‘Black Banker Ladies’ and the Power of the Informal

Outside of the gaze of formal finance, an often-demonized form of informal social finance flourishes. This finance consists of the regular pooling of money among friends and neighbors. It’s a way for individuals to amass chunks of money for paying for a new (used) car, educational expenses, household emergencies, and other major expenses. The system is relied upon by millions of Black women in Africa, the Caribbean, and North America as a trusted alternative to formal banking systems that often exclude them. 

There are many names for these traditional systems – susu, partner, meeting-turn, box-hand, sol, depending upon the culture in which they arise. But they are generically known as ROSCAs, an acronym for “rotating savings and credit associations.” ROSCAs are a vital way for people of color and modest means to take care of their financial needs when banking systems are unfriendly or unaffordable, often for racialized reasons.

Professor Caroline Shenaz Hossein

Professor Caroline Shenaz Hossein has studied the Black social economy for years, and especially cooperatives and informal economies. She has paid particular attention to ROSCAs as familiar, practical social vehicles for savings and credit.

In my latest Frontiers of Commoning podcast (Episode #18), Professor Hossein and I discuss the largely unknown realities of informal banking and the power of the Black social economy.

Black people have been “so traumatized by formal finance,” said Hossein, “that there are people who are unbanked or they choose to be under-banked. This means they’ll do the most minimal activities [with banks] because of the horror stories they have to endure – racism. Anti-black racism in commercial banking is not a secret anymore,” she said, which explains why many African-American women choose to “avoid those kind of stresses and engage with people who actually value their humanity” – their friends and neighbors.

Hossein is a professor of Global Development at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, in Ontario, Canada. Much of her scholarship aims to decolonize our very conception of “the economy” by showcasing the vital role played by informal, racialized, and feminist systems of commoning in the Solidarity and Social Economies.

For more, see the Diverse Economies Collective website and Hossein's books, such as Politicized Microfinance (2016), The Black Social Economy (editor; 2018), and her forthcoming Community Economies in the Global South (co-edited). 

For generations, Black women in the African diaspora have relied on “do it together” ROSCAs to pay for major expenses and avoid getting implicated in mainstream banking and state regulation. For their troubles, “Black banker ladies” are often harassed by the banking industry and state authorities, who reflexively regard them “terrorists” or drug dealers because they manage large amounts of cash. 

After years of racialized abuse from those very systems, Black banker ladies have little desire to interact with mainstream banks. They turn instead to self-organized groups of ten, twenty, or sometimes dozens of friends, as a more trusted, convivial form of finance.

ROSCAs are more than informal financial institutions. They are forms of personal support and neighborly solidarity. Through casual and flexible means, they perform various types of community development – home improvement, professional training, neighborhood solidarity – that formal banking is not equipped or inclined to perform.

Sometimes, ROSCAs are even sources of seed money for the campaigns of political candidates who wish to be champions for struggling working people. Hossein recalled how ROSCAs have paid for the lawn signs of candidates, for example. It is not surprising that mainstream banking would prefer to neutralize the empowerment that ROSCA-style finance can provide.

Professor Hossein is a big believer in the generative value of informal systems:

“Our primary focus in the West with marginalized groups has been to formalize everyone, and to demonize the concept of the informal. I like to think that Covid has really pushed us to a place where we now understand the value of mutual aid and getting things informally. It’s actually a good thing.  Not everything in the informal is dark and dirty. It is a way for people who have been under persecution to thrive.”

Here is a link to my fascinating conversation with Caroline Shenaz Hossein.

Update: Here is a wonderful profile of ROSCAs and Banker Ladies in The Globe and Mail (Canada).

‘Black Banker Ladies’ and the Power of the Informal

Outside of the gaze of formal finance, an often-demonized form of informal social finance flourishes. This finance consists of the regular pooling of money among friends and neighbors. It’s a way for individuals to amass chunks of money for paying for a new (used) car, educational expenses, household emergencies, and other major expenses. The system is relied upon by millions of Black women in Africa, the Caribbean, and North America as a trusted alternative to formal banking systems that often exclude them. 

