Anthropocene · Ecological Economics

#8thWayToThink like a 21st Century Economist: Reflections.

In January 2019 Kate Raworth, the author of Doughnut Economics, asked her readers to come up with an 8th way to think like a 21st Century economist, an 8th mindset shift that was supposed to complement and/or counter the 7 ways she had proposed in her book: 1. Change the Goal–from GDP to the Doughnut, 2. Tell a New Story–From the neoliberal narrative to a story fit for our times, 3. Nurture Human Nature–From rational economic man to social adaptable humans, 4. Get Savvy with Systems–From mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity5. Design to Distribute–From ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design, 6. Create to Regenerate–From ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design, and 7. Be Agnostic about Growth–From growth addicted to growth agnostic.

This is the entry I submitted (find the typo!):

8. Free yourself from the dominance of Western perspectives: From know-it-all designer to open-minded listener

The entry is available here: Alice Damiano — 8th Way to Think Like a 21st Century Economist


In this post I would like to discuss my idea a bit more, and–why not?–discuss the winning entries too (note: my entry is not among the winning ones). After all, seeing what the judges decided to prize means seeing what the judges–well-known rethinkers–think is important for the future and deserves visibility. I will be honest, I will say what convinces me of the winning entries, what doesn’t, and why. I may be blunt, but it will be only for the sake of having a honest discourse about this topic. This topic is highly critical for the future of humanity and of the Earth, hence being honest in pointing out problems is more important than being kind and hypocritically pretending to like something I don’t. So… let’s begin!


Day 1, June 4th: The day on which school winners were announced.

First prize: “From Division of Labour to Cohesive Partnership”

I agree with the content of this entry: Division of labour (e.g., assembly lines) is frunstrating for workers that are exploited and whose health is, sometimes, endangered. And I like how the autor makes it a personal story, talking about her mom’s job. And I really like the parallelism between the fact that we are trespassing planetary limits while we are also trespassing human limits.

However, I have an issue with this entry, and the issue lies in the fact that this entry is just a corollary, or maybe a sub-point, of some of the seven original principles. Once you decide to Change the Goal–from GDP to the Doughnut and Nurture Human Nature, it is natural to think that you will not make millions of people work in assembly lines at the minimum wage anymore,  because you won’t aim at exploiting them anymore, and you will start nurturing–or at least acknowledging and respecting–their human nature.

I appreciate this idea, and I understand why it is important to give it visibility. But in the same time, this is a change in the system, not a mindset shift. And it isn’t very distinct from the original 7 ones. And the idea that assembly lines do not generally provide a good work environment is already quite well-known.

Runner up #1: “Valuing Sustainability in the Price Mechanism”

This is a good idea… but isn’t it already a reality? After all, we–at least some of us–are already paying more for products that are labeled as bioeco-friendly, and so on. If we pay more for them, it’s because someone (beside us) at some point in the system has already decided to value sustainability.

Is this a mindset shift? I’m not sure. My feeling is that this entry lies somewhere between a mindset shift and a change in the system. And if I think about the way in which it is explained in the video submitted (a lot of time is spent reporting data about pollution, while all was needed for the reasoning was the information that we pollute a lot), I get the impression that in the author’s mind this idea was thought and developed as a change in the system, rather than as a mindset shift.

Value sustainability… doesn’t this idea sound like a close relative of Create to Regenerate–From ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design? If you value sustainability, you are aiming at creating to regenerate, and/or being regenerative by design… so, all in all, I have doubts on whether this entry actually says something that is not already present in the original 7 mindset shifts.

