Note: This paper is an edited version of a paper delivered at the Degrowth Conference in Leipzig September 2014. It was one of three contributions in a special workshop dedicated to the work of Richard Douthwaite, and focused on his contribution towards a Material Degrowth Society in Ireland, The talk was delivered by Willi Kiefel in collaboration with Seán Conlan & Caroline Whyte with testimonies and contributions from Feasta members. You can read Seán’s impressions of the Degrowth conference here. Brian Davey drew on his own experience at the conference to write a post on schools of though on degrowth.
This paper is intended to be not purely a scientific paper, but essentially a collaborative effort of many of Richard’s contemporaries and colleagues. In this sense it will not show a formal list of references but will instead cite the events and the names of the collaborators. We believe that the spirit of a cooperative effort better reflects the theme of Degrowth 2014 than the classical concept of a Western scientific paper. It is also our view that our collaborative effort reflects much more Richard Douthwaite’s attitude at the end of his life when he suggested that his last book – itself a co-production – should be entitled Sharing for Survival.
This paper is intended to give insights into Richard’s relationship with Feasta; his numerous and varied participation in conferences, lectures, his publications; contributions, submissions and initiatives. It also includes some personal testimonials of the impact he has had. Before going into the details of Richard’s work and legacy in Ireland, it is worthwhile giving some observations, which may help in understanding Richard’s interest in Ireland and island economies in particular.
From 1972 to 1974, he was government economist in the British colony of Montserrat, notably introducing a fuel rationing system during the 1973 oil crisis, and representing the island at Caribbean regional conferences. This spurred his interest in island economies and other small economic units. He drew on the experience to help islands become more self-reliant and thus shield them from the damage caused by capitalist orthodoxy.
In 1974 Richard moved from Montserrat with his family to Westport, in Co Mayo, where he set up a leathercraft factory to put his grassroots economics into practice.
In 1985 he sold the business and turned to energy, climate change, the creation of money and other then relatively neglected economic issues.
Very few economic thinkers then and even to this day are on record warning about the dangers posed to a planet with finite resources and a fractional-reserve banking system with interest-bearing debt. Even fewer were able to communicate this threat effectively.
Richard and Feasta
Feasta- Richard’s main intellectual legacy in Ireland
Richard understood that one cannot hope to follow or work on all the trends in ecology, economy and society as an individual. That is why he became a founder member of Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.
While the organisation’s founding committee was comprised of six individuals Richard Douthwaite is often considered to be the leading figure.
His books, Short Circuit (1996) and The Ecology of Money, presented a systematic social and environmental critique of the contemporary free-market economy and offered suggestions as to how the economy might be changed in order to achieve a sustainable society. Inspired by some of the ideas expressed in these works, Feasta was founded to continue the work of economic analysis and to construct viable alternative proposals. This twin goal is made clear in its public literature.
Feasta has been established to fill the gap left by the economists. Our aim is to promote and popularise research which analyses the economic system in order to identify the reasons for its destructive characteristics. We also seek to establish the basis on which sustainable economic systems will have to run.
The name ‘Feasta’ (which corresponds to the word ‘future’ or ‘henceforth’ in English) is taken by the organisation from the lines in the old Irish poem ‘Cill Chais’ – Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad / tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár (what shall we do in the future without wood / the end of the forests is here).
The name, and the reference from which it is drawn, encapsulate well the concerns and motivations of the organisation’s founders – an anxiety about what the future will hold and a desire to prepare now for the challenges that it will bring. The English language sub-title – The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability – makes it clear that the objectives of the organisation are to develop and propagate new economic models for a future sustainable society.
Feasta was founded to further explore and develop the implications of these ideas. The organisation’s initial impetus to mobilise can therefore be understood within the context of Douthwaite’s work. The continuity between his work and Feasta’s organisational objectives is illustrated in Feasta’s ‘statement of intent’:
“Feasta will involve itself in many topics which fall outside the scope of conventional economics and intends to become a home for everyone who sees localisation as a counter-balance to globalisation. For example, it will concern itself with local and regional currency systems and financial services, with urban and rural land-use planning, with community-scale methods of production and distribution, with the techniques available for supplying an area’s energy needs from local power sources, and with local sourcing of housing, clothing and food. It will also be concerned with the effects of greater local self-reliance on culture and lifestyle” (cited on Feasta promotional brochure).
