Although Hazel Henderson never got beyond high school, she gives the impression of having the inside story on everything important affecting our lives today.

A writer and a futurist, Henderson is knowledgeable in many fields, including economics, ecology, systems theory, cultural anthropology, and business ethics. She also has a startling ability to connect such seemingly divergent subjects so that the connections, once made, seem obvious. She embodies the spirit of the independent scholar, bringing to her work a rare combination of understanding and zeal.

The author of two books — The Politics of the Solar Age and Creating Alternative Futures — Henderson acquired her economic expertise out of necessity. In the early Sixties, she was a founder of Citizens for Clean Air, an environmental crusade which gained her the New York City Medical Society’s Citizen of the Year award. When she found herself facing charges by pro-industry economists that her anti-pollution proposals were economically unfeasible, she began to study economics. She was determined to demystify the discipline — to “penetrate economic language and speak to voters in the mother tongue.”

Henderson has a keen ability to assess the interests and technical level of her audience, and to gauge her remarks accordingly. Experimenting with a variety of ways to communicate her ideas, she has taken on, over the years, one innovative project after another. Her most ambitious undertaking to date is her twelve-part television series, “Creating Alternative Futures,” widely aired on PBS. It consists of half-hour conversations with thinkers such as Alvin Toffler, Fritjof Capra, and Jean Houston. Henderson’s 1971 article on corporate social responsibility, widely reprinted from the Harvard Business Review, led to her popularity on the college lecture circuit.

I talked to Henderson when she was in North Carolina recently at a symposium sponsored by the Center for Peace Education in Chapel Hill. Tall and energetic, she seems younger than her fifty-five years, and her mannerisms still convey traces of her British upbringing. Her passionate intensity is tempered by her graciousness and dismissive wit. (“The Cold War is over,” she deadpans, “and Japan won.”)


THE SUN: You are often introduced as an economist, and yet your first book was subtitled, “The End of Economics.” How can you be an economist if you see it as a dying discipline?

HENDERSON: I’m not an economist. I prefer to call myself a futurist and economic analyst. I simply studied the discipline to find out what was wrong with it. The deeper I got, the more I realized that it really was a defunct framework which was based on false assumptions. I explored this in my book, The Politics of the Solar Age, the subtitle of which is “Alternatives to Economics.” On the surface it appears that economics consists of universal principles: that human beings have insatiable wants; that we’re all rational individuals maximizing our self-interest against all comers. These are false. The most significant falsehood is the idea that the system is basically in equilibrium, and at some point or other, all things will balance out.

THE SUN: What makes that wrong?

HENDERSON: The theory is that the price system will bring supply and demand into balance, and buyers and sellers into equilibrium. The basic assumption — that there will always be enough buyers to purchase what’s produced — is called Say’s law. It’s just the most amazing postulate; you look at it and you stub your toe right away. But many economists believe in a sort of magic power of the price system.

THE SUN: Could you give us a definition of the price system?

HENDERSON: It’s the theory that the price of everything can be determined simply by supply and demand — that everything has a price, a market somewhere; and there’s no such thing as absolute scarcity, since at a high enough price, other resources will be substituted. Traditional economists don’t worry, for instance, that oil will run out, because they think the price will go higher and higher in time to cut off use. What actually happens, of course, is that the prices don’t reflect the scarcity until far too late. The structure of our society makes it very difficult for people to give up using gasoline, and so even if the price goes very high, people may have no other options because we’ve made the substitution of trains or buses very difficult. Economists recognize this only as “inelasticity” of demand.

Economists assume that the price will efficiently reflect all of those interrelated factors; but it doesn’t, because, in addition, the more long-term environmental and social costs are ignored. What happens is that people end up unable to afford using their car, and they lose their job because they can’t get to work. The economic view, or “economism,” as I call it, says the price system will work in such a way that you don’t really need to intervene with social policy. Of course, the actual social system is much more complex than that. As a matter of fact, the systems that economists are describing, rather than being in equilibrium, are in a state of constant disequilibrium and are evolving toward very surprising outcomes.

