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An Alternative to "Business-as-Usual"

NCDD member, Tom Atlee, recently posted the following message to his organization’s mailing list. It explores the concepts of political will, public judgement, collective wisdom and how this reflects of current issues and how individuals can make a difference. Its an interesting piece and one we thought many of our readers my be interested in.

Originally sent to the Co-Intelligence Institute mailing list…

Dear friends,

More and more people are taking seriously the emerging crises we face. Below is one example. Lester Brown uses what is to me a revealing phrase: “Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option.” Whenever I hear someone saying something like that, I believe they have glimpsed the scope of the challenges we face.

Of course, the rub (as Hamlet says) lies in what they propose as an alternative to “business-as-usual”. How deep or fundamental a shift do they think is possible or necessary, and where they feel we should put our attention? Embedded in what they say will be assumptions — usually unspoken — about how change happens and about who we are as human beings and societies.

Read the entire essay after the break.


Other key assumptions lie buried in another phrase I see in such calls for change, including Brown’s: “Can we mobilize the political will?” Al Gore has also been calling for more “political will” around climate change.

What IS political will? I’ve explored the web for discussions of this. From what little I found, it seems that “political will” has to do with the energy of political elites to push through legislation or other mandates. As one site defines it, political will is “an express, and hopefully public, commitment from a country’s leader(s)” to push a particular program. Much to my surprise, “political will” does not seem to refer directly to an upswelling of political pressure from the population. It is not “the Will of the People”. Of course, public demand is one factor (among many) in generating the political will of elites.

Among the assumptions underlying the phrase “political will” are that political elites are the key factor in how society makes its final decisions. THEIR will is what decides what does and doesn’t happen.

This is true, given the way things are set up. However, these framings do not invite us to think about how they might be set up differently — and better.

In my searches, I also found the idea that when political will exists, it is often exercised in ways that are worse than the original solution, such as poisoning all life in a river to kill an unpopular parasite (). This can happen even when there is popular support for political action, as there was in the US for the war on Iraq in 2003.

This leads me to wonder: Should “political will” really be the bottom line when we face crises of epic proportions?

Consider two alternative bottom lines:


“Public judgment emerges only in hearing other points of view, thinking through the clash of values and perceiving the ground from which differences come. Public judgment differs from simple public opinion, which is the undigested mass of private thoughts about issues and controversies. … When citizens themselves have weighed the alternatives and made the decisions, the trade-offs are their own, and they can better accept the consequences. Public judgment involves learning to be discriminating. A barrage of information hits us daily. What is useful? What sources can we trust? To answer these questions, we must explore the values behind our opinions and those of others.” (“Living Democracy” )

“Public judgment is what diverse people come to, together, when they explore the values involved in various alternatives and the consequences of the choices they face. Right now our politics — even in theory — is not based on real dialogue among diverse points of view. Instead, it is usually a battle between interest groups to influence public opinion and the decisions of our majoritarian leaders. This approach generates partisanship, not public judgment — heat, not light — opinions, not wisdom — debate, not dialogue. This is not healthy — especially when we face crises like our current one[s], where unwise decisions could generate horrendous consequences for us all. (“A call to move beyond public opinion to public judgment” )

Much is known about how to generate public judgment, and many organizations already do excellent work in this area.


Unfortunately, the term “collective wisdom” now refers to many things that seem to me less than truly wise, equating it with group problem-solving, mass prediction markets, and other remarkable phenomena that, nevertheless, do not rise — or raise us — to wisdom . Here is my attempt to reclaim the term for the common good:

Collective wisdom refers to insights and possibilities that emerge when diverse people’s shared sensing, thinking, feeling and experience, take them beyond their individual and parochial perspectives into the long-term well-being of lives and communites beyond themselves — the common good, future generations, the living planet, and more.

Because collective wisdom is generated by such diverse people or by those with whom they identify and whom they trust, it has the power to shape their subsequent attitudes and actions. Because the perspective of any individual or group is inherently limited, interactive diversity is key to generating collective wisdom . And because there are important sources of collective wisdom beyond us and within us , conditions must be right to access it.

Since some collective and interactive dynamics generate collective wisdom differently or more effectively than others, there is much to know and discover about how to call it forth among us.


Consider: Political will without public judgment — or, better yet, collective wisdom — may be dangerous, especially in these days of global and high-tech power. Public judgment and collective wisdom without political will is certainly impotent, and thus may also be dangerous because it makes us cynical just when we could be making a difference.

So how do we put them together?

My answer is relatively simple, but certainly not easy:

We have forms of conversation that can dependably generate public judgment and collective wisdom on behalf of whole communities and societies. For good examples, see
, , and

So my suggestion is: Give them power. Pick the best and plug them into our collective decision-making institutions and processes. Make them part of the law of the land. Demand politicians support them . Make these processes part of our culture, the way juries and state-of-the-union addresses are part of our culture. Make them so understood, desired, demanded, and expected that no major decision is made without their involvement.

