RD Laing and Doughnut Economics
Mad to be Normal is the title of a recently released film about the brilliant, flawed and controversial psychiatrist RD Laing. Whilst super-stardom and a kind of extremism led to a tragic, Icarus-like conclusion, his views encouraging scepticism about the rationality and authority of powerful institutions left a significant mark on the 20th century. The notion “Mad to be Normal has more than a little relevance to climate psychology.
Last month’s newsletter described climate change as a ‘super-wicked problem’, one reason being the many elements in our culture which need to be radically transformed for us to have a chance to act on the problem in time. One of the foremost amongst these elements is, of course, economic policy. Cue Kate Raworth and her 2017 book ‘Doughnut Economics’. A review will hopefully follow; in the meantime George Monbiot gives us a glimpse. In her opening pages, Raworth describes a revolutionary groundswell amongst students in the field, of the kind that you can’t help thinking would have pleased Ronnie Laing. The book draws praise from Jonathon Porritt and Tim Jackson as well as Monbiot.
Raworth’s thesis (presented and her website at Medact's Healthy Planet, Better World conference December 2016) draws on familiar themes – the absurd notion of infinite growth, the lumping together under GDP of all recorded transactions, regardless of whether they are beneficial or destructive, also the externalisation of social and ecological costs. What is innovative and exciting is the doughnut model itself. The dough is the human economic system, mediating energy, innovation, needs, resources, distribution and waste/recycling. The all-important constraints are, at the inner boundary – the ‘O’ inside the doughnut - the universal human needs for shelter, food, drinking water and breathable air. To paraphrase the author, the madness of normality here is that an economic model can prevail which systematically deprives many people of these basic requirements. At the outer edge are the planetary boundaries (climate, biodiversity, nitrogen & phosphorous cycles, ocean acidity etc) defined by Rockstrom et al, within which humanity must operate in order to expect much of a future. From that standpoint the madness is one of suicidal myopia.
Here is a model which actually pulls justice and ecology into the core of economics. It gives due recognition to the millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty and protected against disease in recent decades, but takes a holistic view of cost. Maybe it has a chance of becoming a paradigm for sane and sustainable economic policy and a signpost for essential regulation. In this way, systems which appeal to crude notions of individual freedom can be recognised as a letting rip, in other words ripping apart the diverse fabric of life on our planet. Such a paradigm needs to garner sufficient support to wrest the levers of power from those intent on syphoning vast monetary wealth into the pockets of a few with no regard for social or environmental cost. It shifts that power to those who are intent on a global commonwealth. That body of support could take inspiration from the remarkable alignment which took place in 2015, ahead of COP 21 in Paris. Then it would need to go a lot further. We’ve already seen the backlash against the promise of concerted action on climate and been reminded of how ruthlessly beneficiaries of the status quo will mobilise to protect their interests.
What’s Posterity Ever Done for Me? Economics and psychology
The inter-generational aspect of justice is linked inextricably with the economic principle of discounting future benefits in relation to current costs and future costs in relation to current benefits. It is not as if the discounting tendency has gone unchallenged by senior economists; that challenge was at the heart of the Stern report over ten years ago and informed Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth three years later. But discounting the future remains a stubborn and pervasive attitude – Groucho Marx’s witticism seems to have a lot of followers.
Economists in the main would probably argue that people are pursuing their rational interest in acquiring goods and services as cheaply as possible, although this principle, scaled up, is another purveyor of devastating externalised costs. Others place most of the blame at the door of capitalism or its neoliberal version conceived in the 1980’s by Reagan and Thatcher. Evolutionary and psycho-social perspectives are useful here. As Noah Yuval Harari argues in Sapiens, history and pre-history are littered with evidence of ecocidal behaviour and an apparent lack of attention to future well-being. Our ingenuity and ability to cooperate, he adds, powered us out of our mid-ranking niche in the animal kingdom without equipping us to make that status workable in the long term. It follows from this argument that the level of ensuing destruction is largely a product of population growth and the physical and social technologies which we have devised in order to maximise our exploitation of human and non-human resources. It also follows that this trend is simply something we are bound to follow. We are uncontained, either by wider Nature or our own reason.
What a psycho-social approach demands is that we pay attention to the constant interaction between the individual and all the collective entities (including myths) which comprise our groups and societies and so largely govern our outlook and motivation. In the climate psychology context, the project is to see where our individual capacities for care, appreciation and imagination and our social capabilities for cooperation, for generative and creative stories, can be harnessed in the interest of establishing containment and balance.
This is why CPA’s Members Day is so important!
Our Members Day in London on 10th June is titled ‘Stories of Change’. With Andrew Simms on Telling Better Stories and five CPA members offering presentations it will be an extraordinarily well-resourced event. The consumerist myth that is wrecking us and our planet is so deeply and widely embedded that, in the main, we are ill-equipped to question it or look for a better narrative of well-being. At the heart of climate psychology – as a movement for radical hope – is the recognition that our imaginative capabilities can operate as a social dynamic and a powerful creative force. Do come if you can (you don’t have to me a member) and be part of CPA’s thread in this lifeline.
Radical Hope vs Optimism
The power of story-telling resides not just in the generation of meaning but in the capacity of human beings to translate what is imagined into a more solid reality. As Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy explain in Active Hope an attitude of determined creativity is not the same thing as optimism. The CPA newsletter has reported numerous stories which readily lend themselves to optimism or to pessimism. Trying to read the tide from individual events is not only of dubious value but risks overlooking how, between us, we are the tide. Such thinking can lead to omnipotent delusion, but not if it is firmly grounded in collective awareness. And here Tich Nhat Hanh comes to mind, where he says that our hope for the future resides in our ability to transcend the age of individualism.
There are many inspiring stories to encourage hope, whether or not they lead to optimism. Fiji is assuming the presidency of the November climate change summit in Bonn. The hope must be that a Pacific island state having that prominence will hold more than token significance.
India has cancelled plans for a large coal plant.
Put cities, not countries, in charge argues Benjamin Barber in The Guardian. A lot of mayors are acting on that one.
Just 1% of UK ‘strongly opposed’ to renewables, reports the Independent.
Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds, by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.
New articles on website
Dissent and Descent: A Response to the ‘Doorway to the Underworld’
by Australian Psychologist Sally Gillespie responding to our April 2017 newsletter.
Inaugural meeting CPA Scotland
Here are the presentations of this exciting new development for CPA
Edge of the Wild Ecopsychology event 2017 Fraktured Psyche - Kamalamani writes about the history of the Event and invites CPA members
On behalf of the Executive Committee
Editorial support from Judith Anderson, Paul Hoggett and Chris Robertson