A Mandate to move away from Economic Growth? – Dr Niki Harré

As demand for growth exceeds earth’s physical limits causing unprecedented risks, what knowledge and changes do we need to secure New Zealand’s future wellbeing?

Niki Harré, Professor of Psychology, The University of Auckland

In democratic societies like Aotearoa NZ, it is not possible to solve major social and environmental problems in a wholly top-down manner. Change happens when a social mandate develops to do things differently. The key questions that interest me then, are a) how do we develop a mandate to move away from economic growth as our collective mission? b) what is a feasible alternative? c) how do we build a mandate for this alternative?

First, it is important to realise that for a collective mission to stick, it must have become part of our psychology and lives together. It cannot be simply a story perpetrated by far off tyrants that we accept out of ignorance or powerlessness. One of the reasons, then, that economic growth is so sticky is that we all use money. Money is in fact our most common language – it is the medium that allows us to exchange goods and services with almost anyone on the planet. We experience its power every day. Money = food, a place to live, clothes, transport and so on (see Eisenstein, 2011 for more on this). Money is also closely tied to social status. Generally speaking the more you earn or the more wealth you’ve accumulated the stronger the message that you are a valuable, contributing, member of society.

So, the mission of economic growth is easy for us to grasp. All we need do is take our personal experience and scale it up. The more money our university earns from students, grants, and philanthropic donations the better. The more money our business makes the clearer it is that we are providing a socially valued product or service. The wealthier we are as a nation the more good we can do for our people – after all, money buys food, places to live and so on. When we are told it is the wealthy countries that are cleaning up the environment that makes sense too – we’ve all heard people complain about the price of electric vehicles/organic food/eco-fashion, as if only the rich can “do the right thing”.

So economic growth isn’t just a story – economic growth is a lived experience that every one of us has a feel for. What then, can replace it? What is just as, perhaps more, real for us as people? In my research I’ve been getting groups of people together to discuss what they feel “matters most” (Harré, 2018; Harré & Madden, 2017; Harré, Madden, Brooks, & Goodman, 2017). The most powerful way I’ve found to do this is through each person reflecting on their life as a whole and the values that underpin it (Harré, Bullen, & Olson, 2006). They then share their personal story in a small group.

What is remarkable about this process is how easy it is for people to find common ground when they listen carefully for the coherence within themselves and others. Over and over again people speak of their craving for safety and security, being in community, helping others, finding a niche that uses their talents and interests, and living in a natural and social world that is thriving, beautiful and diverse. In the simplest sense people want to be alive and be surrounded by life. Each of us is, after all, an evolved creature made of planet Earth with basically the same physiology and problems to solve as other people. Buried beneath the games peculiar to the culture in which find ourselves, is something in us that recognises an infinite human game (Carse, 1986). The infinite game, as I’ve discussed elsewhere (Harré, 2018), focuses on four principles essential to the good life: human belonging, human expression, the natural world, and the interconnection between these.

Listening to each other’s stories about what “matters most” and trying to articulate our commonalities can provide the foundations for an alternative social mandate to economic growth. The hard part, however, is bringing this alternative into the public domain in such a way that people trust in its collective power. To go back to money, it is easy for me to trust that you care about money – I see you use it all the time. But why should I trust that you care about, say, the natural world? Why, for that matter, should I trust that I care about the natural world? A declaration won’t do it, I want to see this care reflected in practice. And unfortunately, acting for nature is not an inherent, visible part of daily life for most people in contemporary industrialised societies – even for those who are deeply distressed by the state of our ecosystems.

The way forward, I think, is a constant oscillation between collective conversations in which we reflect on what we most deeply value and how to keep those values in play; and showing that we really mean it. The collective conversations can, and in my view should, happen both within organisations and across communities. Showing you mean it involves at least two different approaches. One is “being the change”, that is, doing what you are advocating, at least to the extent feasible. If you think, for example, that meat production threatens the living world, then reduce your own meat consumption as an individual or, if it is within your power, as an organisation. The other is showing you are willing to put skin in the game. This might involve, for example, advocating for higher taxes in order to provide income guarantees to people currently working in industries that are no longer viable in a climate-friendly society. If we really do mean it, and want to be seen to mean it, then we must be prepared to give something up. Emotive pleas or aggressive demands to government and industry leaders “fix the problem” aren’t enough.

Economic growth has got a grip on us not only because it is in the interests of big business or another “oppressive” force – but because we live it in our exchanges with each other. To create an alternative social mandate, I suggest we search within ourselves and starting talking about and putting into practice the values we share. If we do this, just maybe, we’ll give our politicians the courage they need to change the rules and help us become a society more squarely focused on life.

Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and Infinite Games. New York: The Free Press.

Eisenstein, C. (2011). Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Edtions.

Harré, N. (2018). The Infinite Game: How to Live Well Together. Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press.

Harré, N., Bullen, P., & Olson, B. (2006). Storytelling: A workshop for inspiring group action. In R. M. McNair (Ed.), Working for Peace: A Handbook for Practical Psychology and Other Tools (pp. 116-120). Atascadero, CA: Impact.

Harré, N., & Madden, H. (2017). The infinite game: A symbol and workshop for living well together. Ecopsychology, 9(4), 212-224.

Harré, N., Madden, H., Brooks, R., & Goodman, J. (2017). Sharing values as a foundation for collective hope. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 5(2), 342-366. 10.5964/jspp.v5i2.742