JOHN FULLERTON: So living systems have—one of my teachers is Sally Goerner. She was our science advisor until she retired and we still draw on her work extensively. She taught us that living systems have what are called healthy hierarchies. So it’s not that hierarchy is bad; it’s that hierarchy where the top extracts from below is definitely bad and unsustainable.
So, take the lion in the forest or in the jungle; the lion is at the top of the food chain, but the lion sits around sleeping most the day rather than eating and killing all day, and the lion, therefore, serves a very healthy purpose, hierarchical purpose, in the food chain, keeping the balance between smaller animals and large animals. But when the king of the jungle decides to extract as much as possible for its own benefit you have a very unhealthy system, and unfortunately that pretty well describes how the modern capitalist system works where there are benefits of scale, they bigger get bigger, they get more powerful, they get more political influence, but their intention is to maximize shareholder value because that’s what we do. So the cycle of growing inequality is sort of locked into the system design.
Now how we deal with that in a human economy is not trivial: the oak tree “knows” in a forest that it serves to support a lot of life. I suspect the only answer in the short-term we have in a human economy is an enlightened regulatory regime that understands these principles and has incentives and disincentives that cause the market players to move toward a more healthy hierarchy. So for example, in the banking sector—and this actually exists post-financial crisis, it’s just not extreme enough—there are disincentives to becoming big and complex, they’re just not strong enough. They should, in my opinion, be strong enough that it would force the J.P. Morgan’s and the Goldman Sachs’ of the world to, of their own the volition, become smaller and less complex and become more in alignment in service of the economy. So things they do that are extractive should get penalized and the things they do that are in service of the real economy, which they do do, should get incentivized. So you don’t need to “break up the banks”, you need to create an incentive system that causes them to behave in such a way that they would be aligned with the principles of living systems—which by the way are fractal.
Every living system, again going back to your body, your cardiovascular system is fractal. You have a few large veins, a lot of medium-sized veins and tons and tons of the capillaries. That fractal system exists in oak trees and in humans and in river systems and in lightning bolts. So it’s a strong argument in favor of not allowing the banking system or any sector of the economy to be so concentrated with a few massive firms that then end up undermining the health of the small ones, which is essentially what’s happened across our entire economy.
So, my work around this idea of regenerative economics started through this journey of discovery, trying to wrestle with what’s actually at the root cause of our modern economic system. And that’s a bit of a long story, but I can’t really jump to the conclusion without giving a little bit of context. So I think we’re in a much bigger shift than most of us yet realize. We’re in a shift in an understanding of how our economies actually have to work. And we’ve been in what is called the modern age since the scientific revolution, and the secret to the modern age or the magic of the modern age was the scientific method and reducing what’s complicated into buckets that can be understood. And that reductionist method has been the driver of great progress in many, many areas. An iPhone or a bicycle or a car are all products of a reductionist mindset, and since we’ve been in that mode for 400 years it’s literally baked into our DNA at this point.
The only problem with a reductionist method is that it’s not the way the universe actually works. You, as an individual, are not the sum of the parts of your body and you know that you’re only healthy if those parts are all working symbiotically together as a whole. The reductionist method, what people refer to as the mechanistic age, doesn’t allow us to keep track of the whole. And many of the problems that are manifesting in our economy I believe have a root cause in the limitation of the reductionist method.
So, for example, we discover oil, we burn oil, we have all this great growth and all this great progress, but we didn’t know burning oil would release gases to the point that we would heat the climate, so it’s an unintended consequence that only with a holistic understanding of how gases in the atmosphere affect the weather systems that are linked to our energy use could one have seen that problem.
So now we’re trapped in a system that is burning fossil fuels at greater and greater rates, and yet we already have the consequences of climate change with predictions that are literally dire for humanity and other living species on the planet. So, to get to a regenerative economy you first have to say, well, that system is fundamentally unsustainable, it cannot go on forever. And we will either burn up the planet or on the social side, we will increase inequality to the point that we have civil strife and civil wars.
And so my search was really for how could one design an economic system that didn’t have those outcomes? And I know I’m not smart enough to figure those out so the idea is really very simple: living systems that sustain themselves in the natural world work in accordance with certain patterns and principles. Your body does, an entire rainforest does. And so the work we’re doing at Capital Institute, which is building on the shoulders of many, many people that have been thinking this way for literally centuries, this holistic approach to understanding systems is really the root or the source of what this idea is that we call regenerative economies.
So, think of a regenerative economy as the design principles that work in sustainable living systems, it’s the process that allows a system to be sustainable. As opposed to sustainability, which is kind of a goal, which is—boy if we could just reduce these problems we can get to sustainability. We believe you only have a sustainable system—whether it’s a human person or an entire ecosystem or a business or an entire economy—if it follows the same patterns and principles that living systems work in accordance with. And what’s magical about it is that it turns out those principles and patterns are very aligned with the wisdom traditions, eastern, western, but eastern in particular, and indigenous that have been around for many, many thousands of years.
So, at the end of the day, my argument is: either make the case that the human economy is the only example of a system that doesn’t need to obey the same patterns and principles that all other living systems—that sustain themselves—follow, or we better figure out how to get the human economy in alignment with those principles. And regenerative economics is the beginning of an inquiry into what that looks like and how one might actually manifest that in the world.
John Fullerton explains regenerative capitalism, a newly designed economic system that is inspired by the laws of nature and healthy hierarchies. Can we regulate capitalism? Can big banks change? Can we distribute wealth? What will capitalism look like in the future?