May 11th, 2010

Using SPIRALS as a Lens to Envision the Next Economy

By Andres Edwards

Illustrating a vision for the new economy is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities for leaders in the sustainability movement. The notion of a “green economy” has mainstreamed quite rapidly; however “green” much like “sustainability” remains an amorphous term with many interpretations that are difficult to envision in daily life. The green economy is often juxtaposed with the fossil fuel-based economy to emphasize environmentally friendly energy alternatives and green business practices. In their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart allude to the notion of the “next industrial revolution” which has roots dating back to the birth of the industrial revolution more than two centuries ago. This characterization is familiar, yet stems from old economic models that are at the root of the environmental, social and economic crises we currently face.

Perhaps a more useful approach for describing the next economy focuses on daily practices rather than conceptual models. Instead of characterizing the type of economy—whether it’s a “new,” “green,” “conservation,” or “next industrial” economy, we need to characterize our vision for living in this evolving economy and ask questions that highlight the way new economic systems will work. For example, where does our food come from? What kind of a bank or financial institution do we do business with? What are its values? And where does it invest its capital? What are the educational goals and objectives of our schools and universities? These questions begin to address what author Bill McKibben describes in his book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.

The notion of a “Durable“ and a “Livable” future speaks to the intergenerational aspects of a lasting new economy. These terms support the idea of a resilient economic system that is able to stand the test of time and adapt to change. But questions remain: what are the characteristics of this “livable future?” How does it manifest itself? Author Jean Jacobs addressed this issue when she coined the term “reliable prosperity.” Jacobs tied the viability of our economic system to natural systems. As she wrote in her last book, The Nature of Economies, “human beings exist wholly within nature as part of the natural order in every respect.” Jacobs emphasized how the foundation of reliable prosperity stems from the resilience of natural systems. Our desire for reliability and prosperity is interdependent with nature and our economic system depends upon nature’s life-support systems. The Portland, Oregon based environmental nonprofit, Ecotrust has adopted “reliable prosperity” as a guiding principle and catalyst to inspire its members into action.

The notion of reliable prosperity also points to the importance of identifying some of the essential attributes that we envision in the new economy. These attributes help to ground the character of the new economy with enduring values based on practical aspirations. In researching effective initiatives and, to a broader extent, economic structures that support a durable future with reliable prosperity, I have identified the SPIRALS framework—namely, initiatives that are: Scalable, Place-based, Intergenerational, Resilient, Accessible, Life-affirming, and involving Self-care. These key attributes are applicable to initiatives that foster the new economy and also serve as a compass for envisioning the future that we choose to create. The SPIRALS framework is a useful tool for going beyond the “shades of green” of the new economy and understanding how we can design a thriving economy that works for all species.

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