She's a leading economic instigator

Published Nov. 19, 1990|Updated Oct. 18, 2005

Hazel Henderson is something remotely akin to an economist, but we don't want to talk about that now. Economics is, after all, deadly dull. No one can make any sense of it, which is perfectly natural, Henderson contends, because the discipline of economics itself is "a form of brain damage."

No, it's more interesting, at least at first, to run through a laundry list of unrelated Things To Know About Hazel Henderson:

She refuses to own a car.

She has a Colombian blood sacrifice pot in her living room.

She says things such as: "Military contracting is a sunset industry," and "The Cold War is over; Japan won."

She has this weird brown toilet paper in her bathrooms.

She has no college degree.

She has lived in Florida about 15 years.

No one here has heard of her.

Well, actually, the latter is not exactly true.

Some might remember Hazel Henderson from the mid-1960s, when she was a young mother telling the mayor of New York _ who told her that the black stuff in the air was just "mist rolling in from the sea" _ that no, it's not mist, Mr. Mayor. It's soot.

This was right before she succeeded in getting all three television networks and the New York Times to start publishing the air pollution index every day. Which was right before she won the Citizen of the Year Award from the New York Medical Society (1967) for her work in founding the Citizens for Clean Air Inc.

More than 20 years later, Henderson, 57, best known for popularizing the phrase "think globally, act locally," is still asking important people who don't know her irritating questions.

For example, when she was on the Florida Speaker's Advisory Committee on the Future in 1985, she listened to a speech about Florida's economic future and traditional development, which she calls "the plantation model."

"He was a guy who had the typical sort of analysis of the old, competitive economic growth thing _ where our state has to reduce its regulations to create a good business climate, da, da, da," Henderson says. "So he put this thing up on the board showing how we were lagging (behind) Texas, California and Massachusetts in getting our share of the federal defense bucks.

"So at the end of his presentation, I thought, "All right, I might as well begin to be unpopular right now. Nobody even knows who I am, this lady in the back.'

"And I said: "What makes you think that this federal defense-funded future is going to be viable at a time when both the U.S.A. and the USSR are staggering into economic exhaustion from this arms race? In a global economy, who does this mean we will be competing against in this region? Would you believe Haiti? Where people are willing to work for 50 cents a day? Do we really want to play that game?'

"Everybody turned around: What the hell? Who is this? They were absolutely aghast _ "She must be a pacifist. Peacenik.' "

Henderson does not shirk those tags. But she officially calls herself an independent futurist and consultant on alternative development. Which is to say she is a self-educated, self-employed person who goes anywhere in the world to talk about how out of balance most nation's economies are _ the U.S. leading the pack _ and to recommend major fixes, before the weight of our own waste dooms us.

It is difficult to categorize or evaluate Henderson. She is little known in Florida outside certain circles, says John Mills, former state House Speaker and now director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida. (Henderson is on the Center's board).

But "wherever she talks, she makes people think," Mills says. "Whether you agree or not, she makes you view problems and solutions creatively."

"It's impossible to summarize her theories," Mills adds, "but basically, she's saying: If you destroy the environment, you destroy the economy."

Henderson's old friend, Democratic state Sen. Jeanne Malchon of St. Petersburg, describes her as "dynamic _ brilliant." Others think Henderson is a New Age flake. But, as a Christian Science Monitor writer said when reviewing her 1981 book, The Politics of the Solar Age, Henderson is "a terrific synthesizer of new modes of thought, one who would not be offended by critics who call her a crank."

Henderson is amused by the nickname (Cranks need a good sense of humor). She can afford to laugh a little these days. During the past three years, as the '90s hit like a hurricane with a set of staggering and scary problems, more people are inviting Hazel Henderson to speak at their association dinners. She travels 200 days a year.

This is not to say that George Bush is going to appoint her Secretary of the Interior anytime soon.

But people from Idaho to Denmark _ where she was featured on the front page of a major newspaper _ are asking her for ideas about balancing economic growth with environmental health.

No one is more surprised than Henderson.

"I really didn't think that within my lifetime anyone would actually implement what I was talking about," she says. "Suddenly, everybody has realized that we have to score the game differently and rethink what we mean by progress and growth."

In theory and practice

Henderson, a tall woman with a commanding yet inviting presence, lives what she preaches. She is fundamentally opposed to automobiles. She believes they pollute the environment, and have helped cause disintegration of healthier, more efficient and nurturing local communities. She has therefore converted her garage into a guest suite for her many international, fellow global citizens who visit from all over the world.

She rides her bicycle to the local health food store and vegetable stand; she "would never step foot in a supermarket." A vegetarian, she serves her guests meals like spinach and feta cheese on whole wheat croissants.

The toilet paper is recycled paper ordered from a catalog company she helped create 10 years ago; it has 1-million subscribers now, she says.

Her home, a spacious, well-swept, windowed place, displays beautiful tapestries, hand-made baskets, silk paintings and the blood sacrifice bowl. Most are gifts and mementos from Third World countries, which, Henderson says, have been hurt the most and gained the least from the economic policies of the past 50 years.

