In 1543, Copernicus drew a new diagram of the sun and the planets. As we all probably learned at school, his world immediately fell apart and he went in fear of his life. You can probably remember the explanation too which, like me, you probably just accepted as part of the story of the craziness of humans. Powerful people, especially church people, did not wish to swallow the conclusion Copernicus’s diagram led people to – that our planet, and by implication we, are not in fact the centre of the universe.
Why persecute Copernicus?
I wondered, when I first picked up Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and flipped through it, why the story of Copernicus and his revolutionary diagram figured in it. It soon became clear. Have another think about what you probably think you know about Copernicus’s story. Okay, he suggested that the Earth revolved round the Sun, rather than vice versa. Okay, it was a major slap in the ego to theologists – but it didn’t have to mean that God didn’t exist did it? Or even that (heaven forbid) we weren’t the most important part of God’s plan. It just meant that maybe we’d misunderstood a bit of the grand plan. So why were great furies unleashed on Copernicus?
Do we think with words?
Raworth explains that when grappling with concepts, we rely far more than we generally notice on diagrammatic or pictorial understandings of the world. It’s not too hard to change the words, and people don’t often make a fuss when you do – but change the mental diagrams, and everyone feels as though the sky’s falling on them – or at least as though they’re going to fall over.
Economics students on the rampage!
Did you know there was a major rebellion by economics students in 2015? Nor did I – although looking back, I may have heard some of the echoes. Apparently, after the great financial crash that we all definitely heard about, economics students were quite surprised to go into school the next day and find that nothing had changed. These, the tutors said, are our models. This, they insisted, is how economics works.
But it clearly isn’t working, suggested their students – it’s just wrecked half the world.
There is nothing wrong with our models, the tutors responded.
Too much of a good thing?
Kate Raworth was one of the students who thought that, probably, there was something wrong with the models. Like most people, she had grown up obediently watching economics editors on TV presenting endless line-graphs when talking about things like GDP and telling us that some things are Good and therefore we want More and therefore the lines on the graphs need to go Up. Other things are Bad and therefore the lines need to go Down. Never mind whether you understand what the Thing is, if it’s a Good thing, you cheer when that line goes Up, even if you haven’t got the foggiest idea what the commentator is actually on about.
But isn’t it possible to have Too Much of a Good Thing? It didn’t take many hangovers and stomach upsets when I was growing up to persuade me that that is so. Similarly, people regularly turn up in hospital suffering from the discovery that although sugar, or fat, or whatever, is a Bad Thing, trying to live on None of it is not Good.
Enter The Doughnut
Raworth’s idea was to scrap the Endless Line Graph, and try to come up with a diagram that allows the concept of Too Much and Not Enough – of anything. She came up with The Doughnut. The hole in the middle symbolises Not Enough and the world outside the outer rim symbolises Too Much. The worldview is no longer limited to Good Things and Bad Things. The Doughnut itself symbolises a safe amount of whatever it is.
The battle goes on…
And her revolutionary model actually leads to revolutionary thinking about just about everything. So much so that the current generation of revolutionary economic thinkers are still battling for the new diagram – and if they win the battle, saving the world might just be a part of the prize.
You can join in!
So next time you switch on the TV and find Robert Peston or some such person droning on about inflation or immigration or whatever, with a line graph in the background, switch him off and read another chapter of Doughnut Economics. It’s much more exciting and, unlike most TV economics reports, actually quite comprehensible.