In Memoriam Hazel Henderson 1933–2022
(To be published in Resurgence, Sept/Oct 2022)
Hazel Henderson, who died in May of this year at the age of eighty-nine, was an influential colleague and close friend of mine for over forty years, during which she decisively shaped my thinking about the intersections of economics, ecology, systems thinking, and feminism.
An independent futurist, environmentalist, and economic iconoclast, she argued that the conceptual framework underlying the discipline of economics has become so narrow that it has driven economists into an impasse. Most economic concepts and models are no longer adequate to understand economic phenomena in a fundamentally interdependent world, and current economic policies can no longer solve our economic problems.
In nine books, numerous essays, and countless editorials, Hazel drove home this point for over four decades with an intensity, brilliance, and originality that are still unmatched today. She challenged the world’s foremost economists, politicians, and corporate leaders with her well-founded critique of their fundamental concepts and values. Because of her special talent for presenting her radical ideas in a disarming, nonthreatening manner her voice was heard and respected in government and corporate circles; she held an impressive number of advisory positions and cofounded and directed numerous organizations, in which her new ways of thinking have been elaborated and applied.
In her early work, Henderson was inspired by her friend E.F. Schumacher, author of the pioneering book Small is Beautiful, and prophet of the ecology movement. She helped arrange for his first lectures in the United States, and he wrote the Foreword to her first book. Like Schumacher, Henderson criticized the fragmentation in current economic thinking, the absence of values, the obsession of economists with unqualified economic growth, and their failure to take into account our dependence on the natural world. Like Schumacher, she extended her critique to modern technology and advocated a profound reorientation of our economic and technological systems, based on the use of renewable resources and attention to the human scale.
But Henderson went considerably beyond Schumacher both in her critique and in her outline of alternatives. Her writings offer a rich mixture of theory and activism. Each point of her critique is substantiated by numerous illustrations and statistical data; each suggestion for alternative futures is accompanied by countless concrete examples and references to books, articles, manifestos, projects, and activities of grass-roots organizations. Her focus was not limited to economics and technology but deliberately included politics. In fact, in one of her celebrated aphorisms she asserted that “economics is merely politics in disguise.”
Hazel’s style of speaking and writing was unique. In her efforts to create new maps of economic, social, and ecological interdependence, she constantly sought to break out of the linear mode of thinking. She did so with great verbal virtuosity, showing a distinct flair for catchy phrases and deliberately outrageous statements. Academic economics, for Hazel, was “a form of brain damage;” Wall Street was chasing “funny money,” and Washington was engaged in “the politics of the Last Hurrah,” while her own efforts were directed toward “defrocking the economic priesthood,” announcing “the end of flat-earth economics,” and promoting a “politics of reconceptualization.”
In her new ecological framework, Hazel did not limit herself to its conceptual aspects. She emphasized throughout her work that the reexamination of economic concepts and models needs to deal, at the deepest level, with the underlying value system. Many of the current social and economic problems, she argued, will then be seen to have their roots in the painful adjustments of individuals and institutions to the changing values of our time. For Hazel, these new but also ancient values were the values of deep ecology — ultimately, the values of an Earth-oriented spirituality.
In her reflections on technology, Hazel pointed out that the masculine consciousness that dominates our culture has found its fulfillment in a certain “macho” technology, a technology bent on manipulation and control rather than cooperation, suitable for central management rather than regional and local applications by individuals and small groups. As a result, Hazel observed, most technologies today have become profoundly anti-ecological, unhealthy, and inhuman. They need to be replaced by new forms of technology, she affirmed, technologies that incorporate ecological principles and values.
Hazel dedicated the last two decades of her life to documenting the emergence of green, ethical, and just technologies, economies, financial investments, and lifestyles. In 2005, she founded Ethical Markets for this purpose, an organization that includes a global media network sustained by grass-roots, non-profit organizations around the world. Hazel’s work and life always embodied a unique blend of theory and activism. As she would have put it herself, she walked her talk.