Bridging the divide

“We can’t change anything until we get some fresh ideas, until we begin to see things differently. My goal is to create a therapy of ideas, to try to bring in new ideas so that we can see the same old problems differently.”

James Hillman

Sometimes it would seem that those of us working for change divide into two distinct categories: Be-ers and Do-ers.

Be-ers are those people who primarily concern themselves with issues pertaining to the inner life: they see our psyches as the source of our experience and believe that the biggest obstacle to overcome is our mind. You will find them in meditation classes, Inner Transition groups and on psychotherapist’s couches. Do-ers focus on what is happening outside of themselves: they see how structures and systems effect our lives and believe that action in the outer world will bring the changes we wish to see. You can see them in action at protest marches, climate camps, digging gardens and installing solar panels.

Of course this is hideous stereotyping. I have yet to meet someone who fits neatly into one category or the other.  We all have an inner life and we all experience the goings on in the outer world. Yet often when the stakes are high – like when it comes to deciding on the most effective way to bring about change – we seem to fall into one camp or the other.  The Be-ers want to slow down, examine and heal the emotional and psychic fall-out from living in troubled times. The Do-ers want to double their efforts to right the wrongs in order to stop more harm from being done. Despite perceived common goals each side focuses their energy in different areas and never (or rarely) the twain shall meet.

But does it have to be like this?

Ever since my ‘awakening’ into the seriousness of our global predicament I have been asking myself this question. I have been seeking a framework capable of drawing together these two seemingly separate camps.  A framework that facilitates a deeper understanding and analysis of the source of our problems and the best course of action. One that speaks a language that both Be-ers and Do-ers can understand and might be the basis of a more interdisciplinary approach. Surprisingly, the model that may be able to bridge that divide arose within the currently derided field of economics.

In the 1970s Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef had an epiphany that made him question the value of conventional economic theory and led him to develop the practice of ‘barefoot economics’. In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! he explains:

“I worked for about ten years of my life in areas of extreme poverty in the Sierras, in the jungle, in urban areas in different parts of Latin America. And at the beginning of that period, I was one day in an Indian village in the Sierra in Peru. It was an ugly day. It had been raining all the time. And I was standing in the mud. And across me, another guy also standing in the mud. And, well, we looked at each other, and this was a short guy, thin, hungry, jobless, five kids, a wife and a grandmother. And I was the fine economist from Berkeley. (…) And we were looking at each other, and then suddenly I realized that I had nothing coherent to say to that man in those circumstances, that my whole language as an economist, you know, was absolutely useless.”

He decided to develop a new language that could make sense of and properly address issues of poverty. A language which would form the basis of an economics “that an economist who dares to step into the mud must practice.”

Barefoot economics, or Human Scale Development, states that humans have nine fundamental human needs, which, unlike wants, are universal across time and place: subsistence, identity, affection, leisure, protection, understanding, participation, freedom and creation. True wealth is the satisfaction of these needs within the limits of a living planet. Poverty is not just a lack of subsistence: any need not adequately satisfied constitutes a poverty. Needs are not the same as the strategies or satisfiers we use to meet those needs. Needs are finite, satisfiers are culturally determined and infinite. Each satisfier is valuated according to its impact on the rest of our own needs, the needs of others and, most importantly, on the conditions for life itself: a living thriving planet.

Now when we look at these nine needs it may seem obvious to state that each of these requires an opportunity to satisfy them in the outer world. Whether you satisfy your need for leisure by playing sports or watching television or painting, there are conditions in the outer world which will help or hinder the satisfaction of that need. However, what may not seem obvious at first is that every need also has an inner component. When we look deeper into our own histories we will find the beliefs we hold around the possibility for satisfaction of this need.

This is where the inner world and the outer world meet and enter a dialogue. Do I choose to stay in the highly paid but ultimately soul-destroying job because I am scared of losing the status that is associated with it and which makes up my identity? Do I get a sense of protection from earning a lot of money, even though working so many hours leaves me with little time for relationships and affection? Are there any other options available to me or will I lose everything if I leave? Can I trust others based on my experience of life so far?

Looking at the problem through the lense of HSD it becomes hard to see where the actual boundaries are between our inner and our outer lives. Self-examination might reveal that we have always had a tendency towards security regardless of what it has cost us in relationship or freedom, and that we are afraid of what we might lose. Examination of the systems and structures we live in and under, on the other hand, might reveal that many others are also afraid of losing their means of subsistence and that some of our issues are not as personal as we assumed. Could we join together to find new ways to meet our needs for protection, subsistence and identity, and create more satisfying work opportunities?

The changes we then decide to make, individually or collectively, leave impressions in the outer world which in turn tell a story many may be hearing for the first time: that it is possible to free yourself from the bonds of both your mind and the economic structure you were born into. This story becomes part of the discourse and one of many previously unimaginable pathways.

We are now engaging in a new (economic) narrative. One that tells us that when ‘the world isn’t working’ both its internal and external components need to be examined. One that calls for inner and outer action to work together towards a common goal. One that requires a deep understanding of our psyches as well as knowledge of the impacts of our political, economic and social systems. We need to ask ‘What are my real needs and how will I know when they are satisfied?’ as well as ‘How is the economic and political system helping or hindering the possibilities we have to meet our fundamental needs within planetary limits?’

Manfred Max-Neef’s model is a good starting point for exploring what it means to be healthy in the true sense of the word: to be whole, united in body and mind. It shows how collective poverties of participation, creation, identity, and affection produce fertile ground for the empty distractions of consumer culture to take hold.

Many people in my workshops tell me they had to be reminded of their needs, that what really mattered often got buried in the busy-ness and pressure of daily life, that sometimes it was easier to forget. An economic and political system that leaves us too overworked, confused or addicted to truly meet our fundamental needs, may – despite growth in GDP – be making us poorer than we realise.

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