THE SUN: Are you saying that the overall framework of economics is too simple to account for how the world really works?

HENDERSON: Yes. It tries to use equilibrium concepts to model a system which is in a constant state of disequilibrium and is continually evolving. As I began to dig into all of this, I decided that economics is politics in disguise. It is simply a way of rationalizing certain decisions about how to allocate resources from the point of view of the people who have the money to pay economists: the powerful interest groups like military contractors, politicians, trade associations, and the like. Consider the way the society’s economic resources are divided up and distributed, particularly in government budgets: how much goes toward the military versus programs for the homeless. The homeless don’t have very much lobbying power, and the military contractors have a whole lot. That’s all assumed away in economic models — the idea that there’s power being applied.

THE SUN: Because the economic system is supposed to operate automatically?

HENDERSON: Yes. It does not deal with power and it does not deal with the unequal distribution of information. Some people have a lot more information to act upon quickly — like insiders in the stock market, or bright-eyed, bushy-tailed people who have faxes and computers, as opposed to ghetto people who may not even have learned to read and write. The economic system just assumes that all human beings are little golf balls bouncing around, all equal.

After I moved through all of economic theory wondering how it could be expanded and refashioned to include other factors — all the interactive processes that affect the environment and the social system — I realized that the discipline could never be stretched far enough. That was when I discovered systems theory. I realized it was much more inclusive than economics.

THE SUN: Could you explain how systems theory operates?

HENDERSON: Suppose you were going to take a systems approach to what to do about transportation — how to make it more efficient, less polluting, and cheaper. If you were George Bush you’d say, “Ah, we need to shift to ethanol and methanol fuels.” Of course that’s not a systemic analysis; it’s skewed in favor of powerful interest groups, such as coal and grain-trading companies.

Once you made a systemic map of all the factors that have a significant effect on transportation, and looked at how these factors interact with one another, the issue would come into focus. Then you would find, if you really wanted to do something about pollution, that the first thing would be to shift back to multiple zoning in cities, so that people could once again work at home or live close to where they work. The second thing would be to start closing off local streets to make it safe for people to walk and bicycle. Third, you would increase bus and jitney service over the existing highway system, and fourth, increase the efficiency of the automobile, which can be done quite simply. (Japanese and Swedish cars can already get more than eighty miles to the gallon.) Only fifth would you begin to look at the composition of the fuel.

THE SUN: How would you arrive at these steps through systems theory?

HENDERSON: You would try to map out every possible set of factors and interactions before you began. You would create a systemic diagram of all the possible interlinkages. Systems models are very sensitive to where you put the boundaries, and you have to look very carefully. After all, the biggest system is the planet Earth, where everything is connected to everything else.

But some connections have weak interactions and other connections have very strong ones. When you describe a subsystem, you try to outline it with all the strong interactions. You try to achieve what systems people call “optimal loss of detail.” In other words, you don’t try to model the entire universe every time, but you do try to describe very thoroughly those interactions that are truly significant.

Economics is politics in disguise. It is simply a way of rationalizing certain decisions about how to allocate resources from the point of view of the people who have the money to pay economists. . . .

THE SUN: Do these interactions follow a systematic set of rules?

HENDERSON: No. What you’re looking for when you describe systems is the properties of the interaction — how the processes interact. These can most clearly be analyzed through maps of the web of relationships. In Living Systems, William Miller defines distinct classes of phenomena: for example, the human body contains colonies of microorganisms that are themselves living systems — like the germs that live in your gut and digest your food. On the next level of complexity, you can describe the system of a human body. Then you can describe the system, say, of a corporation, and then you can describe society itself as a living system.