Runner up #2: “Moderate the Fixation on Profits: from profit-obsessed to principle-driven”

The first 1′ 20″ are spent basically repeating several of the original 7 ideas. Then, the authors state their idea: Moderating the Fixation on Profits: from profit-obsessed to principle-driven

Moderating the Fixation on Profits sounds very much like Change the Goal–from GDP to the Doughnut, just rewritten in a more individualistic way. And from profit-obsessed to principle-driven sounds very much like some lines of the song in the video titled “Economic Man vs. Humanity: a puppet rap battle”, written by Emma Powell, Simon Panrucker and Kate Raworth, available on Kate Raworth’s website, here. The lines state: “But self-interest is just one of many traits, showing only ego at heart is a terrible mistake. Justice! Generosity! Public spirit! Are missing from the model and we think they should be in it!”, “But money only goes so far before it’s worthless, my motivating force is something deeper, purpose! Sometimes we work because we care about the aim, and if money enters in, our enthusiasm wanes” and “Not everybody wants to work for money on a platter! Sometimes we do things just because they matter”. Sure, principle is not exactly the same as purpose or aim, but principles are things that matter, and justice, generosity and public spirit can definitely qualify as principles. The reasoning is very similar: Less owning much, more being good.

The video is very nice, and it does have several good ideas on how to put Kate Raworth’s 7 principles into practice… but I don’t see anything looking like an 8th mindset shift. The way I see it, this video would fit well among the other videos on Kate Raworth’s website, i.e. videos that simply discuss the 7 mindset shifts.

Runner up #3: “Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity”

I really like this one, because I am seeing–at last!–an entry whose author took seriously the request of providing a mindset shift. The author recognizes the need to consider non-Western ways of life, and proposes this as a mindset shift, and I couldn’t agree more–admittedly, the point I made in my entry is very similar, so I am probably being partial here (not a problem, as I’m not a judge, I never said I was going to be impartial).

The good part of this entry is that, beside making points that are logical and proposing changes that are needed, this entry does not look like a mere repetition, corollary or sub-point of any of the 7 original mindset shifts. The first 7 mindset shifts point out problems and solutions, but are also limited in revealing these problems and finding these solutions, because they are only looking into the Western culture and lifestyle. Learning from non-Western lifestyles is a way of finding solutions that are not offered by the Western culture… but, most importantly, learning from non-Western cultures is what we need to do to recognize when the Western culture is partial–both as in “incomplete”, and as in “biased”. The author of Runner up #1: “Valuing Sustainability in the Price Mechanism” at some point in his talk stated that “technology, plastic and fossil fuels have become so deeply rooted in all of our lives [that] abruptly removing them is not a viable option”… well, we could if we wanted to, and non-Western cultures demonstrate it.

The only reason why I still prefer my entry over this one is that the author of this entry proposes to have economists going to non-Western places and learning from the local lifestyle, but does not seem to propose listening to non-Western people, letting them contribute to the design, which is instead an element present in my entry (“Hence, this is the 8th mindset shift the 21st Century economist has to do: Stop being a know-it-all designer with the claim of knowing what to prioritize and what to ignore, and start being an open-minded listener, who knows that there certainly is more knowledge and understanding in the voices coming from many people—and many peoples—than in the mind of a single person, no matter how educated and acquainted with Economics. The economy of the 21st Century has to be a matter of listening with open-mindedness, and it may or may not need to be designed. But if we insist on designing it, the design should be done by hundreds, thousands of hands, each one with its designing tool of choice”). Including Indigenous voices in the dialogue is, to my knowledge, more respectful than learning from them and then desigining the future alone.

Anyway, this is a great entry, definitely my favourite among all the winning ones of all the categories. I hope this student will pursue a career in this field and not forget about this debate.


Day 2, June 5th: The day on which university winners were announced.

First prize: “Legal right for nature”

This is not a mindset shift. This is a change in the legal system. The author supports this idea by 1) mentioning that legal rights for nature have been implemented in New Zealand and India, and that many Indigenous peoples worldwide have a similar vision (which brings us back to the entry above, as well as to my entry), 2) reasons that can be linked to the Get Savvy with Systems–From mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity principle (“no separation between human and the natural world, everything is part of a highly interconnected biosphere”), and 3) reasons linked to the Create to Regenerate–From ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design principle (“legal rights for ecosystems, so they might exist, flourish and regenerate in their natural capacity”).