There are many names for these traditional systems – susu, partner, meeting-turn, box-hand, sol, depending upon the culture in which they arise. But they are generically known as ROSCAs, an acronym for “rotating savings and credit associations.” ROSCAs are a vital way for people of color and modest means to take care of their financial needs when banking systems are unfriendly or unaffordable, often for racialized reasons.

Professor Caroline Shenaz Hossein

Professor Caroline Shenaz Hossein has studied the Black social economy for years, and especially cooperatives and informal economies. She has paid particular attention to ROSCAs as familiar, practical social vehicles for savings and credit.

In my latest Frontiers of Commoning podcast (Episode #18), Professor Hossein and I discuss the largely unknown realities of informal banking and the power of the Black social economy.

Black people have been “so traumatized by formal finance,” said Hossein, “that there are people who are unbanked or they choose to be under-banked. This means they’ll do the most minimal activities [with banks] because of the horror stories they have to endure – racism. Anti-black racism in commercial banking is not a secret anymore,” she said, which explains why many African-American women choose to “avoid those kind of stresses and engage with people who actually value their humanity” – their friends and neighbors.

Hossein is a professor of Global Development at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, in Ontario, Canada. Much of her scholarship aims to decolonize our very conception of “the economy” by showcasing the vital role played by informal, racialized, and feminist systems of commoning in the Solidarity and Social Economies.

For more, see the Diverse Economies Collective website and Hossein's books, such as Politicized Microfinance (2016), The Black Social Economy (editor; 2018), and her forthcoming Community Economies in the Global South (co-edited). 

For generations, Black women in the African diaspora have relied on “do it together” ROSCAs to pay for major expenses and avoid getting implicated in mainstream banking and state regulation. For their troubles, “Black banker ladies” are often harassed by the banking industry and state authorities, who reflexively regard them “terrorists” or drug dealers because they manage large amounts of cash. 

After years of racialized abuse from those very systems, Black banker ladies have little desire to interact with mainstream banks. They turn instead to self-organized groups of ten, twenty, or sometimes dozens of friends, as a more trusted, convivial form of finance.

ROSCAs are more than informal financial institutions. They are forms of personal support and neighborly solidarity. Through casual and flexible means, they perform various types of community development – home improvement, professional training, neighborhood solidarity – that formal banking is not equipped or inclined to perform.

Sometimes, ROSCAs are even sources of seed money for the campaigns of political candidates who wish to be champions for struggling working people. Hossein recalled how ROSCAs have paid for the lawn signs of candidates, for example. It is not surprising that mainstream banking would prefer to neutralize the empowerment that ROSCA-style finance can provide.

Professor Hossein is a big believer in the generative value of informal systems:

“Our primary focus in the West with marginalized groups has been to formalize everyone, and to demonize the concept of the informal. I like to think that Covid has really pushed us to a place where we now understand the value of mutual aid and getting things informally. It’s actually a good thing.  Not everything in the informal is dark and dirty. It is a way for people who have been under persecution to thrive.”

Here is a link to my fascinating conversation with Caroline Shenaz Hossein.

Update: Here is a wonderful profile of ROSCAs and Banker Ladies in The Globe and Mail (Canada).

Tim Jackson and the Quest for Post Growth

Ecological economist Tim Jackson is one of the few serious scholars trying to imagine what a post-growth world might look like. Over the past thirty years, this specialty – largely ignored by mainstream economics – has become ever-more relevant to contemporary life. It is becoming clear that growth is not the panacea for what afflicts modern societies.

In the 1990s, Jackson pioneered the idea of “preventative environmental management,” showing how preventing pollution in the first place could improve profits and quality of life. But his journey into post-growth thinking surged forward when he was appointed Economics Commissioner for the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2004. Improbably, UK politicians wanted a professional, an indepth assessment of the idea of a no-growth economy.

The result – a controversial 2009 report to the UK government – was published as the book Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. (A substantially revised and rewritten edition was published in 2017). This book, now translated into 17 languages, examines the problems of growth and consumerism and the prospects for a new “ecological macro-economics” and a redefinition of prosperity. More is not always better; we need to focus on what helps us flourish as human beings and helps us lead a satisfying “good life.”

More than a decade later, Jackson’s thinking about this topic has evolved in some new and unexpected ways. He has just published a new book, Post Growth: Life After Capitalism (Polity Press), which doesn’t offer economic charts and policy proposals. It is, instead, a philosophical, cultural, and personal exploration of how we might pursue a vision of post-growth.

