April 17, 2012, 9:21 AM
Young People Tire of Old Economic Models
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
At the recent United Nations conference on “gross national happiness,” a scattering of young participants looked on with a clear sense of urgency as mainly graying dignitaries, economists, scholars and others pondered ways to gauge progress that go beyond traditional monetary measures. One was Christopher Stampar, a sophomore from the University of Miami who works for the nonprofit group Nourish 9 Billion. He received one of the most enthusiastic rounds of applause when he let it slip that he was 19. Read his blog post on the experience here.
Also on hand was Michael Sandmel, who is graduating this year from New York University and involved with the organization U.S. Youth for Sustainable Development. After the one-day session, which included briefings from economic luminaries including Jeffrey Sachs and the economics Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz, he reacted this way in an e-mail message:
It’s great to see new paradigm slowly making its way into the mainstream. I think this is demonstrated quite well by the comments made by professors Sachs and Stiglitz, neither of whom, even four years ago, I would have expected to reference the Easterlin Happiness Paradox or the Planetary Boundaries Framework.
But he added that his generation was not taking a transition for granted, pointing to the student-organized Transition to a New Economy conference that had just been held Harvard:
We had around 140 attendees from universities around the country. Many of us study in mainstream neoclassical economics departments where interdisciplinary ecological-economics, and the questioning of G.D.P. growth as a primary (or, depending on who you ask, desirable) objective, is still very much fringe thinking. I don’t attempt to speak for all of my peers, but I know that many of us share an enormous frustration with the way in which our supposedly leading institutions teach us about the economy in a way that is myopic, ahistorical, and devoid of nearly any critical conversation about sustainability or human well being.
This is particularly troubling as we regularly see our schools accredit future leaders in business, finance, and government, sending them into a world of 21st century problems with a 20th century toolkit. Many of us have been involved in our local Occupy movements, including Occupy Harvard, and have been trying to use the crisis as an opportunity to push an agenda of plausible alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable finance-dominated capitalism. Many of us will be getting together again in June for the Strategies for a New Economy conference at Bard College and will be in Brazil for the Rio+20 conference and the events surrounding it.
He put me in touch with Rina Kuusipalo, the Harvard student who was one of the organizers of the campus economics meeting. She sent the note below:
Traveling in from Appalachia, Brazil, London, and ranging from arrested labor justice campaigners to U.N. climate negotiations youth organizers and a Deutsche Bank analyst, 140 students and young people gathered at the “Transition to a New Economy Conference,” which was an effort to create holistic alternatives to the current economic system — a discourse cracked open by Occupy Wall Street.
For the conference, we invited in fifteen mentors, including Gar Alperovitz, a founder of the Harvard Institute of Politics and author of ”America Beyond Capitalism,” ecological economist Josh Farley who works to measure happiness in Bhutan, and Juliet Schor, who used to teach Marxist economics at Harvard, before the transformation of the Economics Department to a near sole focus on neoclassical economics.
Our group of organizers are Harvard students, many of whom spent considerable time at Occupy Boston in Dewey Square and also pitched tents here on Harvard Yard. Other students got involved in the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. However, we also have to acknowledge that we were among those being blamed for systemic disrepair. Harvard’s classrooms are full of the future “1%”. Yet, students are in many ways confronted by an intellectual dictatorship of no alternatives. Immense frustration with this state of affairs led many of us to participate in a walkout from the Econ 10 introductory course taught by former Bush economic adviser and prolific textbook author Greg Mankiw.
The dominant narrative says that environmental restraint must be limited and gradual, while social spending must be contained, otherwise the economy will not grow and we will all suffer. This kind of thinking is pervasive, dangerous, and outdated. Infinite growth in a finite world is impossible, growth based on speculative finance is unstable, and since the 1960’s, GDP growth and self-reported well-being have been completely uncorrelated phenomena. In this sense holistic, deep-reaching change of both thought, education and practice is needed. Indeed, we were brought together by an increasing realization that our global economic troubles aren’t just a few bad apples; the problem is indeed the apple tree.