The author touches important points related to the 7 original mindset shifts and to what, for me, should be the 8th one (listening to non-Western cultures), but does not propose a mindset shift. In this kind of debate I would expect the author to discuss ideas and show some original reasoning, instead of showing some facts and expecting me, the viewer, to figure out the mindset shift behind those facts. Of course I’m going to like the mindset shift lying behind an entry, if it’s up to me to figure it out…

Runner up #1: “Imaginaries: the 8th Way of Thinking like a 21st Century Economist”

This entry sounds to me like a pompous elaboration, systematization and maybe expansion of Tell a New Story–From the neoliberal narrative to a story fit for our times. Sure, we have to be critical of the world around us, and realize that many things and ideas that we take for granted are totally questionable, and think about how things–including ideas and priorities–could be different… but is this something we didn’t know already, from the 7 ways of thinking, and also from the very idea of needing a series of mindset shifts?

What’s new here? Apparently, the concept of imaginary. Well, several entries gave me the impression of wanting to “advertise” a conceptual tool, with the promise that using said conceptual tool would have magically solved everything, or at least brought a significant improvement… and this entry is one of them. Rethink everything through the conceptual tool of “imaginary”, it seems to say, you need this conceptual tool to imagine a different future… and just like it happens for many advertisements, my reaction is: Your product seems just as good as many others, I don’t really need it, and I’m unlikely to bother to switch to it when I’m naturally inclined to use something else. In this case, the point is: humans have been thinking and imagining different futures for millennia. If these imaginaries are the same conceptual tool we already use when we think and imagine, what’s the point of advertising them as the 8th way? Or if, on the contrary, these imaginaries are something new, why switching to them, when we are already reflecting and imagining successfully without using this specific concept? Is this systematization bringing something new, something better? Isn’t this systematization idealized? Why forcing ourselves to think through these imaginaries, when the Nurture Human Nature principle seems to suggest that we should think in the ways we are naturally inclined to think?

Runner up #2: “Rise of The Machines: Work Must Not Determine One’s Value and Self-Worth”

This is, to me, the most problematic of all the featured entries. The problem does not lie very much in the “Work Must Not Determine One’s Value and Self-Worth” part, but it the “Rise of The Machines” part.

The replacement of human work with machine work is the problem in our society. Or at least one of the main ones. Because it’s not a secret that we are trespassing the planetary boundaries. And it’s not a secret that machines need electricity or other sources of energy to work, as well as materials to be constructed, and places where their waste can be safely disposed of. Given these conditions, it makes absolutely no sense to ask a machine to do anything, if we can easily do it ourselves. So, the 21st Century economists should not accept or endorse the idea of having a further replacement of human work with machine work: they should argue against it. And once they realize that that is still the direction we are heading to, they should argue again. And again. And again. Because we don’t need artificial intelligence capable of writing essays, and at some point in the next decades we won’t be able to sustain it anyway. Giving visibility to such an unsustainable vision of the future is dangerous. Besides, I want to write my own essays. And I want them to be read by real human beings.

I also have another concern, less serious, about the “Work Must Not Determine One’s Value and Self-Worth” part. Having one’s value determined by one’s job is exaggerated and unhealthy, but the overall discourse of the entry seems to discourage people from caring about their jobs because their jobs will be taken by machines… isn’t this even more unhealthy? Why envisioning a future in which most of the work will be done by machines, few people will work, and those few people will not even feel attached to their jobs in a positive, fufilling way? The winning entry of the school category, From Division of Labour to Cohesive Partnership, seems to point at having workers that do their job also because they are passionate about it and find fulfilment in doing it, and I agree with that. Good things happen when people need to do something and they also happen to enjoy this thing and find fulfilment in it. It’s a win-win. What’s the point of saying no to this, of emotionally detaching people from their jobs?