It’s a brave and radical departure for a serious economist to step back from the number-crunching and plunge into the world of culture, philosophy, storytelling, and the human quest for meaning. Jackson doesn’t consider this a self-indulgent diversion, but a critical task for economics as a discipline.

He shares his thoughts about post-growth in my latest podcast episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #16), just released.

Jackson is Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), which he founded in 2016. He is also Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey in the UK. 

While Jackson obviously remains committed to the challenges of economic analysis and policy, he has come to believe that we need to open up some new conversations, especially about our social relationships, ethical beliefs, and spirituality. It no longer makes sense to talk about “the economy” without engaging with these topics.

Jackson surprised me with the observation that capitalism and Buddhism “both start at the same place” – how to deal with suffering. Of course, he quickly added, each offers “almost diametrically opposed routes away from that. Capitalism says, ‘You can’t get away from suffering, you can’t get away from struggle. So you better get good at that struggle by becoming as competitive and individualistic as possible.’”

“Buddhism, by contrast, says that the way out of suffering is compassion. It’s about understanding that my suffering is what connects me to other people. Neglecting that suffering and turning away from it, is actually a neglect of my responsibility as a human being.” The only real solution to suffering, according to Buddhism, “is to work to reduce the cravings for the things that create the struggle” in the first place.

Jackson believes that economics needs to expand its own field of vision. So in Post Growth he invokes the work of such people as biologist Lynn Margulis, philosopher Hannah Arendt, poet Emily Dickinson and spiritual teachers like Lao Tzu and Thich Nhat Hanh. 

Jackson tells a particularly powerful but little-known story about the emotional breakdown of political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the founder of rational utilitarianism that is the philosophical foundation of classical economics.

Rational utilitarianism is built around the idea that the highest good comes from individuals maximizing their personal utility – a central idea of economics to this day. The discipline has the conceit that rationality, when rigorously applied to every aspect of life, will lead to human perfection and happiness.

As a young man, however, Mill had a monstrous epiphany in the middle of the night. He realized that even if his system of rationality became widely adopted, it would not make him happier or more satisfied as a human being. He fell into a depressive angst for two years and only began to recover “when he read the Romantic poets,” said Jackson. Mill “realized that there is a world outside of rationality – that there is a world that appeals to the emotional and aspires to the spiritual. Eventually, that’s what drew him out of his own crisis.”

It’s a nice parable for the psychic traumas of our time. Locked into so many totalizing systems of hyper-rational control – economics, algorithms, artificial intelligence – modern societies are experiencing their own breakdowns for which standard economics as constituted has little to offer. The enduring answers must come from outside the field. 

You can listen to my conversation with Tim Jackson here. 

 

 

 

Tim Jackson and the Quest for Post Growth

Ecological economist Tim Jackson is one of the few serious scholars trying to imagine what a post-growth world might look like. Over the past thirty years, this specialty – largely ignored by mainstream economics – has become ever-more relevant to contemporary life. It is becoming clear that growth is not the panacea for what afflicts modern societies.

In the 1990s, Jackson pioneered the idea of “preventative environmental management,” showing how preventing pollution in the first place could improve profits and quality of life. But his journey into post-growth thinking surged forward when he was appointed Economics Commissioner for the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2004. Improbably, UK politicians wanted a professional, an indepth assessment of the idea of a no-growth economy.

The result – a controversial 2009 report to the UK government – was published as the book Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. (A substantially revised and rewritten edition was published in 2017). This book, now translated into 17 languages, examines the problems of growth and consumerism and the prospects for a new “ecological macro-economics” and a redefinition of prosperity. More is not always better; we need to focus on what helps us flourish as human beings and helps us lead a satisfying “good life.”

More than a decade later, Jackson’s thinking about this topic has evolved in some new and unexpected ways. He has just published a new book, Post Growth: Life After Capitalism (Polity Press), which doesn’t offer economic charts and policy proposals. It is, instead, a philosophical, cultural, and personal exploration of how we might pursue a vision of post-growth.

