A collaborative blog written by Bob Dunham and guest blogger, Julio Olalla.

We find ourselves in a radically changing and challenging world.  We face major global issues that have never been faced before in history, many of which appear to be inexorably growing, including global warming, the energy crisis, population growth and the carrying capacity of the planet, straining global resources including water and arable land, as well as a global recession, an exponentially growing debt load, and crises of the financial system. The issues that we face are so immense that it is easy to feel powerless and retreat into our personal situations.

We hear criticisms of our leaders, our systems, our science, and our laws. We hear much concern about our leadership, but we don’t hear much concern about our citizenship. The heated political debate around the world offers involvement for some and broad policy choices, but in the U.S., most citizens don’t vote, much less get involved in the process. We believe the low voting rate is a symptom of missing values of citizenship, yet we believe that effective citizenship is an essential part of creating a healthy future and that it involves more than just voting.

We must address our roles as citizens as the foundation for addressing our global issues, as well as the concern for creating a good life for ourselves, our communities, and future generations. And to do this we must look at what has happened to our shared narrative and practices of citizenship, how they are being shaped today, and what we can do about it. We must clarify our values and practices as citizens, but also clarify our values and choices for our communities and society.

The Role of a Citizen

In our opinion, the conversation of citizenship and the role of the citizen have been waning over the last 50 years. We believe that it is one of the big losses of our societal mainstream in that period. We believe it is crucial that we explore and answer the following questions both for ourselves individually and as communities:

  • What is the role of a citizen?
  • What are the standards for citizenship, not only in our community and nations but as a citizen of the world?
  • How can we revive the vitality, responsibility, and power of our citizenship?

We don’t know in advance the path ahead that these questions open – we must explore them and find our way.  We will keep the big picture in our looking, and we know that we share the same world with others, even when we see it differently. What we are sure of is that citizenship is a skill and participation in conversations – conversations with ourselves, our neighbors, communities, in our political processes, and in our institutions. Here, we are looking for how to identify and promote essential missing conversations and to look at the assumptions in which we have these conversations.

Responsibilities & Duties of Citizens

Although there are many interpretations of citizenship, and many variations through history, all share fundamental aspects, including responsibilities and duties that are responded to with rights and privileges in society; the opportunity to be involved in ruling, deliberation, and justice; to affect what is held in common; and the rights to be free and to pursue “well-being.” Virtues of citizenship include responsibility for the community, participation, and the pursuit of justice.

In ancient Athens, for example, duties of the citizen were so specific that by law any citizen who failed to take sides in key decisions would lose their membership in the “polis.” Citizens who neglected their civic duties in the ‘polis’ by not attending assemblies, voting, serving on juries and giving military service were labeled as “idions,” the term from which the modern word “idiot” is derived [i].

Education was linked to citizenship in the modern era since effective participation as a citizen was thought to require critical thinking and participatory skills. This led to the principle of universal education to support universal citizenship, and a responsibility of the citizen to learn and be educated. Education was more than just training for making a living, it was preparation for a good life and participation in society – for citizenship. These fundamental characteristics of citizenship give us a perspective to look at our interpretation and practice of citizenship today, consider the duties and skills of a citizen in today’s world, and how citizenship is currently shaped and promoted, or not.

Citizens & Economic Growth

If we look at changes brought by the flow of recent history the values of the citizen are now in competition with other dominating values and trends of our culture, including consumerism, economic growth, the corporate drive for profits, and the concentration of wealth in a tiny elite.  The rise of the “consumer society” leads people to choose immediate increased consumption rather than taking care of a healthy future or shared concerns with others, and these values have us behave only as consumers rather than citizens. In the values of the consumer, democracy becomes a formality, and the fundamental concern is what the country does for me. The orientation becomes one of entitlement with no story of responsibility or duty. The story of the consumer without citizenship  is the story of “me.” There are no conversations of principles to honor beyond what I get and what I have.

Another belief currently dominating our culture that reinforces consumerism is the necessity of economic growth. The argument goes like this: “We need our economy to grow to have jobs (and therefore social justice) and a growing economy requires more consumption, so, therefore, increased consumption is good and necessary.” The structure of our economy also demands growth due to exponentially increasing debt. In the U.S., the total debt is doubling every seven years, an unsustainable rate [ii]. The economy must continue to grow to even pay off the current debt as well as the rate of increasing debt.

