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What if we started economics not with its long-established theories but with humanity's long-term goals, and then sought out the economic thinking that would enable us to achieve them? --Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth: Renegade Economist

--by Kaj Lofgren, syndicated from dumbofeather.com, Jul 19, 2020

Kaj Löfgren on speaking with Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth is an economist. A renegade, maverick, rockstar economist. After graduating from Oxford University, she worked in the villages of Zanzibar with micro entrepreneurs, co-authored the Human Development Report for the UNDP and worked for a decade as a Senior Researcher at Oxfam. In 2017 she published her seminal work, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. In it she highlights how traditional economics has not only failed to predict or prevent recurring financial crises, it has allowed for worsening environmental degradation and increased social inequality. Old economic models created tools, language, norms, diagrams and mythologies that continue to grip our societies, preventing meaningful social and environmental progress.

Thrillingly, in Doughnut Economics she shows us how we we can rethink, reclaim and redraw economics. Kate’s model is a strikingly simple analogy for a flourishing society where the outside of the doughnut represents the ecological ceiling we cannot go beyond, and the inside represents the social foundation that we should not let people fall below. We are currently failing on both counts, clearly operating outside the safe and just space for humanity.

Kate’s work has caused a ripple across the world. From the halls of power in China to classrooms in Sweden, her model is being absorbed, reinterpreted and taught at scale. In a Western world of increasing apathy and political frustration, the doughnut provides more than a glimmer of hope; it is a framework for recovery and a gateway to a true economic transition.

During our long, meandering conversation, I am struck by Kate’s seemingly endless enthusiasm to engage in the most complex and precarious themes, from climate change to poverty alleviation. Kate is the mother of twins, an accomplished sculptor and jazz musician, and partner to renowned philosopher Roman Krznaric. As we talk I ponder the importance of balance and breadth. The arts and the sciences. Economics and philosophy. The emotional and the cerebral. The head and the heart. In a world that expects and demands continuous specialisation, there are importance lessons to be learned here. Perhaps we are entering an era of profound generalists and pragmatic idealists? Kate has created the scaffolding for the next economy to be built. Doughnut Economics is an invitation for us all to step up.

So the past 12 months have turned you into a bit of a rockstar economist. How does that…?

Well actually I’m a jazz singer, not a rockstar, so… [laughs].

Oh sorry. A jazzy economist! [Laughs]. How has it been, the last six to 12 months since the book’s been out? Was it what you expected?

No you can’t expect… no, no, no, not at all. I mean, there was a period when I was writing the book where I was absolutely on the verge of giving up. I had a little piece of paper on my desk listing all the people I was about to write to say, “I’m really sorry I just can’t do this, it’s too big, I’ve bitten off too much. Can’t find my way through it.” And it was actually Roman, my partner, who’d say to me, “Just keep going past tomorrow. Give it another day, another week. Just see what happens.” And then suddenly – one morning sitting in a café – I had an epiphany of clarity around the images I was working on, and from then on there was no stopping me. But I never imagined the book would have the scale of traction it’s had. So of course I’m completely delighted. And to me it’s a sign that there is such a hunger for new thinking, as if people are saying, “Yes, we’re so ready for this now.” Because many of the ideas in my book have been written about for decades. But it can take ideas a long time to come together, to gain traction and connect with people. I made the book’s subtitle, Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist because I wanted to go for the long view, the whole century perspective. I also wrote the book for students, it’s the book I wish I could have read when I was a student which would have told me, you know, it’s not just that you don’t get it, there’s something wrong with the theory. And yet I’ve been really struck by the number of people whose job is on the frontline of today’s economy—whether they are politicians or business leaders or urban planners—the number of them who’ve said, “Can we talk? How can we put these ideas into practice?” So they’re wanting to bring this long view of ideas into the immediate present, which for me is a very positive sign.

You’ve said before that you felt almost embarrassed describing yourself as an economist when you left university. And it was interesting when I read that ’cause I, for most of my twenties, described myself as a recovering engineer.

[Laughs]. Ah okay!

Which was my way of separating myself from the industry and the discipline whilst similarly doing work for Engineers Without Borders. So I was trying to find a way but I wouldn’t have the label. How did you find your way back to reclaiming the label?

