New Internationalist

The NI Interview

Issue 304

The NI Interview
Hazel Henderson
Murray MacAdam
tracks down one of the world's most cogent 'anti-economists'.

Tall, tanned and debonair, Hazel Henderson is an unlikely revolutionary. She greets me with a warm smile and orders a pot of tea, looking not unlike the well-heeled matrons staying at this comfortable hotel. Once she starts talking, however, this image quickly fades. Society matrons generally don’t start conversations by thrusting a book on reforming the United Nations into your hands.

But reforming the United Nations is just one of Hazel Henderson’s many passions. This influential ‘futurist’ and sustainable-development advocate has attracted an enthusiastic following for her penetrating critique of conventional economics combined with imaginative strategies for human-based development.

‘I started in the mid-1960s with Citizens for Clean Air,’ she says. She was living in New York then and launched the group because she was worried about the impact of pollution on her son. Now over 60, she quips that she is now doing it for her seven-year-old grandson. ‘When he talks of endangered species, I say to myself: “My God, what are we leaving them? What on earth are we doing?”’

Probing the causes of New York’s dirty air led Henderson to investigate the links between the economy and pollution. Though her fledgling group attracted 20,000 members in a few weeks, she wasn’t getting much respect from those in power. ‘She’s a nice lady,’ was the common response. ‘But she doesn’t understand the economy.’

That steeled her resolve. She went to work mastering market economics and became a razor-sharp critic in the process.

‘Economics is not a science,’ Henderson says firmly. ‘It’s a profession.’ She calls herself an ‘anti-economist’ and attacks the ‘brain damage’ caused by conventional economic thinking. Cautiously sipping her tea, Henderson warms quickly to one of her favourite topics: how growth-fixated economics wreaks havoc on the environment and on local communities. ‘The one-size-fits-all IMF model ignores the individual characteristics of national economies,’ she explains. ‘Why, for example, were there such big economic differences between China and the old Soviet Union, even though both were Communist nations?’

Henderson charges that standard economics is fatally flawed because it ignores the economic value of Mother Nature. Decrying the short-term concern with growth, she adds reflectively: ‘It doesn’t take a genius to pump up the GNP by burning down rainforests, using slave labour and social repression to keep things in place.’

Henderson also charges that mainstream economists focus too much on the private sector while downplaying the public sector and totally ignoring what she calls the ‘love economy’ – volunteering, barter and other self-help efforts.

‘This stuff has been missing from the GNP, yet it’s about half of all economic activity,’ she notes. ‘It was even more important before we decided to make economics our religion and Mammon our God.’

Even more perverse, says Henderson, is that this destructive economic model distorts our understanding of each other. ‘Fifty per cent of human nature is caring and sharing and fifty per cent is competitive,’ she stresses. ‘You need both. Competition is great. But when you reward only the competitors, you get into serious trouble.’

Despite her anger with conventional economic thinking, Henderson is passionate in her conviction that ordinary citizens, forward-thinking political leaders and savvy companies can turn things around. She’s a keen advocate of socially responsible investing. Even though, as she notes with a chuckle, ‘a lot of people think that if you get involved in capitalist enterprises, it means you’ve sold out’.

Henderson reaches a wide audience with her books and speeches and through a worldwide syndicated newspaper column. Yet at home in the US it’s tough for her to get a hearing. That fits her critique of ‘mediocracy’, a term Henderson coined to describe the shallow, mass-media culture which shapes not just our private lives, but also our politics.

‘We’re so dumbed down in the US,’ she sighs. ‘The media don’t want to discuss anything controversial.’ As an alternative she is now involved in a new TV network focusing on global poverty and development. Henderson glows with delight as she hands me a folder describing the new initiative.

‘We need our own TV network where grassroots groups can tell their stories, where people can tune in to each other,’ she insists. Henderson was the first private investor in this network and is now trying to attract other like-minded investors.

A group of smokers at the next table sends us scurrying to a smoke-free refuge nearby. After a pause she reflects on the gains she’s seen in more than three decades of work.

‘When I started, the word “pollution” was unknown. In 1964 there were no departments of environmental protection, no environmental laws, nothing. There have been immense changes. People aren’t stupid. They realize we’re part of the environment. If it’s destroyed and if our communities are destroyed by things like homelessness, there will be no future.’

The interview is drawing to a close. We’ve already talked longer than planned and Henderson has to rush off to prepare for an evening lecture. But not quite yet.

There is still one last idea she wants to tell me about. She calls it the UN Security Insurance Agency. It would be a mechanism for helping small nations cut bloated military budgets. And it would free up scarce resources for more socially pressing needs. Countries that prove they’ve cut military expenditures would pay insurance premiums to a special UN agency and in return be guaranteed security through a Rapid Deployment Force. Support for citizen groups that promote tolerance would make up the front line of defence. She snaps her briefcase shut and rises to go. ‘Bosnia has shown that if you don’t fund civil-society groups, you can never pull the soldiers out.’

Murray MacAdam is a journalist and NGO worker.

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