I decided that the abstraction they call an “economy” is really another living system. It’s human beings interacting with each other and within their ecosystems. Instead of describing it in subjective terms, as most economists do, or even in terms of the physical sciences only, you say, “Hey, look, this is a living, dynamic system.”

THE SUN: How is that different from the currently acceptable definition?

HENDERSON: Right now the acceptable definition of economics is “the science of scarcity and allocation.” But the conditions of scarcity they talk about operate only on the physical plane. For example, knowledge isn’t scarce. If one person has it and gives it to another person, they both have it. This whole idea of economics as the study of allocation under conditions of scarcity is simply unrealistic; so is the related assumption that everybody’s wants are in principle insatiable.

THE SUN: How would understanding systems theory be relevant to the average person?

HENDERSON: It would help people to be less intimidated by all of this economic mumbo-jumbo, which can lead them to think, “Oh dear, I’m not an economist, how dare I have an opinion?” What I’m trying to say is, “Look, these guys don’t even know what they’re talking about, so don’t be intimidated by it.”

THE SUN: If I understood systems theory well, how would it affect my life?

HENDERSON: It would very insidiously change your mind and your approach. Every time somebody told you they had a solution to some problem in your town, you would turn it around in your mind and begin thinking of interactions that they might have forgotten. It’s a very powerful methodology. It’s like a mental muscle that you would begin flexing. It’s like putting on another pair of spectacles and seeing different things. You would begin to understand fully that you are living in a complex world where everything is connected with everything else.

The idea of “what goes around comes around” is a wonderful systems statement. Another one is the Golden Rule: all that says is to be nice to people, because otherwise it might come back to hit you in the face. That’s a perfect systems statement.

THE SUN: So you start to see the connections that you might not have noticed before.

HENDERSON: Gregory Bateson always used to say, “Look for the pattern that connects.” Feedback on how society is functioning at all levels must be available to all the decision-makers. Prices — economic feedback — can be useful when they’re corrected for long-term social and environmental costs. But other kinds of feedback are just as important: votes, of course, in a democracy; a free, crusading mass media; hot lines and media watchdog activities; public forums; labor unions; consumer groups; plus all of the feedback from Mother Nature — such as acid rain or ozone depletion — which we need to read more carefully.

The task now is to expand the economic discipline to include as many of these social costs — these overlooked interactions — as possible. We need to realize that traditional economics cannot be the basis for running a complex society, because you cannot stuff a larger box into a smaller one — you cannot stuff society into the conceptual box marked “economics.” The larger framework has to be multi-disciplinary. We might just as well have a Council of Cultural Anthropological Advisors as a Council of Economic Advisors.

When I was on an economic task force for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Presidential campaign, I was trying to get some of these ideas across. I said, “Look, we’re talking about saving the government money. Let’s abolish the Council of Economic Advisors and set up a Council of Interdisciplinary Advisors, where we can have sociologists, political scientists, ecologists, engineers, and so on. We can even have an economist or two.”

THE SUN: Does it ever frustrate you to propose ideas like that before their time?

HENDERSON: No, because many people know that they’re right. Another of my ideas was to expand the board of governors of the Federal Reserve Board to include representatives of consumers, environmentalists, and labor unions. There are so many cases like that — where if you collected feedback from all the constituencies, you would get balanced policies in the first place. This is more efficient than making narrow policies that create new problems somewhere else. In The Politics of the Solar Age, I documented hundreds of these kinds of policy errors.

THE SUN: What kinds of feedback should we be looking for — for example, from the environment?

HENDERSON: A very important set of indicators are the threshold issues that exist on a planetary basis. For example, we could go on for a long time with the population periodically doubling, and feel that we have plenty of resources, and suddenly the next doubling occurs in one day. Another kind of threshold issue would be what percentage of the planet’s rain forest needs to be destroyed to kick the whole system out of balance and into a new regime less hospitable for humans. All of those threshold issues are very important to look at.