The title of this entry might sound nice and alluring, but the consequences of these ideas are dangerous and just pretty much what the 21st Century economist should carefully avoid.

Runner up #3: “Be Positive About the Future”

Sure, sometimes people get the message that there is a problem, act to solve it, and things go well. Sometimes.

The point is, the current environmental problems are so serious, that just hoping that things will go well in these cases is very risky and definitely irresponsible. People who know me call me a pessimist, I consider myself a realist… there’s little that can be done about this, the author and I have different sensitivities. But beside this, there is the fact that the positive, optimistic examples brought by the author were short-term ones. But what about the long term? In the South Africa example, had the water been unavailable not temporarily, but indefinitely, the outcome would have been different. Climate change is like this: long-term… we know it has begun, we know we won’t see its end in our lifetimes… Climate change is just more difficult to deal with than temporary (albeit clearly serious) lack of water. Good luck…

Concerning the statements about Neoclassical Economics being better than Ecological Economics at achieving sustainability… as a student in an Ecological Economics project with a background that includes Environmental Economics, I’m puzzled. And the fact that Neoclassical Economics models are described as “of course […] more beneficial” without a clear explanation supporting this statement doesn’t help.


Day 3, June 6th: The day on which everyone else winners were announced.

First prize: “From Business Case to Systems Case: Make Better Decisions”

Here’s another entry that seems to advertise a conceptual tool… switch from the business case to the systems case, and everything will work like magic…

But that is not the main issue. The main issue is: Does this entry add anything worthy to the already existing Get Savvy with Systems–From mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity point? I don’t think so. It just sounds like the same concept, but put into practice in one of the possible ways.

Runner up #1: “Changing the purpose of money”

Some passages would need to be discussed a lot more, but the outcome is clear: Give people basic income, let them use it to buy sustainable products, or invest it into the doughnut, don’t let accumulate beyond a certain threshold.

The title states “changing the purpose of money”, but the way it is developed sounds more like “regulate money differently”.

Great ideas, sure, but is this a mindset shift, and more specifically the 8th mindset shift? It looks to me like a development, perhaps a corollary, of Change the Goal–from GDP to the Doughnut. Maybe a way in which that original mindset shift might be put into practice.

More work and more discussions are needed on how the idea is developed, but I appreciate that, at least in the title, this entry sounds like a mindset shift.

Runner up #2: “Radical Transparency”

Of course transparency is important, but isn’t this something that we should expect as citizens, and something that we should ensure as honest people?

I understand the need to ask for transparency when it is insufficient, but in no way I can see this as a mindset shift or as a way to think like a 21st century economist. If radical transparency is a mindset shift, then what about honesty? What about correctness? What about accountability? No mindset shift will make humans switch from lacking of transparency, honesty, correctness and accountability, to being transparent, honest, correct and accountable. This discourse on radical transparency reminds me of the homo economicus, which is supposed to have perfect information but, in fact, is never perfectly informed. As we know, the mistake here does not lie in the real human being’s lack of perfect information, but in the fact that the homo economicus model irrealistically expects perfect information. Similarly, if we want to have a mindset shift about transparency, the mindset shift should not be let’s switch to having radical transparency (which is irrealistic, impossible), but let’s admit that we don’t have radical transparency, and act accordingly. Which perhaps is a thing we have already done.

Runner up #3: “Time matters: Acknowledging comprehensive well-being”

The entry mostly focuses on the relevance of time in terms of well-being, but the discussion around time is much broader than that… but anyway, time certainly is a concept that needs more attention.

I wish the author had used more words to discuss the mindset shift and less words to discuss measurements, examples and technical aspects, but yes, time matters, (also) in terms of well-being, and I’m happy that one of the featured entries is pointing this out. The idea presented in this entry is distinct enough from the 7 original points not to be considered a replication, a combination, a corollary or a sub-point of any of them, and I appreciate it.


That was the last featured/prized entry.

