The Participation Paradigm (pt. 1): Decision-Making Processes in the New Social Economy

The converging social, economic, and ecological crises of the 21st century demand a radically new approach to understanding and relating to the world. Given the complexity of these crises, old hierarchical structures of organization and thinking are inadequately situated to respond to the dynamic uncertainties of this world in transition. Yet, along the margins of the old paradigm we are now witnessing the flowering of more fluid expressions of living and relating, better able to respond to and anticipate shocks to the interconnected ecological-economic system.

Consensus decision-making at Occupy LSX

Emerging forms of distributed and participatory decision-making are evolving alongside more inclusive and collaborative group facilitation processes to create a self-organizing, interconnected, non-hierarchical body of practice coherent with our converging 21st century crises. This represents a movement from the old linear model of control to a new paradigm of participation, with the network as the central organizing principle.  Nowhere has the emergence of the participation paradigm been as visibly embodied as in the unfolding “movement without a name”: in the squares of North Africa, in the global networks of online activists, in the tent cities of the Occupy movement and the Spanish Indignados.

In the shadows of the traditional neoclassical mechanisms of the market and the state, a robust social economy is also emerging, comprised of networks of social campaigners, non-profit organizations, cooperatives, and community groups. Connected through a parallel economy of ethics and reciprocity, the social economy represents both a critique of and alternative to neoclassical economics and hierarchical political systems. It is the unfolding of a new cultural narrative based on cooperation and mutual aid, distributed systems and collective intelligence, manifesting in self-organizing patterns and the flow of network relationships.

The Occupy Movement and Innovative Decision-Making Processes

This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!
– Occupy London General Assembly

The global Occupy movement represents a particularly unique expression of the new participation paradigm. Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as similar expressions of protest across Spain and Greece, Occupation sites have sprung up in nearly 1000 cities across the globe since September 2011. Perhaps the defining feature of this diverse movement is that it can no longer be narrowly defined as a protest at all. Many of the Occupy sites have evolved into fully functioning tent cities, complete with a decentralized system of governance, waste management services, teaching and learning programs, health and safety provisions, media teams, kitchens, and a thriving gift economy of goods and services. In these communities, people are connected not through obligation and coercion, but through participation and caring. From this perspective, Occupiers are forging an alternative model of living and relating to one another, not simply reacting to perceived injustices. And all this provocatively situated in the very shadow of the old paradigm: banks, financial institutions, and city halls.

The most notable innovation of the Occupy movement thus far has been the widespread implementation of participatory, consensus-based decision-making. Influenced by the research of anarchist, activist, and professor David Graeber, consensus decision-making is a decentralized, non-hierarchical, and completely participatory process. Unlike majority-based voting or consent systems, consensus depends on the agreement and compromise of all present participants. Decisions are only made once all objections have been addressed, and consensus is achieved through a creative process of synthesis where all voices are given equal weight. While this can result in a lengthy and sometimes messy affair, decision-making becomes a unifying process, not a polarizing one.

The decentralized nature of the decision-making process, as well as the interconnected network structure of working groups that feed information into this process, have the potential to make Occupy communities both extremely resilient as a whole and radically empowering for individual participants. As an essentially leaderless movement, the non-hierarchical structure confounds traditional methods of marginalizing opposition movements by delegitimizing or attacking the leadership. Giles Fraser, the St Pauls canon who resigned in protest of the church’s response to the Occupy London camp, compares the movement to a starfish, saying “it is precisely because Occupy is self-consciously leaderless and maddeningly amorphous that it has so much potential to regenerate the public conversation.”

One analysis of the non-hierarchical structure of the movement is that it is leader-less, but one could just as easily say that it is leader-full. The radically inclusive nature of the working groups and decision-making processes give everyone the opportunity to contribute in whatever way they are capable.  When functioning healthily, this results in a revolving door model of leadership where individuals step up for certain tasks but are continually replenished with new faces and thus new perspectives. In this way, the complexity of organizing such a diffuse and nebulous movement is distributed to the margins where the collective intelligence of the group is activated. Just as in ecosystems, diversity, cooperation and flexibility help create a resilient system better suited to the rapidly changing and uncertain environment which the camps find themselves both mirroring and responding to.