We are also seeing the centralization of wealth in the hands of a few. The U.S. economy has doubled in the last 20 years, but almost all the new wealth has been accumulated by only 1% of the population. Currently, the top 1% of the U.S. population holds wealth equivalent to the bottom 50% of the population. The current trend is even more extreme with wealth concentrating mostly in the hands of the top one-thousandth of the population.

These trends suggest we are seeing the emergence of plutocracy, where plutocracy is a structure of society where power has held the hands of a limited few who direct affairs to their own interest. The ruler wants subjects and the plutocrat wants consumers, not citizens. Yet nations which have a more equal distribution of wealth also have better health statistics, better mental health statistics, higher voter participation, a higher sense of belonging, and more self-assurance supporting responsibility and initiative. [iii] In an earlier era in the U.S., there was an assumed responsibility for the wealthy to give back and be in service to the community. This has been widely been replaced with an attitude of meritocracy: that I earned it, I deserve it, and have no obligation to others. There is a place for the conversation about the relations of wealth to its community. [iv]

Corporations & the Market

Another set of values today are the values of the corporation and the market, which are driven by the concern for the growth of profits and the return to the shareholder. Corporations are the instruments of the wealth holders, establishing their power based on a population of consumers. The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has made the corporation equivalent to a citizen with no limit to their financial contributions to political causes.

Our conversation with other “citizens” has now been imbalanced, where the stockholders of corporations are largely united only by the concern for profit, not by their wider concerns as citizens, and wealthy businessmen are writing multi-million dollar checks for political candidates that support their interests. In Washington D.C., there are 25,000 lobbyists pressing for the interests of their clients. Whereas the corporation was originally invented for public purposes, it has since largely evolved only to produce profit for the benefit of the shareholders, driven by short-term concerns for immediate results in order to protect stock prices.

This all leads to our central social values becoming the values of the market, and these values being justified as inescapable and the ones that must dominate. As citizens, how do we cope with the avalanche of commercial and political media, with the arguments of these other points of view, and with their power in shaping our world and future? We must find our own ground for our values as citizens that are not dictated by only these other points of view.

Learn to Live a Good Life

We can be citizens as well as consumers, and in our roles as consumers, we believe that we must realize that just as a finite planet cannot support infinite consumption, we individually must realize that a good life is not determined by the amount of our ability to consume. Research shows that increased wealth does not produce more happiness after a basic level of living is covered, and in fact, tends to correlate to higher levels of mental and health issues. [v] The good life has other requirements beyond wealth. To paraphrase the Roman philosopher Seneca, “It is not the person who has little, but the one who desires more, that is poor.”

We must ground our values on what will produce a meaningful and good life for ourselves and for our shared future with others, rather than only short-term, selfish, or unexamined choices. We must give ourselves the option to choose a good life, rather than constantly invalidating a good life because we always demand a better life. We must answer for ourselves as individuals and as societies, “how much is enough?” And, “when will I be satisfied?”

We don’t have to live on debt, support entitlements we cannot afford, and constantly seek “more,” but we must articulate and commit to alternatives. The question of, “what is a good life?” has been missing in the cultural mainstream for some time, and it is time we seriously reflect on it, and perhaps find gratitude for the gifts that are already always surrounding us. Can we create an economy of the good life, rather than only an economy of growth?

For example, new forms of corporation are recently being invented in state legislatures – the “social purpose,” “flexible purpose,” or “benefit” corporation – which legally establishes an entity with a mission for “a positive impact on society and the environment” beyond just the production of profit. This shows a growing concern for corporate or business purposes that support the concerns of the community and not just profit. We see this as an example of reintegrating our concerns as citizens and community members into the values of the corporation. But what is the foundation of the values of the citizen, of the community member?

The World Requires Our Care

In our view what underlies a good life and a healthy shared future are what we care about, and our ability to take care of what we care about. Democracy and community require care and shared care. As citizens of communities we must care about the community, the effects of decisions about what is common to the community, about collaboration, justice, children, the elderly, the diversity of our citizenry, and the effects on the lives of members based on our community’s policies and decisions.  As citizens, we are open to a bigger and more diverse world than just our own. Profit for a few is not enough to be a citizen in a community. To be a responsible citizen, we must value more than just wealth and consumption, more than just ourselves, have a long-term view of the consequences of our choices, and care about future generations.