Well I still always introduce myself as a renegade economist.

[Laughs]

So that’s very similar to you with your recovering engineer. I like that because it’s signalling, “Look, this is the worldview that I’ve been trained in, and I still want to somehow identify myself as part of that community, but I also want to make clear that I recognise that this disciplinary way of thinking comes with baggage that I might not want to carry into the future.” I studied development economics as a master’s degree, which made a lot more sense to me than anything I’d been taught before. But still I felt it was very much focused around markets and prices. And so I just didn’t ever want to identify myself with the supposed authority of an economist. At Oxfam I had a colleague who, in meetings, would always say, “Well, thinking as an economist…” and I would think to myself, Why wouldn’t you just think as a whole human being? So anyway, years later someone suggested to me the name “renegade economist” and it just felt totally appropriate to what I was doing and the spirit I was working in. Being playfully but seriously challenging. And it opens up conversations. I actually think it’s time to reclaim the word “economics” itself. Because if you go back to the root of that word, it’s made up of two Ancient Greek words, oikos meaning the household and nomos meaning norms or rules. So “economics” literally means the art of household management. And that couldn’t be more relevant today. We urgently need a new generation of household managers at the planetary scale, ready to manage this shared household in the interests of all its inhabitants. So if we take it back to its Ancient Greek meaning, well then I passionately want to be an economist in that broader sense and I know that many of today’s economics students also come to the subject from that deeper desire for the tools that would enable them to help change the world. What infuriates me is that they are still being offered something that falls far, far short of that when it comes to the economics syllabus on offer in universities around the world. It’s time for that to change.

And so you start your book with the phrase, “The most powerful tool in economics is not money, not even algebra, it is a pencil. Because with a pencil you can redraw the world.” And you’ve taken your pencil and drawn a doughnut. What is the essence of Doughnut Economics?

I’ve always drawn pictures at work, doodled in the margins of my notes. And when I discovered the world of mind maps I realised that this is a good thing, that we should engage our visual brain as well as the verbal. So all throughout my career I’ve tried to draw images of the theories that I was learning or expounding. And the doughnut is essentially a visual compass for 21st Century prosperity. How do we meet the needs of all within the needs of the planet? Starting with this picture means we start economics with purpose. And then a fascinating question follows: if that’s our goal—to get into the doughnut—then what kind of economic mindset would give us the best chance of getting there? What are the best models and concepts that we could equip ourselves with? And what do they look like in their simplest form as pictures? And then let’s compare that to what we were taught, or what is still being taught, because students are still learning last century’s fundamental ideas, which are in no way equipping them to take on the challenges that we all know lie ahead.

There’s no doubt, and actually I listened to a lecture on this from last year. And you mentioned how a lot of people were nodding furiously to what you were saying. And I was certainly doing the same when I read the book. Because there’s something intuitive about this, which I think, you’re right, comes from the simplicity of the diagram where we go, “Of course, that’s exactly how we should be designing our economies, our societies, our politics.” I’m interested in just going back a bit to the origins of this story. Where did it stop being useful to us in terms of where we were as humanity I guess?

That’s a big question! I wasn’t taught economic history at university and I think we should all learn the history of the ideas that we’re taught. Whether it’s how to design a bridge or how to think about what the economy is. Because ideas come from a certain time and a place, created by people with a particular worldview. And we need to revisit who those economists were and actually go back to understand the context of their original ideas. The economists who came up with them were no doubt brilliant people. I say “people,” but they were of course all rich, white, northern men. Sometimes they recognised the caveats or the blind spots or historical limitations of their own ideas. But in many cases those ideas have been simplified and turned into something like laws.

I think those economists themselves would be mortified to see how their ideas had been contorted.

