IN SEPTEMBER 2011 the Occupy movement emerged as the voice of a popularly-held complaint: our economy isn’t working for us. Re-occuring economic crises affect many people’s livelihoods as well as our planet. But what can we do about it? How would we rather shape our economies? In many European countries, people are forced to think and act in new, creative ways to overcome struggles related to austerity. They design their own currencies for example, and start their own social enterprises.
Although their initiatives are sometime born out of necessity, many people are starting to believe that we are in fact living through an economic transition. What steps are we taking towards a New Economy? Follow the Pandeia series on New Economy and find out how people from all over the globe respond to economic challenges.
Creating a better economy
Making strong statements against high income inequality, the Occupy movement managed to get a lot of media attention in many countries. Other social movements such as Via Campesina, Transition and Buen Vivir continue to work around the world to highlight undesirable consequences of the global economy. These include negative effects of mass production and consumption on the environment and high levels of power differences between employers and employees.
So how do we transform our economies in such a way that they work for us and for the planet? Virginia Palms explores how compatible values of sustainability are with traditional American values. Can we take action and change our behaviour so that we build a more resilient, low-carbon economy that benefits our well-being at the same time?
Many are happy to take on this challenging question by putting alternative thinking into practice. Ethical consumption is a familiar example. Buying fairtrade products contributes to a more just production chain, and buying organic and consuming less meat can benefit the environment. While some are sceptical of the extent of consumer power, the fact that big supermarket chains offer more and more of these products suggests that ‘ethical demand’ does lead to ‘ethical supply’. Recycling and sharing clothes, tools and even housing are other trends that help reduce our impact on the environment while connecting with others. Some people consciously choose to live with relatively few possessions because they feel it contribute to their wellbeing.
Others look to their workplace as a scene for change. Working in a cooperative, for example, gives employees the opportunity to vote and be part of their organization’s decision-making. People can therefore feel empowered to emphasize their own values, no matter what their position in the organization. Founding your own enterprise is another option, writes Sofie Willemsen, who explores the growing popularity of entrepreneurship among young people in the Netherlands.
Even the way you pay for things can contribute to a new economy. Using a self-made currency to buy and sell in your community can boost your local economy by keeping the ‘money’ inside the region where you live. Complementary currencies, most well-known in the shape of global currency Bitcoin, are even said to help people stay afloat in times of financial crisis, by providing them with a way to trade things when their incomes get lower.
Students and researchers recognize these trends and work to shape new economic ideas for the future. At the University of Manchester, for example, economics students who make up the Post-Crash Economics Society call for a change in their curriculum to make it reflect divergent academic ideas. They believe the study of economics would benefit from exploring alternatives to mainstream thinking, helping graduates be a better fit for the society they will help shape.
And thus, students rebel, write The New Yorker. Students from 19 different countries joined forces to enables a change. Daria Sukharchuk interviewed one of them.
The idea that divergent approaches should be given more space in economic thinking and practice is also promoted by leading research institutes such as the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, the New Economics Foundation and New Economics Institute. Funding for non-mainstream economic research is becoming more readily available, for example through the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Researchers come up with terms such as ‘new economics’, ‘social and solidarity economy’, ‘circular economy’, and ‘sharing economy’. All of these are attempts to frame alternative ways of consumption, production and exchange that could help shape an economy that is more socially and environmentally sustainable.
All these initiatives raise the question: are we moving toward a completely different economic system? Is this then a time of economic revolution which will soon lead us to say goodbye to capitalism altogether? Or is it more valuable to allow ‘for-profit’ and ‘for-people’ enterprises to exist side by side? What role can voters and policymakers play in stimulating such an economy? How can we make sure that small alternatives aren’t crushed by big business-as-usual? Find out about it in Pandeia’s new Economy series.
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By Nadine van Dijk and Nele Goutier
Picture by Allison