Since the planet is a very complex interactive system, it doesn’t behave like the Newtonian model — a giant clock in which everything works with gears and levers. Instead, we have to shift now to a biological image, in which everything is emerging and evolving and changing in very surprising ways.

I use global interactions as a general framework — not only interactions among humans, but also between humans and the biosphere. In the past ten years, for the first time in human history, we have begun to affect the biosphere at a level of intensity that can be viewed by satellite. This requires us to rethink everything that we’re doing.

I’m excited by the number of calls I get now from policy makers at state, local, and national levels who want to explore these ideas further.

THE SUN: You have spoken in the past about what you call the three zones of transition as a useful framework for understanding our times. Could you tell us what they are?

HENDERSON: I refer to them as the breakdown zone, the fibrillation zone, and the break-through zone. They are a way that people experience all the changes as old political metaphors and paradigms break down. People need to remember that there is a break-through zone; they need to train themselves to look for what’s breaking through — not only what’s breaking down.

The middle zone is what I call the fibrillation zone if I’m talking to middle-aged politicians — they get that right away. Fibrillation causes an irregular heartbeat, which can lead to a heart attack or death. If I’m talking to engineers and mathematicians, I call it the bifurcation zone — a more scientific metaphor. This zone represents that existential moment when we understand on a daily basis that nothing can be done to prevent parts of the old system from disappearing. We have to re-evaluate the ground we’re standing on, and make sure we’ve looked deeply enough inside ourselves to know what our deepest values are.

This is a culture that doesn’t help people to check in with their deepest values. In fact, it’s a very superficial kind of culture that offers a lot of canned games: your life’s purpose can be going from a Chevrolet to a Buick to a Cadillac, or your purpose can be some other preprogrammed track around the idea of materialistic “success.” People can take years and years to find they’ve been on the success track, and it’s not making them happy, and then they have a midlife crisis when they’re about forty.

So all I’m trying to do with those three zones is to help people see that amid all the breakdown, other things are breaking through, and that what they do every day can help them on a personal path to a much more satisfying life. It’s like redefining satisfaction — not “success,” but the investigation of what would really make me happy.

THE SUN: Do we have to redefine ourselves when we do that?

HENDERSON: Yes, definitely.

THE SUN: That would seem to be a painful and difficult process.

HENDERSON: Yes, it is. I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know myself, and most of the time that’s pretty painful. If you haven’t gone through periods of being depressed and almost suicidal, you probably haven’t really done it. It’s not easy to really confront ourselves in this culture. More and more people are realizing that there is a lack in their lives of places to sit down with others and talk about ultimate purpose and meaning — and this is the most satisfying thing that human beings do. We are meaning-seeking creatures, and our whole lives are improved if we can really get those meanings clarified. They’re so different for every one of us that we don’t have to compete around a very narrow set of material concerns.

Even the mass media are coming to that point of view. Business Week recently published an article about executive pay and success. They profiled people who make millions of dollars, and then had the sense to pull in for comparison a radiantly beautiful teacher, with a wonderful face, and describe her: “This is the Teacher of the Year, who makes only $35,000, so obviously she is dancing to a different drummer.” It made all the rest of them look pretty crass.

In Japan, you can excel at arranging flowers or cultivating bonsai trees. In Britain, if people just want to be of service to others, they might have the opportunity to do volunteer work and become honorary citizens of their town. In our culture, we need to diversify and honor all the career tracks. We need television programs about all the real heroes and heroines who work in ordinary neighborhoods, who come up with new ways to deal with the older folks, or help raise children, or improve day care, or deal with drugs.

People all know that today the leaders don’t fully understand what’s going on. Massive global changes are engulfing the old sovereignty of their nations. The only leadership people really respect is in the community: who does the Meals on Wheels, who really “walks the talk.” We need to reinforce all those people because they can be very useful role models. Of course, it’s been abused. For example, George Bush invoked “the thousand points of light” as a substitute for hard budget re-prioritizing — suggesting that if we could get people to do things voluntarily, the government wouldn’t have to pay. Yet there is a sense in which these roles are very satisfying, and volunteering should be encouraged.

