[sponsored] Charles Eisenstein – the counter-cultural intellectual, essayist, speaker and author – is the keynote speaker at this year’s Social Enterprise Summit (SES) International Symposium, which takes place in Hong Kong from November 4-7 and explores the theme “Building Blocks of a Regenerative Future” through a series of events.

Eisenstein, who studied mathematics and philosophy at Yale, has long argued that a lack of coherent cooperation in civil society is society’s most pressing issue.

Social Enterprise Summit 2021 Launch Ceremony. Photo: SES.

“The overarching crisis of our time – more serious than ecological collapse, more serious than economic collapse, more serious than the pandemic – is the polarisation and fragmentation of civil society,” Eisenstein says in a recent essay on the subject. “With coherency, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is.”

His works, including the books Sacred Economics, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible and Climate—A New Story, blend scientific, economic and spiritual insights with practical advice about improving our relationships with each other and with the world.

From sustainability to regeneration

Covid-19 has unveiled the fragility behind humans’ relentless economic drive. The climate crisis, widening inequality, financial hoarding (highlighted in the recent Pandora papers leak) and conflicts over resources highlight that we cannot go back to “business as usual” after the pandemic. Do we really want to restore “normal” when normal wasn’t working that well in the first place?

Photo: UN.

The lightning-fast development of Covid vaccines – a product of unlocked funding, an abundance of clinical trial volunteers and open collaboration – underpins Eisenstein’s message: progress is possible when existential threats are dealt with as a shared concern or vision.

“The global response to Covid contains both hope and a warning,” Eisenstein tells HKFP. “It has shown us how swiftly we can remake the world through common agreement. However, it also shows the danger of becoming hypnotised by narrow perspectives and relying on high-tech responses based on various forms of control. The regenerative future will not come through the technologies of control. It is not about dominating life; it is about participating in life.”

Charles Eisenstein. Photo: Supplied.

‘Regenerative futures’ is the name for a development model that shifts the aim from prosperity to “thrivability,” focusing on societal and planetary wellbeing. The concept of regeneration pushes past sustainability, harnessing nature’s innate power to regenerate and heal. For example: while sustainability is about reducing harm (e.g. decreasing waste), regeneration is about reversing damage (e.g. replenishing resources).

Many of the 60 eminent speakers and social innovators appearing at SES 2021, including Eisenstein, are exploring ways to harness regeneration to build a better future for all.

Living in the gift

As well as regularly speaking at public events and conferences, Eisenstein writes on themes of money, human cultural evolution, consciousness, technology and ecology. After living in Taiwan for nine years, Eisenstein credits a qigong master for first challenging his “Western” perceptions of reality and materialism.

During his keynote speech at SES 2021, Eisenstein will explain how ecological, demographic and economic maturity are linked to each other and impact regeneration. He will envision how social and macroeconomic policies can aid a transition to a regenerative future, and the roles that business, government, NGOs, and academia might play.

“A key aspect of maturity is a transition from growth to another mode of development,” explains Eisenstein ahead of his speech. “An immature ecosystem experiences a rapid increase in biomass; upon maturity, biomass stays relatively stable, but complexity continues to increase. In the human realm, today we are seeing on the horizon the end of economic growth and of population growth.”

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP

Eisenstein says this offers an opportunity to move away from the exploitation of nature and move towards regeneration and healing of the planet’s ecosystems for their own sake, rather than because it benefits us. “We thereby increase the complexity of our relationship to nature beyond the linear, extractive model.”

He is also a prominent advocate of the “gift economy,” an economic model that means the more you give, the richer you become. This model is underpinned by concepts such as negative-interest currency, which depreciates at a fixed rate unless it is lent out to others.

In his writings, Eisenstein argues that if lenders earn interest on their loans, the economy requires endless growth, meaning we must keep creating more goods and services – something that cannot be sustained by the Earth forever.