By emphasising the development of solutions based on well-researched thinking, Feasta occupies a niche position among environmental groups, not just at a national but at an international level. “We are also interested in envisioning how a sustainable economy and society might look. As far as we are aware, we’re the only organisation in the English-speaking world taking exactly this approach.”
The distinctiveness of Feasta is underlined by its explicit proclamation that it is not a campaigning group. Indeed, it expresses scepticism regarding the long-term value of campaigning and political activity in general in bringing about the type of radical changes that it deems essential. It is the author’s and his collaborators’ view that Feasta’s rejection of political campaigning and protest activity is based on two grounds:
1. Representative democracy as presently constituted cannot deliver the type of radical changes that are required; and
2. Protest activity can at best only achieve reforms but cannot address the core problem because it leaves the unsustainable economic system intact and may have the unintended effect of legitimising the political system.
Feasta’s activities are accordingly focused on developing a package of radical changes that can be implemented in toto in some future, politically amenable, scenario. This unusual position shows activists abandoning the contemporary closed political arena in favour of a possible open arena to come. It is the author’s view that this picture represents Feasta as Richard’s “Alter Ego”.
In short, Feasta’s organisational purpose is as the designer of new ideas – to explicitly be the creator of new cognitive resources. This role gives it its particular identity within the environmental movement and within the wider political marketplace.
Feasta’s Forms of Action
The concept at the centre of Feasta’s discourse is ‘sustainability’. This concept is used to especially describe an economic system that, both in practice and in its values, does not structure itself around the maintenance of economic growth but seeks rather to achieve ecological stability and integral human well-being. The need to move the economic paradigm from a focus on growth to sustainability follows from Feasta’s analysis that it is economic growth and its pursuit that is the primary cause of the world’s social and environmental problems. Feasta’s definition of a sustainable system is one which is ‘capable of being continued unchanged for hundreds of years without causing a progressive deterioration in any of the factors which make it up’ (Feasta Review 2001: 5).
“The key area is economic growth because if you accept that there are limits to economic growth and that we’ve bumped up against quite a number of them and in some cases exceeded them, what you’ve got to say is, ‘Right, we accept that there are limits, what are we going to do’? Are we going to let the market determine who gets to consume what?” (Interview by Mark Garavan with Richard Douthwaite, Westport, 2001).
Conferences, Lectures & Publications
To some degree, Feasta’s organisational goal and purpose can be described as an attempt to achieve a widespread acceptance for their meaning of the concept of sustainability. It follows from this that the forms of action engaged in by Feasta centre on attempts to establish and defend their interpretation of the concept. Hence, the Feasta repertoire comprises conferences, lectures, publications, submissions and study materials.
A review of Feasta’s main public activity since its foundation in 1998 to the end of 2009 clearly reveals this approach:
Richard was instigative in the organisation of two seminal Public Lectures in Trinity College Dublin by internationally acclaimed economists: one by Professor Herman Daly, Professor at the university of Maryland School of Public Affairs entitled ‘Uneconomic Growth in theory and in fact’ delivered on April 26th 1999, and the other by Dr. David Korten, entitled ‘The Civilising of Global Society’ delivered on July 4th 2000.
Selection of other contributions
Richard was involved in organizing and speaking at many conferences, lectures and workshops. This necessitated writing many papers, submissions and presentations on a broad range of topics. These included: ‘Money, Energy and Growth’; ‘Interest-free Banking’; ‘Localisation as a counter-balance to globalisation’ (held in Stockholm); and ‘ Strengthening the role of the Irish Higher Education Community in support of sustainable development’. He was also instrumental in the publication of the first Feasta Review 2001 and subsequent years.These reviews feature a number of articles from international environmental economists and reviews.
Selection of Richard Douthwaite’s own lectures
Richard also delivered a wide range of lectures and talks. Here is a selection:
2006 Understanding the Economics of Sustainable Development: A six week course of lectures September 26 – October 31) by Richard Douthwaite and others. The course questioned the conventional wisdom that both the key to rich-country prosperity and the solution to global poverty is for international trade and investment to generate global economic growth. The event was held in association with Cultivate and supported by Trócaire.
2006 July 7-9 The Ecology of Money A short course given at Bridport, Dorset, UK. Those taking the course learned how to design money systems to suit the goals and circumstances of their local communities.
