Alternatives to Conventional Economic Development: And the Philosophy of Not Realising our Potential

More than 20 years ago a deep thinker, Richard Norgaard, wrote a book called Development Betrayed.  What he wrote wasn’t particularly new.  Other beautiful minds from Leopold Kohr, E. F. Schumacher to the still living treasure, Wendell Berry, made similar points.  Manfred Max-Neef, the barefoot economist, walked around in the communities he was trying to help, learning about the real nature of people and place that conventional economics did not teach.

Chaplin critique of modernity

They wrote about how the dominant ideas in economic development thought are severely distorted by what economists don’t consider – obsessed as they are with quantitative models divorced from a largely qualitative and ever-changing reality.  They simplify how life, society and even our complex and beautiful planet behave, to mechanical ‘resources’, quantities and price.

In other words, ‘Modernity’; the idea that the world (including humanity) is some great machine whose future will be assured by the methods of science and technology – to which the economics discipline aspired.  Wisdom and the role of values and meaning are reduced to irrelevance.

Relying only on the mechanical side of life is like raising a child using an instruction manual and thinking you can predict the outcome. It is like emulating Field Marshall Haig at the Somme; distant from the action, calculating, non-adaptive, reducing men to meaningless flesh, inevitably disastrous.  The mathematical model, the ‘Lord Market’, and the centralised ‘expert’ will – collectively – provide. All hail.

This is what Berry referred to as the Crisis of Culture – the industrialisation of land and people; the idea that we live in a predictably certain world over which we have control. We then allow this thinking to predominate in the halls of power, and with it the inevitable dominant authoritarianism of people and place.  The system then perpetuates itself. We humans are visualised and acted upon as machine cogs or resources. Obedience over creativity and thought is cherished. Our homeland is a set of resources, substitutable and infinite.

Rather than realise the potential of people and place, under this delusion we do the very opposite; we undermine that potential, we mine the future for short-term gain of a few, we reduce the adaptive and creative capacities of our communities and our place and, by so doing, we destroy the very values that create long-term vibrant economies.

Under this delusion we work counter toThe unquantified economics of the firm Robert Putnam’s work demonstrating that ‘social capital’ leads to long-term economic vibrancy; against economist Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’ focusing on social justice, who argued that fairness goes hand in hand with a vibrant economy, and Jane Jacob’s ‘Co-developments’ where a better long-term economy always involves the parallel development of culture and of place, modelled on the uncertain development of an ecosystem. Jacob’s argues convincingly that: “Development is not a collection of things, but a process that creates things.”

We can see this limited mechanical thinking everywhere – in treating our schools as standardised factories for the dulling of creative and engaging minds in the interests of corporate conformity; in the justification for the destruction of something of great value and potential like our soil, our fisheries or our forests of old into some short-term gain for some narrow interest group, rationalised by dollars and the discounting of our children’s future.

You cannot truthfully see a functioning forest through the narrow lens of a machine of tonnes and dollars. You cannot raise a child, let alone create a strong society, a Evil begins Pratchettfunctioning environment or a vibrant economy with this thinking.   Such a view is not real. It is a delusion of the mind because it thinks that we live in a short-term economy where the dollar is the only concern, rather than a community that has through history and whakapapa become deeply embedded in a place.  This is our place.  Our region.  Our nation.  If you do not acknowledge and cherish these connections, then at some point our place will not cherish us.

That is the major point.  If we think in the autistic space that sees no beauty, no long-term meaning, no social and environmental limits, no love, no connection between people and place, no spirit, then we will inevitably destroy the things that matter, and by so doing, destroy ourselves.

This is Development Betrayed, and the result People in landscape.jpghas been a loss of jobs and the vibrancy of our economy in our regions, and a further simplification of our economy to a worrying colonial status for the benefit of a few.  Hand in hand with this loss is the continued justification of exploitation of our communities (lower wages and conditions) and our environment (the right to pollute), both of whose health is essential to any cultural and economic Renaissance.

