The Real Meaning of Growth in a Sustainable World. Interview to Hazel Henderson

“This is a time for action,” writes Peter Drucker in Knowledge Society. And “active” seems the right word to define the life of Hazel Henderson who, from starting the civic movement Citizens for Clean Air to tackle air pollution in New York City, developed into a futurist, sustainable development consultant and economic writer.

In the following interview, I have talked with her about the role of education, sustainability and the meaning of qualitative growth.


Robert Kennedy Thanking Hazel Henderson and Citizens for Clean Air

Robert Kennedy Thanking Hazel Henderson and Citizens for Clean Air

Can you please summarise your background and your experience as an activist, writer and consultant?

I am self-educated. I went to a very good school in the United Kingdom that gave me solid reading, writing and English basics. However, as society was changing rapidly it seemed to me that a lot of what I wanted to learn wasn’t yet being taught at university, so in my case not going to college turned out to be a big plus.

My experience as an activist began in 1964, while I was living in New York, when as a housewife and mother concerned about her child’s health,  I started Citizens for Clean Air.

As a newly naturalised US citizen it was thrilling to learn so much from the activities of being involved in a community organization, which led me to read a huge amount of information about pollution and where it was coming from, corporations, theory about corporations, and all that. As time went by, our grassroots movement grew to 40,000 strong, with block captains in every New York borough. It made a lot of connections, so for example we went to annual meetings of General Motors to try to appoint citizens in the board of directors.

I was also able to speak to the Mayor of New York, but, when I asked him about pollution issues, his reply was that there was no such thing as smog, which he dismissed as mist coming from the sea.

At that point we invited our newly elected Senator Robert Kennedy for a helicopter ride around the city, who understood the seriousness of the problem, which was generated by chimneys, power plants and factories.

When my Citizens for Clean Air experience came to an end, I wrote a 10,000 word article about the responsibility of businesses which I sent to the Harvard Business Review. After a couple of weeks they sent me a letter to make sure I really was the person who wrote it, as normally if you have an article published in the Harvard Business Review everyone assumes you have a PhD!

To my amazement, they went on to publish my article under the title Should Business Tackle Society’s Problems?, which catapulted me onto a global scene. As a consequence, I started teaching Business Ethics courses and, realising how vast the subject was, I pulled it all together in a book, Creating Alternative Futures.

It is true that all the things you do set you up for your whole life.


You have battled against the view that sees the GDP as the indicator of a country’s wealth and prosperity. Could you please explain why we should not use it as the only element to rely on to assess a nation’s standard of living?

When the Mayor of NYC told us that there was no pollution, we realised that the GDP kept adding up all the bads along with the goods and so one of our main goals was to correct the GDP and make sure that the pollution and the other bads would be subtracted from the goods in order to come up with a net figure which could be more realistic. Senator Robert Kennedy helped us a lot when gave a wonderful speech at University of Kansas in 1968 on all the things that are wrong with GDP.

In a way, it became a crusade for me, so I spoke at many at civic organizations, then I went to the first Earth Summit as a journalist in Stockholm – in 1972 – and spoke and wrote about it, but nobody listened to me.

However, after the huge impact made in 1992 by the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, in 2007 I helped to organise a conference in front of a packed EU Parliament called Beyond GDP. At last, the topic was on the political agenda.

I think that with the Sustainable Development Goals approved in 2015 in New York last summer we have finally made the GDP obsolete.


Some might think that the GDP and other statistics are just abstract data that do not have an impact on daily life. However, numbers can give a wrong perception of reality, causing people and entire nations to suffer. On the contrary, if interpreted correctly, figures can help to boost a country’s prosperity. What is your experience about this?

In 2003 I assisted in organising the first international conference on New Indicators of Sustainability and Quality of Life in Curitiba, Brazil, because we had all these figures such as health poverty gap and environment statistics and they all need to be crammed in and given as much weight as the economic statistics. That did change the policies in Brazil and I am going to explain why, as in my article “Statisticians of the World Unite,” Inter Press Service, 2003.

At that time, everyone said Brazil had a huge debt-to-GDP ratio, but the country was investing in infrastructure and sanitation, and all that money invested in improving the country was counted as debt while it was actually very valuable asset they were creating.

So the Finance Minister of Lula went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with our report and asked why they were overestimating their debt and not accounting for all the assets they were creating.

It was then that the IMF changed the way they looked at the Brazilian economy and cut Brazil’s debt in half with one stroke of the pen. That’s how powerful good statistics are.


We often hear the word “growth” from the mainstream media and political leaders, especially after the 2008 recession. What kind of “growth” are they talking about? And what type of “growth” on the contrary should we be aiming for?

Nowadays, the issue of “growth” is very often present on the political agenda. The physicist Fritjof Capra and I wrote an article together in 2009 called Qualitative Growth (free download on and we presented that in the British House of Lords and the European Parliament. Politicians liked it because they thought that “No Growth” at all as a slogan would make them lose votes.

I tried to explain that you have to know what is growing, what is dying and what should be maintained. If we’re talking about the green, knowledge-rich, clean economy, then of course we want to grow qualitatively in this new way.