We could start, for example, with Adam Smith in 1776 writing The Wealth of Nations.  He wrote this very famous sentence, which has come to underpin the power of self-interest in market economics: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Meaning that people don’t provide things out of generosity, but their own interest and it is the market that ingeniously allows this to happen. Well the wonderful irony was that Adam was aged 43 when he wrote his classic book. He’d never married, so he didn’t have a wife, or children to raise. He actually moved back in to live with his old mum while he was writing the book. So imagine if, at the very moment he was writing that classic line, his mum had called out, “Adam! Dinner’s on the table!” He would have realised, My goodness, my mum is the one who ultimately provides my dinner! He could have invented feminist economics right there and recognised the importance of the unpaid care economy from the get-go. But he didn’t, and so it went unnoticed for another two centuries.

Oh goodness. How much pain we could have saved [laughs].

Yeah. In that book he focused our attention on the market alone. And his message got simplified and turned a relentless drive for market-first economics. Another story from the 1870s, almost a century later, a small group of economists were desperate to show that economics was a science. And the science of the day was physics, that of Sir Isaac Newton. So they looked at Newton’s diagrams, such as his depiction of gravity pulling a ball to rest, using calculus to show the gradient at which it would fall. And

they drew their diagrams exactly in the style of Newton’s to show, by analogy, just how closely economics resembled physics. They even used metaphors suggesting that, just as gravity pulls a moving ball to rest, so prices pull markets into equilibrium.

They were determined to show it was science so they mimicked the equilibrium science of Newtonian mechanics. Well physics has moved on a long way but economics is still based on this old analogy of equilibrium thinking. So we’re trapped in a deeply outdated mindset.

What I wanted to do in Doughnut Economics was bring together the diverse insights of ecological economics and feminist, institutional, behavioural and complexity economics and make them dance together on the same page. So that we could see what happens when we bring all these neglected, marginalised approaches to economics together. They begin to create a new alternative synthesis. That’s key because it’s only when we’ve got an alternative, coherent view that can people no longer justify only teaching the old one. There’s a lovely quote from a statistician called George Box. He said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

[Laughs].

And I think this is wonderful because first of all it tells us all models are simplifications of the world. We need to make these simplifications but the criterion by which to assess them is, “Is it useful—in terms of the goals we set for ourselves, the values we hold, and the context we believe we face?” And when we look at last century’s models they may have been useful for some people at some point in time, but times have changed and we know so much more now. And the models that I’m proposing, I believe they’re a lot more useful than the old ones, but that still doesn’t make them right. Doesn’t make them perfect. I hope they will continue to evolve and people will come up with even more useful ones. And that’s what makes 21st Century economics exciting.

I guess it was a quest for certainty we were on. I mean the analogy to mechanics and physics is obviously very appropriate in the sense that people are trying to find more and more certainty. And one of the things you talk about is that we need a new portrait of humanity at the heart of economics. That there’s something around human nature and self-awareness and maybe even psychology for how we design our societies and economics. How do you reflect on that?

So there’s this rational economic man, the little Lego character at the heart of economics. Again I think the economists whose ideas lie behind this portrayal of humanity would curl their toes in their graves if they could see the caricature that’s resulted. Adam Smith was the father of this thinking but he actually had a nuanced view of humanity. Yes, on one hand he recognised that self-interest can be powerful for making markets work, but he likewise recognised that our interest in others is essential for making society work. And he celebrated our sense of generosity, public spirit, justice, compassion. He said, “These are the traits most useful to other men.” But his nuanced vision of humanity was too nuanced for those who wanted to create mathematical models.  And so John Stuart Mill was the first to simplify Smith’s vision. Mill said in the 1840s, “Political economy”—which is what they called economics in those days—“does not treat the whole of man’s nature nor the whole of man’s conduct in society… it is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth.” So it was as if Mill took a stonemason’s chisel and said, “We don’t need all these extra bits. Let’s just chop them off and make this simple: a being who desires to possess wealth.” And then over time this caricature got amplified and further simplified to make him fit ever more easily into the models. So he came to be focused on self-interest, always calculating—able to calculate the prices of everything and compare them all. In addition he hates work, loves luxury and dominates over nature. The most fascinating thing I learned in researching my book is that when we are presented with this character, rational economic man, and we’re told that he is like us, in fact we actually become more like him.

The more that students learn about the traits of rational economic man, the more they come to say that they value self-interest and competition over altruism and collaboration. This is fundamental: Who we tell ourselves we are actually shapes who we become.

