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We can visualise human society at two poles of a spectrum: predatory and eudaimonic. Eudaimonic societies enable people to live genuinely good lives. Genuinely good lives are made of essentials: health, relationships, security both financial and physical, safety, intelligence, basic morality, and so on. Predatory societies, in stark contrast, simply take human potential from some to give it to others. No real gains are created.  What predatory societies really fail at is creating eudaimonia. So they end up rationing life’s basics, and that sets up the conditions for further predations. Our challenge today is the same as it has always been: crafting a social contract in which every life can flourish.

The only way to endow the future with a chance of reversing climate change is to transition as rapidly as possible to an economy that does not push carbon into the atmosphere but draws it down. That change, the late David Fleming urged upon us,  “will depend for its existence on a deep foundation in culture…..Only in a prosperous market economy [now jeopardized by peak oil and climate change, among other things] is it rational to go confidently for self-fulfillment, doing it on your own without having to worry about the ethics and narrative of the group and society you belong to.”

Fleming predicted that it won’t be hard to move away from our market-based civil society; that will fall away so fast that we will find it hard to believe it was ever there.  The task, on the contrary, is to recognize that the seeds of a community ethic – and indeed, of benevolence – still exist.  It is to join up the remnants of local culture that survive, and give it the chance to get its confidence back.”

What Fleming, David Bollier, John Thakara, Garrett Hardin and many others have urged is a return to a concept of the commons. To avoid the tragedy of the commons — and civilization as a heat engine — we need to put down some basic ground rules and them deeply embed those into everything we do. At Global Village Institute we call these new rules "covenants."

Bollier explains:

"Our discourse itself must slip the shackles of prevailing economic thought, such as the idea that money and wealth are identical; that the state and policy are the most important drivers of change; and that top-down, hierarchical control structures, whether state or corporate, are the best systems for meeting needs. 

"The dominant narrative of contemporary politics and public life is, of course, free market economics as the fundamental ordering principle for society.  It enshrines the primacy of unlimited growth as an indicator of societal progress, aggressive competition for selfish gain, individualism unconstrained by community, and centralized hierarchies of administration and control.  Insurgent narratives attempting to challenge the neoliberal framework, while fragmented and diverse, tend to emphasize certain common themes:  

  • Production and consumption for use, not profit; 

  • Bottom-up, decentralized decisionmaking and social cooperation;

  • Stewardship of shared equity and predistribution of resources;

  • An ethic of racial and gender inclusivism, transparency and fairness;

  • Community self-determination and place-making over market dictates;

  • A diversity of models adapted to local needs.

"The Twelve Principles of Permaculture, for example, emphasize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that we cannot focus on any separate element in isolation.  We must focus on the proper relationships within an ecosystem, of which human beings are but one part.  As first principles, permaculturists thus urge that any human interventions aim to care for the earth (so that all life systems can continue and multiply), care for people (so that they have access to resources necessary to their existence), and return any surplus (so that the system can continue to meet the needs of the earth and people).  From these ideas flow many related ideas such as “catch and store energy,” “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,” “produce no waste,” and “design from patterns to details.”  These principles may provide useful guideposts to funders as they consider what types of projects will “break the frame” of the current system and advance sustainable, humane alternatives."

When GVI undertakes a project, it always begins from what might be termed a foundation of "social permaculture." We listen and observe together with all stakeholders. From that foundation we are empowered to design a resilient development trajectory that encompasses the shared vision of the population while holding sacred the rights of our first client, the planet.

Here is one example, taken from the design of a small island community in the Bahamas. In this case there were just 12 covenants, but their enforcement meant translating these principles into clear rules, restrictions, and agreements. The covenants are the expression of the social contract — the price of admission to that community.

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