A Coherent Compass for Charting Toward a Salutogenic Culture
”The most powerful tool in economics is not money, nor even algebra. It is a pencil. Because with a pencil you can redraw the world.” — Kate Raworth
Kate Raworth, creator of the Doughnut Economics model and author of Doughnut Economics, 7 Ways to the Think Like a 21st Century Economist deserves the title she has given herself as ‘renegade economist.’ The quote above speaks powerfully to the liminal space we are in of cultural transition. And if education and economics are the cornerstones of culture, economics education has a pretty central role in that transition… at least according to this economics teacher. A prosocial process within the classroom is how we learn collaborative sense-making and how to design economic ecosystems with purpose toward peace and prosperity.
If, as Raworth challenges, we can redraw the world, can we emulate Harold with his purple crayon- can we map the course to flourishing?
I’ve had many well-meaning people recommending Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi novel Ministry for the Future for reading with my high school students. Admittedly, high school is replete with classic dystopian literature, I simply wasn’t ready to assign our emotionally precarious youth with the image of millions of people being poached to death by an athropogenic heat wave. I’m cautious about the images we use, the words we utter, and the stories we tell about what life is and how it might unfold.
Yet, some of our most ubiquitous pro-planet images cause me to question what messages are being communicated. These, somewhat apologetically include Raworth’s Doughnut and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. That’s right. I’m questioning whether they are good enough to chart a path to peace, prosperity, regeneration, and wellbeing for all.
The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals
Across the globe, the visual image of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals has helped to chart the course for companies, charities, communities, and more. The goals communicate critical challenges. And there, right in the center of all the world’s problems, is economic growth.
How could the classic arrow of an infinite and exponential upward trajectory of global wealth creation not be seen for the ahem, phallacy that it is?
Is economic growth necessary to solving the other worlds problems? Is it simply one of the worlds problems, loosely related? Is it true that it may be part of the problem? Or perhaps, it is merely ineffective at fulfilling its promise to alleviate poverty, inequality, and poor natural resource management? Maybe the real problem is human ignorance and greed?
Does Global Growth Incentivize Greed?
It is a tired question. We know the answer is yes. The economy is not neutral with a few bad apples. The fundamental flaw is not human nature. Multiple studies corroborate the discipline of economic study has an overall causative effect on human greed. Since the only doctrine that is taught is also the only game in town (town being our little blue planet), greed, a human behavior that arises under certain conditions, is more likely a symptom of the economy, rather than the disruption of it.
Human behaviors on a community scale are called culture. Economics, which describes the basics of human relationships is the unacknowledged driver of culture.
The Cultural Compromise of Peace and Prosperity
As economics as a field of study became institutionalized, and the textbook cartel started sinking its teeth in, any cultural legitimacy of compassion, curiosity, and critical thinking gave way to doctrine and dogma.
An early example of another influential renegade economist, this time from the US, is Henry George. Compassionately witnessing the poverty, George followed his curiosity to explore critical questions like: “Why is it that every time there is more progress, there is more poverty?” Thus, Progress and Poverty was researched, written, and published, becoming one of the nation’s best-selling books in the 1890’s, next to the Bible.
While his solutions to create a prosperous society through a single land tax were never realized as policy, they were reflected in the work of the great American journalist and author, John Steinbeck (The Harvest Gypsies).* Perhaps the only relic of Georgian ideas lives on in the bastardization of an economics game that a woman named Lizzie Maggie patented in 1907, more than a decade before women had the legal right to vote. The Landlord’s Game had two sets of rules- one was to illustrate how private property ownership will inevitably lead to poverty and the total domination of one player. The other was to illustrate how George’s ideas would play out for mutual prosperity, if they were simply voted in. The Landlord’s Game ultimately became Monopoly, the nation’s best-selling board game, after dropping the socialist prosperity propaganda, of course.
Much like peace and community prosperity, having always been fundamental platforms of the women’s suffrage movement, were dropped. In 1919, women finally got the vote by changing their tune and promising to vote to approve U.S. involvement in World War 1.
The usual story is that the war effort helped women prove themselves, earning the respect of men and therefore earning the right to vote. Yet again, the historical narrative is that war wins- supporting progress and the right of women to vote.
However, a little story about division within the suffrage movement tells another tale:
Women compromised their platform for peace to earn enfranchisement.
