“No economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.” – Manfred Max-Neef, Chilean economist, 1932 -2019
A national conversation has begun which is alarming, yet also familiar. It talks about costs and trade-offs, losses and accounts. It is a conversation about human lives framed in the language of economics.
A recent study by Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at Bristol University, suggests that ‘If the coronavirus lockdown leads to a fall in GDP of more than 6.4 per cent more years of life will be lost due to recession than will be gained through beating the virus’.
Research like this presents us with a terrible dilemma, even leading some people to wonder whether the trade-off for trying to save elderly and vulnerable lives is really worth it, when it would cripple the economy for decades.
In times like these it helps to remember that we are presented with this misleading narrative every time we decide to act on our conscience. We are told we cannot halt the arms trade, because we will lose jobs. We are told we cannot reduce carbon emissions, because we will lose jobs. Now we are told we cannot save people’s lives, because we will lose jobs. For decades governments have used the threat of recession to badger us into maintaining an economic system that has made the poor poorer and the rich richer at the expense of the Earth’s support system. We are told this makes economic sense, but does it?
“As people we have a right to make credit and loan money. We mustn’t forget that. We mustn’t leave that to corporations and the state.”
Duncan McCann, New Economics Foundation
These last few weeks I have been deeply moved by the outpouring of kindness and generosity in my local community and in communities around the world. Support hubs for the elderly and vulnerable are sprouting up everywhere, online courses are being offered for free, people are singing and applauding from their balconies and the internet is exploding with tips on how to manage physically, emotionally and spiritually during isolation. My fellow humans are, mostly, showing how much they are willing to share what they have to benefit the greater good.
At the same time I am aware that many people’s lives are becoming increasingly precarious with businesses closing, jobs being lost and rents and mortgages still to pay. A lot of these people will be the same ones that are able and willing to put their efforts towards making life more bearable and beautiful for all of us. And yet because these efforts are not considered economically useful they do not have access to the means of exchange, to credit.
One sunny afternoon a few years ago, my then 9-year-old son uttered those words every parent or carer will be familiar with: “Mum, I am bored.” I gave him my usual response: “Go outside and find someone to play with.” He went out and returned five minutes later: “There is nobody out there.” I looked out the window to check that it hadn’t suddenly started raining, but no, the sun was high in the sky and not a cloud in sight. And indeed—not a kid in sight either.
Between June and December of 2016 researcher and urban explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison walked “the length of Britain and a bit” wearing an EEG headset that monitored his brain’s responses to the different places he visited. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year he was asked to share some of the things that had stood out during his journey. “There are no children playing in the street,” was his first remark, “except in Newcastle.”
According to research conducted by Play England, 71% of adults say they played out in the street every day when they were children. For today’s children that figure is only 21%.
“We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.”
Last week I was walking on Dartmoor when I stumbled upon The Mariners Way.
The Mariners Way is said to be the track which sailors walked from Bideford in the north to Dartmouth in the south. As I made my way down it I couldn’t help thinking of the many travellers of all kind who would have trodden this stony path over the centuries. Each with their own thoughts, in reminiscence or anticipation, walking in company or alone, in good health or ailing, by day or by night. Each leaving their imprint on the soil, their sounds on the air, exhaling their warm breath into the ether. Each in turn feeling the cool night air on their skin or the sun gently breaking through a dense cover of leaves.
As the path descended further into the valley I, like my fellow past travellers, was greeted by the sounds of the river Dart.
Towards a New Story of Economics
Humans are storytelling beings. In fact one could argue that it is impossible to make sense of the world without story. Storytelling is how we piece together facts, beliefs, feelings and history to form something of a coherent whole connecting us to our individual and collective past, present and future. The stories that help make meaning of our lives inform how we shape and re-shape our environment. This re-created world, through its felt presence in structures and systems as well as its cultural expressions, in turn tells us its story.
We live in a time of powerful globalised narratives. We no longer (or rarely) sit and listen to tales that were born of places we know intimately and told by people deeply connected to these places. Ours is a world saturated with information from every corner of the planet, voiced by ‘storytellers’ on television, radio, the internet, mobile phones, newspapers, billboards, books and magazines. It would appear that we now have access to a multitude of perspectives and, with that, more understanding of the different options open to human beings to live fulfilling lives. In reality however, the majority of us have to conform to a narrow set of rules not of our own making: the rules of economics.