Legacy – Interview Hazel Henderson, Author & Independent Futurist by Tim Merriman

The magazine of the National Association for Interpretation
January/February 2005

Interview: Hazel Henderson Author, Independent Futurist, Syndicated Columnist
By Tim Merriman, NAI Executive Director

It is always interesting to talk with someone whose work you have admired for a long time. Hazel Henderson’s ideas have provoked millions of people around the world to think more deeply about how society uses and measures our uses of the planet’s finite resources.

I first heard about Hazel Henderson in the late 1970s when her book, Creating Alternative Futures: The End of Economics, was published. She has been described as the “anti-economist” for her outspoken criticism of the way economics in the U.S. has revolved around the almighty dollar as reflected in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Her books, Planetary Citizenship (2004), Beyond Globalization (1999), Building a Win-Win World (1996), and Paradigms in Progress (1995) have spread her reputation as a futurist and evolutionary economist.

Hazel Henderson came to the U.S. from Bristol, England. Living in New York and concerned about health and quality of life issues, she became an activist and a founder of Citizens for Clean Air. She educated herself in economics and wrote articles and eventually books that established her reputation as a speaker and thoughtful but outspoken authority in the areas of sustainability, economics, and quality of life indicators. She has served as a Regents Lecturer at the University of California and held the Horace Albright Chair in Conservation at University of California (Berkeley). Hazel serves on many boards, advised the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and the National Science Foundation (1974-1980), and is a Fellow of the World Business Academy. She co-created with the Calvert Group, the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators (www.calvert-henderson.com). She is producing a TV series, Ethical Markets, airing on many public broadcasting stations in March. She received honorary doctorates from Soka University in Tokyo, San Francisco University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute for work in alternative economics and technology.

I heard Hazel speak at a conference in Minneapolis in 1995 and rushed home to read Paradigms in Progress. She makes a case vital to our profession that environmental and social “intangibles” must be considered in monitoring quality of life indicators. Environmental and social issues must be considered along with economic measures. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her by phone at her home in Florida. Our conversation follows:
I’m fascinated by your work. I’ve read some of your books and I’m interested in how to get NAI members and constituents of the organizations we work for more interested in sustainability and quality of life indicators. Where do we go from here as citizens? You know, I’ve struggled with the same thing. In some ways it’s almost easier to talk about this to kids. I have had fun over the years with my grandson, walking in the woods, picking up cans, and I’m sure that a lot of people relate to kids that way, when they’re trying to tell them about what we grownups call sustainability. Half of the problem is that the phrase, sustainable development, is pretty forbidding, isn’t it?

It almost sounds oxymoronic. How do we develop and still keep from overdeveloping? Yes, particularly now that central bankers have stolen this term and talk about sustainable economic growth. Just this last weekend I made a giant step forward. It relates to something that’s rather obscure and it’s all about interpretation. As you know, they just gave out the Nobel prizes last week.

I was pleased to hear Wangari Matthai received it. Oh, I was sitting, watching Wangari, whom I know well, and just crying because it was such a joy. I met her first in Nairobi in 1981 at the United Nations conference on new and renewable sources of energy. And at that point, she was a professor at the University of Nairobi, doing this tree-planting thing very much on the side. Most of the so-called “Nobel” went to economists who do mathematical models of how you can speculate on the stock market. This prize has now been un-masked! Its real name is The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics, an effort to legitimize economists as our philosopher kings! I call this economism. And of course, it’s rapidly spreading with globalization now all over the world. I go to Brazil a lot. They are resisting all of this. With a new administration, they don’t believe in economism. They believe in all of the other values that I’m sure your readers and members believe in.

We try to make the point that education, interpretation of natural and cultural resources, is not valued by our society doesn’t seem to be valued by our government, at least. At a time when people have more virtual lives, they still tend to try to get back to real stuff. But how do we get people to look at real indicators of change in their own local environment? Well, my big effort was with the Calvert Group. The whole idea behind that was that our yardstick of success has to be changed. In other words, the monetary yardstick of GNP [Gross National Product] and the yardstick of personal and business success being nothing but more and more money. There are all these other disciplines that cover many aspects of quality of life. They have different metrics, and if you’re looking at the environment and quality of the air, you don’t use economic measures, you use parts per million of chemicals and whatever it is that’s in the air. What we were trying to do with those indicators is to say that all of these different aspects of quality of life should have their own appropriate metrics. And most of them have nothing to do with money. We believe that they should be unbundled and seen through the appropriate disciplinary eyes and measured with the appropriate metrics. If they were unbundled so that you can go to our Web site (www.Calvert-Henderson.com) and click on whatever indicator you were most concerned about, whether it was education, or health, or recreation, or whatever, you could see that as it really was rather than have it aggregated up into one insanely over aggregated number, like Gross Domestic Product.

