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Practicing Ecology: Julie Richardson on the Transition to a New Economy

Schumacher College, an international hub of ecological thinking and transformative education. The Old Postern at Schumacher College (Photo: Chris Tittle)

If you follow the River Dart from where it meets the sea in Dartmouth (a small harbor town in Southwest England) to its many sources high up on Dartmoor (one of England’s largest national parks) you would travel a landscape that is both timeless and ever-changing. Standing atop one of Dartmoor’s large outcroppings of granite, you can actually begin to see the planet’s carbon cycle at work.

Carbon is removed from the atmosphere when it bonds with calcium stored in this granite, eventually washing out into the ocean by means of the River Dart, flowing just below. Carbon sequestered in the ocean, and in Dartmoor’s granite, has helped cool the Earth for billions of years, which is why ecologist and author Dr. Stephan Harding has called Dartmoor the “Earth’s refrigerator.” But a bit too much carbon fills the refrigerator these days, in part because of a carbon-intensive, recklessly consumptive global economic system.

Thus it is no surprise that, also along the River Dart’s humble banks, sit two of the most innovative responses to this period of great ecological and social uncertainty: Transition Town Totnes, the birthplace of the global Transition Network and Schumacher College, an international hub of ecological thinking and transformative education.

Inspired by an emerging understanding of holistic science, and motivated by the manifold threats to the delicate fabric of life, Schumacher College was formed 20 years ago as a center for rigorous learning and holistic living in the spirit of E.F. Schumacher, the famous economist known for his seminal book Small is Beautiful. Building on many years of short courses, and the pioneering Master of Science in Holistic Science, the College began the first ever Master of Arts in Economics for Transition in 2011, to explore the evolving field of new economics and embody Fritz Schumacher’s mantra, “economics as if people mattered.”

Drawn by the integration of ecological thinking, community living, and the chance to learn from some of the world’s most dynamic thinkers and activists, I joined 10 others from around the world in the MA’s inaugural cohort. It was a wholly unique experience, educationally as well as personally. In integrating rigorous learning with the daily responsibilities of maintaining and providing for our collective wellbeing--through cooking, cleaning, gardening, and celebrating--the College community became a place to live toward our values, as well as a process of deepening into ourselves and our relationships.

Almost a year after leaving the College and forested banks of the River Dart, I spoke with program designer and co-head of economics, Julie Richardson, about how the Economics for Transition program is working to shift deeply ingrained worldviews, and give voice to more generative ways of organizing our economic relationships in an age of transition.

CT: E.F. Schumacher was known primarily as an economist. Why an economics graduate program now after 20 years of courses at Schumacher College? Why is his message uniquely relevant now?

JR: Well, I think it’s always been an ambition for the college to have a postgraduate program in economics, and ever since the college started, economics has been a core theme of our short course program. Much of the thinking for the MA Economics for Transition came out of the existing master’s program in Holistic Science. So I see this program as a combination of ecological thinking--new thinking in science, what we can learn from healthy living system to evolve healthy societies and healthy resilient economies--as well as integrating that with thinking from new economics, “Schumacher economics,” which is more relevant today than it ever was. In fact, Schumacher was one of the first economists to incorporate ecological thinking into the economic domain and was the inspiration for the whole “new economics” movement in the UK and Europe and worldwide.

Somebody once asked me, “Well, what do you think Schumacher economics looks like in the 21st century? Is it relevant in the 21st century?” I think even more so, but I think its Schumacher networked. It’s still the issue of appropriate-scale local economies, but networked with other similar projects and local economies worldwide, so you actually create a mass movement for change that is context-specific.

CT: What is the significance of the ecological worldview for addressing issues such as social and economic justice, which have really come to the forefront through things like the Occupy Movement?

JR: I think that really gets to the nub of the issue of where values come from, whether ecological thinking is enough in itself. Personally, I don’t think it is. I think it can help us learn about life-sustaining systems and principles around resilience and adaptation and cooperation. But I think the issues of our human social systems also have the important question of values. Where do values come from within ecological systems? Do they evolve out of the relationships? Or do you have a value-based system which is the founding principle, and then relationships evolve out of that? I think that is really where some of the most exciting thinking is happening at the moment. It’s around that role of values and how they are integrated with ecological thinking. Because I don’t think ecological thinking in and of itself is sufficient. I think it’s very important for understanding the qualities of a healthy whole system. But the issue of values is more about the evolution of human consciousness.

