New paradigms for new Economics

A sustainable future is not possible unless we change our economic paradigm.
The conception of economics has to go back to the original meaning of “taking care of the house” (in Greek Oikos means house, family).
An economy that focuses just on profit and judges the good or bad with a factor measuring only the richness of a country, the GDP, is far away from the idea of taking care of our own home.

For this reason, to correct the deformation of our modern economy, mainly focused on unlimited growth, profit and trapped within finance dynamics, some people have tried to conceive different “economics”, that include factors that really matter in life.

One example is “The Economics of Happiness”


Not only do we need to start conceiving economics differently, free from the chains of money, debt, banks and growth; we will slowly embrace a new cultural paradigm where economics, biology, spirituality…they are no longer disconnected and specialized.
Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi  wrote a book on the epistemology shift  that is required to conceive an other  kind of economics and a more holistic and systemic understanding of the reality.

“As the twenty-first century unfolds, a new scientific conception is emerging. It is a unified view that integrates, for the first time, life’s biological, cognitive, social, and economic dimensions. At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is no longer seen as a machine composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. […] Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather a cooperative dance in which creativity and constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.”

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

See the presentation of the book.

Considering the problem from a biological point of view, our traditional conceptions of the world, based on the classical model of the selfish human being who naturally tends to fight his mates in order to save his own benefits, is not appropriate anymore. The old principle that humans are wolves to each other needs to be corrected with more modern views of a human being who naturally tends to affiliate, cooperate and help others. Maybe not for pure altruism, but because the benefit of the whole is also the more efficient benefit of the one.

(The following text belongs to the study material of the GAIA Sustainability Design
GAIA Design for Sustainability )

According to some thinkers, economy has a lot to learn from ecology and biology:

“The evolutionary and futurist Elisabet Sathouris describes how in the evolution of complex communities of diverse organisms a ‘maturation point’ is reached when the system realises that “it is cheaper to feed your ‘enemies’ than to kill them” . Having successfully populated six continents and diversified into the mosaic of value systems, worldviews, identities (national, cultural, ethnic, professional, political, etc.) and ways of living that make up humanity, we are now challenged to integrate this precious diversity into a globally and locally collaborative civilisation acting wisely to create conditions conducive to life.

We have now reached a new tipping point where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration; where planetary limits of exploiting nature have been reached. It is high time for us to cross this new tipping point into our global communal maturity – an integration of the economy and ecology we have put into conflict with each other, to evolve an ecosophy.

We have to evolve wise societies characterised by empathy, solidarity and collaboration. Wise cultures are regenerative and protect bio-cultural diversity as a source of wealth and resilience.

By revisiting basic assumptions about economics we can begin to integrate ecology and economy in full reconnection of the interbeing of nature and culture.  We need wisdom to re-design an economic system fit for life.  Here are some insights that can help us:

  • The rules of our current economic and monetary system have been designed by people and we can therefore re-design them.
  • We have to question the role of scarcity, competition, and the maximisation of individual benefit has cornerstones of our competitive economy.
  • In redesigning economic systems at local, regional and global scale we should pay special attention to how the system incentivises regenerative practices, increases bio-productivity sustainably, restores healthy ecosystem functioning, while nurturing thriving communities.
  • Modern evolutionary biology transcends and includes Darwinian justifications of competition as ‘human nature’, as it acknowledges that complex patterns of collaboration have enabled the evolution of our species and the continued evolution of consciousness towards planetary awareness.
  • Our ability to cooperate has shaped who we are in equal and possibly more profound ways than competitive behaviour, hence we need to re-design economic systems to establish a healthy balance between the way competition and collaboration are incentivised in the system.
  • Rather than maximising isolated parameters or the benefit of a select few, a re-design of our economic system to serve all of humanity and all life will have to optimise the health and resilience of the system as a whole (understanding humanity asnature; and the economy as a sub-system of society and nature in interconnected eco-social systems).
  • The dominant narrative of separation creates a focus on scarcity, competition and individual advantage, while the emerging narrative of interbeing challenges us to create a win-win-win economy based on the understanding that it is in our enlightened self-interest to unlock shared abundances through collaboration.


 Sustainable development paradigm for the Anthropocene


Whether our structurally dysfunctional economic system can ever deliver sustainability is being questioned more and more. Not just anti-globalisation activists but people within institutions such as the World Bank, government think tanks, academia  and the World Economic Forum are questioning the economic growth paradigm and our current version of capitalism.

“Capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us […] a global transformation is urgently needed, and it must start with reinstating a global sense of social responsibility.”

