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

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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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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

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