It’s a brave and radical departure for a serious economist to step back from the number-crunching and plunge into the world of culture, philosophy, storytelling, and the human quest for meaning. Jackson doesn’t consider this a self-indulgent diversion, but a critical task for economics as a discipline.

He shares his thoughts about post-growth in my latest podcast episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #16), just released.

Jackson is Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), which he founded in 2016. He is also Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey in the UK. 

While Jackson obviously remains committed to the challenges of economic analysis and policy, he has come to believe that we need to open up some new conversations, especially about our social relationships, ethical beliefs, and spirituality. It no longer makes sense to talk about “the economy” without engaging with these topics.

Jackson surprised me with the observation that capitalism and Buddhism “both start at the same place” – how to deal with suffering. Of course, he quickly added, each offers “almost diametrically opposed routes away from that. Capitalism says, ‘You can’t get away from suffering, you can’t get away from struggle. So you better get good at that struggle by becoming as competitive and individualistic as possible.’”

“Buddhism, by contrast, says that the way out of suffering is compassion. It’s about understanding that my suffering is what connects me to other people. Neglecting that suffering and turning away from it, is actually a neglect of my responsibility as a human being.” The only real solution to suffering, according to Buddhism, “is to work to reduce the cravings for the things that create the struggle” in the first place.

Jackson believes that economics needs to expand its own field of vision. So in Post Growth he invokes the work of such people as biologist Lynn Margulis, philosopher Hannah Arendt, poet Emily Dickinson and spiritual teachers like Lao Tzu and Thich Nhat Hanh. 

Jackson tells a particularly powerful but little-known story about the emotional breakdown of political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the founder of rational utilitarianism that is the philosophical foundation of classical economics.

Rational utilitarianism is built around the idea that the highest good comes from individuals maximizing their personal utility – a central idea of economics to this day. The discipline has the conceit that rationality, when rigorously applied to every aspect of life, will lead to human perfection and happiness.

As a young man, however, Mill had a monstrous epiphany in the middle of the night. He realized that even if his system of rationality became widely adopted, it would not make him happier or more satisfied as a human being. He fell into a depressive angst for two years and only began to recover “when he read the Romantic poets,” said Jackson. Mill “realized that there is a world outside of rationality – that there is a world that appeals to the emotional and aspires to the spiritual. Eventually, that’s what drew him out of his own crisis.”

It’s a nice parable for the psychic traumas of our time. Locked into so many totalizing systems of hyper-rational control – economics, algorithms, artificial intelligence – modern societies are experiencing their own breakdowns for which standard economics as constituted has little to offer. The enduring answers must come from outside the field. 

You can listen to my conversation with Tim Jackson here. 

 

 

 

Philippe Aigrain (1949-2021): An Appreciation

Nearly twenty years ago, just after I published Silent Theft, my first book about the commons, I was mingling with strangers at a conference reception at Georgetown University. The World Wide Web and open source software were still in their infancy, and few people in mainstream circles gave much thought to the implications of copyright law on human freedom and creativity. Suddenly a French fellow appeared out of nowhere and introduced himself to me, saying that he wanted to talk about the commons.

Philippe Aigrain, 1949-2021

And that is how Philippe Aigrain soon became a friend and my first European colleague in studying the commons, circa 2003. With great sadness, I learned last week that Philippe died on July 11 following a hiking accident in the French Pyrénées, at age 72. I share the heartbreak expressed by Francophone commoners and beyond at this crushing news.

Philippe was a computer scientist and activist who led many early fights against software patents, especially as director of the Software Freedom Law Center. He was also a cofounder of the French advocacy group La Quadrature du Net in 2008, which fights for basic human rights on digital networks, free software, and the commons.

In 2005, Philippe published a lengthy essay, Cause Commune, that proposed that we begin thinking about information commons as an alternative to intellectual property, which has so many anti-social, anti-competitive, and politically restrictive effects.The piece was one of the earliest, most thoughtful pieces in any language to develop the idea of the commons with respect to knowledge. He later published Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), which gave a richer development to the whole idea of digital knowledge and culture commons.