Real economic development requires first a rethink of these underlying conceptual metaphors they frame our debates.  We need a deeper discussion about the real nature of people and place, and of the key role of human values and the nature of powerful and destructive interests, and their failing ideas.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

This entry was posted in Building Regional Economies, Thought Pieces and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Alternatives to Conventional Economic Development: And the Philosophy of Not Realising our Potential

  1. petichinin says:

    Hi Chris, thanks for this cogent reminder….I came across a great quote yesterday that you may already be aware of, “ The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.:”

    Hope it’s going well for you,

    Phyllis Tichinin
    General Manager
    06 874 7897 or 0800 878 343
    Fax 07 888 4869
    PO Box 8055
    Havelock North, 4157 NZ


  2. Wade Cornell says:

    Thanks Chris. Wonderful to have the cognitive functions stirred this morning. All good points that are IMHO accurate observations. The majority all over the world have swallowed whole the idea that all countries should be trying to increase their GDP every year. Why? This is the mantra of insanity. How do you get anywhere in the long term using up your resources faster? While there are a few ways one can generate wealth without depleting resources they are few indeed. Add to that an increasing population and you have a logarithmic dash towards oblivion. Welcome back the horsemen of the Apocalypse!

    I’m a pessimist on this one as I hear too few willing to even look at the problem, much less consider solutions. In the NZ context we have land prices that have no relationship to the commodities that the land can sustainably produce. So the land is beat to death and the water polluted to subsidize short term profit. While there are social issues of equity that could be addressed in terms of jobs and housing one can more easily embrace the most basic economics and easily see that if there were fewer people there would also be less demand for houses (lower prices) and more demand for people to fill jobs (with higher wages).

    It used to be that the bureaucrats advised government (not always well, but it was the only potentially unbiased and long tenured group with power). The bureaucrats have been sidelined in reshuffles and silenced by the fear of the loss of employment. So who in government is an advocate for sustainability? MPI holds all productive land based portfolios. Pretty easy to see that the industry that returns the most money dictates and dominates when governments can’t/won’t see beyond GDP. It’s very sad when reputable scientists are stood up and forced to propose that (there might be?) a scientific solution could (eventually?) mitigate the current destructive practices instead of stopping those practices.

    How and when does the message get through? Usually only after a disaster. We are an intelligent species capable of foresight for short periods but only when rudely awakened. Those who would warn of problems in the future are sidelined as spoilers for those who are making money and reaping (raping?). GDP rules…until the laws of nature kick in.

    • cjkperley says:

      Hi Wade. Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, the big problem is how we change the system back to one that accepts debate and new ideas. I’d like to think you can persuade through philosophical discussion, but most people are locked into a paradigm and may not change even WHEN we gat a shock. Naomi Klein argues they actually use shocks to perpetuate their ideological agenda. Witness Hurricane Katrina and the neoliberal thrust after that event.

      So either a bigger shock – or grow the dissent bit by bit until the tide turns on a tipping point – like James II in 1688. Very suddenly the system tipped when his supporters shifted allegiance on the cusp of the majority shifting. So we get 45% seeing the nakedness of the Emperor, and the next 15% start to waver, then shift allegiance very quickly.

      Different times now. We don’t have threats to life and property that was very real prior to the Glorious a Revolution (first time they referred to ‘revolution’ as I understand it), nor pamphleteers in the streets competing with the mainstream propaganda (or perhaps we DO with blogs etc), nor a power base concentrated in one city like London with a population directly affected and HIGHLY aware (because of a key religious issue and the history of Judge Jeffries’ assizes courts – sanctioned murder and slavery of ordinary English people, etc. Hmm, thinking about it, perhaps we do have the context for radical change.

      My bet’s another financial meltdown, or an environmental catastrophe (Greenland icecap?) – something that makes the Freidman worshippers realise that their corporate welfare dressed up as ‘freedom’ is fundamentally a threat to themselves as well as the population and the planet.

  3. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    Reblogged because we need this debate. We are mining our legacies to make the numbers look good. “Real economic development requires first a rethink of these underlying conceptual metaphors they frame our debates.  We need a deeper discussion about the real nature of people and place, and of the key role of human values and the nature of powerful and destructive interests, and their failing ideas.”

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