The Matrix Of The Emissary

Duncan Austin

Market Primacy and The Sustainability Crisis

(I am grateful to Responsible Investor for publishing an earlier version of this essay, ‘Can Economics Grasp What Ecology Says?’)



It is a great pleasure to submit an essay for Channel McGilchrist. No book has had a more profound impact on my thinking and subsequent life choices than The Master and His Emissary, albeit my first perusal was inauspicious.

Several years ago, while a family member was struggling with mental illness, I was introduced to the intriguing idea of ‘right brain to right brain’ therapy. Deciding I should learn more, I searched Amazon for books about ‘right brain therapy’ and was duly recommended The Master and His Emissary, which I hurriedly ordered along with some other titles. Alas, a few pages into Iain’s book, it was clear this was yet another of Amazon’s dud suggestions: not at all the practical guide to therapeutic intervention I needed. So, The Master… was cast aside for more pressing reading.

Fortunately, the worst of the storm clouds passed, free time returned, and I thought to give this McGilchrist fellow a second chance. If nothing else, it only seemed fair given the evident effort he had put into whatever it was he wanted to tell us. And extremely glad I did, because it triggered a fundamental reperception of the world – a sentiment I suspect is shared by many readers of this website.

As Gregory Bateson put it:

‘If a man achieves or suffers change in premises which are deeply embedded in his mind, he will surely find that the results of that change will ramify throughout his whole universe.’

It is hard to imagine premises that might be more deeply embedded in our minds than our sense of what our minds arestriving to do and how! Though I had been searching for ‘right brain therapy’ for a specific reason, what Iain effectively led me to see was that Western civilization might benefit from a cultural-scale version of the same, and that my 25-year career in the sustainability field had brought me to one of the key front lines where left and right brain views collide.

A Timeless and Timely Thesis

McGilchrist’s thesis is both timeless and timely.

It is timeless in that it identifies an innate tension in the cognition required of successful living organisms, and locates that, for us and other mammals, in our bi-hemispheric brain structure.

As McGilchrist argues in the first part of his thesis, the two brain hemispheres uphold distinct ways of attending to the world, and while both are beneficial, they are intrinsically in tension with each other. Hence, successful cognition and living would seem to require the ability to juggle or balance the two modes of perception, but as McGilchrist documents in the second half of his book, the long record of Western cultural history points to an inexorable, accelerating, rise of left-brain thinking and behaviour displacing a right-brain awareness and way of being.

Through the reinforcing dynamic of culture, we have fallen into what might be termed a ‘left-brain runaway’ in which we make the world with left-brain ideas such that culture encourages and rewards yet more left-brain thinking, and so on, now in seemingly unstoppable fashion.

Though McGilchrist draws out many nuances of left and right brain perceptions, a foundational difference is the left brain’s inclination to divide versus the right brain’s capacity to see things whole. As he expresses it, the bihemispheric brain constitutes a ‘unity of the idea of unity and the idea of division.’1

There is something fractal about this. We have a whole brain, clearly split in two, in which one half is inclined to see parts and the other wholes. That other mammals’ brains exhibit the same, if less well developed, bihemispheric structure indicates this is a cognitive pattern that extends well beyond humans and so speaks to an innate cognitive demand facing living organisms.

As Fritjof Capra, the long-time systems thinker, has observed:

‘The double role of living systems as parts and wholes requires the interplay of two opposite tendencies: an integrative tendency to function as part of a larger whole, and a self-assertive, or self-organizing tendency to preserve individual autonomy.’2

It begins to feel like it must be the ‘unity of the idea of unity and the idea of division’, all the way down.

One of the powerful things McGilchrist accomplishes is to pick up the dualism ropes from where Descartes placed them – between mind and body – and re-lay them down the longitudinal fissure separating the hemispheres.

This divides the world a new between rival capacities to perceive dualistically or holistically. We do have a Cartesian mind that can formulate a mind-body split, but we also have a non-Cartesian mind that senses this might be a trap. Both seem useful, even though they lead us to different extremes. The left brain divides and divides again to end up chasing the Higgs Boson. The right brain patterns gestalt after gestalt eventually reaching Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis – ‘it is all one thing’ including this mind thinking this thought – and from there, perhaps, out beyond ‘science’ and towards the sacred.

