Act: Inspiration

Defining a Shared Purpose for the Progressive Movement

November 19, 2019

In this article I use the term ‘progressive movement’ to mean all the people and organisations that are working, or would like to work, on creating a world in which people and planet come before profit. If the term does not sit comfortably with you please substitute ‘solidarity economy’ or whatever term you prefer that encapsulates the widest possible breadth of ‘pro-positive-change’ people and organisations.

Ultimately, the one thing that unites all of humanity is that we rely on planet Earth for our survival.

It seems odd that as individuals, and in our businesses and other organisations, we do not acknowledge this fact more often.

Although generally, when pushed on the issue, most people agree with this basic fundamental fact, the way we live, organise our lives, and manage our organisartions runs counter to this basic truth. We all eat food, we all breathe air, but the majority of our actions pay no credence to, or act in support of, our reliance on Earth as our essential life support system.

Working at the system level

So what can we do? How can we reduce the impacts we have on the Earth, and start regenerating the planet’s vital life support systems? We can all try to ‘do our bit’, we can protest and lobby our governments, but ultimately these small changes will not change the nature of the growth economy. It is the system which needs changing. And the best way to change a system is to create a new system which makes the present system obsolete.

There are many people and organisations that have realised, and are working according to this fact. But delivering a new system, which makes the present system obsolete is the hardest work there is – even harder than calculating total environmental impacts.

Systems thinkers like, Donatella Meadows, have suggested some of the ways it is possible to intervene in a system. These are referred to as ‘leverage points’ and the most effective of these, according to Meadows, is the “The power to transcend paradigms”. The next most effective leverage point she lists is “The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises”.

In pursuit of a new paradigm

It is here, in the realm of paradigms, that we need to work if we are to deliver systems change on the scale required to avert environmental catastrophe and avoid the destruction of the natural world and the extinction of humanity.

Our current paradigm is based around the concepts of scarcity (of resources, access to money and capital, etc), competition (between individuals – the so called ‘homo economicus’ in which self-interest dominates), and uninhibited growth, which has made ‘more’ synonymous with ‘good’.

These concepts underpin the way our entire civilisation operates – from our individual, personal choices, to the missions of our businesses and the goals of our nations. But they are flawed concepts. They are illogical. They have become intuitively ingrained in every aspect of our our lives, through repetition in our education, our institutions, and our mental belief systems, but they are still not true. They are false assumptions.

If we really want to change the way the systems which are killing our host planet work we HAVE to challenge these base assumptions.

It’s easy to recognise the need for new ways of thinking but a lot harder to initiate and garner agreement on new assumptions. Ultimately it requires defining and disseminating an entirely new ontology; a new way of thinking about and conceiving our relationship with the world around us.

Defining a new global ontology, with a new axiom (a statement accepted as true as the basis for argument or inference) at its core is not something that most people are keen to work on. Not only does it sound lofty and acutely impractical but it’s hard to imagine how it will put bread on the table – or help address the immediate threat of global over-heating. (See our previous work on defining a new ontology). But that does not mean it is not the core issue we should be addressing – sometimes the hardest issues are the ones which deserve the most attention.

Joining the dots

If we consider the wide range of progressive, environmental, mutual aid organisations, cooperatives, digital networks and other communities that are committed to making the world a better place, there is definitely a growing collective of people that are working on solving the environmental conundrum.

However, all these well-meaning projects and people are operating from within the current ‘growth economy’ paradigm. The base assumption from which they start work every day does not take humanities inter-connection with nature into consideration. Even the organisations that try to act as responsible global citizens are trapped in the present paradigm. They all need to fund-raise debt-based money, pay staff in fiat currencies which prop up the present growth economy and compete with other projects for the scarce funding they require to survive. That’s the old paradigm working perfectly, as designed.

That’s not the only problem. The separation and competition between these organisations, projects, networks and communities – and the lack of joined- up, interconnected thinking and collective, strategic organisation, cooperation and collaboration means they are destined to remain marginal. Forever. This marginal nature of all planet-friendly initiatives renders them entirely ineffective on a systemic level.

Most merely make our enslavement to the growth economy look less bad, or feel less abusive by placating our egos with perceptions of altruism whilst the plunder of the planet rolls on…

The only way to tackle systemic issues is by thinking, planning, coordinating and implementing on a systemic level.