Which means there’s a huge responsibility for any academic discipline that claims to tell us who we are.

Yeah. So what’s the counter to that? ’Cause if that’s true at kind of a first year university level, what’s the response?

I think the response is we need to start with a much richer concept of humanity. So yes of course we can be motivated by self-interest, but we’re also socially reciprocal. Actually let’s look at how we do behave: we reciprocate with others. We assist strangers. We typically collaborate with other people unless they don’t cooperate back, and sometimes we go out of our way to punish them for it. So we are conditional cooperators. What’s more, the old theory imagines us as having fixed preferences, that we know what we like and then we come to the market and assess all the different options in order to maximise our utility. Whereas actually we have deeply fluid values which can be triggered even by the use of a word. People tend to say that we’re like sheep, just following each other. Actually I think we’re just as much like an octopus. Because if you watch an octopus moving underwater it ripples with colour, ever shifting to fit in. It’s incredibly fluid and changeable given its surrounding, given its responses, and I think of human behaviour like that. We can be triggered very quickly to anger, or indeed to empathy. And that goes for how we behave in the economic realm as well. The names we’re given, for instance: we’re either seen as consumer or labour, and we’re told that we hate work and aim to do as little work as we can for as much return possible. That’s just not the case. Rather than being work-hating, I’d say people are often purpose-seeking, and may do work for no pay if they are contributing to a purpose that they believe in. We are also seen as consumer, aiming to get the most we can for the least amount of money. Again that’s often not true in terms of what people actually choose to do. We’d often rather create than merely consume. But also we’ve so many other roles in the economy and society—as a neighbour, a parent, a volunteer, an investor, an entrepreneur, a student, a professor. And each one of us in all of these different aspects of our lives can play a role in shaping and reshaping the economy.

You know, this almost vicious idea that’s become a truth for our current economics, is the quest for growth. And economic growth as the be-all and end-all, the only indicator of success. We’ve gone through a number of election cycles in Australia now where that is literally the slogan of the election campaign: “jobs and growth.” I’m interested in how we overcome that absolute addiction to the idea of growth? At a nation-state, global level. But also at an individual level. How do we personally overcome an addiction to that type of consumer behaviour?

So I agree with you. This is a profound addiction. And I believe that our addiction to the notion of endless growth has been written into the structure of our economies so that the very structure of our institutions typically depends upon unending growth. The stock market pursues the highest rate of return, driving companies to demonstrate every quarter that they have growing sales, growing profits and growing market share. It’s written into politics too: no political leader wants to lose their place in the G20 family photo. But if their nation’s GDP stops growing they’ll be booted out and lose their place at the geopolitical table of power. And every government wants to raise tax revenue without raising taxes: a growing GDP is the most favoured way to do that.

But as you say we’re also socially addicted to growth. After a century of consumerist propaganda we’ve been convinced that we transform ourselves when we buy something more. Again it comes back to history: understanding history and where ideas came from always helps us as a first step in releasing ourselves from the ideas that are outdated. Back in the 1920s the nephew of Sigmund Freud, a man called Edward Bernays, invented the public relations industry. He realised that his uncle’s psychotherapy could be turned into very powerful retail therapy. While Freud had revealed that we all have deep-seated desires to belong, to be respected, to be seen as attractive or important—Bernays realised that these could be connected to consumer purchases and the desire to buy. So instead of advertising a car saying, “It’s faster, it’s shinier, it’s fancier!” he would create an advertisement that would subconsciously connect the car to male power and status. So we’ve now lived through a century of Edward Bernays brilliantly using his uncle’s psychotherapy to lure us into endless retail therapy. I wish he were alive now and we could say, “Okay Edward, well done. Now please join the team on the other side. How do we undo this?”

