Birth Day – Matter for the Future

One of these days I will give birth. Over the last nine months, a human being has been growing within me. First as a small and unrecognisable bunch of cells, then shaping itself into human form, growing organs, limbs, face and features that we recognize as of our own species. Some body who already expresses character, interacts, grows, learns and develops.

During this time, my body has been our son’s home; the breeding ground of his existence. I carry him, protect him with layers of skin and water, and most importantly, I feed him. Every cell, every organ, every tiniest bit of brain, lymph and tissue in his body is created by the food I take in. What I choose to eat defines the substance he is made of.

Our language expresses the creative nature of our relationship: Mother and matter share the Latin roots of mater and matrix (womb or origin). Being a mother, I give my son matter. He grows in my matrix, the place of origin of his being. I am the mother of his nourishment (almus); his alma mater.

Becoming a mother has made me realise more than ever, that each day we shape the matter of tomorrow. Whether the future grows muscles made of crisps, or of wholesome grains and cereals. Whether rivers and blood streams flow with Coca Cola, or with fruity juices and fresh vegetable waters. Whether our bodies and earth are fed harmful chemicals – herbicides, pesticides, toxic emissions – or whether we choose fully natural building blocks for our organs and surroundings.

Nature (derived from natus in Latin) means being born. We are natives of our mother-land, and celebrate Birth around the time of Natale (Christmas). All that is alive today was born, created, has come into being. At the same time, all form and matter that exists now gives shape to what comes next. Soil and water turn into plants and trees, forests become fossil reserves and sea beds transform into mountain ranges. Today I feed my body, tomorrow it becomes my son, next week we both are something else. All matter is mother.

Every day is a birthday. A grand nativity scene of the world we shaped yesterday and all yesterdays before. An expression of what we have brought forth by our actions and inactions. Equally, every day is a matrix: the womb and soil that breed the future. And if we care about this future, we’d better be mindful of the matter we breed.

Our economy is an outward expression of our inner values. We sow, feed, water, wait, and harvest what we’ve cared for. Everything we put in are the ingredients that tomorrow is made of. The meals we savour, the products we buy, the work we do and the attention we give it, all brings certain qualities and intentions to Life.

So let’s make our values matter. Mater, mother of many healthy generations to come. Feed every moment with the qualities of our desired future, sow the seeds we wish to grow, nourish what is wholesome and what we believe is right. Enjoy the fruits of a thriving planet.  Happy Birth Day.


Curing the Phantom

One of the first TED talks I ever watched was 3 Clues to Understanding Your Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran. A brilliant presentation in which the neurologist addresses the issue of phantom pain. To the layman, phantom pain – the pain in a limb or organ that is not physically present – seems already an unusual thing. But Ramachandran introduces us to an even more bizarre – yet quite common – affliction: a phantom limb that is paralysed. Patients who suffer from such an invisible but painful misfortune say: ‘If only I could move my arm, the agony could be relieved!’ But how to move an arm that does not exist?

Ramachandran has found a simple and cheap method to ease the pain: a $2 mirror box. The patient looks in the mirror, sees the reflection of his real arm, but for an instant is tricked to believe it is the phantom arm. The visual input makes the patient think the phantom is moving, which allows his brain to heal itself from the painful phantom paralysis.

There is another remarkable American who likes to talk about phantoms. A former professor at the Harvard Business School, he is now a prophet for radical economic change. He spreads the word and practice through the Living Economies Forum, the YES campaign and his book Agenda for a New Economy.

David Korten speaks about Phantom Wealth. Phantom wealth is the so-called ‘value’ created in what he describes as the phantom economy, or the financial economy. According to Korten, the phantom economy was originally a part of a whole, real economy, but has developed in such a way that it is now only slightly related to products and services, nature and people in the real world. The phantom economy creates financial ‘wealth’ by self-feeding and self-fuelling its internal system of financial return on investment. Continue reading

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Last week I travelled to England to sort out our self-storage; a big sea container just outside the town of Wellington. Until a few decades ago the site was a flourishing farm: a house, some sheds and fields of crops and cattle. It has since been turned into a little industrial estate. Today’s cash-cows are one hundred brand new shipping containers. They arrived chock-full of produce, Made in China, and are unlikely to ever ship anything back. So, bought at a bargain, the containers now hold books, clothes, tools, couches, kitchens, furnishings of offices and entire households.

While digging our goldmine of long-forgotten treasures, I unpacked one of my favourite books: Milan Kundera’s ‘The unbearable lightness of being’.

Kundera’s classic beautifully describes the human paradox of weight and lightness. We know that we are transient, on earth as human being only for a little moment in time. Part of a never-ending process of creation, participants in the enormous unfolding universe. But at the same time we long for a sense of importance, a significant role in the grand scheme of things. We wish to be visible, to be heard, read, listened to, recognized. We have a desire to shape today, the future and history. To be remembered, to show our power and possessions. We long to have weight.

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The Art of Economy

‘An artist is not a special type of person, rather every person is a special type of artist.’ – Ananda Coomaraswamy

Like many people, I have never considered myself an artist. I don’t draw very well, my piano lessons never reached concert potential, and as a dancer I’d rather move between than stand out in the spotlight. I don’t make paintings, songs, or poems, my work doesn’t sell in galleries. I am an economist, my diploma says Masters of Science.

Despite my profession, I have always questioned the scientific-ness of my field. The economics that have dominated the last century – and certainly dominated the courses of my degree – are founded on worryingly simplistic assumptions, allowing economists to describe society’s value system numerically and in 2- dimensional diagrams. Rather than approaching the economy as an evolving social structure – made up by people with a diversity of cultures, beliefs and personalities – economic theory seemed obsessed with creating equilibrium outcomes by universalising people into 1-size-fits-all, values-free decision makers. In the attempt to make the study resemble a ‘hard science’, the dynamics of these models were then called the ‘laws’ of economics. Continue reading

A Question of Value

In times of economic malaise and financial collapse, people – especially governments and businesses – tend to ask: ‘Can we afford to invest in sustainability?’