The Occupy ‘micro-societies’ also serve as training grounds and real-time laboratories for social innovation. The ability to continually experiment and respond to feedback is one of the essential qualities of a complex adaptive system, and thus Occupy communities are modeling how organizations and other complex adaptive social systems can more effectively respond to crisis. At the personal level, individuals empowered by inclusive and participatory decision-making processes will take new skills and ways of organizing out into the emerging social economy, of which many of them are already a part.

In demanding “real democracy” – a more direct and participatory form of democratic decision-making – the Occupy movement has aimed to embody what it seeks. In so doing, it has significantly contributed to a profound paradigmatic shift from control to participation, from linear hierarchical institutions to self-organizing horizontal networks. As these networks merge and flow outward, they weave an alternative cultural narrative around participation and the power of collective intelligence to respond more resiliently where hierarchical institutions and market forces have failed.

Pt. 2 will explore the social economy and collaborative group facilitation processes in the transition to the participation paradigm.


The Gift Economy and the Ecological Self (Pt. 3)

This is part 3 of a 3-part essay exploring the nature of gifts and the transformative potential of entering into a gift relationship with the ecological world.

Living in harmony with Gaia, acknowledging her primordial gift to all of life, is to keep the spirit of the Gaia gift alive and so pass it on to other members of the community of life. What is necessary is a collective realization of our inherent dependence on the other members of this community for our survival and the continued flourishing of the entire system. Fortunatey, this process can begin at the level of the individual human – the process Arne Naess has termed self-realization (Naess 1987).

Inherent in the functioning of gift societies (in the human domain) and larger-scale gift systems (in the ecological domain) is the truth that what benefits one ultimately benefits all. For humans, this involves a process of identification with something outside of our self (the gift I give to you will ultimately come back to me, albeit in a different form). It is through this process of broadening and deepening our identification with others that the boundaries of our self expand. Naess (1987: 82) introduces the concept of the ecological self as the broadest and deepest level of self, or the self which identifies with the entire human and more-than-human world. Through the cultivation of our ecological self, we learn to live harmoniously with all of Gaia and relate to it just as we normally relate to our limited self (ego). From this perspective, we care for all of creation just as much out of self-love as any sense of altruism (Naess 1987: 93).

Yet how do we cultivate such an expanded sense of self when our everyday experience of the world clearly reinforces the more limited self? At dinner time, my hunger isn’t satiated when the robin outside my window finds a worm or my neighbor has a slice of pizza.

In fact, one way to strengthen our identification with others is simply to give. Anyone who has lovingly cooked a meal for friends and felt full simply in watching their satisfaction knows the power of giving to heighten our experience of identification. Just in participating more openly in the natural gift relationships all around us, we can begin to expand our boundaries and experience reality as a wider self.

The simple act of perception – seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting – offers another gateway into deepening our relationship with the sensuous world around us. Perception offers us the most direct way of participating with the world and fully experiencing ourselves as part of something larger than our own ego. The phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1962 cited in Abram 1996) described the reciprocal nature of perception by drawing attention to the fact that my hand can only feel something because it is itself something which can be felt. Similarly, my eyes have the capacity to see because they are themselves visible to other seeing entities. In this way, perception becomes a mode of exchange in which we might enter into a gift relationship with the earth – seeing and being seen, touching and being touched, walking lightly so that we may be lightly walked upon.

As David Abram exclaims, ‘We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us’ (1996: 68).

The humble act of receiving the natural world as a gift becomes a powerful and transformative experience. When walking through the garden just after sunrise some mornings, I am greeted by the joyful singing of a robin welcoming the day. Open to the reciprocal nature of perception, I become aware that it is not possible to hear this robin without both influencing her song and being influenced by it. Thus perceiving and receiving the robin’s song as a gift, I am instantly filled with joy. I enter into a gift relationship with the robin as I realize that something outside of my narrow self is the source of this joy – yet as my experience of self expands to include this relationship with the robin, the source of joy is no longer outside my self, but deep within. It is the dynamic act of receiving that allows for this deepening and widening experience of self.

Whether the gift of life or the gift of song, my experience is deepened and enriched in the opening to this latent gift relationship between my self and my environment. The process of entering into a deep relationship with nature facilitates and is facilitated by participation in gift exchange. A genuine giving-receiving relationship with others can lead to the profound expansion of the boundaries of the self, and thus a dynamic shift in our mode of being in the world; this self-expansion, or realization of the ecological self, is the ultimate expression of our gift relationship with Gaia.