What I found so memorable about Philippe was his astute political insight, quiet courage, and his deep well of gracious humanity. As his colleagues at La Quadrature du Net wrote in its appreciation of him:

Photo of flowers posted on 'Atelier de Bricolage Litteraire,' July 10, 2021

We admired [Philippe’s] capacity for indignation, the thoroughness and depth of his analyses, the way he could set aside certain activist reactions to size up a situation in all its complexity. When there was a risk of drowning in the details of an issue, he would encourage us to step back and return to the fundamental political issues at stake….Philippe taught us that it is possible to combine a lucid view of the world and a high level of political commitment, while never forsaking either care for others or for oneself, nor indeed joy and poetry.

Philippe’s colleague Jérémie Zimmermann admired him as “a rare being, with a humility that was matched only by the strength and freedom of his thought.”

When I visited Paris with my family in 2005, Philippe and his wife Mirielle went out of their way to invite us to their apartment for a fantastic dinner. We talked long into the evening, and I recalled how his generosity of spirit turned strangers into friends and made the world a more welcoming place.

Much of Philippe’s attention in recent years was devoted to the plight of refugees. He also directed the publishing house PublieNet, and published his first novel Sœur(s) [Sisters], which deals with the issue of surveillance. Some of Philippe’s poems and other writings can be found at Atelier de Bricolage Littéraire. Heartfelt condolences to Mirielle and the Aigrain family.

Philippe Aigrain (1949-2021): An Appreciation

Nearly twenty years ago, just after I published Silent Theft, my first book about the commons, I was mingling with strangers at a conference reception at Georgetown University. The World Wide Web and open source software were still in their infancy, and few people in mainstream circles gave much thought to the implications of copyright law on human freedom and creativity. Suddenly a French fellow appeared out of nowhere and introduced himself to me, saying that he wanted to talk about the commons.

Philippe Aigrain, 1949-2021

And that is how Philippe Aigrain soon became a friend and my first European colleague in studying the commons, circa 2003. With great sadness, I learned last week that Philippe died on July 11 following a hiking accident in the French Pyrénées, at age 72. I share the heartbreak expressed by Francophone commoners and beyond at this crushing news.

Philippe was a computer scientist and activist who led many early fights against software patents, especially as director of the Software Freedom Law Center. He was also a cofounder of the French advocacy group La Quadrature du Net in 2008, which fights for basic human rights on digital networks, free software, and the commons.

In 2005, Philippe published a lengthy essay, Cause Commune, that proposed that we begin thinking about information commons as an alternative to intellectual property, which has so many anti-social, anti-competitive, and politically restrictive effects.The piece was one of the earliest, most thoughtful pieces in any language to develop the idea of the commons with respect to knowledge. He later published Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), which gave a richer development to the whole idea of digital knowledge and culture commons.

What I found so memorable about Philippe was his astute political insight, quiet courage, and his deep well of gracious humanity. As his colleagues at La Quadrature du Net wrote in its appreciation of him:

Photo of flowers posted on 'Atelier de Bricolage Litteraire,' July 10, 2021

We admired [Philippe’s] capacity for indignation, the thoroughness and depth of his analyses, the way he could set aside certain activist reactions to size up a situation in all its complexity. When there was a risk of drowning in the details of an issue, he would encourage us to step back and return to the fundamental political issues at stake….Philippe taught us that it is possible to combine a lucid view of the world and a high level of political commitment, while never forsaking either care for others or for oneself, nor indeed joy and poetry.

Philippe’s colleague Jérémie Zimmermann admired him as “a rare being, with a humility that was matched only by the strength and freedom of his thought.”

When I visited Paris with my family in 2005, Philippe and his wife Mirielle went out of their way to invite us to their apartment for a fantastic dinner. We talked long into the evening, and I recalled how his generosity of spirit turned strangers into friends and made the world a more welcoming place.

Much of Philippe’s attention in recent years was devoted to the plight of refugees. He also directed the publishing house PublieNet, and published his first novel Sœur(s) [Sisters], which deals with the issue of surveillance. Some of Philippe’s poems and other writings can be found at Atelier de Bricolage Littéraire. Heartfelt condolences to Mirielle and the Aigrain family.

Wisdom Traditions, Science and the Search for Meaning

Jeremy Lent has taken on an audacious task for himself – synthesizing what he calls the “cognitive history of humanity.” His 2017 book The Patterning Instinct integrates a vast academic and scientific literature to describe humanity’s search for meaning.

