Sometimes transitions can be smooth, sometimes difficult. As a global economic community, we are in a difficult transition from one sustainable culture informed by the modern industrial age to what will follow.
Modern organizations share a common assumption: Efficiency is the route to an economy of scale and scope.
The problem with efficiency is not what it gives us—the ability to do more with fewer resources—but what it takes from us: alternatives.
Robust, sustainable cultures are those with many competing alternatives.
The purpose of this post is not to advocate for the free market as many conservatives and business people do. The free market is an ideal construct; while inviting, it cannot exist while there are powerful institutional structures that dictate the terms of the market. This is where we are now with the relationship that exists between Washington and Wall Street.
The purpose of this post also is not to simply denigrate governments as the overseer of efficiency on a global scale. Governments are important institutions for providing a basis for alternatives to grow and develop.
We are at a transition point because, with the elevation of efficiency to its preeminent role, control over the economic and organizational systems of society must also grow.
Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen the control of society grow to the point where virtually every one of us is breaking some rule of efficiency every day.
Dr. Joseph Tainter’s 2010 thesis titled “Why Societies Collapse,” based on his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, easily persuaded me that societies collapse when the diversity of alternatives diminishes and a one-size-fits-all culture develops. This is the course our society has been advancing for the past fifty years.
This is not a political statement to say the course the Soviet Union took should be instructive for us today. In many respects, their economy failed because they lacked alternatives. Central planning did not create a robust, sustainable society. It creates one of fear, not just fear of impoverishment, but fear of those who control the institutions of society.
The United States is not the Soviet Union. Our histories and founding values are different.
What we do share is a belief in large, supra-national, global institutions guiding the course of society by people selected by some criteria of elite status.
Whether that control is by law or political coercion or moral condemnation, the effect is to create a culture of efficiency by removing alternatives that may fail, inconvenience someone, or be financially costly.
Our society is no longer robust and sustainable because we are quickly squeezing alternative ways of doing things out of our economic system. As it has done so, society has also squeezed out the benefits of efficiency.
Charting An Alternative Course
If Tainter is correct, we are headed toward an economic collapse. If so, then alternative ways of sustaining society must be developed in parallel with our current system.
I see this, for example, in the rise of local-buying initiatives. When farmers are connected personally to those who buy their produce, the relational conditions for an alternative economic culture grow. I hear more and more about bartering between people who have services to provide. And possibly, most importantly, I see it in local efforts to develop cultures of entrepreneurship that create both for-profit and non-profit organizations that provide alternative ways for local economies to function.
The Conditions for a Culture of Alternatives
For an alternative culture to develop, three essential requirements exist:
- Individual initiative
- Community collaboration
- Open culture of ideas
This is what I have advocated for more than a decade as the starting point for all leadership: Individual initiative focused on creating impact. This initiative is about how people take personal responsibility for their lives and for their families and communities.
Consulting with a wide spectrum of organizations over the years, I see how institutions force collaboration upon people. It is often seen as a way the old institutional barriers are being brought down. Collaboration can certainly do that, but it must come from the collaborators themselves.
Open Culture of Ideas
All alternative approaches begin as an idea that needs to be tried. Openness to new ideas and a willingness to test and fail with those ideas are essential in creating a culture of alternatives.
The End of an Era and the Beginning of a New One
The industrial culture elevated efficiency as a core societal value.
Efficiency has demanded institutional control by those designated as leaders of the system. This worked as long as the means of production were limited to the industrial plant; as long as advanced education was limited to the few who could afford it; and as long as the means of communication consisted of the distribution of the information that leaders wanted people to know.
Today, all that has changed. In many ways, the opportunities we have today are like a return to a pre-industrial era or, as some would call it, a pre-modern time. In the past, cultures of alternatives always existed. Today, they are found where people recognize that they must develop new ways of living and working to provide for their families and community. Then, it was understood as the culture of the frontier—today, as sustainable, local cultures.
The frontier that confronts us now is a world of failing institutions. If we take the perspective of alternatives as a guide, then we’ll see that all approaches have a lifespan. They begin, grow to maturity, and then devolve to extinction or irrelevance. We are in that third stage with the institutions of the modern age.
What will the next stage look like at maturity? It is anyone’s guess. I am fairly certain, however, that we will see greater individual initiative, more collaboration, and a renaissance of ideas. This is what a culture of alternatives will look like.