The kind of economics we need right now

Perhaps your head, dear reader, is already full of ideas. This is expected given our historical moment. There’s growing consensus that the myriad wicked crises bearing down on us, at all scales with existential threat and increasing dystopian probability, are a consequence of the current dominant political-economic paradigm and its realisation in the world. Neo-classical economics does not offer enough in the way of help to both fully understand these challenges nor the solutions.

Ancient woodland in Dartmoor

If we’re to avoid catastrophe, then this political-economic reality must change from being its cause to becoming its solution, both in the extremely short run and in the very long. This is the central challenge for all the generations of this century.

Naturally academia, political manifestos, think tanks, the blogosphere and social media-scape are well populated with proposals and certainties about what’s needed right now. Millions of us are consumed with thinking about this and taking action – researching, writing, experimenting, organising. It’s an exciting time in terms of ideas and new possibilities, as well for the urgency of our situation. There is so much excellent work being developed now, so much established and ancient wisdom being made visible, so many pathways emerging. And yet still there is a din of noise and nonsense blaring at full-volume in the background, alt-certainties being pushed into the foreground for popular consumption.

So, in addition to solving the crises of the day, the kind of economics we need now will be capable of breaking through the noise to provide a clear narrative and compelling pathways forward.

I wish I were capable of articulating what this might be. There are already many ‘transformative economies’, (to borrow a handle I quite like from the World Social Forum,,) many streams of a growing movement of possible ‘new economics’ trying to break through and capture the popular imagination. Is it possible to converge all the worthy streams into one powerful narrative or banner behind which we all might rally? Maybe this is the wrong question.

Community garden

If I were to begin afresh, I would start with first principles. The kind of economics we need right now must affirm life. It seems to me everything else might follow from this simple foundational proposition. It’s supported by the wisdom of indigenous peoples, engaged Buddhists, and deep ecologists. And from a practical perspective, it doesn’t seem possible to do otherwise – we’re running out of living planet and time. Empirical evidence suggests we’ve come to the limits of what more damage our earth systems, ecosystems, social systems can endure without collapsing.

Affirming life is a philosophical position. We might operationalise it, so to speak, by elaborating a bit further. Justice, or fairness, and inclusivity must be principles, too. Everyone’s needs must be met. Again, there’s ample support for this position from a diverse array of wisdom traditions. We must also go about meeting our needs with ecological wisdom, regenerating and working with natural systems in ways that create the conditions for life of all kinds. This is foundational. How else will we cut GHG emissions, protect biodiversity and repair our biosphere? As social beings, we must also make thriving together in communities a foundational principle – health, wellbeing, neighbourliness, art, play, participatory governance and so on. Finally, I would add resilience. Abrupt change, crisis, extreme weather – these challenges will remain for a very long time. This implies that we must develop with diversity, modularity, redundancy, and adaptability in the mix.

These principles have worked well to frame my own inquiry as a thinking practitioner over the years. I might have cited above the works of a hundred or more economists, philosophers and poets, artists, scientists of natural, holistic and social kinds, who are articulating and testing ideas, approaches, frameworks, and/or models that contribute in ways large and small to fulfilling these principles. They’ve taught and inspired me – as has life experience. I’ve been surprised, too. It’s often not possible to know a priori what sorts of ideas, innovations and initiatives might fulfil these principles. Figuring that out is part of the intellectual excitement of these times. The kind of economics we need now is transdisciplinary and always learning.

2021 Local Entrepreneur Forum

The next and more important question is: how to bring it into being now? We have about 10 years to halve emissions. There’s much more work, besides. Just about all of it is urgent. We need to change – maybe it’s safe to say almost everything at almost every scale. In order to do it we need some understanding of the ways change can happen, and people – new economists and others – need to acquire the skills for making it happen. If we need to establish new models for production, consumption, governance, finance, politics and policy, etc, we will need the knowledge and knowhow to design and implement them. If these models are to spread, or be scaled out, diffused, propagated, etc, then the knowhow must also be spread, from person to person, enterprise to enterprise, city to city. I’m inspired by the work of Ricardo Hausmann and César Hidalgo in this regard, who provide some understanding of this process.

I’m inspired by the work of Marianna Mazzucato, as well. Given the urgency of our situation, surely ‘mission-led’ government-backed economic transformation programmes of the kind she advocates offers a clear pathway for policymakers. Perhaps they will need to develop the knowhow to make it work? Certainly, they will need the political will. So, how can that be inspired and nurtured?

I’d like to say that the kind of economics we need right now is normative and robustly practical – maybe I’ve overplayed this rhetorical device? For practitioners and policymakers, this seems fundamentally important, but there remains much to be explored and discovered. The story of how the dominant economic paradigm might change is not so neat and tidy. The upcoming COP26 in Glasgow will prove this point. It may produce some hope that positive change in government action is happening, but while necessary it won’t, of course, be sufficient. The fires and heatwaves, hurricanes and extreme weather events happening all over Earth make this abundantly clear. We need more people actively working for better alternatives at all scales, with a robust set of tools, the skill and wisdom to use them, and always asking better and better questions. The new economics we need is inviting and pluralist, collaborative and constructively critical, and open to revision. But above all, it is full of life and love.

This article was originally published on the Schumacher College blog.

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