This “archaeological exploration of the mind,” ranging from hunter-gatherers to early agricultural civilizations to the cultures of India, China, Islam, and western Christianity, shows how our struggle to create inner meaning for ourselves is connected to our economic and political worldviews. 

Jeremy Lent, author of The Web of Meaning

Now, in a kind of sequel to that book, Lent has just published The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe. This book can be summarized in three short sentences: “Our mainstream worldview has expired. What will replace it? A world of deep interconnectedness.”

I explore these issues with Lent in the latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning, and it’s a fascinating conversation! 

The story that Lent tells in The Web of Meaning is filled with fascinating accounts about ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and neo-Confucianism…..and how the insights from these traditions actually intersect with recent findings in biological sciences. What seems to bring the two approaches into closer alignment is their mutual commitment to seeing the world as alive and defined by entangled relationships.

Lent is not just an academic synthesizer sifting through the literature of world history and philosophy. He is on a personal quest, and he comes by his insights honestly. After his wife died an untimely death and the Internet startup company that he founded and led went under, Lent embarked on a deep immersion in a sprawling literature of civilizational history, culture, philsophy, economics, politics, psychology, and religion.

His goal was to clarify for himself the meaning(s) of life. His chapter titles reflect this search -- Who Am I? Where Am I [in the universe]? What Am I? How Should I Live? Why Am I? -- but Lent's book is not a personal memoir, but rather a deep history of various civilizations and their own sense of meaning as lived and expressed through their cultures.

By tracing the origins of the modern worldview and how it has taken humanity to the edge of planetary disaster, Lent wants to suggest how we can construct a new ecologically based civilization. This requires that we absorb lessons that biological and evolutionary sciences are now discovering, seeing how they can transform our perspectives on climate and other ecological challenges, and spur us to rethink our sense of personal meaning and value.

Part of Lent’s goal in the book is to break down the many barriers that modern disciplines and “reason” have erected to deconstruct the world, separating it into parts. “We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain from spirituality,” he writes. “We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.”

This points to the task ahead; Developing a worldview that recognizes our deep interconnectedness will be critical to recognizing how we are personally connected to climate change and to task of building a sustainable world. As Lent notes in his interview, the commons has a role to play in all of this because it is a vehicle for enacting our relationality and stepping away from the transactional culture known as capitalism.

You can listen to Jeremy Lent’s interview on Frontiers of Commoning here. 

Wisdom Traditions, Science and the Search for Meaning

Jeremy Lent has taken on an audacious task for himself – synthesizing what he calls the “cognitive history of humanity.” His 2017 book The Patterning Instinct integrates a vast academic and scientific literature to describe humanity’s search for meaning.

This “archaeological exploration of the mind,” ranging from hunter-gatherers to early agricultural civilizations to the cultures of India, China, Islam, and western Christianity, shows how our struggle to create inner meaning for ourselves is connected to our economic and political worldviews. 

Jeremy Lent, author of The Web of Meaning

Now, in a kind of sequel to that book, Lent has just published The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe. This book can be summarized in three short sentences: “Our mainstream worldview has expired. What will replace it? A world of deep interconnectedness.”

I explore these issues with Lent in the latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning, and it’s a fascinating conversation! 

The story that Lent tells in The Web of Meaning is filled with fascinating accounts about ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and neo-Confucianism…..and how the insights from these traditions actually intersect with recent findings in biological sciences. What seems to bring the two approaches into closer alignment is their mutual commitment to seeing the world as alive and defined by entangled relationships.

Lent is not just an academic synthesizer sifting through the literature of world history and philosophy. He is on a personal quest, and he comes by his insights honestly. After his wife died an untimely death and the Internet startup company that he founded and led went under, Lent embarked on a deep immersion in a sprawling literature of civilizational history, culture, philsophy, economics, politics, psychology, and religion.

His goal was to clarify for himself the meaning(s) of life. His chapter titles reflect this search -- Who Am I? Where Am I [in the universe]? What Am I? How Should I Live? Why Am I? -- but Lent's book is not a personal memoir, but rather a deep history of various civilizations and their own sense of meaning as lived and expressed through their cultures.