So how do we undo this? One of my favourite insights is from the psychoanalyst Adam Philips who says, “Our excesses are the best clue we have to our own poverty, and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.” Because actually when you talk to many people about what the good life is—when they’re brought into that conversation maybe as community member, as citizen rather than triggered as consumer—they’ll talk about the importance of having a strong sense of community, feeling secure and safe, feeling that they live in a thriving, friendly place. It’s not about having an ever-growing income. And, just to go back to the metaphor itself, we tend to think that growth is always a wonderful thing. Of course we want growth, right? It’s spring! The flowers are growing! My children are growing! Yes. But that’s an incomplete understanding of the full metaphor we all know about growth. If I tell you that my friend went to the doctor who told her that she had a growth—now that feels very different. Because we deeply understand that when something begins to grow uncontrollably within a healthy living system, it is a threat to the integrity of that system and it has to be stopped. So actually we have a fuller metaphor of growth to tap into in our own lives, but we rarely take that full metaphor into the economic sphere.

What we need to create are economies that make us thrive whether or not they grow.

And that might sound like a small flip in words, but it’s a profound flip in mindset. We need a new language, a new concept, new metaphors and new examples of how we can create economies that thrive without endlessly growing.

Incredible. So, I’m also interested in where you’ve personally come from. I read that when you were 13 you began talking to some homeless people where you were growing up.

Where did you read that?

I have my sources! [Laughs]. Where did that come from?

Oh I don’t know. I grew up in Richmond, which is a wealthy suburb of London, and I had two formative experiences in terms of social justice and environment protection right along the leafy riverside where I used to walk to and from school. As a young teenager I organised a big gang of kids to go out and pick up litter all along the riverbank one Saturday morning, all of them wearing big yellow rubber gloves—and we got lots of intrigued looks from passing adults. That was my first shot at environmental activism. Around the same time, every day walking home from school I’d see men sleeping rough beneath the arches of a nearby railway bridge; we called them “tramps,” that was the language of homelessness in those days. And I remember having the curiosity that every child has of “Why are there people sleeping on the ground in the cold open air?” I hear it now in my own children: they have a wide-eyed disbelief of the world around them, one that adults just somehow become completely inured to. Children can’t help but stop and ask why on Earth are things like that? So I remember walking home from school one day and deciding to buy a big portion of fish and chips to give to these men. And as I carried it through the little gate and along the path that led towards their railway arch, I suddenly became very fearful—the reality of the situation hit me when I realised they saw me, a little schoolgirl, coming their way. So I sort of tossed the bundle of fish and chips towards them and ran off. That, I suppose, was my first awkward action for social justice.

I don’t know exactly if or how all this connects to what I’m doing now. But it struck me, when I was back at my parents’ house recently, walking with my own children along this very same section of riverbank and past the railway arches, that I’d had these two distinct moments—of environmental awakening and social awareness—in that pretty leafy suburban setting. I think experiences like these ride with us deeply and can be buried for decades, then triggered by an image or idea or event somehow. I think that many people—if you were ask them, “When in your childhood did you have a moment of recognising the beauty of the world, and when did you have a moment of realising that your life was better off than some others?”—almost everyone could point to one. And for me these moments can turn out to be about realising that you don’t want to be a part of a system or lifestyle that just takes the degradation and the inequality for granted and adds to it, but instead actually start to challenge it.

You’re married to a philosopher who has written extensively about empathy. And I want to know how does yours and Roman’s work relate? How have you affected each other’s work? I mean, it’s such a wonderful partnership, speaking to very different audiences. But the themes strike me as quite similar somehow.

Yeah. Around 15 years ago, when I was working in international development and Roman was starting to write about empathy, many people said, “What’s that?” Back then almost no one knew or used the word. I think it’s a sign of one of the biggest transformations of collective emotional intelligence—or at least awareness of the need for it—because you now hear the word empathy a lot, on the radio, in cafes, even in politics. Back when Roman began writing about empathy, I didn’t see the connection with my work in rethinking economics. Over time I’ve come to see many intersections. Adam Smith, that founding father of economics, is remembered for promoting self-interest and the power of the invisible hand. But he’d be mortified by that legacy because he recognised that people have an innate capacity to care about the happiness and interests of others. He knew that empathy is a key characteristic of human nature, but it gradually came to be written out of economics, leaving only self-interest. Over recent years, in conversations about economics I have found myself more and more ending up in discussions about human nature and realising, Oh, how funny, there’s empathy popping up. And these days Roman more and more comes back from giving a talk about empathy and tells me, “I ended up talking about the doughnut!”