Moreover, in being aware we have a choice, there is some new – meta-dualistic? – perch we seem able to occupy from which to comprehend and employ both perspectives. Indeed, where exactly is McGilchrist writing from?

Timely, too

McGilchrist’s thesis is also very timely, because it reaches us at a moment when humankind faces a deepening global ecological crisis, in which the natural systems we depend uponare approaching, and in some cases have already entered, dangerous runaway dynamics.

In 2000, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer coined ‘The Anthropocene’ to convey that we have entered a new geological era, caused solely by our new found ability to alter planetary-scale processes.3 The key driver of the Anthropocene is aso-called ‘Great Acceleration’, which sees exponential growth in many of the graphs plotting global environmental damage – from greenhouse gas (GHG) releases to forest loss to ocean acidification.4

The Great Acceleration is dated from the 1950s, as a post-WW2 global economy regained momentum and began to scale new industrial technologies. Since 1970, when the first Earth Day marked early recognition of looming problems, global GHG emissions have increasedby two and a half times.5 Over the same period, the natural world has taken a beating: World Wildlife Fund reports there has been an average 68 percent decline in the population sizes of 21,000 tracked species since 1970.6

There are worrying signs that we have tipped certain planetary cycles into runaway feedback loops. Hard to credit, but the Amazon rainforest – the ‘lungs of the Earth’ – may now be a net contributor, not absorber, of GHGs.7 Elsewhere, a team of climate modellers recently reported that temperatures are now high enough for melting of the permafrost to generate a self-sustaining feedback loop for hundreds of years.8

The key driver of this ecological crisis is our hunger for ‘economic growth’ that continues to overwhelm our fast-developing – fast-recovering? – sense of the need to protect the global environment. Of course, efforts are being made to tackle the problem, but so entrenched has economic thinking become within modern culture that we are not yet reconciled to the fact that the form of economic thinking may be the root cause.

Hence the dominant strategy we have adopted to address the sustainability crisis is that of ‘voluntary market-based’ approaches, under different banners: ‘sustainable development’, ‘sustainable capitalism’, ‘green growth’, ‘win-win’, and an ESG (environmental, social and governance) movement more generally. Alas, it is increasingly apparent that this overall strategy amounts merely to a grafting of environmental concern onto an economic system that remains stubbornly ‘business as usual’ in its deeper workings. Perversely, our concern for the environment has been transmuted into a potential new source of products and business lines: ‘eco’ as a new marketing seam to be mined, ‘green’ as a splendid new runway for growth!

In other words, it is becoming a classic case of the ‘solution’ exacerbating the problem. McGilchrist readers will detect a ‘hall of mirrors’ dynamic, in which the human mind has become aware of a problem it recognizes as serious, but its increasingly frantic efforts to address the problem seem unable to escape an imprisoning logic.9

That ‘logic’ is the entrenched norm of market primacy, to which Western cultures had iterated to by the late 1970s, for reasons that entirely predate our awareness of the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration. The market primacy of our current ‘neoliberal’ social order emerged from political arguments seeking to safeguard individual rights and from decades of complementary economic theorizing that appeared to build a case for the superiority – almost infallibility – of market outcomes. However, as I argue below, the economic arguments in particular are a manifestation of a left brain perspective trumping a right brain perspective to establish a culture-scale ‘hall of mirrors’ from which we seem powerless to escape even as we sense the peril it induces.

In many respects, the market primacy of our current self-coordination represents the left brain’s greatest accomplishment to date in making the world more amenable for it. The market system is the Matrix of the Emissary.

A Systemic Spring

I am deeply familiar with the sustainability problem because I have spent 25 years grappling with it from different perches – academic, non-profit and private sector. Several years ago, I felt a nagging take hold that our earlier hopes that markets might be harnessed to provide sufficient solutions was proving sorely misguided. This dissonance finally became concrete and found proper roots upon my reading of The Master and His Emissary.

I believe McGilchrist’s thesis is a vital perspective to bring to bear on our pernicious sustainability challenge. Encouragingly, I have come to see McGilchrist’s work itself as part of a broader systems awakening – what I dub a ‘Systemic Spring’ or possibly a ‘right-brain renaissance’. What McGilchrist adds to this awakening is to anchor it to the brains within us, providing a powerful sense that alternative ways of being and seeing are available to all of us, should we choose to summon and cultivate them.