2007 August 25/26 Lecture Cap & Share A talk by Richard at the Cool Earth Fair – Festival of World Cultures, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.
2008 Degrowth Conference April 18-19 -Paris, France. A paper entitled “Economic Growth cannot continue”, which “was written by David Korowicz & Richard Douthwaite, was delivered by David at the first conference on Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability & Social Justice’.
2009 New Emergency Conference- (another seminal event) In 2009 Richard was very instrumental in organising and setting the tone for the New Emergency Conference in Dublin which was well attended and launched by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
Submissions to Irish Government
Over the years Feasta has made a series of detailed submissions to Irish Government committees. Topics include the implementation of its climate change strategy and sustainable development. A full list is available at http://www.feasta.org/category/documents/submissions/.
Briefing TD’s and Senators in June 2008 A Climate Committee Briefing session in which Richard with David Korowicz addressed TDs and Senators about Cap & Share.
Green Debt and NAMA – Feasta Annual Report 2009 A special Paper on Green Debt and NAMA (the Irish National Asset Management Agency)
Liquidity Network Submission to Éamon Ryan March 2009 In this paper submitted to the Irish Minister for Energy Communications and Natural Resources, the latest Feasta thinking on a complementary currency to the euro was developed and submitted. The context was that the money supply was contracting rapidly, making tradin increasingly difficult and jeopardising many businesses. At the same time the then government could not borrow and spend enough to rectify the situation. The paper was also sent to the office of An Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister).
Feasta Influence on Irish Government
In 2009 Feasta had much greater input into the Irish government’s policymaking process than ever before. This included participation on the National Sustainability Council (Comhar), Social Partnership, and contracts with the Department of the Environment . One such contract led to the setting up of the Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network, giving advice on ways in which Ireland’s land-use sector could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases and how the land’s capacity to absorb these gases might be enhanced. The second contract was for advice on fiscal and financial methods which would nudge Ireland towards greater environmental sustainability. The latter led to the setting up of the Smart Tax Network as the forum in which this advice could be researched and discussed. Both networks were run by Feasta with the participation of members from government departments, other NGOs and academia.
Other Initiatives/Public Workshops
Furthermore through Richard’s initiatives or involvement a large number of public workshops and initiatives of various types took place, some with a particular emphasis on community.
Community based energy systems – he devised an approach called ‘Aggressive Mutuality Plus’ describing how a community can fund its own Energy Supply (Winchester Discovery Centre UK 2009) and engaged with national energy utilities.
Local Economies and Strong Communities for example: Conference in Kilkenny 26-28th May 2010.
Resilient Communities and the development of the Convergence Festival For Richard, the Convergence festival was of great importance in signalling (and effecting) an expansion of the environmental concern to include issues of justice, democracy and economics.
“I think it is [very important]. I haven’t come across anything similar to that in Britain. Ireland has a lot of organisations in the general ‘environmental’ area and it’s not purely environmental any longer. Organisations for instance like ‘Attac’, people who are interested in the global debt crisis that has led them into consideration of, for instance, monetary reform; all these organisations essentially have a common event. It’s a week that will be taking over Temple Bar. It’s been growing bigger year after year…It’s very much about what the economic system needs to be, how we need to do things differently (Interview by Mark Garavan with Douthwaite, Westport, April 2001).”
Local Currencies and Transition Workshop April 2009 This workshop by Richard focused on the history of local currency and how Transition initiatives might use local currency to help build community resilience.
Resilient Communities – Convergence 2010 The development of Resilience in local communities was of particular concern to Richard and he was actively involved in concepts to support local communities. One example, mentioned above, is his involvement in Convergence – the Sustainable Living Festival.
Feasta & the Ecovillage
Feasta is now based in Cloughjordan Ecovillage, Ireland’s largest eco-neighbourhood. The Ecovillage is located in the centre of Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, attracting visitors from all over the island and abroad with an interest in sustainability. This eco-neighbourhood is a unique and innovative project that is striving to create a fresh blueprint for modern sustainable living.
53 eco homes are now completed from the planned 130, renewable energy for heating is in operation, and land for growing food and increased biodiversity is being stewarded.
The Ecovillage has become a destination for learning and hosts events on a diverse range of activities around the themes of biodiversity, community resilience, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, eco tourism, and green building, etc.
