(lots of ) Other worlds are possible

December 4, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

‘We are confronted with two alternatives: to be a demagogue or to be a Other Worlds are possiblerealist. If, based on the law of supply and demand, I say that there is a greater demand in the world for bread than for plastic surgery; and much more for the treatment of malaria than for apparel of haute couture; or if I propose a referendum asking the citizens if they prefer to use their monetary reserves to save lives or to save banks; I will be accused of being a demagogue. If, on the contrary, I accept that it is more urgent, more necessary and more convenient and profitable to all, to avoid an insurance company or a bank going bankrupt, instead of feeding millions of children, or giving aid to victims of a hurricane, or curing the dengue, it will be said that I am a realist.’

Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist waxes demagogic in the final volume of the ‘Up in Smoke’ series, co-authored by the UK’s Working Group on Climate Change and Development (including Oxfam). Starting in 2004, the first five Up in Smoke reports highlighted the impact of climate change on different regions of the developing world. Together, they highlighted the urgent need for new development models. This latest report, ‘Other worlds are possible’, explores what those new models might look like. Vision pieces from developing country gurus like Max-Neef, Wangari Maathai and Jayati Ghosh are followed by a plethora of on the ground examples of putting alternative visions into practice (from Peru’s Happy Earthworm Ecological Center to community action to cope with drought and flood in Nepal). There’s also a good smattering of killer facts (see box).

Other Worlds are possible KFsSome will see the report as more of a dog’s dinner than soul food – a scattered collection of inspiring projects and clever ideas, rather than a clear overarching thesis on where we need to go. Indeed the report questions the wisdom of seeking such single paths. But emphasizing diversity, pluralism and ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ has a cost – the lack of a clear narrative or ‘vision thing’ (as George Bush senior once called it), which can inspire and motivate (think Keynes, Marx or Friedman). But while we wait for a new grand narrative to come along, there are good ideas in here, and it’s worth a trawl.