In Navigating System Transition in a Volatile Century, Michael Lewis puts forward a vision for a new global economic system built from the ground up. Structured on values such as resilience, cooperation, decentralized and democratic ownership, the commons, and dependence on nature in demand, Lewis’s model is based on “cooperative economic democracy” and the solidarity economy. To transition to this new system, Lewis recognizes the need for strategic interventions, from minimizing investments on carbon intensive services and products to the adoption of basic minimum income guarantees, debt-free money, and “glocalization” through a federation of networks, coalitions, and movements. As he explains, cooperative economic democracy and the solidarity economy are not only ends, but also important features of the transition, as they can help us effectively “resist what thwarts transition, build out the alternatives and, whether in opposing or proposing, vigorously advocate” for alternatives. Throughout his paper, Lewis also presents important examples to illustrate what can be accomplished within the current system, including the RESO initiative in Montreal, the successful worker and consumer cooperatives in Emilia-Romagna in Italy, and the Vía Campesina movement.

The following excerpt is from a post originally published on To read the complete paper, download the PDF here.

Key Trends Defining our Time

There is a blessed unrest roiling across the planet; millions of creative, innovative, indignant, dedicated, hopeful individuals are cogitating, communicating, animating, educating, innovating, agitating, and advocating for change. Banding together in diverse groups, organizations and movements, they are trying to figure out how to navigate the unprecedented economic, social, ecological and cultural challenges of the twenty-first century.Unprecedented is the key word. Never in human history have we been challenged with the conditions we face today.Four crosscutting and interrelated trends frame and justify the claim that we are living in unprecedented times:

  1. Climate Change. The climate crisis is the preeminent threat to the survival of all living creatures. On November 23, 2015, the United Nations estimated that weather-related events in the past two decades have killed more than 600,000 people and inflicted economic losses in the trillions of dollars.1 We either grasp the nettle and get on with the difficult political, economic, and social changes necessary or, further down the line, face exponentially greater consequences. Reality dictates we cannot negotiate with the laws of chemistry and physics.
  2. Degraded and Threatened Ecosystems. We currently extract resources 60 percent more rapidly than nature’s capacity to replenish them, meaning that we would need 1.6 earths to sustain our current annual consumption rates.2 If we don’t change we will be gobbling up the equivalent of two earths annually by 2030. Ten years ago, 50 percent of the planet’s ecosystems were deemed threatened.3Once ecosystems are degraded beyond their “tipping points,” their resilience is lost—they can no longer maintain their essential structure and functions. Their services in support of life—including the sequestration of carbon—are lost.
  3. The Third Industrial Revolution: The Zero Marginal Cost Society. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coal, steam power, and the telegraph radically shrunk distance and increased connectivity. The discovery of oil, the telephone, and the automobile ushered in a second industrial revolution; time and space shrunk further. The scope, scale, and connectivity of everything exploded. The gargantuan investment in colossal power generation and distribution networks gave rise to large, vertically integrated corporations. Centralized capital and power, combined with the concentrated power within one barrel of oil, created heretofore unimaginable economies of scale. Mass production drove down the marginal cost of each unit of goods produced. The impacts were enormous. Profits skyrocketed. Costs plummeted. Cheap goods multiplied and consumption exploded, fed by technical innovations and, most important, rising wages won by workers.The third industrial revolution is radically shrinking space and time once again. The joining up of the internet juggernaut with the accelerating transition to renewable energy is revolutionary indeed. The internet alone has devastated the music and publishing industries, where the marginal cost of production and distribution fell to near zero and left the postal industry reeling as electronic delivery began to outpace traditional delivery. Hundreds of occupations are in the process of being jettisoned. An Oxford University study of over 700 occupations found that 47 percent (over sixty million jobs in the US) are susceptible to automation within twenty years.4 The precariousness of workers, already a major problem, will increase.The peril of this revolution also holds promise. Renewables will fuel the transition to a low-carbon energy. A more balanced relationship among human beings and the biosphere appears possible. Given the distributed nature of wind, sun, and tides, decentralized, distributed, autonomous energy flows could enable diverse, democratic, dematerialized, equitable, and sustainable ways of living together on the planet. Realizing this positive shift, however, is far from certain.
  4. Money, Debt, and Finance: Major Obstacles to Navigating the Transition. Massive investment in renewables and other sectors fueling the transition is central to addressing our climate and ecological crises and the accelerating precariousness of livelihoods. But how to finance those investments is a real conundrum.

The communications revolution, coupled with deregulation of the financial sector, has given rise to a worldwide casino of speculative finance ten times the value of global gross domestic product (GDP) and almost completely dissociated from the real economy or the transition challenges we face. Adding to this conundrum is the fact that governments have given over their sovereignty to create debt free money. Private banks issue 95 to 97 percent of created every time a bank issues a loan. And we the borrowers, private and public, pay the bank compound interest for the privilege, at huge cost. German researchers have estimated that 35 percent of the costs of goods and services are the embedded cost of compound interest working its way across the multitude of supply chains in the economy.5 Moreover, they estimated $600 million per day in interest payments flows from the bottom 80 percent of the population (wealthwise) to the top 10 percent.

Put all this together with stagnant wages, cost of living increases, tax revenue decreases, soaring debt, elites hiding out in tax havens, and intensifying austerity measures and the circle becomes vicious. Economic demand declines, business risk increases, and access to credit shrinks. Even so, the systemic, debt-driven compulsion to grow regardless of the limits of natural systems remains, propelling us down a MAD (mutually assured destruction) path.

Navigating our Way to the Next System: The Scope of this Exploration

Can the forces of “blessed unrest” secure fairness on a livable planet? Are the diverse innovations that we see developing and spreading merely tentative steps in the right direction, or are they vital strides towards the next system? What thwarts the scaling of their impact? What system changes could expand their contribution to a just transition to a low carbon future? These are among the questions the story we are just beginning to write must address.

It is a rich and promising story. It is also a sobering one. The contours of the next system are being revealed. But gains are hard fought. They take time, energy, talent, and resources—requirements vividly revealed in the examples shared in the following sections of this paper. Conceptually and practically, all the examples which follow can be situated under the banner of “cooperative economic democracy.” They cut across all kinds of territories, from the neighborhood to entire regions and even across borders.

Likewise, they apply to diverse sectors of vital importance to human well-being— food, energy, social care, land stewardship, and finance, to name a few. What is revealed is a rich landscape of initiatives that represent both means and ends. Their ultimate influence in ushering in the next system, however, will depend on binding these diverse actors into powerful, federated strategies to effectively press for broader system change. It is to this exploration I now turn. The broader but equally vital political and policy actions needed to accelerate transition are illustrated in the final section of this paper.

To continue reading, download the PDF here.

This paper by Michael T. Lewis, published alongside three others, is one of many proposals for a systemic alternative we have published or will be publishing here at the Next System Project. We have commissioned these papers in order to facilitate an informed and comprehensive discussion of “new systems,” and as part of this effort, we have also created a comparative framework which provides a basis for evaluating system proposals according to a common set of criteria.

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