Richard strongly believed that “seed projects” coming from civic society or grass roots level were needed as there was no use waiting for governments or policy makers to get to grips with problems. His work on complementary currencies makes this clear; and his practical projects founding liquidity networks and local currency systems bear witness to his ideas and will be analyzed in this contribution.
His insights and calls for more localisation of economies, tackling greenhouse-gas emissions, replacement of earth-damaging monoculture with biodynamic methods of food production and the creation of local currencies, are now a feature of many “Transition Towns” in Ireland, Britain and worldwide.
The (Eco)Village in Cloughjordan in Ireland is a direct practical example of such localised economies.
We have seen in this paper that Richard’s impact was primarily through his thinking, his teaching, and also through his personal lifestyle, his charisma and personality. He was one of those few teachers and thinkers who lived what they preached. In terms of concrete examples of his impact we would refer to his instrumental influence in setting up Feasta and accompanying and perhaps also guiding it, his writings and his influence on Irish seed projects such as Cultivate/ Convergence festivals, Irish regional Conferences, Workshops and Coop festivals. On reflection it is the author’s view that Richard Douthwaite will achieve what he himself wrote in his introduction to the second edition of The Growth Illusion: to get a substantial number of people to accept the necessity to move beyond the Growth Economy in order to open up a new path for humanity. The author and his collaborators believe that the significant number of testimonies in the addendum are living witnesses to that.
Addendum: Personal Impact & Testimonies
Richard placed enormous emphasis on the need for informed collaboration in order to achieve meaningful change. As mentioned in the paper, he wrote in his introduction to the second edition of The Growth Illusion of the need for a “substantial number of people” to accept the necessity move beyond a growth-based economy, in order for a “new path for humanity” to be able to open up.
He was also strikingly lacking in arrogance, to the extent that he frequently did not claim credit for his own work. One of the last pieces of writing he contributed to, a paper for the Irish electricity supply board entitled “Aggressive Mutuality,” was not even signed by him. A tribute to him on the Feasta website, by a group in Waterford, describes how when he was invited to give a talk there he used public transport and stayed in budget accommodation (in marked contrast to a ‘celebrity’ economist who insisted on red-carpet treatment). In this author’s view, this attitude affected the whole ethos of Feasta in a profound way.
His impact was impressively wide, cutting across many professional boundaries. In preparing this paper we sent out a request to people who knew Richard asking for information about his impact on their lives. Below is a brief sample of quotes from some of the replies we received, along with quotes from some previously existing commentary on Richard’s impact. You can read still more tributes to Richard from around the world, including China and India, on his memorial page.
David Korten, the US-based author of When Corporations Rule the World and founder of Yes magazine, wrote in 2000 that Richard “has more effectively than anyone else in my experience challenged the orthodox view that economic growth is essential to eliminating poverty and improving the quality of life for all”. He added that his debt to Richard is “considerable”.
Mark Garavan, the current chair of Feasta’s board of directors, did research on Feasta’s role as an Irish NGO in the early 2000s which included extensive input from Richard. As mentioned above he saw Feasta, under the leadership of Richard, as taking a new approach to environmental activism, going beyond the traditional dichotomy of protest versus co-option by the powerful: “In Feasta, not only might activism have moved beyond protest, but environmental politics may also have moved beyond the political arena as traditionally conceived.”
Anne Ryan, a lecturer in adult education at Maynooth university in Ireland and Feasta trustee, mentioned in her commentary to us that “his works are widely cited and drawn on by scholars and activists in the field of sustainability, resilience and social justice.” She describes him as “an intellectual cornerstone of the environmental movement in Ireland and a model independent public intellectual and activist.”
Also in academia, Tina Evans, a professor in sustainability studies in Colorado, commented that “He was well ahead of his time. Actually, he was right where we all need to be in our thinking about issues of sustainability and economy, but most people are not there yet.” She uses his work extensively in her lecturing.
Rob Hopkins, a prominent campaigner in the Transition Towns movement and author of The Transition Handbook, commented in a video made for Feasta that “I was really honoured to live in Ireland during the time that Feasta started and to see how it emerged under the compassionate, committed and visionary leadership that the late, much missed and very dear Richard Douthwaite brought to the whole thing.”