It would help people to be less intimidated by all of this economic mumbo-jumbo, which can lead them to think, “Oh dear, I’m not an economist, how dare I have an opinion?” What I’m trying to say is, “Look, these guys don’t even know what they’re talking about, so don’t be intimidated by it.”

THE SUN: The idea of presenting realistic role models on television seems to imply that the way in which ideas are presented is nearly as important as the ideas themselves.

HENDERSON: Yes. I began to realize that presenting new ideas only in books, appealing to the “left brain,” is really a very narrow channel — because not many people in this culture read books. That’s how I got into doing a television series. I decided that television was the most strategic medium, and that pushed me toward the visual. The visual contains much more information than the linear written word. Our challenge now, with such a great need to reintegrate knowledge, is to look at the relationships between areas of knowledge rather than the individual areas. The visual portrays those relationships in a much higher-density way.

The television programs were a learning experience for me. I paid for them with my own money, because it was the only way I could learn to be a television producer. I also learned my way around the television technology — how to edit, and how to uplink your programs onto a satellite for $400 an hour. About thirty-five public broadcasting stations pulled them down and recorded them. Now anywhere I go in the United States where the PBS station ran those programs, I find I often get introduced by the mayor or the governor. In the areas where the series was not shown, I’m still in the church basement.

THE SUN: I’m fascinated by your ability to communicate your ideas in the idiom of whatever group you happen to be speaking to. How did you develop that?

HENDERSON: Well, I rotate the vision of that multifaceted “universal gem” of the whole planetary system, and lock on the facet that most closely matches the group’s worldview. I say, for example, “In Business Week, or Time, or whatever, you must have read this. . . .” Then you got ’em.

If you have a good enough conceptual pegboard, it’s amazing how much information you retain. I have a really good memory. People come in and look at my library and they can’t figure out how it’s catalogued. Most of my categories wouldn’t work well for other people, but they just happen to work for me. I’m most interested in innovative juxtapositions and anomalies. For example, my research in economics at present concerns measurement anomalies: those stories all over the business press about how “the leading indicators had to be corrected to allow for the third quarter’s surprising results.” This flags an inadequate, less-than-systematic model. A telling economist joke is that not only can economists not predict what’s going to happen — they can’t even get their hindsight right. So I have a mental file of these media stories.

I developed my memory “muscle” on platforms and on radio programs, debating economists from Con Edison or Exxon who would be telling me that everything I was saying was nonsense. If I didn’t have recall of some of the relevant examples, I would be dead in the water. In particular, you cannot go on a television show with all sorts of notes in front of you. You just have to figure out some other way of accessing it. The politicians have teleprompters, but citizen activists don’t have things like that. They just throw you right on there without even bothering to help you dab the grease off your face.

THE SUN: You seem so optimistic. Is there any time when you have your doubts?

HENDERSON: When my blood sugar’s low. I think that all of us have to know ourselves very well in order to separate out what has to do with body chemistry and what’s actually happening out there. Until we learn to love ourselves, and take care of ourselves, we often get those signals mixed up. Because you’re feeling awful, you start projecting all these dark visions. There are a lot of terrible things happening, but it doesn’t help if we see it as even worse than it is, or if we self-destruct. Some of us have to stay in the game, and the way you stay in the game is to keep tuning in to your “optimal program.”

I have this intuition that my good health and exuberance about what I’m doing have to do with tuning up my immune system. We have to find some way to renew ourselves every day — and it’s always attitudinal; we have to learn that our attitudes control so much of what we think and feel. If we have that sense, then there’s an enormous well of energy from which all of us can renew ourselves, every day, just by tuning in to the beauty of this Earth. And it is everywhere, even where it’s been trashed out, even if it’s just a bowl of flowers.