This is not a project or an issue. It is a vision in search of a movement. It is, potentially, a context within which ALL work on ALL issues and ALL candidates can be done. After all, looking back over our history, when did this majoritarian, issue oriented, candidate-fixated system REALLY act like it could deal with the challenges we face today, to say nothing of the challenges we faced yesterday?

And as we work on designing these processes into our political and governmental cultures, let us be appropriately humble, and research how to make them even more powerful and wise at addressing the crises of our era. Opportumnities for this abound, and we will have centuries of evolution ahead of us.

Finally, whenever and wherever we get them empowered and operating, protect them and their role with the vigilance, ferocity, and passion of a mother lion. For these wise democratic innovations will challenge the reign of parasitic power that is right now draining the vast collective awareness, intelligence, and resources of We the People into the coffers of the few and the dead-end streets of tomorrow.

We can do better.


PS: What about getting the right politicians? As radical progressive Dennis Kucinich withdraws from the Democratic presidential race under pressure at home from established powers endangering his Congressional seat , much excitement is arising around Barack Obama, especially after his South Carolina win , and he is even now being compared to John and Bobby Kennedy (see and ).

I find this a tragic comparison, given what happened to both Kennedys, and to the hope that they inspired. I wonder how many people are taking a good luck — ahead of time — at the lessons we seem to have such a hard time learning about placing our hopes so thoroughly in the heroism of one vulnerable, imperfect person rather than in organizing for lasting changes in the way our society is structured and the empowerment of the wisdom of We the People.

It has been noted that not only are none of the US Presidential candidates talking about empowered citizen deliberation (except the visionary but ignored Mike Gravel with his deliberation-based National Initiative ), but none are even talking adequately about the truly major crises we face, like the energy crisis .

This is not a system that knows how to collectively see what is happening to it and respond with collective intelligence and wisdom. It is so hard watching Lester Brown and other brilliant, public-spirited individuals acting as if we can actually make the changes we need without changing that system.


Earth Policy Institute
News Release
January 16, 2008



Lester R. Brown

“In late summer 2007, reports of ice melting were coming at a frenetic pace. Experts were ‘stunned’ when an area of Arctic sea ice almost twice the size of Britain disappeared in a single week,” writes Lester R. Brown in his new book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton & Company).

“Nearby, the Greenland ice sheet was melting so fast that huge chunks of ice weighing several billion tons were breaking off and sliding into the sea, triggering minor earthquakes,” notes Brown, President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based independent environmental research organization.

These recent developments are alarming scientists. If we cannot stop this melting of the Greenland ice sheet, sea level will eventually rise 23 feet, inundating many of the world’s coastal cities and the rice-growing river deltas of Asia. It will force several hundred million people from their homes, generating an unimaginable flood of rising-sea refugees.

“We need not go beyond ice melting to see that civilization is in trouble. Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. It is time for Plan B,” Brown says in Plan B 3.0, which was produced with major funding from the Farview, Lannan, Summit, and Wallace Genetic foundations, the U.N. Population Fund, Fred and Alice Stanback, and Andrew Stevenson.

“Plan B 3.0 is a comprehensive plan for reversing the trends that are fast undermining our future. Its four overriding goals are to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s damaged ecosystems,” says Brown. “Failure to reach any one of these goals will likely mean failure to reach the others as well.”

Continuing rapid population growth is weakening governments in scores of countries. The annual addition of 70 million people to world population is concentrated in countries where water tables are falling and wells are going dry, forests are shrinking, soils are eroding, and grasslands are turning into desert. As this backlog of unresolved problems grows, stresses mount and weaker governments begin to break down.

The defining characteristic of a failing state is the inability of a government to provide security for its people. Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Pakistan are among the better known examples. Each year the number of failing states increases. “Failing states,” notes Brown, “are an early sign of a failing civilization.”

“Even as the accumulating backlog of unresolved problems is leading to a breakdown of governments in weaker states, new stresses are emerging. Among these are rising oil prices as the world approaches peak oil, rising food prices as an ever larger share of the U.S. grain harvest is converted into fuel for cars, and the spreading fallout from climate change.”

“At the heart of the climate-stabilizing initiative cited above is a detailed plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to hold the future temperature rise to a minimum. This initiative has three major components — raising energy efficiency, developing renewable sources of energy, and expanding the earth’s tree cover. Reaching these goals,” says Brown, “will mean the world can phase out all coal-fired power plants.”

In setting the carbon reduction goals for Plan B, we did not ask “What do politicians think is politically feasible?” but rather “What do we think is needed to prevent irreversible climate change?” This is not Plan A: business-as-usual. This is Plan B: an all-out response at wartime speed proportionate to the magnitude of the threats facing civilization.

“We are in a race between tipping points in natural and political systems,” says Brown. “Which will come first? Can we mobilize the political will to phase out coal-fired power plants before the melting of the Greenland ice sheet becomes irreversible? Can we halt deforestation in the Amazon basin before it so weakens the forest that it becomes vulnerable to fire and is destroyed? Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Himalayan glaciers that feed the major rivers of Asia?”