Barbara Panvel, co-ordinator of the New Era Network that is active in Britain and India, described Richard as a ‘much valued member’ of the Network.
David Hirst, an inventor and consultant in information technology, wrote that Richard’s was “a huge boost” to him in promoting his inventions concerning electricity and tariffs that could help the electricity system become more sustainable and renewable.
Roy Johnston, a physicist and systems analyst, described how Richard’s economic thinking seems to him to provide a way beyond traditional Marxist analysis: “there is scope for development here in addressing the problem of how politically to make a transformation towards democratic ownership of the capital investment process”. He regrets not having had time to interact more with Richard during his lifetime.
Phoebe Bright, a former trader at the London Stock Exchange, commented that “had I not read Richard’s book, had I not been bold enough to call him with a question and found a new friend, my life would have been much the poorer. I would not have joined Feasta or Cork Environmental Forum and or had the voice to make a contribution to future thinking on economics.”
Graham Barnes, a co-organiser of the Feasta Currency Group, writes that “Richard’s contribution was unique. His intellect and clarity of thinking generated the various radical ideas he was committed to and wrote about, but he worked on such a broad front, with such energy, commitment and warmth, that he attracted many more into the Feasta fold to develop on his ideas. Unlike some endowed with great intelligence he was inclusive and enjoyed sharing his work.” Graham went on to describe how Richard’s inclusive approach was highly effective within his own field of currency development.
Liam Réamonn was the official in charge of environmental economics at the Irish Department of Finance when he met Richard, with an assignment of envisaging measures that would enable Ireland to meet its Kyoto targets. As he puts it, “this great and most approachable gentleman, in timely fashion, handed me such information as would ensure a robust basis for my work”.
On a more international level, Déirdre de Búrca, a former Irish Green Party senator who now works in Brussels as a policy advocate, is promoting debt sustainability, global monetary reform and Cap and Share as a response to global climate change. As she writes, “my thinking on these issues was hugely influenced by Richard”.
Some of Richard’s ideas are also being promoted in Washington DC by Mike Sandler, an environmental activist. He described how Richard’s work influenced him to campaign successfully for a Cap and Share type system for handling emissions from electricity in California. He comments that “through Richard’s grounded personality and good-humour, he encouraged me and countless others to join in the cause”.
Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse Richard Douthwaite, Gillian Fallon (editors)
The Post Carbon Reader Peter Whybrow Richard Gilbert Daniel Lerch Richard Heinberg Anthony Perl Bill McKibben Bill Sheehan Brian Schwartz Chris Martenson Cindy Parker David Fridley David Hughes David Orr Erika Allen Gloria Flora Hillary Brown John Kaufmann Joshua Farley Michael Bomford Michael Shuman Richard Douthwaite Rob Hopkins Sandra Postel Stephanie Mills Tom Whipple Warren Karlenzig Wes Jackson William Rees William Ryerson Zenobia Barlow Asher Miller October 2010
The Ecology of Money Richard Douthwaite 2000
Growth – the Celtic Cancer – Why the Global Economy Damages Our Health and Society Richard Douthwaite, John Jopling and other contributors
Before the Wells Run Dry – Ireland’s Transition to Renewable Energy Richard Douthwaite (editor)
Sharing for Survival: Restoring the climate, the commons and society 2012 Editor Brian Davey Other authors include Nick Bardsley, James Bruges, John Jopling, Justin Kenrick, Laurence Matthews and Caroline Whyte. The book concludes with the final piece of work by our much-loved late colleague, Richard Douthwaite, with help from David Knight: an essay entitled “Time for some optimism about the climate crisis”.
Featured image: Wheat. Author: Colin Bourg. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1431692
Willi Kiefel is originally from Germany but has been living in Ireland for the last 30 years (his wife is Irish). He is an electronics engineer and has worked in various positions in information and communication technology industries as well as the automotive Industry. He is retired now. His concern for the environment goes back to his student days in Munich and the publication of the Club of Rome report “Limits to Growth”. His first contact with Feasta goes back to a meeting in Dublin in which Richard Douthwaite introduced his book “The Growth Illusion”.
Willi is increasingly concerned about democratic governance becoming too much influenced / dependent on markets and global market players. He doubts whether our current (democratic) governance models are suitable or even capable to initiate the necessary changes to our economic and societal models in the very short time left. He has been studying alternative governance models based on Commons.