For these reasons, we have to keep pushing to have quality of life indicators, such as I created with the Calvert Group of mutual funds in 2000 (now at


Do you think that the role of finance has grown out of proportion in today’s society?

Politics and companies have become puppets in the hands of finance, which is no longer fulfilling its original mission of serving business. With regard to this, we were part of a United Nations Inquiry for the past 2 years designing a financial system for sustainability which produced a report “The Financial System We Need”, now out as a UN official document. To confront this problem, our company has released a report for the UN Inquiry on an expert seminar we held on reforming electronic markets and trading because this high frequency trading is ruining Wall Street.

We also want to re-educate asset managers who are still mis-allocating capital resources because they have an old-fashioned model and the only way you can teach finance is if you turn your principles into a product they can buy and install on their Bloomberg screen and pay a lot of money because that is the only way they’re going to listen to you.

We have to trademark all of our intellectual products because at the moment we live in this kind of world.


What is the role of the media in the shift from an industrial society to a more sustainable age, which you often define as Solar Age?

We live in mediocracies: the advertising business alone is worth $500 billion a year and it filters information in very bad ways.

I started Ethical Markets Media 10 years ago it because I knew that mainstream media would never be able to report the Solar Age and the emergence of all these new solar energy companies as most of their advertising comes from fossil fuel companies or nuclear power.

The Kyoto Protocol, which said that we would have to move to low carbon economies, was being ignored. Therefore, by producing a Green Transition Scoreboard, we decided to shame the bureaucrats and face down the so called climate deniers.

I also started the EthicMark® Award for Advertising that Uplifts Human Spirit and Society, and we’ve just given our 10th anniversary awards to two wonderful ad campaigns, one from a company working in Cambodia and the other one from a Pakistani company (


Recently you have also shifted your attention to the production of blood-stained gems. Can you tell us more about this?

The global mining of diamonds and gems causes pollution and horrible pain to miners – over 100 workers died in mines in South Africa last year.

Today, precious gems can be made in laboratories, which are absolutely identical to the diamonds or rubies that are found in mines – not even gemmologists can tell the difference.

To confront this situation we have created a new certification which certifies only gems that are not mined from the earth. They’re just as beautiful, but they cost less than the price of mined diamonds. So it’s a way for us to deal with consumers, consciousness, over-consumption and the stupidity of mining.

To find out more you can go to and take the pledge never to buy a gem mined from Mother Earth.

Obviously, we’re taking on the cartel of diamond producers. At some point they’re going to hit back at us… But, so what? – she laughs, editor’s note – It really is fun!


Let us talk about your next publications.

I served 6 years as a science policy advisor at the National Science Foundation and we did some ground-breaking reports in the early 1980s about energy efficiency in buildings and replacing the internal combustion engines.

However, the Republicans in the Congress shut this office down, but we have in our Ethical Markets library all of these incredible good studies that were suppressed and ignored. So we went to the University of Florida Press and they loved the idea and we’re republishing the very best of these studies and the first one is coming out which was done on Technology for Local Development – it could have been written yesterday. It is all about farmers’ markets, community solar energy, community wind generators and everything that’s happening now. This is coming out early next year and I’ve written a foreword and introduction just spilling the beans about how terrible it was that these scientific reports were suppressed by the same know-nothing Republicans.

You can also download free my latest e-book published in London and called “Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age”. That’s my best thinking about how to destroy economics that is no good. The subtitle is “Beyond Economism, Towards Earth System Science” and a foreword to this e-book is by the chief scientist of NASA, so I have a very clever ally.

We need to go to multidisciplinary systems thinking. I know that’s radical, but we need it if we want to save the earth.


Change starts from education. It is widespread opinion that the way education is structured in several countries around the world is not in line with the shift from industrial to knowledge society. How do you think education should be reformed?

Unfortunately, the whole business of giving degrees is in many ways obsolete, because society has been changing so fast that apparently more than 60% of college graduates say the job they have has nothing to do with the degree they earned.

This is why I am a supporter of self-directed education, I think it’s the best.

Obviously, you have to have good writing and reading skills and a lot of good experience in society, for example as a community organizer. In this country right now the level of education is so low, as is demonstrated by the fact that 45% of Americans don’t believe in evolution. So of course they won’t believe in climate science.

Education is vital. This is the reason why we have also created a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which educates you to become a competent global citizen. It’s called the Ethical Markets Exploratorium (


Can study and action be combined? Could you explain the phrase “practical idealism” which you have used in your books?

Theory and practice are always intertwined. The psychologist Kurt Lewin talked about “action research”, i.e. there’s no research without experiential verification and action.

Take my case as an example. I have always read like crazy – I have 7000 books in our library with my notations in each of them – but unless you have experiential verification through your own practice, that means nothing.


In conclusion, what is a message that you want to leave for young people?

Thousands of students attend our MOOC which is free. I just encourage them to follow their own passions and interests and learn at their own speed what is relevant to them.

People who know themselves know what they want to do. That is the reason why in a person’s life it’s also important to have plenty of time for inner contemplation.

You should never give up your own goals and deep motivation.



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