We live in a head-spinning, gut-wrenching time of multiplying crises. At home we face outsourced jobs, crumbling cities, underpaid teachers, unaffordable healthcare, endless wars, political corruption, a co-opted corporate media, skyrocketing inequality, and public “austerity” measures whose main purpose is to make tax-breaks for the rich more affordable. Working-class stagnation is producing widespread anxiety, mounting debt, and “despair deaths” from opioid abuse. Fear is fueling populist outrage, along with extremism, authoritarianism, and the conditions for a fascist takeover. Meanwhile, climate change poses an existential threat to humanity itself. All of these calamities spring from the same root cause: an oligarchic capitalism that puts short-term profit for owners over people and planet. While this system seems immutable, upheavals from Occupy Wall Street to the rise of right-wing populism signal a backlash to a political–economic establishment that treats people and planet as resources to be pillaged and expenses to be minimized. Its failures have also been driving the development of new possibilities in the form of more systemic approaches. Still, while systems thinking has improved approaches in fields from agriculture to medicine, so far none of these reforms have been able to channel public frustration into true transformation because none addresses the root problem: oligarchy. The science of systemic vitality we need is also being born, but so far, its findings are diffuse. This article shows how the science of energy systems can galvanize today’s economic reformation by articulating the common sense rules and rigorous measures of systemic vitality, while anchoring them in an evidence-based vision of humanity as a collaborative learning species. The result is a practical path to building systemic socioeconomic vitality by revitalizing human networks, energizing collective learning, and clarifying why oligarchic capitalism is a distortion of our original democratic free-enterprise dream, which is now careening toward collapse.
KEYWORDS: Big history, energy networks, economic development, great change, paradigm shift, regenerative economics, societal learning.
The concept of resilience has become popular in international development circles in recent years, but it is only one of many factors in a larger, integrated, empirical understanding of systemic health and development emerging from the study of energy-flow networks. This article explores how the Energy Network Sciences (ENS) can provide a robust theoretical foundation and effective quantitative measures for resilience and other characteristics that undergird systemic health and development in socio-economic networks. Einstein once said that “theory makes measurement possible.” We believe ENS can provide a more effective theory of economic health, which will open the door to surprisingly precise measures. Our goal is to outline the basic reasoning behind both theory and measures.
Regeneration refers to the self-feeding, self-renewing processes that natural systems use to nourish their capacity to thrive for long periods of time and their ability to adapt to unexpected, sometimes threatening circumstances. No system can sustain itself over the long-term, if it is not designed to continuously regenerate.
Regenerative development uses the universal laws of systemic health and self-renewal to show how we can develop durably vibrant socio-economic systems as well. It uses the empirical study of flow-networks to make this idea precise.
This approach to development suggests new answers to a critical question for our uncertain times: Can the tools of development be used, not just for episodic interventions that provide short-term relief, but to build the long-term regenerative capacities of local communities and economies? In other words, can the enterprise networks we develop be both profitable and also serve as engines of long-term, regenerative vitality?
This paper explores how Regenerative development backed by the empirical science of flow networks can create a rigorous, commonsense, actionable theory of systemic economic health that:
- Identifies the key factors behind regenerative vitality including the relational structures and social norms needed to create widespread well-being and abundant opportunities;
- Organizes much of what is already known into a working model of systemic health that allows us to address the root causes as well as the symptoms of economic dysfunction;
- Clarifies the connection between moral imperatives and the proper economic functioning;
- Provides effective measures and clear targets for such key factors as inclusivity, resilience, balance, reciprocity, and circulation.