Wednesday 12 October 2016

The birth of the New Economics - what was it about 1984?

This is the second part of my series on the history of green economics in the UK, timed to coincide with the relaunch of the New Economics Foundation. This one looks at the launch of nef 30 years ago this year.

Despite the efforts of Harford Thomas in the Guardian, the word ‘alternative’ was officially frowned upon in the early 1980s. “There is no alternative,” said Margaret Thatcher only a few years before. There was disapproval of any other ideas, new or old.

That also went for the other leaders of what was then the G7. It was the spirit of the time. And it was the arrival of the G7 summit in London in June 1984 that gave birth to what is now the New Economics Foundation.

The idea of a counter-summit, that could challenge their right to speak for the future of the Earth came from the Ecology Party activist Sally Willington, who emigrated to Australia in 1989.

She presented it to the party council as the WEDGE project in July 1983 – a bid to get to grips with the ‘economics of more’ – after an article by Harford Thomas, urging the G7 summit in Williamsburg to tackle the issue of the unemployment on their own doorsteps.

She and colleagues planned to fly to Williamsburg to confront them, but were warned that the American authorities would refuse them entry. But still, wasn’t the summit going to come to London next?

Sally persuaded Jonathon Porritt, about to be appointed director of Friends of the Earth and then Ecology Party chair. Jonathon believed a counter-summit required a new organisation to manage it. He contacted James Robertson, whose influential book The Sane Alternative had recently been published. He and his wife Alison Pritchard, co-ordinator of the Turning Point network, hammered together a committee which met in Jonathon’s basement flat, around the corner from King’s Cross Station in London.

The steering committee included many names that were going to become familiar as the sustainability debate took hold: John Davis, Diana Schumacher, Sheila Rothwell, David Cadman, John Elkington, Liz Hosken, Duncan Smith, Jakob von Uexkull and many others.

It was in Jonathon’s flat that James first suggested that, to balance the heads of government, the counter-summit should be called TOES (The Other Economic Summit).

TOES brought together a diverse mixture of environmentalists, radical economists, futurists, mystics and community activists. The three-day event attracted more than 140 people, and launched with a rally at Friends House on the Euston Road, chaired by the former British Ambassador to Washington and future BBC economics correspondent Peter Jay.

Among those on the platform was the World Bank economist Herman Daly, shortly to make his name as one of the godfathers of green economics, as the co-author of For the Common Good.

Of course, TOES wasn’t the only challenge to the G7 leaders, over at Lancaster House – with TOES taking place around the corner at the RAC Club in Pall Mall. There were protest vigils outside by Quakers, protest drumming by Buddhists and a major CND rally in Trafalgar Square.

But TOES also ignited something. When economics seemed constantly to be the end of the argument for sustainability, when economists seemed lined up hopelessly for the narrow status quo, it was an attempt to pull together a new kind of economics that would work for people and planet.

Or, more accurately, it was an attempt to bundle together work by a wide variety of people in a range of fields as a single school of thought – a New Economics. It was ad hoc, it was makeshift, but it was enormously hopeful.

TOES met again in a much bigger event the following year, and the papers of the two conferences were edited together by the green economist Paul Ekins as The Living Economy. By then, Paul had been appointed as the first director of the New Economics Foundation.

The rest isn’t yet history, but it will be one day.

Tomorrow: how the new foundation led the way into the 1990s.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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