I won’t hide that I’m surprised and disappointed. I was expecting to find ideas that added new elements to the 7 ways proposed by Kate Raworth, and in many cases I didn’t see anything that wasn’t already there. I was expecting to see mindset shifts, entries telling me “hey, you know we are used to thinking like this, but this is bad, and guess what? We can think this other way”… and instead, in many cases, what I saw was “hey, we do this, but we could/should do that instead”, which is just not the same thing. I’m happy to discuss practical ideas, but this is not the kind of debate that had been announced. There’s Kate Raworth’s forum for ideas and debates that don’t fit the competition. There are also social media for these ideas and debates. Giving visibility to things that aren’t mindset shifts in a space that was supposed to be dedicated to mindset shifts is a missed opportunity. The opportunity to inspire deep questioning… to pursue what is right and needed, instead of what is comfortable… missed.

Entries were individual, but if I group them by category, I would say that my favourite winners were the school winners, because even if not all of them proposed a mindset shift strictly speaking, they were overall more honest and open-minded in what they were proposing, less fixated on mainstream Economics (old habits die hard!), and less afraid to challenge what needs to be challenged. The winning entries are too small a sample to prove it, but my impression is that the older/more educated people are, the more likely they are to just play with some factors within the mainstream model(s), instead of proposing a mindset change that is rooted in the society and the planet.

After having read/watched/listened to the winning entries, I still think that Freeing ourselves from the dominance of Western perspectives and passing from know-it-all designer to open-minded listener is the 8th way. Because the 7 ways only consider Western culture, and this 8th mindset shift makes us go beyond that. And we need to go beyond that, because going beyond that makes us realize that when the Western culture says things like we rely on industrial production and we can’t change that, or artificial intelligence is the future and we can’t change that, or we rely on money and we can’t change that, some non-Western cultures show that these statements are not true, and that alternatives are possible. And when we think ok, but to have social development we need the Western culture, because it’s thanks to washing machines and stuff if women can be professionals instead of housewives, some non-Western cultures show that no, women can be powerful also without washing machines. And the list of examples could go on. The point is, we often wonder how more sustainable futures could be possible, and we often think “this is not possible” just because within the Western mentality/system that is not possible. And instead in many cases it is possible, and the answer on how to do it is, at least part of it, already around us, beyond the border that separates the know-it-all Western culture and the many, neglected, non-Western cultures. Ignoring this is irresponsible, lazy, close-minded, counterproductive, damaging, dangerous, unfair. Learning some alternatives before making decisions is a first step. But the ultimate thing to do is not only to learn and use non-Western ideas in our own Western terms, but to involve and listen to the bearers of this knowledge, listen to what they say in their own terms. This is why the 21st Century economist should stop being a know-it-all designer, and start being an open-minded listener. And this is why I disagree with the video on Kate Raworth’s website entitled “And now…It’s Time for Planetary Economics”, which states: “economic thinking has gone from the household, to the city state, to the nation state. It’s time to take the inevitable next step: ours is the era of the planetary household, and in this century we need some pretty insightful managers to guide our planetary household. Ones who are ready to pay attention to the needs of all its inhabitants. Let’s get to work”. Well, just because Economics has expanded from the management of the household to the management of entire countries, it doesn’t mean that a further expansion is needed, or right, or advisable. Actually, the mentality behind this expansion is exactly what led us to the unsustainable, unequal and unfair present: The idea that one-Economics-fits-all, and that the experts in this allegedly universal Economics are in the position to impose it to everyone else. As if the many different peoples living in the world only had necessities that need to be met through redistribution, and not visions and ideas that need to be listened to. But, as Kate Raworth, the authors of some winning entries, and many other people have pointed out, mainstream Economics is detrimental both to people and to the environment. And if these social and environmental problems are now global, instead of local, it’s also because the economic mechanisms that contributed to their creation have been exported/imposed globally. If we agree on the fact that Economics needs to be rethought, why are we so eager to impose it globally, when we know it’s far from ready, and probably quite dangerous? As I said at my Pint of Science talk in May 2019 (I’ll add the YouTube link when it becomes available):

Not thinking enough before doing something is a problem.

