Blogs >> In Conversation with Julie Richardson: The Philosophy and Development Behind the MA Economics For Transition Programme

In Conversation with Julie Richardson: The Philosophy and Development Behind the MA Economics For Transition Programme

By: Judy Allen

I am a trained classical economist who never felt comfortable with mainstream economics. I come from very traditional economics background but always felt I was operating on the fringes.

Things began to change in the 1980s when I worked as an economist in Botswana for two and a half years. I realised then that the tools I had  in my ‘economics toolbox’ in relation to what was needed were at best useless and at worst dangerous. In Botswana I saw that the way of organizing the economy and everyday life was very different from the West. People had a true sense of belonging and deeply knowledgeable and were connected to the land and ecology. They did not have much material wealth in the accepted sense but they had spiritual and community wealth and real knowledge and respect for nature.

I came back to England and was struck by the spiritual and community poverty we suffered as a culture, in the midst of great material wealth (but with inequality on the rise). I started to teach environmental economics, ecological studies  and international development, first at University College London and then at the African and Asian School at  Sussex University. It was while I was working in Sussex that I became aware of an imbalance within myself as a result of all the mind-based learning. I noticed that I had become disconnected from other ways of knowing – through the body, heart and intuition.  In traditional academia, these forms of knowing were not acknowledged and in many case were actively discouraged. I felt strongly, that if humanity was going to rise to the challenge of healing ourselves and the planet, then we need to bring our whole self to the challenge. As a way of personal re-balancing, I became involved in yoga, meditation and Chinese medicine. I studied and practiced shiatsu (a holistic form of body therapy from Japan) and also learned about Chinese acupuncture and herbs. I resigned from the University and was ready to become a Doctor of Chinese medicine. But at that critical moment I received a phone call from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unity asking me to join the policy think tank to research and make recommendations about reform of the World Trade Organisation with respect to environmental protection, labour rights, health and animal welfare. So I was pulled back into this research and economic policy work but I found a way to start using the holistic thinking  approach that I had learned in Chinese medicine to help develop a whole systems  understanding of international trade and governance systems. At this time I realized that the holistic foundation of Chinese medicine and philosophy could be used to understand health and resilience at different levels of scale – from individuals, to organization, to ecologies. Based on this realization, I developed a programme for ‘energising’ organisations drawing on  the elemental principles of Chinese medicine. This didn’t really take off – perhaps the language and ideas were too ‘New Age’ for business and organisations  at that time. I wanted to keep the idea of health and wholeness involved in the system using the language of holistic science rather than yin and yang.

During this time I was working for the Forum for the Future with Jonathan Porritt and Paul Ekins. I worked with  corporations developing sustainability into their systems, including sustainability accounting. I received a grant from Forum for the Future to attend a three week course at Schumacher College led by Fritjof Capra in 2002. My intention in attending this course was have a deeper understanding of ecological and complexity thinking and how this could prove a Western language for exploring health and wholeness in human (organisations, economies) and planetary systems. 

At once, I felt at home at Schumacher College, which sowed the seeds to later move on from Forum for the Future to enroll on the MSc in Holistic Science. My intention was to explore a synthesis between traditional Chinese science and modern holistic science and what this could mean in practical terms for organizational health and well-being. Once I completed the MSc I was keen to manifest this new knowledge in practice. An opportunity arose to work with the Dartington Estate to develop a land-based incubator for new sustainable enterprises that manifested holistic science in practice through a new type of land management approach. This became the Landscope project. The most important principle of Landscope was waste = food and growing connectivity, where every project had to be land based and be connected to another enterprise across the estate. The intention was that the land became a cohesive force demonstrating the re-localised, circular economy.

I was making a presentation about this initiative one day when a young man introduced himself to me, he was Rob Hopkins. This was before Transition Town Totnes and the Transition Network came into being. Later, I was to become a trustee for the Transition Network.

The re-localised circular economy and the Transition Network were inspirations for the new economics programme at Schumacher College which I lead the development of about 8 years ago – with the Transition Network, the New Economics Foundation and the University of Plymouth as partners.

The programme is rooted in ecological thinking – what can we learn from nature about creating a life sustaining economy? Another distinguishing feature of the MA in Economics for Transition is the relationship between inner transition and outer transformation. The economics for transition is just as concerned with inner transition as it is with changing the external manifestation of the economy. Our economic growth model encourages relationships based on individualism, greed and competitiveness. The challenge is to create conditions for other states of mind to flourish - which we all have within us – collaboration, generosity and trust.

Robin Murray was the practitioner advisor during the development of the programme and was an inspirational support in the process of validation. He was a pioneer of the Fair Trade and Cooperative movements. Molly Scott Catoalso provided academic support and expertise to the programme. I spent a year developing and leading the course. Jonathan Dawson joined the programme the summer before the first intake of students. 

One of the most satisfying aspects of developing the course is that it is developing a new approach to economics and a new whole person teaching and learning approach. We get amazing students on the course who are thirsty for a new approach to economics – which they then put into practice in their contexts. In many ways the students help  grow the course – it is a constantly evolving process.

At Schumacher College, we are not just learning about the new economy, but we are practicing ‘becoming’ the new economy in everyday life – we are experimenting with a phenomenological approach to economics.

I still teach on the economics programme, but also lead a number of other programmes including the Right Livelihood, the Gross National Happiness Master Class, and Transitioning to an Ecological Civilisation: Dialogues East and West.  These programmes are based on and developing further some of the learnings from the economic programme.

Finally, another main area of interest for me is the development of Schumacher Worldwide. This includes the launch of the Schumacher Network later this year as well as supporting alumni to develop their own initiatives in their own countries, as well as launching a number of joint programmes with other like-minded organisations.

The main question that I took with me from the programme is how can I "become the new economy?" I learned that "the economy" is not something that is dead, mechanical, and outside of ourselves, but instead the systems and experiences that we create daily through our intentions, actions, and what we consider "our work." This theme still guides me daily and serves as a life meditation and invitation! - Della Duncan, MA Economics For Transition 2015-2016

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