Continued gains in productivity can take the form of greater leisure, and perhaps more importantly, to more time spent on things that don’t bring economic gain, but do bring regeneration to the planet and society

Charles Eisenstein

“To describe what an economy rooted in gift principles looks like requires a full book,” Eisenstein says, referencing his 2011 book Sacred Economics. “Basically, it requires changes to the money system, away from a system based on interest-bearing debt. That discourages hoarding and promotes wealth equality because, without interest, you cannot become richer and richer merely by having a lot of money.”

Moving away from our current economic system requires a common understanding that true happiness comes through connections and meaningful work, he continues. “Money alone cannot buy happiness. Certainly, many aspects of modern life require money to operate; however, do we want everything to become a consumer product? In gift culture, we meet important human needs in many ways, not just through money. For example, even gathering together to sing or make a theatre production is a kind of gift economy because you aren’t paying for your music downloads or entertainment.”

Live to work, work to consume

In his 1970 book Future Shock, American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that once robots had replaced most jobs, by the year 2000 society’s biggest problem would be too much leisure time. He suggested that people may require “leisure counsellors” to advise them how to handle this problem.

File photo: Leon, via Unsplash.

This rather galling idea is of course blown apart by the fact that, once robots make work more efficient, we are expected to knuckle down and produce more, in an endless quest to rise above the competition.

“Toffler was echoing a prediction that dates back at least to the first Industrial Revolution. Amazing machines were invented that could ‘do the work of a thousand men’,” says Eisenstein. “Therefore, people reasoned, soon we will all be able to work one-thousandth as hard. That didn’t happen. Instead, we consumed a thousand times as much and continued to work as hard as ever.”

If we are ever to work less, Eisenstein says, we will have to halt the consumption growth curve. “Then continued gains in productivity can take the form of greater leisure, and perhaps more importantly, to more time spent on things that don’t bring economic gain, but do bring regeneration to the planet and society.”

Walking Trails in Hong Kong. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP

Naturally, stakeholders across business, government, NGOs and academia have a vital role to play in reshaping a world that adheres more closely to gift culture. However, their roles should “come from an emerging understanding of a new common purpose: to bring healing, life and beauty to this earth,” says Eisenstein.

“Business needs to understand there is more to business besides making money (and the legal framework for business must change to reflect this). Nation-states (especially the West) must let go of dreams of domination and enter into cooperation on behalf of the planet. NGOs should funnel funding toward regenerative projects, and academia should direct research towards these subjects as well.”

Social Enterprise Summit 2021: International Symposium. Photo: Supplied.

Identifying the future we collectively want is a precursor to believing it can happen. The Social Enterprise Summit aims to promote dialogue and meaningful debate around achieving a regenerative future, and remind us of the alternatives that await if we don’t.

“The first step towards a better world is to recognise that a better world isn’t impossible. It isn’t just empty idealism. Our hearts know things can be so much better than what we’ve accepted as normal,” says Eisenstein.

“Sure, we could manage the effects of the death of nature for a long time,” he posits. “Consider a future where the whole planet has been converted to a giant strip mine, where we live in bubble cities, where food is grown in laboratories and hydroponics factories, and all that is left of nature is its digital representation. We might achieve this with our enormous technical prowess – but is this what we want? Can’t we envision a better world than that, and unite our creative powers to bring it about?”

The Social Enterprise Summit runs from November 4-7, 2021.

  • Event: Social Enterprise Summit 2021: International Symposium.
  • Theme: Building Blocks of a Regenerative Future.
  • Date: Nov 4–7, 2021.
  • Format: In-person; online broadcast available for specific sessions.
  • International Symposium Pass: Purchase at HKCEC (s420s) [Regular: HK$500; Senior/Full-time student: HK$200]
  • Online participation: Register at https://bit.ly/2ZwMs7r
  • Location: HKCEC (Nov 4-5); Dream Impact (Nov 6).
  • Details: https://bit.ly/2VXzMF1

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