Hazel Henderson is probably America's most prominent alternative economic thinker. For three decades, she has been challenging conventional economic thinking and writing and lecturing — "shouting from the rooftops," as she likes to say — about the need for sustainable development.
While her new book presents itself as a critique of conventional economics, its main focus is on the groundswell of new ideas reshaping our social, political and economic systems. Henderson takes a broad look at changes happening on several fronts:
- Population growth and the environment
- International governance structures
- Global civil society
- Nation-states and democratic processes
- Corporations and global commerce
- Local governance
- Family and community values
In each of these areas, she sees a shift taking place from a value-system based on competition, conflict, and what she calls "economism" (an approach that puts economics at the center of public policy and reduces individual and public choices to matters of self-interest and rationality) toward a value-system based on interdependence, sustainability, and cooperation. While the dysfunctional economism paradigm still controls the debate, in her view, a new "quality-of-life" language is emerging that opens the way for new approaches to our current global problems. There is "slow-motion good news" going on, she says, as the old ways of doing things are challenged by "global citizens," grassroots organizations, and enlightened businesses around the world.
The book is divided into three sections. The first examines the shortcomings of orthodox economic models based on free-market capitalism, expansionist nationalism, planned obsolescence, and overconsumption. Henderson insists that even as new markets emerge around the world, they are operating according to old textbook models and outdated economic generalizations. For example, "free trade" is usually taken to be in the best interests of everyone because it appears to lower prices for consumers. But, in fact, those lower prices do not account for social and environmental costs such as deepening poverty and the depletion of natural resources. Another example which Henderson explores at length is the inadequacy of abstract economic indicators such as the Gross National Product (GNP). She shows how "public-sector investment" in maintaining infrastructure, such as roads, public buildings, and airports, is classified in GNP as "spending" because public facilities are not viewed as capital assets; if they were, she says, the deficit would shrink. She illustrates the absurdity of conventional indices by pointing to the fact that a major natural disaster — such as the oil-spill in Valdez, Alaska — actually increases the GNP by mobilizing the economy, but at great expense to the natural world.
The second part of the book examines the rise of "grassroots globalism" and global civil society. Henderson shows how citizen movements, from large non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International to consumer co-ops, barter networks, and indigenous people's organizations, are emerging as a new force in world affairs. This new independent sector does not fit neatly into conventional economic theory with its limited schema of public and private sectors, Henderson observes. As a result, its impact has largely caught economists by surprise. "The general reaction of decision-making elites to the rising global civil society has been one of alarm, because citizen groups see the issues differently from the official and mainstream interpretations of reality," writes Henderson. The most creative and energetic responses to global problems are now emerging from within civil society, she says, since citizens groups tend to be more responsive to social needs than either the public or the private sector.
The final section of the book surveys signs of social innovation and renewal amid growing political and economic crises. Henderson examines how information currencies are transforming the global economy. She also describes the emergence of a new set of economic indicators for measuring quality of life which go far beyond the GNP by not only including social and environmental costs and indexing literacy rates, poverty gaps, and energy consumption, but also by serving as preventive, early-warning feedback systems and raising the global economy's "ethical floor." She goes on to explore the emergence of new markets and innovative strategies for managing common resources. In her view, the United Nations should be restructured to play a greater role in networking and brokering economic partnerships with grassroots groups.
In a chapter called Perfecting Democracy's Tools, Henderson looks at the spread of democracy around the globe and what she sees as an urgent need to perfect a still imperfect system of collective decision-making and governance. Making democracy more responsive to the public requires that citizens be given more of a hand in setting priorities, not simply registering their vote for or against an issue. She reports on several innovations along these lines that hold promise for the future, including electronic town meetings, deliberative opinion polls, and the survey research of Alan F. Kay and the Americans Talk Issues Foundation. Setting priorities, Henderson insists, is very different from deliberating among preestablished policy options. For example, she feels the National Issues Forums process trivializes the priority-setting process "by fragmenting the debate into such rigid boxes as health care, environment, and so on, rather than choosing a holistic crosscut, such as the Federal Budget, which would allow participants to set priorities across the entire range of issues.
As this brief summary of the book suggests, Henderson is advancing current thinking in a wide range of areas. Her mind tends to be non-linear (she takes some pride in this fact) which means that her writing places considerable demands on the reader. She skips around from one subject to another, referencing a flurry of projects, books, and people along the way, and it's not always clear how everything hangs together. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of the material in the book has been published elsewhere in slightly different form. The result is a book that is hopelessly disorganized, highly repetitive, and carelessly reasoned. But in spite of these deficiencies, I consider this one of the more important books I've read in recent years. Henderson's vision shines through and the scope of her thinking along with the freshness of her insights seem to leave one inspired and hopeful that a "win-win" world is quite possible after all.
Copyright 1997 by Scott London. All rights reserved.