CT: How is the program interacting with and learning from the community in which it is embedded: Totnes and the Transition Network, as well as Dartington and its rich legacy of innovation and experimentation?

JR: Well, the strategy of the College at the moment is two-pronged. We call it: “rooted in place” and “networked worldwide.” The “rooted in place” is about putting the more academic principles into practice in the local community or in a region. Our vision would be that we work in partnership with Transition Town Totnes, Dartington Estate, other land owners, and the School for Social Entrepreneurs to demonstrate and co-evolve what a sustainable, resilient social and economic system looks like in our neighborhood. And then we work with others to create an international network of resilient economies and resilient societies. And they would all be different obviously because they would be context specific.

(Here in Dartington) we are setting up a new social enterprise incubator specifically for graduates from (the School for Social Entrepreneurs) to develop their own initiatives which will hopefully take root in their locality.

You know, after my time studying in the Holistic Science course, I thought, “what the hell does this look like in practice in the social and economic domain, and how can I communicate some of these principles?” So I set up the Landscope project on the Dartington Estate, which was very much inspired by ecological thinking. We were trying to create a network or a circular economy of small enterprises where the waste of one activity fed into another activity and they were connected together in what I call “economies of scope,” rather than economies of scale. The Landscope model is still the inspiration for the Land Use Plan on the Estate to develop this community of small scale social-environmental enterprises.

CT: How do you hope this course moves out into the world? In other words, how is it preparing next generation leaders to bring about systemic change in their own communities?

Learning at Schumacher College involves a wide range of teaching and learning approaches, including student-led classes (Photo: Brigita Laykovich)

JR: I think it gives a combination of knowledge, inspiring ideas and projects; it also gives people an experience of community living. For people in the West this is one of the challenges that we face: we are not accustomed to community living and collaboration and sharing. But not just in a sort of airy fairy way, it’s actually quite difficult to live in a community. I think that is a huge part of the value of the Schumacher Project.

So on one hand, part of it is the formal learning that happens in the classroom where students explore different concepts and develop skills in say, group facilitation. The other half of it is living and working in community in a more collaborative environment and learning it by living it. Practicing the values of bringing the new economy into being. Practicing cooperation and fair exchange, putting some of those principals into practice.

Interestingly, we have a delegation of 28 students coming from the London School of Economics--disillusioned students on their Environment and Development program. They are going on a tour of Transition Town Totnes, then going out to Dartmoor to learn about Gaia Theory and Deep Ecology, and then they are coming to live at the College for a day or two. They are seeking an alternative to the top-down, knowledge-based Master’s program.

CT: So what were the major learnings after the first year of the course for you? Where is the program going from here?

JR: One of the learnings is this balance between breadth and depth. This year the second module is quite different. Rather than trying to do a huge canter through this very heterogeneous subject of new economics with many, many different strands, we picked up key questions like concepts of economic growth, sustainable growth and steady state economics and explored those over longer periods. There are now eight “Big Questions” which are explored in a balance of different types of teaching and learning methods--some presentations, some group discussions, some student-led sessions, which have apparently been the best! Surprise, surprise!

I remember when I did my economics degree, I came out and felt I couldn’t really read the newspaper and make sense of it. But I could use mathematical equations to differentiate, etcetera. I didn’t feel very literate and useful in day-to-day conversations around economics. That module now enables people to be much more literate about the big economic questions they are going to face when they come out of the program.

The New Economics module is also much more applied. We do a lot more visiting real projects on the ground, so the learning comes from looking at what’s working in practice--learning the theory from the practice.

CT: That’s fantastic.

JR: There’s also the whole theme of what we called “personal transition,” which underpinned the program but which didn’t come across so clearly the first year. We are trying to strengthen that much more by looking at people’s own personal learning journeys and having structures for them to form ideas around their own personal transition, which I think will help a lot in terms of next steps on leaving the program. And I must say that some of the most amazing and fascinating things that I was reading in the various assignments were those personal learning journeys. Really inspiring work. We are making that story much more coherent.

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