As an acquaintance who has pioneered complexity science for decades expressed it to me: ‘reading Iain’s book was like coming home’. It gives us no excuse not to recognize our sustainability problems as ultimately a matter of collective cognition, which must be an amplified expression of individual cognition.

Suitably inspired, the following article was my attempt to convey McGilchrist’s insights to a ‘sustainable business’ audience that is sincerely and ever more frantically, trying to create a more sustainable economy, but without a deeper comprehension of the perch they stand on in doing so, and with too little time for contemplation. It is a movement without an underlying philosophy, because we did not think it was a movement that required a philosophy.

The article was titled: Can Economics Grasp What Ecology Says? to capture the tension between the two flagship sciences that define our sustainability struggle. The basic idea was to take the unsuspecting reader from the surface clash between economy and environment ‘down’ to the brain and Iain’s thesis and then back up again. It has only occurred to me in writing this introduction for the Channel McGilchrist website, that my rhetorical question is simply a translation of Iain’s main challenge to us: ‘Can the Left Brain Grasp What the Right Brain Knows?’

1. Satish Kumar Visits the London School of Economics

A delightful story last month: Satish Kumar, the Editor Emeritus of Resurgence&Ecologist magazine, used his invitation to speak at the renowned London School of Economics to ask his hosts whether it might not be better if they were the London School of Economics and Ecology.

In Kumar’s telling, he enquired, over tea and cake, about LSE’s ecological offerings, to which he was informed there were several courses which integrated environmental issues into economic frameworks.10 ‘But environment and ecology are not the same,’ he replied. ‘Ecology means understanding of the entire ecosystem and how the diverse forms of life relate to each other. ‘To which the response was: ‘That is too broad a concept. Our courses are much more specialized.’

I like the story for two reasons. First, I enjoy the thought of a distinguished guest speaker politely asking his hosts over refreshments whether they have considered being the opposite of what they are! It strikes me that more guest speakers at more events might usefully ask the question.

The more serious reason is that Kumar’s provocative idea, and the defensive response, catches the very essence of our ecological sustainability challenge: that economic thinking still fails to grasp the sort of thinking ecology is, particularly ecology’s focus on relation.

The significance is less about improving university programs and more because it is exactly this misunderstanding that underlies our continued failure to solve major ecological problems despite the growing attention paid to them.

2. Of Economics and Ecology

To begin to explain, I have a proposal for an inscription over the door of any new School of Economics and Ecology. A bit cumbersome, but it would read something like:

‘Ceteris paribus’
(Economic method)

‘When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.’
(John Muir, Ecologist)

And so, we begin…

This captures that economics and ecology separate from the very outset, by the way in which they attend the world. Any attempt to reconcile their concerns that does not return to these first principles is doomed to fail.

Central to economics is the act of severance: “‘ceteris paribus‘ – ‘assume all else remains equal’ – and now we can proceed.” Economics cuts and reduces to formulate tractable problems that admit of elegant solutions, but the process inevitably renders economics a deeply decontextualized body of knowledge.

In contrast, ecology emphasizes connection, evident not just in Muir’s quote, but also in Garrett Hardin’s proposed first law of ecology: ‘you can not do just one thing’.

In other words, ecology denies the legitimacy of ‘ceteris paribus’, while economics views ecology’s desire to hold everything in mind as impractical. Ultimately, they differ in how to ‘see’ the world. The economist implicitly chooses to see parts, the ecologist to see patterns. Each choice is valid, but different. They are complementary, but in tension.

Figure 1: Parts or patterns? Ceteris paribus or everything connected? A part-biased view (left) privileges discrete entities, while a pattern-biased view (right) privileges relationships between and within parts. Neither is categorically ‘correct’, but economics and ecology lean on – and so reinforce – a part-view or pattern-view, respectively.(Adapted from Capra, 1997)

Another critical distinction is that the ‘eco-‘s of economics and ecology are different!

‘Economics’ is the older term derived from the Greek oikos (home or dwelling) and nemein (to manage). It is the ‘management of my home’. In contrast, ‘ecology’ was coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1869. He combined oikos with logos (the study of), but conceived of oikos as our entire planetary home – so, ‘the study of Nature’s house’. Economics and ecology exist in a nested relationship. Economics is the management of just a small niche of Nature, whereas ecology is just the study of all of Nature.

