A Message of Hope
Dr. Hazel Henderson describes her wide-ranging activities as an environmentalist, an author and an economist—as those of a “futurist.” She also insists that her ideal is to be a complete person. I find her approach deeply inspiring. Only humans envisage a better, more valuable future and make efforts toward its realization. To believe in the future is to believe in humanity. A futurist is engaged in the scholarship of hope.
Traditional economics is based on a very pessimistic view of human nature; it is assumed that people are essentially selfish, that our actions are motivated solely by the urge to maximize profit. But, Dr. Henderson questions, what about all the things people do without any thought of gain, the acts of “caring and sharing” that she has witnessed time and again? Traditional economics focuses only on competitive activities in which currency is exchanged. But what about spontaneous acts of collaboration and cooperation, the work of volunteers and citizens groups that enhance the quality of life for people? What about the gifts of nature itself? What about the energy generated by the sun, without whose warmth and light, life on Earth would be unthinkable? Shouldn’t these also be accorded value?
These questions have pushed Hazel Henderson toward a radical rethinking of economic theory, one aspect of which she calls the “love economy”—all those things people do, not in quest of profit, but simply out of love. The United Nations has estimated the value of such unpaid labor at 16 trillion dollars annually—11 trillion by women, 5 trillion by men. By taking all of these factors into account, Hazel has developed a view of economic activity that is actually far more “realistic” than that of traditional economists.
It was concern for the future that inspired an “ordinary housewife,” as she described herself, to engage in the intensive self-study of economics that has enabled her to successfully challenge the views of Nobel laureates.
Living in New York City in the 1960s, Hazel founded the group Citizens for Clean Air because, as she says: “We were anxious that our children have the best future possible.” She later realized that her concern gave her the strength to endure and prevail over the many challenges she would later face.
It all started when she noticed that her daughter was coming home stained with soot that even the most vigorous scrubbing wouldn’t remove. Hazel herself was suffering from a persistent cough. Something wasn’t right. She started talking to the other mothers at the neighborhood park as they watched their children playing. “Don’t you think the air here is bad?” she asked them. These discussions eventually led to the formation of Citizens for Clean Air.
Hazel began using the time during her daughter’s afternoon naps to write letters to the mayor and other city officials. Eventually, she received a reply from the mayor stating that what she thought was pollution was probably just mist rolling in from the sea. Not discouraged by his callous response, she investigated further and found the city actually kept measurements of soot particles in the city’s air on a daily basis.
She and her group, which now had about ten members, started urging the TV networks to include air pollution data in the daily weather forecasts. Hazel wrote to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, DC, responsible for assuring that broadcasts were consistent with “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” She wrote to all the major TV networks, enclosing photocopies of encouraging letters she had received from the chairman of the FCC and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. A few weeks later, she was surprised to receive a phone call from the vice-president of one of the major New York television stations. A month later, the New York Air Pollution Index was on the air. Three months later, all TV stations, most radio stations, and local newspapers were covering the index.
Encouraged by this success, Hazel started taking on new challenges, one after another. “I felt I ought to say out loud what I had to say. Nobody could stop me.” Many people assume that it is impossible to achieve change. They think the obstacles are too vast. But Hazel was confident that a way could be found if people who shared the same concerns joined forces.
Born in England in 1933, Hazel Henderson never received formal university training in economics. At age 16 she began working at a local women’s clothing shop and later in a hotel. She has said that she studied in the university of human life. There she learned that all people have potential, a great untapped capacity to do good.
When Hazel was 25 she moved to the United States and worked selling airline tickets. She married, and it was the simple desire to have her daughter breathe clean air that inspired her tireless efforts that continue to this day.
We first met in 1998 and since then have engaged in an energetic exchange of ideas and views. In our first meeting she described the early years of effort waged largely alone. The response of politicians and experts to her appeals for cleaner air was always the same: It costs too much money, they said, we can’t do it. Lurking behind such responses she often sensed contempt: What does a housewife like you know about the way the world really works?