And the most effective way to do that, according to the systems thinkers, is to change the paradigm.

Defining a shared purpose for the progressive movement

So how do we start to change the paradigm? One way might be to acknowledge our connection with nature – and our reliance on planet Earth’s natural systems.

Most planet friendly projects and initiatives have spent ages defining their purposes, or missions statements, and hang on to them as their ‘North Star’, to guide them forward into the future. These are essential but are only ever individualistic, organisation-wide missions. To gather the movement-wide momentum we need to deliver the synergistic, systems-level change we so desperately require we need to unite under a wider, movement-wide ‘meta-purpose’. Where is the North Star of the progressive movement?

Dee Hock, and many others, have demonstrated that incredible results emerge from even loose organisations when they are bound by a simple purpose and some basic principles.

We don’t all need to agree on everything, as long as we all agree on some things and – importantly – act accordingly.

This is a key point because although many organisations agree #TheTimeIsNow to act on climate issues Christian Aid and WWF, for example, have very different purposes and principles. Co-op workers and Socialists probably don’t see eye to eye with Green Party members on every issue – nor do The Red Cross workers align with all the people from Transitions Towns, or Occupy or Extinction Rebellion… and so on. But every member of all of those organisations probably does agree – on some base level – that we rely on planet Earth for our survival.

Why not acknowledge that?

What we need to do is find a way to unify, by defining, disseminating and collaborating under a new axiom – as the start of a new ontology which will help us define the new paradigm that will make the present system obsolete. We can all keep our own organisational purposes and reap greater individual and collective benefits at the same time by uniting under a broader movement-wide purpose.

If progressives and community leaders and network mavens and affinity rebels want to make our movements effective we need to step back and look up and identify our collective purpose.

In search of synergy

Once we acknowledge an overarching goal, which spans all of our projects, initiatives and organisations, and agree some base principles on which to operate, we will have a framework within which to begin to see the connections, the overlaps and opportunities for more coordinated, collective action in order to enable the synergies and emergent effects that come from working in a networked way.

As a community of organisations the progressive movement is missing out on the very thing which make us powerful – the network effect. The effect that every new member adds an increasing amount of connections, diversity, resilience and value to the overall network.

So, let’s join the dots between all the organisations and communities that are working on building a new, regenerative economy – by acknowledging the shared purpose of our movement.

If we can start to agree on a simple axiom as a starting point, we will find a way, collectively, to define a shared purpose and some basic principles.

What do you think? Do you agree that “We rely on planet Earth for our survival”?

If enough people and organisations do, perhaps we could all propose options for the shared purpose of our movement and some collective principles on which to act. It would not be hard to collate suggestions and encourage amendments and feedback online until we had a collectively designed and democratically agreed purpose and some principles for our movement.

For example, if we do all agree that we rely on planet Earth for our survival, perhaps one possible shared purpose for our movement could be: “To restore and steward all of the Earth’s natural systems to create lasting abundance for all”, or maybe just “To create a world which puts people and planet before profit”? Some tentative movement-wide principles might be: “To increase equity, equality, diversity, respect, resilience, and subsidiarity”. Obviously, these are only suggestions. The final purpose and principles would need to be a defined by all concerned as a collaborative effort.

With a movement-wide purpose and principles in place we would be able to reconsider the activities and actions of our organisations and businesses and projects and programmes and re-asses their appropriateness for delivering change. We might find it no longer makes sense to compete for scarce funding, or to tackle global issues in isolation, we might find new ways to pool resources and funding and find other commonalities which spur us on to develop further mutually-beneficial working methods.

Working together, within a democratically agreed framework, we might just have a chance of delivering the paradigmatic change we all hope for, and aspire to, before it is too late.

What do we have to lose by trying?

Ultimately, a movement-wide purpose might just act as the precursor we need to seed a truly different system, which makes the present system obsolete.

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley is a marketing and communications advisor with many years experience in sustainability. Oliver graduated from Central Saint Martins and then studied an Msc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. He wrote his thesis on Encouraging Environmentally Responsible Behaviour and specialises in communications and marketing strategies which encourage democracy and sustainability. Oliver Co-Founded The Open Co-op and developed a concept for an open source communications system PLANET in 2004. He recently updated PLANET as a vision of an open source operating system for a collaborative sustainable economy.

Tags: new economy, progressive movement, solidarity economy