Capitalism 2.0: How natural laws can create a more equal economy
Lions, lightning, and rivers all have one thing in common. We can use the laws of nature to build a regenerative economy and fix rampant inequality.
John Fullerton is the founder and president of Capital Institute, a non-partisan organization working to create a more just and sustainable way of living on earth through the implementation of a Regenerative Economy.
After spending years immersed in the sustainability challenge of our age following his Wall Street career, John is now a globally-recognized thought leader in the New Economy space. The architect of the concept of Regenerative Capitalism, John is the author of Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles and Patterns Will Shape the New Economy and the Future of Finance blog.
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, the 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. Morgans 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.
- The modern economy is an example of an unhealthy hierarchy, says John Fullerton, founder and president of Capital Institute. Unlike all other living systems, its design is not sustainable.
- The laws of nature show how hierarchies can be healthy: "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," says Fullerton. All nature is hierarchical, but sustainable; look at the similar branching patterns of tree roots, river systems, lightning bolts, and our own cardiovascular system.
- How can we modify capitalism to become self-sustaining? Financial incentives and disincentives could create a regenerative economy that reduces inequality. If we do not design a better kind of capitalism, "we will increase inequality to the point that we have civil strife and civil wars."
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Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
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