She cautions people to avoid "getting recycling on the brain." Two other "re" words are more important: reduction in consumption overall, and reuse _ reusing items such as paper bags, or using ceramic coffee cups instead of throwaway Styrofoam. This cuts down on the energy it takes to recycle one item into something else.

Henderson's broader economic message, boiled down to its bare bones, is this: The big industrial nations run on cheap oil and no regard for environmental consequences. They have fueled a mindless Waste Age that has hurt humankind in the long run. The proof of this, she says, is in soaring crime, illiteracy and infant mortality rates, and pressing environmental and economic problems. World leaders have already lost control of events; they just don't know it yet. We have entered the "post-industrial age."

We never really knew how bad things were, she contends, because we kept score of our "progress" with the Gross National Product. The GNP combines consumer spending, investment, exports and government purchases into one figure. Using the GNP alone to gauge growth, Henderson says, is "like trying to fly a Boeing 747 with nothing on the instrument panel but the oil pressure gauge."

The Exxon Valdez disaster best illustrated the GNP's absurdity. The oil spill cleanup cost so much, Alaska's GNP soared.

Henderson advocates her own accounting system, which she has given the tag of "Country Futures Indicators." Her formula looks at literacy rates, life expectancy, infant mortality, pollution cleanup costs, child development, housing availability and nutrition, in addition to consumer spending.

Using those numbers, the United States often ranks below countries such as Sri Lanka and Costa Rica, Henderson says.

Traditional economists give some credence to the anti-GNP theory.

"We always tell our classes that the GNP does not include, for instance, welfare, and then we proceed to talk as if it did," says David Denslow, professor of economics and interim director of the Bureau of Economic Research at the University of Florida.

Henderson, whom Denslow knows of "vaguely," is among a group of out-of-mainstream economists who play an important role by "raising issues the profession has been sweeping under the rug," he said.

"There is a whole minor discipline that is attempting to assess the cost of pollution, the value of avoiding pollution," Denslow says. "The problem is that it's almost impossible to correct for inefficiency of the GNP. It's hard to value those things accurately."

Self-employed and unemployable

Henderson was born in Bristol, England, in 1933. Her father was a corporate executive. Her mother was essentially an environmentalist. She grew her own vegetables, walked into town, bought items from local merchants _ the kind of cohesive, local community life Henderson now lives and advocates.

Educated in British private schools, Henderson left home at 16 to work in a local inn. She opted not to go to college because, she says, "they weren't teaching anything interesting." She left England soon after for warmer weather, still pursuing her inn-keeping career.

At 25, she moved to New York, and in 1957 married Carter Henderson, then a Wall Street Journal reporter. Hazel, a young mother, first noticed "soot" on her toddler daughter (now 29) in the bathtub. She wondered if the child's occasional coughing had anything to do with the tainted air. When the mayor answered her letters with his mist-from-the-sea explanation, she embarked on her campaign to clean the air, co-founding the Citizens for Clean Air.

Meanwhile, corporations were saying that it was too expensive to clean up the air that they polluted to begin with on their way to making huge profits.

This didn't make sense to Henderson.

So she embarked on her life as a self-ordained alternative economics messiah. She has participated in hundreds of seminars, lectures and conferences, written volumes, been appointed to dozens of boards of alternative organizations and advisory councils, appeared on 300 television shows, including the Today show and Bill Moyers' Journal.

She moved to Florida in the mid-'70s and divorced in 1981. She wrote two books, Creating Alternative Futures, (1979) and The Politics of the Solar Age.

In 1984, she organized, produced and paid for a television series, aired on Gainesville's PBS station. The series was a rather heady, intellectual product that featured some of her friends such as Alvin Toffler (Future Shock), and John Naisbitt (Megatrends).

She remains self-employed because, she says, "I always knew I was unemployable _ I would have been fired off any job for insubordination."

She is, in the tradition of most futurists and environmentalists, both pessimistic and optimistic _ lately more the latter. The 1990s, she says, will be "the turnaround decade." The '80s should have been, but went instead "into denial."

She sees encouraging signs. Local recycling programs; the Green Party gaining official legitimacy in Alaska in the recent elections; The Big Green initiative, though "ill-designed," at least on the ballot in California; front page Time and Newsweek articles on the environment; Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay in the state capitol.

In Jacksonville, the Chamber of Commerce publishes annual quality of life monitors such as SAT scores, high school drop out rates, average commuting miles, average unemployement rate.

Meanwhile, after stirring up the pot for 20 years, Hazel Henderson and a couple of her friends have started their own venture capital firm to encourage investment in what she calls "the emerging sector" _ companies involved in recyclable products, renewable energy systems, fuel efficient cars and mass transit systems, pollution control.

"We're going right into the heart of it," Henderson says. "Wall Street."

She is, in the tradition of most futurists and environmentalists, both pessimistic and optimistic _ lately more the latter. The 1990s, she says, will be "the turnaround decade."