[Laughs]. Actually the whole mission of Small Giants is to move our communities towards empathy and the new economy. So we’ve designed our entire little empire around the two of you.

Ha! [Laughs]. But it does show actually that so many of us are thinking alike. There’s a convergence and emergence happening around some powerful core ideas. I like that combination of empathy and the new economy in your work because one seems very much intimate to human nature and the skill to empathise. And the other initially sounds quite technical and abstract. Different people will be drawn to different aspects. Some no doubt say, “I like the human bit” and “Oh, economics, that sounds far too big and institutional to me!” And others will be the other way around. But you’d find through conversation that actually these issues touch. They tuch.

And one of the things that I’ve learned from your work is that the core of humanity and the macro economy deeply influence each other. I think if we start re-engaging with that sense of empathy at the core of who we are then we will deeply affect the economy around us. And it’s happening already, as you’ve described.

Yes absolutely. I think that in evolutionary and complexity economics, when we begin to recognise each of us is a little node within an incredible complex network of interactions, we start to see that how we each behave can actually have butterfly effects, repercussions that influence others. In evolution the really interesting stuff is what’s going on at the fringes. When we bring that back to economics, we can say, “Oh hang on, that means the really quirky stuff that seems fringe activity or marginal, that may well be the evolution of the economy!” So it’s easy to be dismissive and say that the new economy is niche, but perhaps that’s what evolution looks like. The question is how do we scale this up?

So changing tack a little bit. I’ve heard that you’re a sculptor. 

You’ve been digging around!

[Laughs]. And you play saxophone, you sing jazz. I think this is so interesting, the worlds you move between, the arts and economics. I studied arts and engineering as my undergraduate and have always had this strange interplay between the idealism of the humanities and the extreme practicalities of designing bolts and bridges. I’m really curious as to how that plays out in your life.

[Laughs]. So I was lucky enough to start doing sculpture when I was at school. And I suppose I’ve brought that into my work because when I worked at the UN and Oxfam I would always be doodling images of the themes and campaigns we were working on, searching for images that encapsulate the concepts. Roman was the one in our household who wrote paragraph after paragraph and loved words. I was the one who drew pictures or took photos. When I started writing my book, and got really lost and couldn’t see my way through, it was the day that I realised that I could represent each of the seven ways of thinking in pictures that it all came together. It was a really powerful moment for me. And from there I thought, So what other ways could you represent new economics in art and performance? When I teach students about systems thinking, one of the first things I do is show them a video of a murmuration of starlings flying in their incredible patterns in the sky. And I watch the students as they’re watching the video because there’s this wonderful look of awe and amazement and beauty in their faces. That response comes down from the brain and moves into the heart and the belly with a “wow!” And that’s a very different way to learn about the patterns of the world. So I realised that actually we can use art and image and movement and performance to learn about the new economy.

That’s so wonderful. I just have a few more questions here around the future.

Yeah, go on.

I guess you quote Buckminster Fuller quite a lot, that you don’t change things by fighting the existing reality, you create a new model to replace the old one. You’ve kind of done that now. I’m really interested in where is it being manifested in the world? Like what examples are you seeing of people using Doughnut Economics as a theory of doing real work in the world?

So just on the Buckminster Fuller point, if I could tweak his quote I would say, “You don’t change things only by fighting existing reality.” Of course we need people fighting the existing reality.

Plenty of room for that.

But you have to build the new too. So where do I see the new model manifest in the world? One example really delighted me last December. I teach at the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford and one of my former students wrote to me from China saying, “I’m sitting in a conference in Beijing. The deputy director of China’s renewable energy centre is launching the report that sets out what the government plans to do in terms of transitioning from today’s fossil fuel based economy to a renewable energy system. And the second slide that he’s showing is your doughnut!” He’s put it up on the screen next to a quote from President Xi saying, “Man must learn to live in harmony with nature.”

Wow. How extraordinary.

