On Martin Luther, Steve Jobs & Ecologizing Capitalism


Image: Library of Congress via Wikipedia: "The room in Wartburg where Luther translated the New Testament into German."

At a time when the Tea Party, Occupy Movement and climate scientists and environmentalists are voicing impassioned, alarmed and radical ideas that
point to the need for major changes to the current systems of power, I can't help but think of another man with radical ideas and how he sparked a movement.

On 31 October 1517, [Martin] Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," which came to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses.
...
"Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the
richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor
believers rather than with his own money?"

Martin Luther probably never really nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door (Thanks, Wikipedia!). But we don't need legendary drama to be inspired by what Luther did. While major change never happens without collective action, some of the great moments in history are simply a human presenting an alternative idea. Stepping outside of the norms of one's time and questioning if things really have to be this way sounds so easy, but deep down we all realize how difficult this can be. It's easier to go along, to think that things are just the way they are and there's nothing you can do about it.

I believe progress - on a long enough time line - is inevitable. Just as things evolve, albeit slowly, all around us, so to will humans continue to figure things out to make life better for all life. I like to think this, at least. I have my moments.

But on the time line of history, where we see the spikes of progress we also see the humans, leaders and movements that made it happen.

Martin Luther is the man we recognize today for putting to paper ideas about the Catholic Church and what it meant to believe that had probably passed through, in one way or the other, the minds of many other people of his time. To suggest that his actions were not wholly original is not to discount what he did. In fact, I think it makes what he did even more interesting. Consider how Luther's ideas rippled across Europe, again via Wikipedia:


It wasn't until January 1518 that friends of Luther translated the 95 Theses from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

When faced with a giant, entrenched systems, like the Catholic Church or Wall Street, Congress or a flawed global economic system, it's not difficult to spot things we disagree with or think are wrong, but few of us have the intelligence to understand the full context of a moment, as well as the desire or ability to pull together the right ideas in a way that sparks a movement of change.

Look again at Luther's line above questioning the economic injustice of the Catholic Church system of indulgences. With minor changes it could easily fit in with the Occupy Wall Street manifesto. I think that's an important point.

The reason Luther's respectful letter ended up being shared across Europe is because
enough people had concluded things weren't quite right with the existing system and the timing was just right for a movement to emerge.

Whether you look at the Reformation, the American abolitionist movements, the labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries or the woman's suffrage or civil rights movements, all of these progressive change movements happened because of a combination of collective action, good timing and leaders that wove together the ideas and actions needed to enact the desired change.

And it's not just social movements that seem to work like this, big changes in history follow a similar pattern. Luther did it with faith. Henry Ford with industry. And Steve Jobs did it with technology. In these cases and the cases of other great men and women like them, the thing that unites their stories was their ability to recognize the world around them well enough to find space to share their genius. Finding patterns, recognizing trends and having the original ideas & passion needed to weave it all together, are key components of creating change.

IMAGE: MatMcDermott Tweet on True Cost Economy

One of the great panels of SxSWEco was The True Cost Economy: Ecologizing Capitalism. As Mat tweeted above, it's a hugely important goal. If you're new to the concept, here's an excerpt of how the panel was described on the SxSW Eco program:

To prepare for life on a hotter, dryer world, we are faced with the need to make rapid and dramatic changes in the way we do nearly everything, especially the global economic model.

Imagine an economic vision where we incorporate a whole systems perspective, adequate physical and biological contexts (i.e. planetary carrying capacity considerations), accurate feedback systems (wherein pollution costs are factored into the price of goods and services) thus better representing the actual (or true) costs of our activities. An economy based on nature's laws is fundamental to achieving long-term environmental sustainability. This economy is a true-cost economy. This is what is meant by ecologizing capitalism."

We still talk about green lifestyle choices like recycling, making DIY cleaners or riding a bike - and these things are all still worth doing as a way to lessen the impact of our current system - but for the large-scale, world changing shifts we know are needed to adapt to a changing climate, it's going to take much more than reusable shopping bags. The answer is ecologizing capitalism.

IMAGE: ChrisTackett tweet: Problems are endemic of capitalist, socialist, all economic systems. Switching from one to other won't solve everything.

As Gil Friend said during the panel, the problems we are facing are endemic of capitalist, socialist and all other economic systems. Switching from one to another won't solve everything. This call for shifting to a new economic system is not a call for more socialism or any sort of shift that has happened before. It's bigger than that, because it must be bigger than that. The problem is simply too large for anything less.

I think this is an idea whose time has come. The timing is right and millions around the world know what we've been doing is no longer working. Even the Markets seem to agree!
But if the timing and masses are ready for a shift, what we seem to be lacking is the man or woman to pull together the big ideas and next steps in this economic evolution. Like Luther's social network of the time redistributing his 95 Theses, I think the world is ready for something to share, to grab hold of and say, "Yes. This!" People will need to learn what it will mean to ecologize Capitalism and the steps for how we'll do it.

In an earlier post, I touched on how Steve Jobs pulled together his knowledge of calligraphy, human emotion and computers to change the world with technology. The American civil rights movement was a collective effort with many leaders, but Martin Luther King Jr. stands out in history in no small part because of his role in so eloquently putting the cause into words with his "I Have a Dream" speech. It's fitting that King shares a name with the other Martin Luther, because both men did much more than just give a speech or write a letter. But they did those things. They spoke out and acted. And even with the case of Jobs and Apple Computers, others might have had similar ideas or eventually came to the same conclusions these men pushed forward, but the world would not be the same had they not acted when they did. They sparked movements. They changed history.

We know that the world is in need of a new way of thinking about consumption, waste and our relationship with the physical world. We know that millions of people are ready for such change. And we know that the reformation will be Tweeted, but who will give the speech? Who will develop the plan? And who will enter history as the person to help push this change forward? Who will be the Martin Luther, John Smith, Karl Marx or Steve Jobs of this new era in global economics?

I don't know. I wish I did. I know we'll eventually find out.

In the meantime, I think the SxSW Eco panelists that spoke about ecologizing capitalism are a good place to start as any. They are Gil Friend, Jean Brittingham and Randy Hayes.

Do you agree we're poised for a shift? What will it look like? Who are the other experts on the topic? I don't know all the players. Who is working in this space? Help us learn. Share any links or ideas you have in the comments.

@ChrisTackett likes to tweet about these and other things.
More on SxSW Eco
How Steve Jobs Used Design to Change the World
SXSW Eco: Interview with Alex Steffen
SXSW Eco: Alex Steffen on Compact Communities
SXSW Eco : Interview with Kelly Rigg of TckTckTck

Tags: Ecology | Economics | longreads | Steve Jobs | SxSWEco

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