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.
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 to 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 functioning 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 has 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 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.