Yeah. That really struck me—that in presenting the report the professor had chosen to use the doughnut as a symbol for the energy transition needed. Another example is teachers. There are many teachers in schools and universities who contact me saying, “We’re desperate to teach these new ideas to students.” And so I want to work with them, give great material that they can bring into the classroom and help have dialogues. I was recently contacted by a teacher in Sweden who said, “I’ve just spent a whole week teaching every subject in my classroom through the lens of the doughnut, inviting students to bring all sorts of thinking, whether it’s from biology or chemistry or maths or geography, to ask how we meet the needs of all within the needs of the planet?” So school teachers are seeing this opportunity. And there are also a good number of university economics professors who want to open up questions around the growth paradigm.

Mm. It’s so wonderful to hear. You know, we find with Dumbo Feather that when you’re looking clear-eyed at the significance of the issues that we face, either on the social or environmental front, and see that they are getting worse, that can sometimes lead to despair and despondency more regularly than in previous times. Do you go through those moments yourself? 

Mm. Yes I do, I do go through those moments. I drew the doughnut as a vision of a world that is safe and prosperous for all. That doesn’t mean I think it’s easy to achieve. I’ve set out the economic mindset I think will be the best way of equipping today’s students with having even half a chance of bringing this about. But sometimes people say to me, “Oh I love your optimism!” And I say, “Hang on, I didn’t say I was optimistic.” In fact I’ve come to put it like this. Don’t be an optimist if it makes you relax. You know, “Technology will sort things out! We always figure out new ways!”  Don’t be an optimist if it makes you think like that because it’s very dangerous to sit back on your heels right now. There’s absolutely no evidence that this thing is going to sort itself out. But also don’t be a pessimist if it makes you give up, if it means you feel overwhelmed and you turn your back and you just don’t want to be part of this because it’s too overwhelming. I say, “Don’t be an optimist or a pessimist, be an activist.” And ask, what can I do? From who I am, from where I sit, as a parent or a neighbour or a voter or a member of the local council or an entrepreneur or an employee. If I’m a student, I can put up my hand and ask new questions. Or if I’m a professor, I can bring different materials and concepts to class. If I’m a financier, I can change the kind of finance I offer. We actually all have many different avenues of influence and networks that we’re embedded in.

And yet still one can just feel downhearted when you look at how much Trump is dismantling in America, or how I feel debate about Brexit is distracting from the much more fundamental transition conversation that we should be having in the UK right now. So I get energy from finding like-minded people who want to collaborate or who are taking an idea and running with it. Because actually I do think the seeds of this new economy are visible in the present if we look for them. And even though it’s not mainstream enough—it’s not predominant in the news, it’s still seen as marginal or fringe—but that’s exactly where the action is, that’s where change is coming from. I want to be part of amplifying that. One of the most lovely things that happened to me was when a young woman came up to me at a festival I was talking at and asked me to sign her copy of my book. She said, “My father gave me this book. He read it himself, then gave it to me saying ‘I think I finally understand what it is that you’re doing.’” Imagine her father, perhaps coming from mainstream business, worrying, What is my daughter doing? She’s off wasting her time in some small obscure startup. And then seeing her work through this new lens, “Oh, she’s actually powerfully involved in creating something new that needs to exist” Which gave him a respect for what his daughter was doing. I loved that. I never imagined that the doughnut could be part of family therapy.

[Laughs].

But if we stop and say, “Are we out of time?” Or, “Will this not work?” That could become self-fulfilling. If we sit around and ask ourselves if this is no longer possible, well we will make it no longer possible just by doing so. And I do get a lot of energy from so many people who are asking themselves, “What can I do? How can I be part of this?” I’m struck by the number of people who really want to hear this alternative articulation of the world, want to turn it into a conversation, a movement. That certainly gives me energy to keep going.

Photography by Siddharth Khajuria




Syndicated with permission from Dumbo Feather, a magazine about extraordinary people and there mission is to inspire a community of creative, courageous and conscious individuals. Kaj Lofregen is the Director of The School of Life (TSOL) Australia, which includes branches in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. TSOL is a secular organisation that is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. TSOL runs classes, workshops and major events, and also publishes books, creates films, and produces a range of objects & tools that can assist you in the quest for a more fulfilled life. TSOL also runs a consulting and training service for business that is designed to enhance emotional intelligence and psychological maturity in the workplace. 


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