Although efforts have been made in recent decades to raise the efficiency of energy use, the potential is still largely untapped. For example, one easy and profitable way to cut carbon emissions worldwide is simply to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs that use only a fourth as much electricity. Turning to more efficient lighting can reduce world electricity use by 12 percent — enough to close 705 of the world’s 2,370 coal-fired power plants.

In the United States, buildings — commercial and residential — account for close to 40 percent of carbon emissions. Retrofitting an existing building typically can cut energy use by 20-50 percent. The next step, shifting to carbon-free electricity to heat, cool, and light the building completes the transformation to a zero-carbon emissions building.

We can also reduce carbon emissions by moving down the food chain. The energy used to provide the typical American diet and that used for personal transportation are roughly equal. A plant-based diet requires about one fourth as much energy as a diet rich in red meat. The reduction in carbon emissions in shifting from a red meat-rich diet to a plant-based diet is about the same as that in shifting from a Chevrolet Suburban SUV to a Toyota Prius hybrid car.

In the Plan B energy economy, wind is the centerpiece. It is abundant, low cost, and widely distributed; it scales easily and can be developed quickly. The goal is to develop at wartime speed 3 million megawatts of wind-generating capacity by 2020, enough to meet 40 percent of the world’s electricity needs. This would require 1.5 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each. These turbines could be produced on assembly lines by reopening closed automobile plants, much as bombers were assembled in auto plants during World War II.

In the development of renewable energy resources, Brown notes, we are seeing the emergence of some big-time thinking — thinking that recognizes the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels. Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas, where the state government is coordinating an effort to build 23,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (the equivalent of 23 coal-fired power plants). This will supply enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of over 11 million Texans — half the state’s population. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but the earth’s wind resources cannot be depleted.

Solar technologies also provide exciting opportunities for getting us off the carbon treadmill. Sales of solar-electric panels are doubling every two years. Rooftop solar water heaters are spreading fast in Europe and China. In China, some 40 million homes now get their hot water from rooftop solar heaters. The plan is to nearly triple this to 110 million homes by 2020, supplying hot water to 380 million Chinese.

Large-scale solar thermal power plants are under construction or planned in California, Florida, Spain, and Algeria. Algeria, a leading world oil exporter, is planning to develop 6,000 megawatts of solar-thermal electric-generating capacity, which it will feed into the European grid via an undersea cable. The electricity generated from this single project is enough to supply the residential needs of a country the size of Switzerland.

Investment in geothermal energy for both heating and power generation is also growing fast, notes Brown. Iceland now heats nearly 90 percent of its homes with geothermal energy, virtually eliminating the use of coal for home heating. The Philippines gets 25 percent of its electricity from geothermal power plants. The United States has 61 geothermal projects under way in the geothermally rich western states.

The combination of gas-electric hybrid cars and advanced-design wind turbines has set the stage for the evolution of an entirely new automotive fuel economy. If the battery storage of the typical hybrid car is doubled and a plug-in capacity is added so that batteries can be recharged at night, then we could do our short-distance driving — commuting to work, grocery shopping, and so on — almost entirely with cheap, wind-generated electricity.

This would permit us to run our cars largely on renewable electricity — and at the gasoline-equivalent cost of less than $1 per gallon. Several major automakers are coming to market with plug-in hybrids or electric cars.

With business as usual (Plan A), the environmental trends that are undermining our future will continue. More and more states will fail until civilization itself begins to unravel. “Time is our scarcest resource. We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize,” says Brown. “These deadlines are set by nature. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock.”

The key to restructuring the world energy economy is to get the market to tell the environmental truth by incorporating into prices the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels, such as climate disruption and air pollution. To do this, we propose adopting a carbon tax that will reflect these indirect costs and offsetting it by lowering income taxes. We propose a worldwide carbon tax to be phased in at $20 per ton each year between 2008 and 2020, stabilizing at $240 per ton. This initiative, which would be offset at every step with a reduction in income taxes, would simultaneously discourage fossil fuel use and encourage investment in renewable sources of energy.

“Saving civilization is not a spectator sport,” says Brown. “We have reached a point in the deteriorating relationship between us and the earth’s natural systems where we all have to become political activists. Every day counts. We all have a stake in civilization’s survival.”

“We can all make lifestyle changes, but unless we restructure the economy and do it quickly we will almost certainly fail. We need to persuade our elected representatives and national leaders to support the environmental tax restructuring and other changes outlined in Plan B. Beyond this, each of us can pick an issue that is important to us at the local level, such as phasing out coal-fired power plants, shifting to more-efficient light bulbs, or developing a comprehensive local recycling program, and get to work on it.”

We all need to educate ourselves on environmental issues. For its part, the Earth Policy Institute is making Plan B 3.0 available for downloading free of charge from its Web site, earthpolicy.org.

“It is decision time,” says Brown. “Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we have to make a choice. We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilization unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilizes to save civilization. Our generation will make the decision, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”

Contact for additional information:
Lester R. Brown, Author & President (202) 496.9290 x 11
Janet Larsen, Director of Research (202) 496.9290 x 14
Media Contact: Reah Janise Kauffman (202) 496.9290 x 12

Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization is now available online for free downloading at http://www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/index.htm.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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