For some time now you have been urging me to write down my memories of the Great Transformation as I witnessed and participated in it over the past 90 years. Perhaps the best way to start is to point out some of the changes that have occurred in the last decade.
The year 2000 marked the breakthrough. It was a year of magic. Not magical in the sense of supernatural, or some special alignment of the planets. But magical because of the crescendo of expectations. Almost everyone expected something to happen at the start of the new millenium, and they opened their minds for the unexpected. Discussion of change was in the air.
The most unexpected changes may be those that have occurred in our political system. The 1996 campaign made abundantly clear to all that money, gridlock, and special interests had removed any semblance of justification for the existing US political system. At the same time that trust and respect were disappearing, the power of nation-states was waning worldwide. The nation-states were too small to handle global problems and too big to be sensitive to local needs. Uncritical national patriotism had been the surrogate for tribal loyalty, family unity, and the fundamental human need for belonging. With the diminished power of the federal government, a quiet panic infiltrated the land.
The communitarianism movement, which had grown in the 1980s and ’90s, played an important part in transforming politics. But not in the way they’d expected. Much of their effort, and that of others like Common Cause, Ralph Nader, People for the American Way, and other citizen lobby groups, was directed at getting Congress and the Administration to reform society.
Helpful as they were, the real change came from the people. A new sense of family solidarity and community cohesion reigned. A burgeoning number of grassroots community groups stopped waiting for "them" to do it. Neighborhood organizations set up crime watches, health organizations, local money systems, community supported agriculture, learning centers to replace monopolistic schools, and other community services to meet their own locally identified needs with their own skills and resources.
Left out of it, Congress and the state legislatures withered. The drive for "term limits" and "Congressional reform" which were rampant in the 1990s became unnecessary as the power shifted to the communities. Corporations which had been eager to pay off politicians to win their way in the world, found their way in the world was subject to community self-reliance.
As neighborhood banking has taken over, the excess of capital which had fueled the industrial age has dried up. Corporations now look more and more to the communities for both funding their local ventures and for permission to establish their production facilities. Without political purpose, Congress has returned to providing standards for unifying the nation of communities and helping the communities link with one another in mutual aid.
Bankers are, of course, distraught at the growing community independence. Rather than put their savings in banks to be transferred instantaneously to a distant multinational corporation, families and neighborhood groups are setting up their own Credit Unions, Local Exchange and Trading (LET$) systems, creating local scrips, and establishing Grameen banks (peer lending). Rather than go to internationally owned banks for high interest loans, local citizens are borrowing funds to start worker-owned businesses from their own community banks.
With this community-based financial system, small local enterprises are now able to compete with the major industrial businesses. The community production system works because of rapidly changing technologies and styles, and the need to produce for different climates and different ecosystems. The old capital-heavy manufacturing system was unable to keep pace. As soon as it was tooled up to use one new technology to meet the new style, both the technology and style had changed. Computer-controlled machine tools now make it possible to produce short runs of as little as two or three parts. Through the "teamnet," the computer has made it possible for widely separated plants in many different regions of the world to produce parts to be assembled at still another site. This decentralized small-scale flexibility has reduced the need for large capital intensive facilities, making it possible for community-centered shops to compete on a worldwide scale, or to build locally most of the tools required within the city-state.
The Great Transformation
In this short letter I cannot describe all the changes which have been made in my lifetime, and particularly since The Great Transformation. But you are now living in a world of hope and vision far different than that of a few decades ago.
You live in communities that have replaced the old-style family for nurturing and meeting the human need for belonging, with eco-villagers, co-housing and co-parenting. You have created a new Earth-reverence, and a new communal-spirituality which replace the human-centered materialism of my youth.
Much has been accomplished by a few souls who could see the potential of humanity, as well as recognize its shortcomings. But there is still much to be done and I wish you the best as you take over in creating the Gaian Culture.
Bill Ellis is a physicist, futurist, and farmer who lives in the house where he was born in a small town on the Canadian border in Maine. As well as working for such agencies as The National Science Foundation, UNESCO, and the World Bank, he has been a science policy consultant to governments from Ethiopia to Nepal.
His proudest accomplishment is his family of 15, including 5 grandchildren.