And that might sound like a small flip in words, but it’s a profound flip in mindset. We need a new language, a new concept, new metaphors and new examples of how we can create economies that thrive without endlessly growing.
Incredible. So, I’m also interested in where you’ve personally come from. I read that when you were 13 you began talking to some homeless people where you were growing up.
Where did you read that?
I have my sources! [Laughs]. Where did that come from?
Oh I don’t know. I grew up in Richmond, which is a wealthy suburb of London, and I had two formative experiences in terms of social justice and environment protection right along the leafy riverside where I used to walk to and from school. As a young teenager I organised a big gang of kids to go out and pick up litter all along the riverbank one Saturday morning, all of them wearing big yellow rubber gloves—and we got lots of intrigued looks from passing adults. That was my first shot at environmental activism. Around the same time, every day walking home from school I’d see men sleeping rough beneath the arches of a nearby railway bridge; we called them “tramps,” that was the language of homelessness in those days. And I remember having the curiosity that every child has of “Why are there people sleeping on the ground in the cold open air?” I hear it now in my own children: they have a wide-eyed disbelief of the world around them, one that adults just somehow become completely inured to. Children can’t help but stop and ask why on Earth are things like that? So I remember walking home from school one day and deciding to buy a big portion of fish and chips to give to these men. And as I carried it through the little gate and along the path that led towards their railway arch, I suddenly became very fearful—the reality of the situation hit me when I realised they saw me, a little schoolgirl, coming their way. So I sort of tossed the bundle of fish and chips towards them and ran off. That, I suppose, was my first awkward action for social justice.
I don’t know exactly if or how all this connects to what I’m doing now. But it struck me, when I was back at my parents’ house recently, walking with my own children along this very same section of riverbank and past the railway arches, that I’d had these two distinct moments—of environmental awakening and social awareness—in that pretty leafy suburban setting. I think experiences like these ride with us deeply and can be buried for decades, then triggered by an image or idea or event somehow. I think that many people—if you were ask them, “When in your childhood did you have a moment of recognising the beauty of the world, and when did you have a moment of realising that your life was better off than some others?”—almost everyone could point to one. And for me these moments can turn out to be about realising that you don’t want to be a part of a system or lifestyle that just takes the degradation and the inequality for granted and adds to it, but instead actually start to challenge it.
You’re married to a philosopher who has written extensively about empathy. And I want to know how does yours and Roman’s work relate? How have you affected each other’s work? I mean, it’s such a wonderful partnership, speaking to very different audiences. But the themes strike me as quite similar somehow.
Yeah. Around 15 years ago, when I was working in international development and Roman was starting to write about empathy, many people said, “What’s that?” Back then almost no one knew or used the word. I think it’s a sign of one of the biggest transformations of collective emotional intelligence—or at least awareness of the need for it—because you now hear the word empathy a lot, on the radio, in cafes, even in politics. Back when Roman began writing about empathy, I didn’t see the connection with my work in rethinking economics. Over time I’ve come to see many intersections. Adam Smith, that founding father of economics, is remembered for promoting self-interest and the power of the invisible hand. But he’d be mortified by that legacy because he recognised that people have an innate capacity to care about the happiness and interests of others. He knew that empathy is a key characteristic of human nature, but it gradually came to be written out of economics, leaving only self-interest. Over recent years, in conversations about economics I have found myself more and more ending up in discussions about human nature and realising, Oh, how funny, there’s empathy popping up. And these days Roman more and more comes back from giving a talk about empathy and tells me, “I ended up talking about the doughnut!”
[Laughs]. Actually the whole mission of Small Giants is to move our communities towards empathy and the new economy. So we’ve designed our entire little empire around the two of you.
Ha! [Laughs]. But it does show actually that so many of us are thinking alike. There’s a convergence and emergence happening around some powerful core ideas. I like that combination of empathy and the new economy in your work because one seems very much intimate to human nature and the skill to empathise. And the other initially sounds quite technical and abstract. Different people will be drawn to different aspects. Some no doubt say, “I like the human bit” and “Oh, economics, that sounds far too big and institutional to me!” And others will be the other way around. But you’d find through conversation that actually these issues touch. They tuch.
And one of the things that I’ve learned from your work is that the core of humanity and the macro economy deeply influence each other. I think if we start re-engaging with that sense of empathy at the core of who we are then we will deeply affect the economy around us. And it’s happening already, as you’ve described.
Yes absolutely. I think that in evolutionary and complexity economics, when we begin to recognise each of us is a little node within an incredible complex network of interactions, we start to see that how we each behave can actually have butterfly effects, repercussions that influence others. In evolution the really interesting stuff is what’s going on at the fringes. When we bring that back to economics, we can say, “Oh hang on, that means the really quirky stuff that seems fringe activity or marginal, that may well be the evolution of the economy!” So it’s easy to be dismissive and say that the new economy is niche, but perhaps that’s what evolution looks like. The question is how do we scale this up?
So changing tack a little bit. I’ve heard that you’re a sculptor.
You’ve been digging around!
[Laughs]. And you play saxophone, you sing jazz. I think this is so interesting, the worlds you move between, the arts and economics. I studied arts and engineering as my undergraduate and have always had this strange interplay between the idealism of the humanities and the extreme practicalities of designing bolts and bridges. I’m really curious as to how that plays out in your life.
[Laughs]. So I was lucky enough to start doing sculpture when I was at school. And I suppose I’ve brought that into my work because when I worked at the UN and Oxfam I would always be doodling images of the themes and campaigns we were working on, searching for images that encapsulate the concepts. Roman was the one in our household who wrote paragraph after paragraph and loved words. I was the one who drew pictures or took photos. When I started writing my book, and got really lost and couldn’t see my way through, it was the day that I realised that I could represent each of the seven ways of thinking in pictures that it all came together. It was a really powerful moment for me. And from there I thought, So what other ways could you represent new economics in art and performance? When I teach students about systems thinking, one of the first things I do is show them a video of a murmuration of starlings flying in their incredible patterns in the sky. And I watch the students as they’re watching the video because there’s this wonderful look of awe and amazement and beauty in their faces. That response comes down from the brain and moves into the heart and the belly with a “wow!” And that’s a very different way to learn about the patterns of the world. So