The Gift Economy: From scarcity to abundance, from ownership to relationship

It has been acknowledged by spiritual leaders such as Satish Kumar and Ariyarantne (1999), scientists like Johan Rockstrom (2009), and economists from E.F. Schumacher to Herman Daly and Tim Jackson (2009), that the economy is just a subset of the larger earth system. Yet awareness and recognition of the fundamental dependence of economies – indeed all of life – on the Gaia Gift has been disturbingly absent from mainstream politics and socio-economic policies. As the economic impacts of resource scarcity and environmental degradation are felt more explicitly in industrialized countries, more widespread recognition of this basic fact will no doubt emerge.

Similarly, many economists and even politicians are beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of human wellbeing, one that incorporates our social, ecological and spiritual needs as well as our material ones (Jackson 2009; Ariyarantne 1999). However, in a society dominated by market exchange and driven by the logic of infinite economic growth, the potential for these other facets of wellbeing to be met are inherently limited. The necessary expansion of the global market to feed economic growth has only been possible through increased conversion of the natural world into commodities and human relationships into professional services (Eisenstein 2010). This conversion necessarily involves the transformation of gift relationships (and other forms of mutual exchange) into market relationships. According to Eisenstein, ‘Community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own’ (2010).

In societies characterized by economic decay, ecological degradation, as well as ‘social recession’ (Jackson 2009: 86), different forms of exchange and interaction are needed to provide what market exchange is inherently incapable of – connection to the ecological world and genuine participation in the life of society. We have seen how gift exchange is associated with the natural increase in characteristics such as group identity, community cohesion, and expansion of the self – all movements from the narrow individual to the wider whole. Market or commodity exchange, on the other hand, is everywhere associated with privatization, accumulation of profit, and competition – movements in the opposite direction from group to individual.

What is evidently in need is a balancing of these forms of exchange, particularly in areas where ‘the spirit of the gift’ operates most effectively – in our relationships with neighbors and the larger natural world. If our world is increasingly characterized by the market logic of scarcity and private ownership, we must find ways of interacting that cultivate abundance and relationship. Indeed, these are the very qualities enhanced through gift exchange, both in the planetary emergence of the gift of Gaia and in the bonds of relationship strengthened by gift communities.


The gift ethic is already thriving in many underappreciated ways, along the margins of our global market economy. Initiatives such as timebanking and LETS schemes, online gift communities such as GiftFlow and CouchSurfing, and the emergence of community Gift Circles all point towards a growing participation in the gift economy. However, our collective relationship with Gaia, with the larger community of life, is still trending towards commodification, even in the most well-intentioned economic circles. International schemes such as TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) and REDD-plus (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) to value the ecological world and reward stewardship risk reinforcing a market relationship with Gaia where a gift relationship is desperately needed.

Perhaps the most hopeful initiatives in this regard are the international efforts to formally recognize and protect the rights of the Earth, giving the more-than-human world a legally recognized voice (Higgins 2011; Earth Charter Commission 2000). If the polar opposite of pure gift is theft, as Hyde puts it, then international laws such as the proposed crime of Ecocide can protect our gift relationship with the earth from the commodification and over-exploitation that degrade the gift ethic of Gaia.

Indeed, if Gaia is perceiving herself through us as David Abram intuits, perhaps the greatest gift we can return to Gaia is in giving her a voice.

Participating in the Gift of Gaia (Pt. 2)

This is part 2 of a 3-part essay exploring the nature of gifts and the transformative potential of entering into a gift relationship with the ecological world.

The Gift of Gaia: Emergence of a planetary gift ethic

The common understanding of a gift is based on intentionality – a gift is something given willingly without the expectation of payment, and so must be an act of consciousness. However, we have begun to explore a deeper articulation of gift exchange, where the gift is in fact an emergent property of a particular set of relationships. Of course there may be intention behind a gift, such as when the salmon-people willingly assume the form of salmon so as to give themselves as food; yet in some sense the spirit of the gift has a life of its own and needs no specific intention from the individual participants in a gift exchange if that interaction is part of a larger gift circle. As a dynamic flow of interaction within a self-organizing and self-regulating system, the gift ethic may find expression outside of the purely human domain.