As communities and citizens, we propose that the conversation we must have is to clarify what we care about beyond just profits, growth, and consumption. We must have a foundation of principles. There is a place for profits, consumption, and even healthy growth, but we must ask and answer, “for the sake of what?” How will we define our purposes, meaning, and vision of a good life, community, and future?

To have these conversations, and to participate in our communities and politics to make choices for our shared future, is in our view the duty and skill of the citizen. Though many conversations and political campaigns are going on, we believe that we need to open new conversations for the concerns of citizenship, give new voice to the citizen, and re-engage with the responsibilities of the citizen.

The President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, for example, gave voice to different values in addressing the Rio 20+ summit in June, 2012, speaking for a concern for life. He asked what is the point of the economy if it only produces people overwhelmed to pay for things, and he said, “We were given life to be happy because life is transitory. It’s very short. Life is what is fundamental… Development cannot fly in the face of happiness, it should promote human happiness, love, human relations, relationships between parents and children. Friends, life is the most important treasure we have, and when we fight for the environment, the first element of the environment is human happiness.”[vi]

Participate as Citizens in Our Communities

In orienting to a good life, a healthy future, and care for our communities, there are many conversations that can enrich us and our choices. How we connect and participate in the community is a never-ending space of positive possibility, and addresses the prevalence of disconnection as a normal experience. Since our wealth and health depend on nature, we can revive our respect and connection with nature, and there is a wealth of indigenous wisdom available for us to explore this relationship, including traditions of meaning in our thinking, and giving a place to spirituality and self-cultivation enriches life in ways consumption cannot. These concerns of a rich and meaningful life have a place in the conversations of our values for community, economy, and society.

If we accept responsibility to participate as citizens, to reflect, to vote, and beyond, how do we have our voice heard? The Occupy Wall Street movement garnered attention to the 1% versus the 99% conversation but has been critiqued as not having a coherent message or proposal. We also see a lack of civility in the U.S. political process, with the demonization of other citizens with different views, and a tendency by some to insist they represent the only truth and validity. Entering these conversations can be daunting. We suggest taking small steps, starting with our own reflections, and dialoguing with neighbors and in our local communities. That we take on the posture of responsibility and look for the opportunity to support the voice for our concerns.  That we actually listen to others and the concerns that they speak from, knowing that community and citizenship require room for diversity.

Our suggestions for the principles of personal responsibility are to achieve enough so that “more” is not driving you, and if you have assured resources for a good life, to face your relationship with the imperative of “more” or of being addicted to consumption. For the principles of our shared futures, we suggest that we must face our debt addictions and establish standards for fiscal responsibility. Look at how we can support self-reliance plus solidarity and community in our affairs and choices together. For example, how do we hold corporations responsible for their use of the commons? How do we create the missing conversations for our shared future?

As citizens, we care about more than “me.” We also care about “us.” We have many challenges for our living together that the world is presenting us. As citizens we must look deeper than solutions, we must look in ourselves for the interpretations, values, and habits that are part of the challenges. When we look there, we will see new choices for ourselves and our communities. We will also see our capacity to come together to author a better future, a good life, and a healthy world.

Julio Olalla is the founder of Newfield Network, a leading school of coaching in the world, and is considered one of the best coaches in the world. He is the author of From Knowledge to Wisdom.

Robert Dunham is the founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership and delivers programs in leadership around the world. He is the co-author of The Innovator’s Way.

If you’re interested in reading more from these authors, check out Julio’s book HERE and Bob’s book HERE.

[i] References to the Athenian citizen from http://www.oesel.ee/civics/school/defin.htm

[ii] The Crash Course, Chris Martenson, 2011

[iii] Occupy World Street,   Ross Jackson, 2012

[iv] The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, Christopher Lasch, 1996.. President Obama addresses this as an issue of fair taxation.

[v] Deep Economy, Bill McKibben, 2007

[vi] This translation of President Mujica is taken from the website of Projectavalon.net