By tracing the origins of the modern worldview and how it has taken humanity to the edge of planetary disaster, Lent wants to suggest how we can construct a new ecologically based civilization. This requires that we absorb lessons that biological and evolutionary sciences are now discovering, seeing how they can transform our perspectives on climate and other ecological challenges, and spur us to rethink our sense of personal meaning and value.

Part of Lent’s goal in the book is to break down the many barriers that modern disciplines and “reason” have erected to deconstruct the world, separating it into parts. “We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain from spirituality,” he writes. “We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.”

This points to the task ahead; Developing a worldview that recognizes our deep interconnectedness will be critical to recognizing how we are personally connected to climate change and to task of building a sustainable world. As Lent notes in his interview, the commons has a role to play in all of this because it is a vehicle for enacting our relationality and stepping away from the transactional culture known as capitalism.

You can listen to Jeremy Lent’s interview on Frontiers of Commoning here. 

Kate Raworth on Why Our Times Demand ‘Doughnut Economics’

Since publishing Doughnut Economics in 2017, renegade British economist Kate Raworth has become a phenomenon that mainstream economics largely declines to acknowledge but increasingly cannot ignore. Her book has been praised by the Pope, the UN General Assembly, and Extinction Rebellion, and translated into over 20 languages. Guardian columnist George Monbiot calls the book “brilliant, thrilling and revolutionary,” comparing it to John Maynard Keynes’ bravura General Theory book, which revolutionized economics in 1936. 

Raworth’s reconceptualization of the economy as a doughnut accents two features that should be at the center of any economy: the ability to meet everyone’s basic human needs (the inner ring of the doughnut) and the ability to stay within the ecological “carrying capacity” of Earth (the outer ring). 

The framework doesn’t sound so controversial. But when I spoke to Raworth for my podcast Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #15), I was astonished to learn that the economics profession, at least within the academy, has largely ignored her book despite its popularity. Scholars in development studies, political science, and architecture are keenly interested, she notes, as are countless students, activists, and city governments. The cities of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Brussels, among others, have actually embraced “the doughnut” as a way to guide their municipal policies and programs.

But mainstream economists “balk at the idea,” said Raworth. “They say that I’m stepping away from the scholarship and imposing my values as a political advocate.”

Raworth argues that “the doughnut” simply expresses two foundational commitments that most societies collectively share – that people have a human rights to have their basic needs met, and that the ecological stability of the planet must be protected. If those are seen as controversial values, says Raworth, let's debate them. In any case, she adds, “It’s not as if mainstream economists don’t have values embedded in what they teach. They’re just not explicit about it.”

Raworth’s impertinence about economics may stem from years of straddling the worlds of economic theory and its real-world implementation. She has worked with micro-entrepreneurs in Africa and done development work for the United Nations and Oxfam. Nowadays Raworth teaches at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences as Professor of Practice.

Despite the academic affiliations, she remains focused on how to bring about economic transformation. That is the avowed mission of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), which Raworth cofounded in 2019 with Carlota Sanz. DEAL is an attempt to reframe economic narratives, influence strategic policy, and develop innovations with practitioners.

Doughnut Economics has the winning tendency of using spritely humor and common sense while skewering the buried half-truths of standard economics and serving up more credible alternatives. For example, economics continues to cling to the idealized notion of “rational economic man,” the fiction that people make careful, rational calculations about how to advance their material self-interests and happiness (“utility”) through market transactions.

Raworth handily debunks this point in her book, and then shows great brio in producing a delightfully clever video, “Economic Man vs. Humanity: A Puppet Rap Battle,” in collaboration with puppet designer Emma Powell and musician Simon Panbrucker. It’s safe to say that the rapping students get the best of their fusty old professor, and Raworth’s playful humor triumphs over economic dogma.

One of the biggest targets of Raworth’s "doughnut," of course, is the idea that economic growth is a magic elixir that can solve most inequalities, social ills, pollution, and even climate change. The general catechism is growth = jobs = consumer demand = market innovation = progress.

This mindset conveniently ignores the copious negative externalities of the capitalist economy and its circular faith that market-based strategies can abate market-based pathologies When US climate envoy John Kerry’s recently claimed that half of all carbon reductions needed to get to net zero will come from technologies that have not yet been invented, I realized that denialism has many faces.