How might we come to understand this gift ethic from the viewpoint of science? At its core, the pursuit of science is an exploration of and opening to the world. As such, it is not inherently a process of pure rationality. From an intuitive perspective, many of us humans have experienced life itself as a gift. We have done nothing ourselves to earn this life, yet every morning we wake up and here we are! More precisely (and regardless of our views on karma and rebirth or the presence of a divine creator), we have individually done nothing to earn the conditions that permit life on earth to exist at all – namely the specific chemical composition of our atmosphere, the relative stability of our climate, and the infinite source of energy radiated out by the sun. The gift of life thus finds expression in processes as seemingly insignificant as the production of dimethyl sulphide (DMS) by marine algae (a process which seeds cloud formation and thus climate regulation, but which mainstream science has not completely understood), to the infinitely significant self-sacrifice of the sun:

‘The Sun, in each second, transforms four million tons of itself into light…[T]he Sun’s extravagant bestowal of energy can be regarded as a spectacular manifestation of an underlying impulse pervading the universe. In the star this impulse reveals itself in the ongoing giveaway of energy. In the human heart it is felt as the urge to devote one’s life to the well-being of the larger community.’ (Swimme 1996: 41-42)

From the now widely accepted perspective of Gaia Theory, the conditions for life on earth have been maintained for roughly 3.5 billion years as a result of a co-evolutionary process between life and its environment (Lovelock 2000). It is not simply a happy accident that the atmosphere has maintained a nearly optimal proportion of oxygen for the past 350 million years, or that the earth has maintained a stable temperature within the optimal range for life despite the sun’s luminosity increasing by 25% since life began. These conditions for life have been co-created as part of a self-organizing, self-regulating Gain system encompassing the oceans, atmosphere, surface environment and crustal rocks of the earth. ‘[Gaia] is an “emergent domain” – a system that has emerged from the reciprocal evolution of organisms and their environment over the eons of life on Earth.’ (Lovelock 2000:11)

In this context, it becomes possible for us to both understand and experience the gift of Gaia as none other than the very conditions for life on earth. Based on the dynamics of gift systems previously discussed, the very possibility of life is continually made manifest through the complex cyclical web of relationships and interactions that constitute Gaia. Through the transformative process of self-regulation, every exchange within the various sub-cycles that make up the Gain system (carbon cycle, hydrological cycle, nitrogen cycle, etc.) are “intended to recognize, establish, and maintain community” – the community of life. As Primavesi states, ‘givenness is an emergent property of the entire Gaian system’ (2003:130).

Another way to understand the gift of Gaia is through the framework of planetary boundaries developed by Rockstrom et al (2009). Through extensive research into the biophysical processes that enable the self-regulating capacity of Gaia, Rockstrom and team have developed a preliminary model of the “safe planetary playing field” within which life and its environment can exist in stability. The nine planetary boundaries identified in this model can be understood to constitute the boundaries of the gift of Gaia, for within these boundaries the earth’s regenerative capacity absorbs our wastes and maintains the optimal conditions for life.

As we transgress these planetary boundaries, our gift relationship with Gaia may be severed and the gift no longer given. We are already experiencing this in the widespread loss of species, drought, failed harvests, mineral and fossil fuel scarcity, and perhaps most dangerously, our loss of connection as a species to these sources of our existence. As far as our gift relationship with Gaia is maintained, all of our existential needs continue to be given freely to us. However, as in all gift systems, if the gift is hoarded, accumulated, degraded, not given onward, used for private gain – in short, if the gift is not received as a gift, then the spirit of the gift dies and with it the entire gift system (Hyde 1999: 37).

According to Rockstrom et al’s calculations, humans have already transgressed three of the planetary boundaries: climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and disruption of the planetary nitrogen cycle. As the earth system is highly complex, these boundaries are interdependent in many known and unknown ways. Thus, we do not know how transgressing one planetary boundary might affect other boundaries, let alone the impact of transgressing three at once. Since complex adaptive systems like Gaia are subject to rapid non-linear changes in system state once tipping points are reached, the earth system is now in a highly uncertain and precarious position.

Recognized as either an emergent property of the self-regulating Gaian system or as the regenerative capacity of the earth to absorb our wastes within a set of planetary boundaries, the gift of Gaia sustains life in all its manifold forms. From this planetary perspective of gift exchange, a renewed relationship with Gaia is essential for human and non-human flourishing.

So how might human participation in a gift relationship with the ecological world transform our conception of self and the place of humans within the community of life? We will explore this question in the final installment of the series next week.