Carrie Chapman Catt, a long- time campaigner for votes for women, served
as president of the National American Women Suffrage Association from
1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 to 1920. Many women activists had been
associated with the pacifi st movement and opposed American entry into
World War I. In 1917, Catt shocked them by announcing the association’s
support for the Wilson administration and American participation in
World War I. Catt reasoned that by taking part in the war effort, women
would fi nally win the right to vote. In the winter of 1917, Catt addressed Congress urging support for a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. To bolster her argument, she invoked the nation’s founding principles, and Wilson’s claim that the United States was the leader in the worldwide struggle for democracy. Catt’s strategy bore fruit when Congress in 1918 approved the Nine-
teenth Amendment, which became part of the Constitution two years later. ~ From Voices of Freedom
All of this is to say, a compassionate, curious, and critical lens has not been well-applied to an economic doctrine that continues to uphold, if not perpetuate, poverty and war.
Doughnuts can be (Mental) Health Hazards
Renegade feminist economists like Kate Raworth are welcome voices! Changing the ever-upward arrow of economic growth to a sweet circle is a critical need to support a new way of viewing and accounting for economic practice and policy.
Raworth’s doughnut looks like this:
However sweet the doughnutty center, it looks alarmingly like a precarious, and possibly impossible path between the hazards of social and environmental collapse. Valuable and true as it may be, the overall effect of seeing the economy pictographically represented in a way that looks like a nuclear hazard symbol creates a stress and anxiety-inducing emotional response among students (this has been reported in comments but not studied.)
The Doughnut, as we lovingly call it, is perfect for illustrating some key indicators of environmental and social collapse, and talking about some of the pain points we are suffering across the globe. Acknowledging pain points is a critical part of both the design, and the healing process. Doughnut Economics then “unrolls the doughnut” to explore social and environmental factors and solutions at the local and global scale. It is a good model and a helpful thinking tool. Yet, I am worried that the continuous reminder of our precarious situation, making it look like we are walking a tight and restricted line between mass suffering will have a tightening and restricting impact on thinking.
Adequate measurements for many of the indicators is still needed, as well as meaningful measures of accountability to them. We haven’t figured out how to do that yet. But we do have a long history of an economy motivated by positive incentives more than by disincentives.
A Coherent Compass: Charting a Path to Peace, Prosperity, Regeneration, and Wellbeing for All
It is macabre that we are well-familiar with the word, pathogenic, but salutogenic sounds like is speaking a foreign language with a mouth full of food. If pathogenic is what causes suffering, salutogenic causes health, which is most accurately described as resilience.
The compass encases four overlapping spheres. This is nothing new. The self is held by the community, which is embedded within society. All are nested within the ecosystem. The vertical axis illustrates the upward trajectory of a life in a virtuous cycle. A healthy individual can benefit their community, prosperous communities co-exist in trust and social harmony. Each of these spheres tend to a flourishing ecosystem.
Life is either creating, healing, decaying, or degenerating. Only degeneration is marked by disease. The downward trajectory indicates the vicious cycle of degeneration in a pathogenic economy. Here, isolation, burnout, depression and distrust are just some of the common concerns in our collective mental health crisis. These and other negative health conditions are caused by and exacerbate poverty in communities. Poor, disempowered communities who are resource scarce are at odds with surrounding communities, eroding trust, trade and creating social enmity and war. None of these bode well for the ecosystem, which bears the burden of our human story of economic trauma. The path downward can and does go far.
However, like life itself, we are either headed toward healing or away from pro-generative forces. This means at any point in time, we can pivot, and learn to navigate upward, toward a clear economic purpose. Endless growth doesn’t mean sacrifice and consumption. It means life continues.
As with the measures of pathogenic outcomes that the Doughnut delineates, the goals of a salutogenic economy are not being adequately measured, if at all. For instance, we do a better job of identifying and measuring mental illness than we do mental health. One place we could begin to make a salutogenic shift is in school.
While the word may be, the desire to embrace salutogenic goals as a return on investment is not new. But social impact investing has a long way to go, as do the efforts of the blockchain-based upswell among the Web 3 and refi (Regenerative Finance) communities.
Salutogenic Economics is an endless Design Challenge. And when we zero in on what it looks like at the individual level, it is an invitation for endless growth (not a repudiation).
The Intersection of Self-Interest and Salutogenesis
Centering in the self, and our central nature as nature, this compass for coherent thinking and communication creates infinite space for meeting our infinite needs.
Navigating this compass is admittedly complex at a glance, but in practice: this is the true work of economic understanding and creating coherent, compassionate cultures.
*Note- there is no written attribution to George that I can find. It is entirely possible that, due to the overwhelming popularity of George’s ideas just thirty years before, that Steinbeck and others would have been familiar with Georgian ideas. It is also entirely possible that some of these ideas, such as governments granting land to house the poor yet critical agricultural migrant population, are ideas that just make sense.