Of course, today, economics extends beyond the mere household to a larger macro-economy including business, finance, and government sectors, but even in this larger form, the discipline concerns itself only with the monetizable subdomain of broader societal and ecological relations.

Notice that the two terms differ not just in scope but also in their stance or attitude – managing versus studying. A way of seeing not only changes what is seen, but also invites a way of being. Seeing the world as separable invites the economist to think that its parts might be better arranged than they are. The economist is ‘sucked in’ to tinker and fix, to recommend better ‘allocations’ of the world’s parts.

In contrast, seeing the world as connected leads the ecologist to ponder why it has come to be connected as it is.The ecologist is ‘pushed back’ to observe and describe. Indeed, in a way that seems not to happen with economists, many prominent ecologists are almost artists. Not much separates the note books of Audubon and Muir from the sketch books of O’Keefeand Turner.

These different modes of perception lead us to see different things and ultimately beget different attitudes to the world, in reinforcing fashion. But the ‘economic’ and ‘ecological’ perceptions are complementary in being able tomodulate each other from spiralling towards counter-productive, even pathological, extremes.

The ‘economist’ can lapse into endless efforts to improve the world, to make it both more comfortable and more ordered to fend off worrisome uncertainty. ‘If we can rearrange the pieces of the world by production and exchange, maybe there is a yet better way to arrange them?’ This can easily become the journeying uponan endless treadmill – the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – of ever wanting more and better, whose pathological extreme is an anxiety-driven need to accumulate and to control.

In contrast, the ‘ecologist’ who privileges connection and sees, à la Muir, that this is connected to that is connected to that… can easily become paralyzed by the sheer connectivity of it all. This might induce a beneficial awe or appreciation, as Nature often does, which can unstick the economic mind from its ceaseless treading. But, taken too far, the ecological mindset can becomean unhelpful reluctance to engage with the world, even a defeatism – ‘must we do nothing’? This of course is untenable in the extreme. ‘I know the apple is connected to the branch is connected to the root is connected to the soil… but I’m hungry.’ Of course, we cannot be in the world without tampering with at least some of its parts.

Economics and ecology differ, then, in their domain of study – what to see – but also in ‘how to see’, which invites a different sense of ‘how to be’.

In other words, a putative LSEE would have a job on its hands. Its challenge would not be to blend the different domains of study under the same mindset – combining plants and profits in a single analysis – but to train students to see in complementary, but conflicting, ways.

2.1. The Capture of Ecology by Economy

It may now be clearer why prevailing visions of ‘green growth’, ‘win-win’ and ‘sustainable capitalism’ continue to struggle. They are the vehicles by which a market-centric culture has embraced ecological concerns, but still resists the accompanying mindset to which those concerns point.

While ‘environmental economists’ argue that we can easily correct markets by pricing carbon emissions and other pollutants – no matter that we barely have, in practice – the larger issue is that many of our ecological challenges are not amenable to a commodification ‘fix’, which relies on treating the environment as parts.

The issue comes to a head in the question of whether we should impute dollar values for ‘ecosystem services’ – to put a price on the Amazon rainforest, say. The question is not whether we can impute such values, but rather whether it is intelligent to do so. In this critical matter, which has divided ecologists, is the issue of whether ecology should yield to a dominant economic way of thinking or make a stand for its different way of seeing – a different way of appreciating and valuing – that challenges economics’ monetary default.

The pragmatic view has been to impute monetary values because we cannot afford for ecosystems to be valued at zero, which is otherwise the case. Indeed, when such estimates are made, they reveal that the ‘value’ of global ecosystem services dwarfs global GDP! Market measures of value miss more than they grasp.

However, something important is lost by doing this because it forfeits the opportunity to challenge the adequacy of monetary valuation to capture the connectedness of ecology. Of course, this has been an almost impossible argument for ecologists to advance because, today, we find ourselves in a profoundly market-centric culture, for reasons that long predate awareness of our global ecological challenges.