This question makes me laugh out loud and at the same time pull my hair in utter exasperation. What do you mean, ‘afford’? Afford in terms of what? In terms of quarterly growth figures? In terms of shareholder confidence? In terms of costs depicted in numbers that refer to monetary units that are actually not units but digits, whose perceived value depends on expectations of financial traders and analysts, and bears very little relationship with the daily bread we eat?

The simple question ‘Can we afford to invest in sustainability?’ lays bare one of the greatest economic misperceptions of capitalist societies; the belief that we are the creators of wealth. That our busy-ness, whether in extraction, processing, producing servicing, selling or renting, creates wealth. It doesn’t. We may support, alter, intensify or speed up certain processes, but the Origin of Wealth is still natural creation.

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One way to Beauty? NO! to the Ugly

‘Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your Soul.’ – Walt Whitman

The quote on a little square carton dangled at the end of my tea bag, one cloudy morning in Amsterdam. Three years after finishing that cup of tea, I still carry the piece of paper in my wallet, as the most valuable amongst valuables. The quote touched me. Not because its meaning was so radically new to me, – I once read that books that inspire us are not the ones that teach us something new, but those that give words to what we feel but cannot phrase. I loved the message because it resonated so strongly with my inner truth.

I long believed that rejecting things I saw around me was a sign of weakness. That I suffered from a need to identify myself by what I did not agree with. I judged the world by its many troubles and imperfections, focusing on what was not right. I heard myself being sharp, critical and a nay-sayer. Nay to the boredom of high school – which made me leave for Latin America at the age of 16; Nay to the Economics degree I had earned, – what use are these simplistic mathematical models for the real world?; Nay to my promising job in a respected financial institution. Nay, nay, nay.

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The Small, the Big and the Beautiful

Last week we celebrated the 101st birthday of E.F. Schumacher, the German gentle man and practical philosopher who became an economic advisor to the British government and National Coal Board, founded the UK Soil Association and the intermediate technology organisation Practical Action. But best known is Schumacher as the author of the groundbreaking book ‘Small is Beautiful, a study of economics as if people mattered’. In Small is Beautiful, Schumacher argues for the development of an ‘economy of permanence’; beyond ‘gigantism’ to right livelihood through appropriate scale and technology. Since its first publication in 1973, the book has inspired hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide, including myself.

To some who realise the enormity of the ecological and social challenges we face today, ‘small is beautiful’ may sound like a mantra of returning to the way things were, and thereby appear somewhat conservative, retractive, or unambitious. Their argument would be: when we talk sustainable development we need to think big! Get together the world’s most powerful business leaders and politicians in large international conferences, such as the COPs or more recently, Rio+20. Continue reading

Life Mosaic, the social art of economy

One of the sources of inspiration for Beautiful Economy is the Alhambra in Granada. Last October we visited this 1000-years old marvel of Islamic architecture, and almost every day I remember being inside its walls, surrounded by art, science and spirituality. Feeling at ease, at peace, and with a strong sense that this place has something to teach us.

The Alhambra was designed to reflect the beauty of Paradise. And indeed, the gardens, palaces and waterways all breathe heavenly quality. In spite of receiving thousands of visitors each day, the place has maintained a serenity. It allows you to slow down while drifting along the endless patterns of arabesque, woodwork and tile tessellations. To be taken away by the detail and by the entirety.

Titus Burckhardt explains that ‘the islamic designs do not imprison the gaze and direct it to some imaginary world, but rather free it from all the impediments of thought and imagination. They produce in us no fixed idea, but an existential condition, a feeling of tranquility combined with an inner sense of vitality.’

It made me wonder: ‘If a physical structure can evoke the experience of peace and vitality, what about a social structure, the economy?

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The money economy, today’s Maladie Imaginaire

Ever since its first stage performance in 1673, ‘le Malade imaginaire’ (the imaginary invalid) has been one of the most popular plays in Paris’ Comédie Française. In Molière’s classic, the hypochondriac Argan lives his life surrounded by doctors and apothecaries, summoning them to examine and treat his imaginary illnesses, while at the same time getting consumed by worries about the mounting bills for medications.

For the last three hundred years, ‘le Malade imaginaire’ has been played and re-played in theaters around the world. The story has retained its popularity across cultures and generations, as it shares an essential ingredient with all other good stories: ‘le Malade’ contains a life lesson, a snippet of wisdom intricately woven into the story, inviting the audience to listen carefully and reflect on its meaning in their own daily life. Good stories mirror us, offer an insight into our own behaviour, and strengthen our inner compass.

So what can Molière and his story on physical and mental health teach us about today’s economic environment?

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Turning Spring!

All revolutions need a Spring. A season in which all that is alive under the surface finds its way out into the open. A season in which that what is dormantly present finds form and becomes visible, tangible, sensible. A season in which pioneers raise their heads and voices, risking the death of returning frost. A season of birth, flowering, buzz and pollination. All revolutions need a Spring, a season of metamorphosis of potential into material reality.

Two years ago I happened to live in Sweden, a country with a long, dark Winter. For months on end, the bay in front of our cottage had been frozen and covered with a thick layer of snow. The nights seemed never-ending, while the days were grey and passed in the wink of an eye. Our bodies were craving kanel-bulle to keep themselves warm, while our social life had gone into hibernation.

At the end of the dark season, a friend lent me the book Animate Earth in which Stephan Harding explains James Lovelock’s famous Gaia Theory; the planet as a living and self-regulating system. A day after I finished the book the sun was out. Continue reading