THE SUN: That helps to explain your resilience, even when people dismiss your ideas. But how do you find the stamina to keep going in there and doing it?

HENDERSON: You know what it really is? Every day I practice empathizing with the entire planet. I try to feel the pain that she feels. I have a practice I use, though I can’t do it every day because I’m on the road. There is a little island where I live, a place that I jog to in the morning. It’s a salt marsh, where there are always gorgeous blue herons and curlews and white egrets. If you look out across the salt marsh on one side, it’s a completely natural scene — you can’t see any kind of human evidence — and when you look the other way, there’s the town of St. Augustine, with all its fairy-tale spires.

I just tune in. I ask my Mother Earth what I can do for her today. I get incredibly strategic answers I wouldn’t have thought of if I had tried to do it rationally. If I had looked at my bulging “in” box and all my files, I might have worked on an existing and very rational ongoing project and missed a huge new opportunity.

If I ask these broader questions, it’s as if it re-randomizes the whole system. I get very interesting answers, and think, “Of course! I’m not going to deal with anything that’s on my desk today.” Sometimes it’s a totally new initiative: that was how I went to China in 1986. I realized I had to have a dialogue with the Chinese, because they’re making really important technological decisions, and I felt their cultural heritage would allow them to move beyond the old Left-Right ideologies in the economics box, toward a systems theory approach. In spite of the recent repression, the potential is still there.

THE SUN: So you test out your intuition against your rational thinking, and it holds up?

HENDERSON: Yes, and sometimes I think, “Well, I don’t know how I could implement that right now,” but at least I have it there in a little “to think about” file. So it’s very intuitive.

THE SUN: What exactly is your real job?

HENDERSON: My job is fronting for Mother Earth. She really is my mother, in a very visceral sense — and I hope this genderizing doesn’t alienate any men. It’s just what makes the most sense to me, and I try to write and say what the Earth would want me to articulate.

That doesn’t give me a daily program of what I’m supposed to do, because it’s all radically nonlinear; the best way to tune in to all that is to tune in to the long-term purpose. This becomes the easiest way to renew my connection with life and this human experiment on this planet. It’s a very delicate, wonderful experiment, and there’s no guarantee we’re going to make it. It’s essential to remember that we’re observing that experiment and deepening the commitment to changing the outcome, weighing in on the side of evolution and keeping the experiment going. That’s a very diffuse kind of goal, and it makes my life really rather lonely, metaphysically, because not that many others are tuning in at that level.

In a sense I have about half of my time always available, unprogrammed, for serendipity. I have to be moving with the serendipity of the whole planet. I feel a little bit like somebody who’s planted a few seeds in the past twenty years, and the seeds are now sprouting in all kinds of unusual places. I don’t know how and why, but I trust the process.

My optimism comes from understanding that radical nonlinearity. For example, the State Department can’t control the citizen diplomacy movement; millions of Americans have visited the Soviet Union now, and it’s so far out of the grasp of hierarchical bureaucrats, whether they’re in Washington or Beijing or Moscow or London or Brussels. It’s like the whole planet has come to life. And that life is really pulsing through individual human beings, who are sensing that this is a crucial time for the human family.

THE SUN: In a certain sense we have to stand back, trust our instincts, and let it happen?

HENDERSON: And remember that Mother Earth is in charge of the experiment. We have this marvelous instrument — our body-mind, fully primed and fully tuned. It’s just a matter of our relaxing into it and realizing that we don’t have to do it all ourselves, or struggle. This is what a lot of people in the movements in the Sixties had to learn: it’s not really about struggle: it’s about tuning in and knowing where the waves are; knowing what’s happening where we can put our own little energies, rather than thinking we have to push a huge boulder up a hill. We’ll either graduate or not. Every one of us can weigh in with our own piece of positive evolutionary energy. But the trick is not to get attached to the outcome, and to realize that the outcome is something that we won’t know.