go? Very little to regenerating what we have, and much less to governments to raise capital to maintain infrastructure – or to remediate environmental degradation – because paying taxes is an immediate hit on companies and other taxpayers. Any cost that does not compute within this system is pushed outside it, and often out of mind.

Even compound interest is a growth formula, so we measure with an expanding ruler. This biases the measurement system, warping thinking in several ways: short-term over long-term; wasteful profligacy over basic needs (sell anything that will sell); incentives to “externalize” costs, making stand alone operational entities look more profitable while ignoring consequences of eliminating line item expenses – or pushing them onto others.

  1. (Point 15 in the table.) Assumption: money can “properly” motivate everybody – customers, employees, suppliers, and targets of public policy. Money will prime technology to solve almost any problem. If ingeniously designed, short-term money incentives will align people working toward long-term goals. (A few companies even offer employees money incentives to hit environmental goals.)
  1. (Points 16, 17 & 18 in the table.) Assumption: making money (return on investment) indicates that a work organization is efficient; one that does not make money is inefficient. Business measurements compare a work organization with markets, industry figures, or baseline cost measurements. That’s measuring within the confines of economic man’s narrow system. That’s not smart, but too few executives see the danger. It’s not a radical new insight either, but the wisdom of the ancients:

“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” 2 Corinthians 10:12, King James Version of the New Testament.

  1. (Points 19 & 20 in the table.) Most problems, including environmental ones, have market solutions. We can resolve them by knowing little more than how to buy from markets, sell to markets, or create new markets. (The great market in the sky has always provided, so it always will.)

Implied is that we best promote our collective welfare if our institutions are arms-length competitors, each one maximizing gains for itself. Companies compete with each other. Individuals compete with each other. Political factions compete with each other. Even communities compete with each other to attract economic development. To what end are we competing?


Once on a roll, the limitations and dysfunction of stereotypical economic man’s paradigm become more and more obvious. But how do we migrate from the system we now have to something more effective in the 21st century? For a start, see the next post.



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