The point is not that markets are inherently bad, but that today’s market primacy may be detrimental. With markets privileged – and non-market institutions discredited – government has been unable to correct the market’s omission of so many recognized externalities, let alone advance non-market regulations or prohibitions to protect our ecology. Less than 1 percent of global GHG emissions are currently priced at a level sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement. We are arguably making even less progress in establishing measures to safeguard global biodiversity.

There has been a ‘double capture’ of ecological thinking by economic thinking. First, economics can only readily accommodate those ecological concerns, such as carbon emissions, which are discrete and separable. Second, the realpolitik of a market-centric culture, bolstered by the primacy of economic thinking, means that market actors wield real political power to prevent the internalization of even those ‘externalities’ which economic thinking can stretch to!

2.2. Sustainable Business: Solution or Symptom?

At the heart of this lies a flourishing ‘sustainable business’ movement. In a market-centric world, efforts to protect our ecology have had to fit under the pre-established neoliberal narrative, and the emergence of a burgeoning sustainable business movement is the logical consequence. The movement aims to be a solution to our environmental and social challenges but is really a symptom of deeper cultural trends set in motion long before the Great Acceleration commenced.

As a market-based movement, it has had to uphold a market-friendly narrative, evident in some of its key refrains: ‘win-win’, ‘doing well by doing good’ and more. But the narrative that protecting the global environment must be profitable, and consistent with ‘economic’ growth increasingly seems implausible. Market measures exclude so much ecological value that decision-making anchored upon today’s partial financial statements is the problem. Hence, sustainable business is confronting the fact it does not constitute ‘ecological’ thinking but rather the appropriation of some ecological concerns into a framework that remains steadfastly economic.

3. Our Economic and Ecological Brains

Now, for potentially better news. We are all both ‘economist’ and ‘ecologist’!

In a very real sense, Evolution has granted us an ‘economic’ left brain and an ‘ecological’ right brain because both are beneficial, even if they must be in tension. So, the issue is whether we are in balance.

I believe this is one conclusion that can be drawn from Iain McGilchrist’s landmark work, The Master and His Emissary – a must-read for those seeking to understand the deep drivers of our contemporary world.

McGilchrist, a formidable combination of neuro scientist and humanities scholar, makes a compelling case not only that our left and right brains perceive the world in fundamentally different ways – complementary, but in tension – but also that the long arc of human history reveals left-brain ways of thinking and being inexorably asserting themselves over right-brain ways, in slowly accelerating fashion.

‘My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.’11

Though McGilchrist bases his argument primarily on developments in the humanities, with which he is most familiar – art, poetry, architecture and more -today’s primacy of economic thinking over ecological thinking – even in the face of a deteriorating global ecology – appears to be yet another manifestation of left-brain ascendancy. Our left, ‘economic’, brains are ‘crowding out’ our right ‘ecological’, brains, creating overshoot problems our left brains cannot remedy because they uphold the sort of cognition that created the problems in the first place!

In other words, the real solution to our sustainability problems may not be ‘out there’, but ‘in us’.

3.1. Left and Right Brain

McGilchrist’s thesis is so comprehensively researched it is risky to simplify, but to highlight one repeated theme:

One of the more durable generalisations about the [brain] hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole.12

Ceteris paribus and John Muir? Our dual ability to hold ‘all else equal’ and to perceive that everything is connected appears to emanate from different brain hemispheres. The conflicting nature of these beneficial tasks may be one reason why human brains, and to a lesser extent the brains of higher-order mammals, exhibit clear division into separate hemispheres. (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Human brain seen from above. The longitudinal fissure divides the brain into left and right hemispheres. (Not visible is the corpus callosum lower down, which holds the hemispheres together.)

While the corpus callosum, which physically joins the hemispheres, transmits much activity from one side to the other, it is noticeably ‘quieter’ than the hemispheres themselves. It acts as much as an inhibitor as a transmitter, as if the two hemispheres require their own space to think.13

Hence, to use one of McGilchrist’s many examples, the chicken – also bihemispheric – solves the twin vital challenges of needing to eat and not be eaten by employing the right eye (left hemisphere) to focus on its food and the left eye (right hemisphere) to scan its surrounds.14 One hemisphere can attend to the ‘local’ problem of pecking feed, while the other hemisphere the ‘global’ problem of keeping watch.