I’ve never forgotten you using a metaphor about flying a 747 with one instrument, GDP. I finally realized that is the only way you are really going to go out there and help people understand. We have to go through this kind of paradigm shift, see nature in all its real dimensions and see human beings and society in all of these different dimensions. My current project is called Ethical Markets. It’s a new kind of financial lifestyle TV series. It’s going to air on PBS stations in the middle of March. How would it change your thinking if all of those indicators were showing the full range of values and not just economics values? This show will focus on sustainability without stressing that word. What we’re talking about here is redefining success, and showcasing all of the cleanest, greenest technologies, the most well-managed, well-governed, inspiring companies, and CEOs, the people in nonprofit organizations who are contributing an enormous amount of value, which is unrecognized – the kind of work that your members do. We are bringing you stories of people from all walks of life and businesses and even countries that are actually redefining success in all the new ways that they are. Some of the people I’ve interviewed you’ve probably heard of, like the Center for the New American Dream. When they got started, they were saying what has to happen is that we have to dream a new American dream. How did the American dream get so narrowed down that it was just the stock market going up and people’s income going up, and the GNP going up? [Betsy Taylor] went out and did a survey and found that 28 percent of U.S. adults had already gone for jobs with less income, had moved to smaller communities that were still intact where their kids could go to school without being driven, and where the air and the water were cleaner and they could be in nature. And they had done all of that to improve their quality of life. Her whole organization, and their newsletter called Enough, brings this kind of awareness.

Our organization is currently looking at an accreditation program for parks. We’re interested in getting them to measure whether parks are successfully protecting resources through helping to educate people about them. We tend to sit back each year and look at the budget of the organization as the only indicator of whether it’s succeeding or not. The gut level feeling of our folks working out on the front line is that we’re slipping in most ways, but it’s going undetected because we don’t look. The only way to counteract this compulsive sort of cost-benefit approach that’s so prevalent in Washington is to quantify all of the social and environmental benefits, and of course you cannot translate them all into cash. That’s the problem. Incidentally, there’s a wonderful book, Priceless, that just goes through all of the Washington agencies, including Department of the Interior, and how they are imposing larger discount rates in their economic evaluations, which means it’s almost impossible to show that something that people are doing right now is really valuable.

Social marketing is how we describe a lot of what we do. We’re trying to take children on a day-to-day basis and take them from curiosity about the environment to awareness to knowledge to hopefully caring about it to being stewards. To build an ethic from a very young age on up. But practically speaking, it’s got to plug into something. The language is changing since the World Bank put out its new wealth of nations index in 1995. They were saying that 60 percent of the wealth of nations were social capitals, and 20 percent was environmental capital, and only 20 percent was financial, built capital, factories, and money. The problem is that not enough people are aware that you can justify what you’re doing now for building ecological assets, building social capital. Even though you can’t put monetary value on it, I think that there’s much more of an acceptance today that we know that these are really important values. I don’t know whether you know the kind of social environmental auditing this sort of triple bottom line thing that the Calvert Group does and all of these other socially responsible investment funds do.

I’m aware of the fund, but I’m not aware of that detailed auditing. Maybe that’s something that would be helpful, the language. A lot of the socially responsible mutual funds promote what we call Triple Bottom Line Accounting. About 60 percent of the largest companies, the largest global companies, have signed on to say that they are going to do this or they’ve started doing it already. They report the economic bottom line, the social bottom line, and the environmental bottom line. And that this is the new accounting protocol that’s being widely accepted now. Now if your members knew all about that, and they could urge their institutions and their agencies to also adopt Triple Bottom Line Accounting for what they do, it would put a completely different complexion on the value of what they really do. Economists make whole countries sick, and they have no accountability at all. I think that this [accounting method] is going to be fundamental ammunition, which will allow all the other disciplines to get back into the policy game.

Do we need to retrain our certified public accountants to see broader social context? Yes. The interesting thing is that accountants now understand that they have a tremendous amount of work to do in intangible value. Whole companies, like Coca Cola, almost all the value that company [has] is intangible. It’s in this formula for colored sugared water.

That kind of makes the case for corporate entities investing in the social movement as well, doesn’t it? Oh, very much so, very much so. In fact, you’ll find that there are all of these groups that I belong to like Social Venture Network and the Social Investment Forum. If you go on www.socialinvest.org, you’ll see discussions all the time about all of these new metrics, and how you are going to get accountants to really measure governments, and all of these absolutely fundamental issues. Go on the Web site of my new TV series, which is www.ethicalmarkets.com. You’ll see what we’re doing. We have all of these new metrics on “Ethical Markets” so that you can call up the Calvin Index, which is the 600 or so companies that have the best record of environmental and social responsibility, so people can make better choices on their investments. I mean this is the kind of thing that young people can understand.

And they can influence policy by how they invest their funds. Absolutely. And they can influence their mom and dad, too. If their mom and dad have a college fund for them, they can say, “Is this college fund really preserving the future for me? Is it really taking care of animals?” Of course, the other thing is to be a careful consumer. Another Web site that they need for that is www.coopamerica.org. They have the National Green Pages, which will tell you that you don�t have to spend one thin dime, except with companies who have cleaner, greener, more environmental friendly products and services. For anybody who wants to go even deeper into how we have to rethink our view of the world, they could go to www.thedarwinproject.com.

Are you optimistic about the future? Oh, definitely. First of all, I think it’s really impossible – for me, anyway – to live in pessimism. If you have children and grandchildren, you have a responsibility to be optimistic.

We appreciate your time and all your great efforts out there in the world. Thank you.