Not thinking enough before doing something at a large scale is a bigger problem.

Alice Damiano at Pint of Science 2019
“Rethinking Science” event, Pint of Science 2019, Montreal

Why are we so eager to create big, planetary problems, when we can limit ourselves to creating small, local ones?

Economists, renegade economists, and quasi-economists–I have a question for you. The mission of an economist is to manage things in the best possible way, isn’t it? Well, here’s the question: If you knew that the best way to manage something is to leave it not in the hands of an economist, but in the hands of someone else, like an elder or a local community, what would you do? In other words, what are you loyal to? Economics as a discipline, or Economics as managing things in the best possible way? Your title of economist, or your mission to have things managed well?

The fact that this competition welcomed ideas from anyone is a good sign of openness. Non-economists had the opportunity to share their views, and this was great. But in the end, only ideas that didn’t say anything uncomfortable for economists and mainstream, Western economic thinking were featured and appreciated, and this is… humanly disappointing. We need to change what we need to change, not only what we are comfortable enough to change once our lifestyle whims, our career ambitions and our mental limits have been taken into account. So, what are you loyal to?

 

 


References: In case this isn’t clear, anything that hasn’t clearly been written/thought by me or that isn’t common knowledge has been taken from Kate Raworth’s website: https://www.kateraworth.com, where all the winning entries have been featured. I didn’t report the winning authors’ names, because I’m not sure they are ok with being, in several cases, criticized here. Anyway, the names are available on Kate Raworth’s website, and if anyone wants their name to be mentioned here, they can let me know in the comments below, or by sending a message here: https://aliceintheanthropocene.wordpress.com/contact/ (nobody ever used this message form, I hope it works!).


A final note.

I am a graduate student in an Ecological Economics project, but the positions expressed here are all mine, i.e. I am not pretending to represent anyone but myself. Indeed, I know that some of the positions I expressed here are not shared by some of my fellows… so, if I sound harsh, or too radical, or anything else, please judge badly only me, and not my research group. Oh, and if you can avoid judging me badly, that’s even better–I can be harsh when I discuss something I care about, especially if it is a matter of principle to me, but that is not my usual way of being. Also, I tried my best to be respectful… blunt, but respectful… if any of the things I wrote feels disrespectful to you, please contact me. 

Another little note.

I might make little edits to this post, in case more arguments/counterarguments come to my mind, or if I notice that something can be explained better. Anyway, I won’t change the overall content.

5 thoughts on “#8thWayToThink like a 21st Century Economist: Reflections.

  1. I appreciate you taking the time to share your honest views. I will say I agree and disagree on the need for a mind shift. Yes we will need to show people what a new system would look like but they need only understand it, that doesn’t require they necessarily need a mind shift, more like growing knowledge. If we can show people a story of a better system, as long as they understand it and like it, and they can operate within it, then we an begin to change actual behavior and it is these actions of Enterprise that effect all life on this planet. Have a read of our proposal (Common-Planet.org/plan), I suspect there was too many things in it for us to have been given any consideration for this contest. Perhaps they will be useful to you. Cheers.

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    1. Thank you for your comment and suggestions! I am now following you.
      I think we need both plans and mindset shifts… it’s like when you are driving to a place you are not familiar with: you need not only to make sure you don’t have accidents, but also to check, every now and then, the map to make sure you are going in the right direction. Plans are what helps us minimize accidents. Mindset shifts are how we correct our direction.
      And mindset shifts are what the competition was supposed to be about.
      Best wishes on your plans–here I am talking about mindset shifts, but I do acknowledge the importance of practical plans.

      Like

  2. I enjoyed reading through your arguments. Well said. Very thoughtful and honest. And I completely agree with your suggestion for a non-western first world lense through which to view the path out of this mess.

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