What sets apart Raworth’s approach is her insistence that society and ecology are foundational to any economy, and economic thought must reflect that. Her theoretical framework, therefore, is not fixated on market and state – important as they are -- but equally on households and the commons as essential institutions. Why? Because households and commons engender social trust, reciprocity, care, and creativity in ways that the market/state system simply cannot. 

You can listen to Raworth’s conversation with me on Frontiers of Commoning here.

Kate Raworth on Why Our Times Demand ‘Doughnut Economics’

Since publishing Doughnut Economics in 2017, renegade British economist Kate Raworth has become a phenomenon that mainstream economics largely declines to acknowledge but increasingly cannot ignore. Her book has been praised by the Pope, the UN General Assembly, and Extinction Rebellion, and translated into over 20 languages. Guardian columnist George Monbiot calls the book “brilliant, thrilling and revolutionary,” comparing it to John Maynard Keynes’ bravura General Theory book, which revolutionized economics in 1936. 

Raworth’s reconceptualization of the economy as a doughnut accents two features that should be at the center of any economy: the ability to meet everyone’s basic human needs (the inner ring of the doughnut) and the ability to stay within the ecological “carrying capacity” of Earth (the outer ring). 

The framework doesn’t sound so controversial. But when I spoke to Raworth for my podcast Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #15), I was astonished to learn that the economics profession, at least within the academy, has largely ignored her book despite its popularity. Scholars in development studies, political science, and architecture are keenly interested, she notes, as are countless students, activists, and city governments. The cities of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Brussels, among others, have actually embraced “the doughnut” as a way to guide their municipal policies and programs.

But mainstream economists “balk at the idea,” said Raworth. “They say that I’m stepping away from the scholarship and imposing my values as a political advocate.”

Raworth argues that “the doughnut” simply expresses two foundational commitments that most societies collectively share – that people have a human rights to have their basic needs met, and that the ecological stability of the planet must be protected. If those are seen as controversial values, says Raworth, let's debate them. In any case, she adds, “It’s not as if mainstream economists don’t have values embedded in what they teach. They’re just not explicit about it.”

Raworth’s impertinence about economics may stem from years of straddling the worlds of economic theory and its real-world implementation. She has worked with micro-entrepreneurs in Africa and done development work for the United Nations and Oxfam. Nowadays Raworth teaches at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences as Professor of Practice.

Despite the academic affiliations, she remains focused on how to bring about economic transformation. That is the avowed mission of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), which Raworth cofounded in 2019 with Carlota Sanz. DEAL is an attempt to reframe economic narratives, influence strategic policy, and develop innovations with practitioners.

Doughnut Economics has the winning tendency of using spritely humor and common sense while skewering the buried half-truths of standard economics and serving up more credible alternatives. For example, economics continues to cling to the idealized notion of “rational economic man,” the fiction that people make careful, rational calculations about how to advance their material self-interests and happiness (“utility”) through market transactions.

Raworth handily debunks this point in her book, and then shows great brio in producing a delightfully clever video, “Economic Man vs. Humanity: A Puppet Rap Battle,” in collaboration with puppet designer Emma Powell and musician Simon Panbrucker. It’s safe to say that the rapping students get the best of their fusty old professor, and Raworth’s playful humor triumphs over economic dogma.

One of the biggest targets of Raworth’s "doughnut," of course, is the idea that economic growth is a magic elixir that can solve most inequalities, social ills, pollution, and even climate change. The general catechism is growth = jobs = consumer demand = market innovation = progress.

This mindset conveniently ignores the copious negative externalities of the capitalist economy and its circular faith that market-based strategies can abate market-based pathologies When US climate envoy John Kerry’s recently claimed that half of all carbon reductions needed to get to net zero will come from technologies that have not yet been invented, I realized that denialism has many faces.

What sets apart Raworth’s approach is her insistence that society and ecology are foundational to any economy, and economic thought must reflect that. Her theoretical framework, therefore, is not fixated on market and state – important as they are -- but equally on households and the commons as essential institutions. Why? Because households and commons engender social trust, reciprocity, care, and creativity in ways that the market/state system simply cannot. 

You can listen to Raworth’s conversation with me on Frontiers of Commoning here.