Change the pictures, change the world – Kate Raworth and Doughnut Economics

21 May
Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth wanted to change the world. She tried it in a village in Zanzibar. She tried it in the UN, and then at Oxfam.

But her days as an economics student came back to haunt her. How could a ‘social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services’ (Wikipedia) be so far removed from ‘real-world economic challenges’? In all her forays into social justice, she banged herself against an economic brick wall. It’s impossible to create lasting change when the system itself is wrong.

Kate decided the main problem was the wrong pictures. Surely money, you may ask? But no, pictures – with a glut of blank spaces for people to fall into. University economics 101 uses a series of very memorable diagrams by a young US professor, Paul Samuelson, drawn after the second world war. These pictures, Kate said, sit at the back of visual cortex and influence our thoughts.

Just as memorable (read: creepy) was his aim for them: he wanted to ‘lick the blank slate of the mind’. You may recognise their simplistic black marks – the ones where a line starts at the bottom corner of the graph and zooms off to the top (GDP and unlimited growth); or a toilet door-style man whose only concern is how much things cost and how much he has to spend; or those hump back hill ones where some people lose out at the start before everyone starts to win; or where horrible waste is made, but don’t worry because prosperity will clean it up. 

That happens, right? Our society isn’t horribly unequal after centuries of being a prosperous nation. And no rampant pollution from agriculture, fossil fuels and plastics (etc.). It will sort it self out, yeah?

Instead of being a good little revolutionary and thinking of how she can burn these pictures, Kate thought how she could harness the power of image for the benefit of everyone, following the words of inventor Buckminster Fuller (great name), “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ And makes it more exciting, I like to think.

She wondered, “What if we started economics not with its long-established theories, but with humanity’s long-term goals?” And let’s chuck a few of these outdated male economists out and see what the clever women have to say too.

So the endless lines, hills and money men became donuts, communities, star maps and virtuous circles. The environment is no longer something on which men stand in their quest for consumption, but an integral part of the economy that must not be damaged. There aren’t early victims, but society-wide winners. It isn’t just about people who earn money; also accounted are the vital unpaid carers and volunteers.

And we can’t expect endless growth: nothing in nature lasts forever, why should we expect the same from our economy? Something – someone – always has to pay the price.

Kate gives a few examples of a new kind of economics. Self-assembly cars which can be, Transformer-like, changed into a different vehicle depending on circumstance. Fairtrade phones which the owner is encouraged to open and put in their own upgrade. Compostable or recycled (and recyclable) ski-wear. Listening to women economists and thinkers like Mariana Mazzucato, Elinor Ostrom and Donella Meadows. A universal basic income wouldn’t make us lazy; trials have shown that taking away the fear of ‘destitution’ would make us more entrepreneurial.

On stage, Kate literally sways to a new economic beat using the language of poets. She was asked how she remained so upbeat: “I’m actually really angry in my belly. We know so much more and today’s economics students are still taught the same old stuff.”

And Kate gives sage advice about changing the world, in the role of economics or not: “Don’t be an optimist if it makes you relax. Don’t be a pessimist if it makes you give up. Don’t be an in-activist. Be an activist.”

Words by Louisa Davison. Photo © Fernando Bagué. Diagram from Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth who appeared at Swindon Arts Centre, as part of Swindon Festival of Literature, 18 May 2018.

Doughnut economics diagram

Doughnut economics

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