The future of Economics should start from what Economics has neglected for centuries

By Alice Damiano

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The grim prognosis for life on this planet is the consequence of a few centuries of forgetting what traditional Indigenous societies knew and the surviving ones still recognize.”

Noam Chomsky

Serious global environmental problems like climate change are urging us to rethink our relationship with the Earth. This includes questioning our decision-making methods, acknowledging that they are problematic and have dire consequences for the environment and for humanity, and considering alternatives.

At this point in history, the act of non-Indigenous people humbling ourselves and listening to Indigenous peoples is necessary, important, and overdue. Many peoples and cultures have been oppressed for centuries worldwide, their perspectives have been neglected, and their claims have been ignored, while a Western way of life has been considered the “most advanced” one, a Western idea of development has been imposed, and Western economic ideas have become mainstream.

Now that the shortcomings of mainstream Economics are becoming more apparent than ever, it is time to admit that perhaps some of the solutions will not consist in further developments rooted in Western culture, but in the recognition of understandings rooted in Indigenous cultures*. Indeed, why continuing on the same path, if this path is leading to global catastrophe? Why not stopping for a moment, looking around for other paths, and perhaps even making a step back?

This is the aim of the presentations “Listening to Indigenous-made media to redefine the human-Earth relationship” and “Indigenous knowledge and Behavioural Economics: Teaming up to challenge mainstream Economics”, delivered at the ANZSEE 2019 conference.

The first presentation was focused on giving attention to those messages that Indigenous people are spontaneously sharing, with little-to-no Western filter, in Indigenous-produced newspapers, documentaries and speeches. The underlying idea is that many Indigenous people have already expressed insightful perspectives and serious concerns about the human-Earth relationships and that these perspectives and concerns should become the basis of future discourses on the human-Earth relationships.

The second presentation consisted of questioning mainstream Economics in the light of Indigenous perspectives, and combining this questioning with the Behavioural Economics objections to mainstream Economics. Preliminary results show that concepts such as “maximization”, “time horizon” and “risk management” are highly questionable in the light of Indigenous knowledge. Meanwhile, Behavioural Economics concepts are in a curious position: On the one hand they challenge mainstream Economics and point to some of its shortcomings while, on the other hand, some Behavioural Economic concepts can be challenged and revisited in the light of Indigenous knowledge. An example of this is the concept of “status quo bias”: Behavioural Economics successfully identifies it as a situation in which the assumptions of mainstream Economics are not respected, but it calls it a “bias”, thus treating it as a problem. Indigenous perspectives instead, seem to suggest that the same behaviour should not be considered a “bias”, but a sensible attitude, because it is related to the idea of preserving what we have. Hence, a behaviour that is “not rational” in economic terms, can be seen as a positive phenomenon we should leverage on, a sensible behaviour that should inspire our future relationship with the Earth.

In the end, the future of Economics—as well as the future of the human-Earth relationships—should start from humbling ourselves, being open-minded and ready to question our own mindsets, and listening to those peoples and cultures that have been neglected. Objectives that now seem essential can turn out to be irrelevant, alleged biases can signal that we are missing something, and methods that seem unquestionable can, in the end, be exposed as too partial. The current environmental emergency is compelling us to make a change. And the change we need might be already around us: All we have to do is listen.

* This discourse, in fact, applies to all non-Western cultures, not only to Indigenous ones. However, this blog post and the research presented at the ANZSEE conference are focused on Indigenous cultures only. Clearly, there is no such thing as a “pan-Indigenous culture”, and thus in this research attention is given to specifying which Indigenous people each principle comes from, without assuming that all Indigenous cultures agree on all principles. Also, this research does not want to endorse the romantic myth of the “good savage”, assuming that Indigenous cultures are, by definition, better than the Western one. This research simply recognizes that Indigenous cultures offer many good examples and that Western culture is questionable.

Alice Damiano is a Ph.D. candidate in Renewable Resources at McGill University and a fellow of the Economics for the Anthropocene project. She is interested in Ecological and Behavioural Economics, Indigenous perspectives and climate change-related disasters. In her research, she is questioning Western perspectives in the light of Indigenous ones.