 Klaus Schwab, Founder of World Economic Forum, Davos in The Economic Times 2012

Common elements of many proposals to create vibrant green economies that serve people and planet involve converting agriculture to organic production methods, facilitating a renewable energy revolution, promoting circular economy and cradle-to-cradle approaches to re-designing our systems of production and consumption and the importance of life-long learning and continuous retraining of the workforce to include eco-social literacy and practices and skills that allow people to participate in the transition toward a sustainable and regenerative economy and culture. 

We need transitions in many fields from technology, agriculture, and energy supported by green economic policies, and we need a deeper systemic transformation of the underlying structures of our dysfunctional economic and monetary systems. Creating a collaborative economy at local, regional and global scale will require a transformation of our systems of governance to increase participation, social justice and civic responsibility. Underlying all these transformative changes in the human presence on Earth is a deeper cultural transformation, a shift in worldview and values.

“Sustainability does not mean zero growth. Rather, a sustainable society would be interested in qualitative development, not physical expansion. It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. […] it would begin to discriminate among kinds of growth and purposes for growth. It would ask what the growth is for, and who would benefit, and what it would cost, and how long it would last, and whether the growth could be accommodated by the sources and sinks of the earth.”

The calls for ‘de-growth’ (Assadourian, 2012; see 12 minute video), post-growth economics (Post Growth Institute, 2015), prosperity without growth (Jackson, 2011), and a ‘steady state economy’ (Daly, 2009) have become louder and have found a much wider audience in recent years. 

All these more or less anti-growth perspectives make important contributions to our rethinking of economics with people and planet in mind, yet they might be over-swinging the pendulum. What we need is a more nuanced understanding of how as living systems mature they shift from an early (juvenile) stage that favours quantitative growth to a later (mature) stage of growing (transforming) qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

“It seems that our key challenge is how to shift from an economic system based on the notion of unlimited growth to one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. ‘No growth’ is not the answer. Growth is a central characteristic of all life; a society, or economy, that does not grow will die sooner or later. Growth in nature, however, is not linear and unlimited. While certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, others decline, releasing and recycling their components which become resources for new growth.”

          Fritjof Capra and Hazel Henderson (2013: 4)

In their joint publication on Qualitative Growth, Capra and Henderson argue “we cannot understand the nature of complex systems such as organisms, ecosystems, societies, and economies if we describe them in purely quantitative terms”. Since “qualities arise from processes and patterns of relationships” they need to be mapped rather than measured (ibid: 7). There are close parallels between the difference in how economists and ecologist understand the concepts of growth and development. While economists tend to take a purely quantitative approach, ecologists and biologists know how to differentiate between the qualitative and quantitative aspects of both growth and development.

One example of aberrant quantitative growth in living systems is that of cancer cells which ultimately kill their host. Unlimited quantitative growth is fatal for living systems and economies. Qualitative growth in living organisms, ecosystems and economies, “by contrast, can be sustainable if it involves a dynamic balance between growth, decline, and recycling, and if it also includes development in terms of learning and maturing” (p.9). Capra and Henderson argue:

“Instead of assessing the state of the economy in terms of the crude quantitative measure of GDP, we need to distinguish between ‘good’ growth and ‘bad’ growth and then increase the former at the expense of the latter, so that the natural and human resources tied up in wasteful and unsound production processes can be freed and recycled as resources for efficient and sustainable processes.”

             Fritjof Capra and Hazel Henderson (2013: 10)

The distinction between good growth and bad growth can be informed by a deeper socio-ecological understanding of their impact. While bad growth externalizes the social and ecological costs of the degradation of the Earth’s eco-social systems, good growth “is growth of more efficient production processes and services which fully internalise costs that involve renewable energies, zero emissions, continual recycling of natural resources, and restoration of the Earth’s ecosystems” (p.10). Capra and Henderson conclude: “the shift from quantitative to qualitative growth […] can steer countries from environmental destruction to ecological sustainability and from unemployment, poverty, and waste to the creation of meaningful and dignified work”

The call for practices that move beyond simply being sustainable is growing stronger. Being sustainable, or as William McDonough has defined it “100% less bad” is not enough anymore. We have severely degraded ecosystems everywhere to the point that the integrity of the biosphere is compromised the cumulative effects of our actions (see Planetary Boundaries). To create a successful transition within the 21stCentury we need to start thinking in terms of restorative and regenerative practices that contribute to systemic healing and aim to optimize the whole system for all of humanity and all of life.

See video “From Sustainable to Regenerative design” From Sustainability to regenerative Design




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