But she wasn’t put off. If economic theories require that we destroy the environment and make people suffer, there must be something wrong with the theories. She began thinking about the kind of economics that would be focused on people’s happiness. Her approach is simple, it could be called naïve, but that is her strength. If something doesn’t seem right to the ordinary citizen, it probably isn’t. Arrogance takes hold and everything goes awry the moment such specialists start telling the “amateurs” to shut up and keep their opinions to themselves.
Feeling the need to arm herself with knowledge, she wrote to many colleges asking if they had courses on how ecology related to economics, biology, sociology, anthropology and physics. Her ideal has always been to view things in a holistic, big-picture way. But there were no such courses available, so she began an extensive program of self-study in economics and other fields. When she found an author whose ideas inspired her, she would send off a letter; in this way she developed personal mentoring relationships with many leading thinkers, including Dr. Ernst Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful.
Hazel credits her parents with instilling an attitude of not blindly accepting what she was told. She learned to stop and think for herself before making judgments. As her research efforts progressed, she came to question more and more of the core assumptions of modern economics. How meaningful, for example, are statistics that include in the measure of economic growth activities that pollute the environment or harm people’s health while ignoring the related costs?
Economics, she soon concluded, despite the complex and seemingly precise mathematical formulas in which it is expressed, is not a science at all. Rather than being a neutral, value-free science, she found that economics focuses on justifying the gains of the winners and silencing the losers. It is really politics in disguise. Her ideas horrified traditional economists. She was publicly insulted and dismissed. On one television program, an economist sitting next to her said, “She is a nice lady, but she doesn’t know a thing about economics.” She responded to such criticism by buying more books and studying even harder. Letters were sent to her husband’s employer calling her a communist. “That was very hurtful,” she says, “because it was the furthest thing from my mind.” In one corporate public relations newsletter she even was referred to as “one of the most dangerous women in the United States”—a title she now wears with pride.
Her expertise and unique and forward-looking proposals eventually gained recognition. From 1974 to 1980 she served on the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment Advisory Council. She has advised more than 30 governments on their economic policies. Her columns are carried in some 400 newspapers in 27 countries worldwide. She has helped promote the concept and practice of ethical investing, for those who wish to be sure that their investments support ecologically and socially sustainable corporate practices. She has developed an index which measures quality of life much more effectively than the narrow scales which only consider economic growth.
Throughout it all she has remained first and foremost a citizen activist, committed to building grassroots solidarity for a better future, through informing and educating people,. The title of one of her books sums up the essence of that vision: Building a Win-Win World. She wants to help humanity move beyond a system that produces winners and losers.
Buddhism teaches that we live within a framework of interdependence—that we need one another and offer each other essential support in seen and unseen ways. The same relationship exists between humans and the natural environment. Without the freely-given blessings of nature we could not exist for even a moment. It is this sense of appreciation that leads Hazel to speak of “Mother Sun”—the nearest star that provides all the essential energy for our planet.
From her own mother, Hazel absorbed a “tremendous faith that human beings, at their core, wherever they are on this planet and whatever their culture, can come to accept their oneness.”
As we move into an economy that is less about building the “hardware” of factories and machines and more about software and services, Hazel expects that the special talents of women as harmonizers and communicators will come more into play. She believes that women have a special commitment to and aptitude for peace.
She says: “Women know how much time, love and effort goes into raising a child. When war arises, all that is reduced to nothing. . .this is why women’s active participation in conflict resolution is of great importance.”
Having observed debates between high-level Israeli and Palestinian women, she states with confidence: “If those women had been empowered and fully represented in negotiations, there would have been a peace settlement decades ago. . .We have the power to alter our destiny. This is very much my own view. This is what my work for the last 30 years has been all about.”
©2011 Soka Gakkai. All rights reserved.