A Purpose in Common

A New Normal (Video 5 Minutes)

A Purpose in Common

Our present economic system is not only driving nature to the brink, it appears to be driving us nuts. Instead of bending nature to keep our economy growing, we need to upend our economic thinking to regenerate nature. To do this, no top-down mandate will be effective; too much complexity. Instead, billions of people need to self-organize executing millions of their own local plans.

The linchpin of self-organizing work is a purpose in common. It’s automatic after disasters when our overwhelming common purpose is mutual safety. We love disaster stories of selfless volunteerism, like “Mattress Mack” after Hurricane Harvey in Houston, opening his stores as shelters and deploying his delivery trucks to rescue the stranded. Of course, if we prepare for disaster, the better we self-organize to react to the unexpected things that happen when it comes.

Then we slip back to normal; competing for “whatever,” ignoring each other, blaming each other, everybody much more on their own.

“Normal” is economic expansion – unending growth.

A recent article in Nature is the latest warning that environmental degradation is eliminating the old normal. The shift in mindsets needed to devise a “new normal” is greater than that crossing any “capitalist-socialist” divide. Long-term survival depends on billions of us self-organizing under a banner like “regeneration of all life.”

If preparing to head off disaster were our purpose in common, our uppermost thought would be precaution to preclude disaster. It would displace desperately hanging onto a job, scrambling for gigs, struggling to make payroll, or buffing numbers to impress financiers. We have to drop our illusions about the realities of business. Our major roadblock is psychological transformation. We even lack the language to talk about it.

Depression in Prosperity

Mark Fisher’s story suggests that money grubbing is bad for our mental health, not just ecological health. A gifted, insightful reviewer of pop culture, Fisher wrote columns in leading publications. His blogs railed about pervasive commercialization sapping the authenticity of creative expression. It’s all branding and attention hawking, rather than tapping inner human emotion to generate cultural advance. Deep in depression, Fisher, on the cutting edge of popular culture, deleted himself from the story of life at age 48. Should his demise alert us that our economic distraction circus pollutes all our minds?

Fisher contended that technical advance overloads our limited senses with signals that herald no cultural advance or any deep purpose in life. Chasing work warps human socializing into networking for jobs. Jittery people can’t abide a family sit down dinner. Winner-take-all competition, as in pop music, leaves a big fantail of gig seeking losers.

Others have noted that a million followers on Instagram may not assure that friends will support you in a jam. Working virtually – on line – inhibits socializing in the flesh. This fragmentation has been called a loneliness epidemic. Offsetting it with artificial social mixing at work may fall flatter than a school dance for sixth graders. What’s the significance of on-line reputation management, the soaring popularity of “life coaching,”or or Instagram, no sooner becoming a leading internet medium, than marketing becomes a parasite on real or fake follower popularity?


Hardly anyone has been a bigger promoter of people self-organizing than Peter Kropotkin a century ago. His self-organization was the airy, never realized ideal of Stalinist Communism (what a contrast!). Kropotkin assumed a simple world, villages or collectives where “people knew each other,” where avarice melted, basics were assured for all: food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. It’s a culture of contentment with simple pleasures, nobody “wanting it all.” Tribes and villages have actually behaved this way for millennia, although adventurous wanderers opted out.

In a fast-paced world, neighborhoods, villages, or small high-trust groups may still work this way, but an expansionary capitalist mindset discourages it. “The system” depends on growth. The lion’s share funnels to ownership, although less blatantly than under hereditary feudalism. This gaping rift in world views is epitomized by an ambitious white pioneer’s description of Native Americans, “They don’t want anything, and they don’t want me to have anything either.”

Natural disasters motivate us to self-organize for mutual safety, perhaps reverting to basic collaborative instincts. But when out of danger, watch two kids from any culture. If one starts to run, the other will try to beat him. Within minutes, the same two kids are creatively devising a skit together. We constantly compete. We collaborate when there is a mutual reason.

So what makes us have a common purpose at some times and not at others?

Obviously this depends on whether we think we can “do better” on our own or by working with others. Is mutual safety and welfare at stake? Do we trust each other? If contending to get the most or win a prize, of course we do not fully trust rivals.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the very success of our expansionary economic system, as we have thought of success, threatens our ecological existence, but we are deeply reluctant to give up on it. We desperately seek magic technology and bio-system loopholes. When we do finally admit that we’re not omnipotent, we will have to self-organize a very different system. Psychologically that’s a huge shift in a short period of time – and we’re running short of time.

Nature’s Business

Contact with nature is known to be mentally stabilizing. Nature is a touchstone of reality. Much of the human economy is artificial, beginning with the illusion that money actually is wealth rather than a mere symbol of it. In a digital world, we’re everywhere. And we’re nowhere. Flickers on screens blur into symbolic races toward pointless progress. Perhaps much of Mark Fisher’s suicidal depression came from realizing that our lives are spent physically consuming while chasing illusory success.

Nature’s success is converting sunlight into all kinds of biochemically complex life. If nature has a purpose, it is to perpetuate cycles of life. Not all beings live indefinitely, of course; all phenotypes die sometime. So while we are here, what gives our lives basic meaning?

If we are a part of nature, our primary purpose is to perpetuate life; human life, and all other life forms because we depend on them. That purpose outright rejects the purpose of a capitalist economic system, perpetuating its own growth. Striving and conniving to do something that ultimately we can’t do is insanity.

Perpetuation of life is a sane purpose in common. If we understand that, we can self organize in a different way to do it. Then we will no longer compete to be the biggest, smartest, or most ostentatious, or to see who can dominate whom.

Our real revolution is within us. Sanity is developing the quality economic activity to be ecologically regenerative. Stop chasing useless growth. Regenerative quality has to become our fountain of hope, our reason for living.

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