Our brains do something similar: focused attention is governed by the left hemisphere and vigilance by the right. Focus and vigilance both seem useful but must be in tension.15 But, with less independent eyes than the chicken, we are forced into more of an explicit choice – whether to summon focus or broader attention. These are different ways of being in the world – not just in their fields of view and their demands on the eye musculature, but in the attitude that each field of view summons. After all, vigilance is about resisting the temptation to focus. Intriguingly, and probably best this way round, the right hemisphere seems to be less susceptible to fatigue than the left.16

Critically, even though the left hemisphere has a more fragmented view of the world, it seeks to formulatefor itself a coherent ‘whole’ story. The veracity of this story is necessarily constrained by the parts of the world of which the left brain has become aware, but, in seemingly hubristic manner, the left brain denies that its vision of the world is ever incomplete. As many split-brain experiments have shown, the left brain can easily be fooled into making nonsensical claims about reality, of which it remains wholly convinced!17

Attempting to trick the right brain to do the same does not work, because the right brain’s global vision enables an ‘anomaly detector’ that generally prevents it from spouting nonsense.18 Indeed, the right brain often sounds the alarm to anomalies it registers in left brain narrative, but the left brain does not always pay heed. Have you ever had that feeling when you start explaining something and, at some point, realize that you are making it up by piecing together available ideas on the fly, but carry on anyway?!

As McGilchrist summarizes:

‘The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focussed attention. This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a ‘whole’: something very different.’19

The left brain divides and reassembles – reduces and reconstitutes – the world, but its reconstituted world can only be as complete as the parts it has gathered. It ‘adds back up’ the parts as best it can but the whole may still fall short of the more holistic right-brain view. (In turn, the right brain gives up certain details for its grasp of the whole).

And yet, even though the left brain’s perception of the world is decontextualized or ‘disembedded’, the left brain remains, of course, within the world and is in many ways the domineering hemisphere in its control of language and in its inclination to ‘do’. This combination sets us up to act within the world – and so to transform it – with dulled and blinkered appreciation of what we do.

And to underscore, this is relatively new information about ourselves. The gift offered by McGilchrist – and by other neuroscientists writing for lay audiences – is nothing less than a heightened level of self-awareness.

This is not McGilchrist’s term, but we are effectively biperceptors.

Figure 3: The illustration is intended as an aide-memoire. In fact, how left and right brains attend to the world differs in many respects beyond just visual. Also, illustrating ‘left’ and ‘right’ visions presents a challenge of exposition. The left brain actually ‘sees’ the right-hand side of the visual field and vice-versa. That is, the left brain does not see with the right eye, but with the right half of both eyes! So, the illustration should probably be flipped left-to-right to be more accurate. However, as drawn, it is more intuitively left and right for the non-specialist reader and aligns with prior discussion of ‘economics versus ecology’ and ‘parts versus patterns’.

3.2. Out of Balance

The problem today, McGilchrist argues, is that we are out of balance. In a broad sweep of cultural history, he traces the fingerprints of a steadily more assertive left brain – in the development and orientation of writing, changes in the direction in which portrait subjects sit, the growing abstraction of art and music, and much, much more – all hinting at a left brain trying to make the world more amenable for it. The shorter record of mental illness hints at a rise in mental disorders stemming from left-brain dominance.20

While the positives of this development abound – medicines and vaccines, planes and trains, warm homes with glowing screens – something is also lost with the ascendancy of the ‘part-seeing’ left hemisphere:

‘An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.’21

The whole amounts to a long-term ‘leftward’ drift of human cognition. Certainly, there have been counter-movements – the Renaissance, the Romantic period etc – but such periods seem only to constitute pauses not reversals. They appear as periods of psychological integration, where we make sense of the last leftward advance before the journey commences again. Eventually, the Romantic Era, for example, was dismissively rebranded as the Counter-Enlightenment and on we went.

Cultural reinforcement

While the idea ofa whole civilization in the grip of a runaway cognitive dynamic may seem fanciful, it becomes easier to comprehend when one recognizes the reinforcing nature of culture. Runaway thinking can happen at the level of a whole culture because minds and culture constitute a loop in a complex system.

Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, authorities on cultural evolution, define culture as:

‘…socially learned information stored in individuals’ brains that is capable of affecting behaviour’22

While we ‘scaffold’ culture with many cultural artifacts – literature, buildings, laws and more – the main locus of a living human culture is in the plastic brains of its human members. The reflexivity between our plastic brains and the plastic culture in which those brains are fully immersed – the social ‘imaginary’ – constitutes a feedback loop in which mind shapes culture shapes mind, a so-called ‘mind-culture co-evolution’.23

Consider, for example, how you define for yourself ‘success’, ‘happiness’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour, ‘normal’ even. How can any of us possibly define such ideas without looking around to observe how others define them? And where did they get the idea from? Were they looking at us?

This mind-culture-mind loop now exhibits runaway dynamics: our left-brain ‘way of being’ has brought forth a left-brain culture that encourages and rewards further left-brain thinking, and so it goes on. Bit by bit, we lose our capacity to ‘be in the world’ in a more meditative, less calculative, way that is the preserve of the right brain and plausibly a greater part of how we used to be.

Such runaway processes have long been evident in human culture – in the delusions of cults, and now, at greater scale and speed, in the echo chambers of social media. But this appears as a grander, slower-moving, runaway that has stealthily been shaping Western culture’s perception of the world.

3.3. Reductionism and Systemism

While McGilchrist takes a long view of human history, a critical ‘recent’ accelerant of left-brain advance has been the Western Scientific Revolution, which vaulted the leftbrain’s reductionist, mechanical perspective to ascendancy, and which, with a two-century lag, would make it possible for serious academics to propagate a vision of Homo Economicus that could survive ridicule.

Broadly, left and right brains underwrite our complementary capacities for reductionism and systemism of which economics and ecology are amongkey respective flagships.

Reductionism is the idea that we can best understand the phenomena of the world by breaking them into parts, learning how those parts work and then ‘adding back up’ this knowledge to arrive at a superior comprehension of the whole. It is a process of ‘reduce and reconstitute’.

Reductionism earned its spurs because it proved spectacularly successful at explaining the behaviour of ‘dead’ things that were the dominant objects of enquiry at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution. Alas, those early successes profoundly shaped the way we believed all science should be conducted, so that we applied an intrinsically reductionist scientific method to a more complex ‘living’ natural world, including ultimately ourselves.

The problem, as is increasingly understood, is that complex systems exhibit emergent properties, which cannot be anticipated even from complete knowledge of the parts, but only discerned from observation of the whole.

But, in not recognizing this, reductionism – granted primacy within the conception of what science should be – crept up the disciplinary stack, from physics to natural sciences and ultimately to social sciences, where, fatefully, it led the most influential social science, economics, to model itself on classical physics through most of the 20th Century.24

Then, in the last several decades, economic ideas of the 20th Century ‘jumped’ into the real-world via the promotion of neoliberalism, which placed markets at the centre of human self-organization.

Keynes famously said of politics’ tendency to follow economics with a lag:

‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.’

So, it has come to pass. When Reagan and Thatcher came to power, they implemented the ‘academic scribbles’ of mid-20th Century economics. To the extent that these ideas continue to underpin our contemporary culture, we are largely living in a world hypothesized by 20th Century economists, and that was premised on reductionist, physics-inspired theories we increasingly recognize as poor descriptions of complex human society.

The Fallacy and Trap of Reductionism

The overall development can be seen as a fallacy of reductionism that led us into a trap of reductionism.

The Fallacy of Reductionism is that reductionism is always the best way to investigate the world, and that more knowledge will always be gleaned from breaking phenomena into parts than contemplating them whole.

The Trap of Reductionism has been that because reductionism was so successful in explaining the dead things upon which the Scientific Revolution was founded – planets, light, falling objects etc. – we were insufficiently sceptical about its adequacy as a method to investigate more complex, living things. Yet, we proceeded anyway with the unfortunate consequence that we have delayed, and sometimes derailed, our comprehension of many living things, including ourselves.

The Valley of Reductionism

The trap can also be envisaged as a valley. Hence, Christopher Tape, a biologist, depicts the broad history of biological enquiry as being a ‘downward’ journey of reductionism, now transitioning into an ‘upward’ journey to discoveremergent properties that cannot be gleaned from knowledge of the parts.25 (Note the appearance of ‘systems’ and ‘life’ on the right-hand side of Figure 3).

Similar trajectories could be drawn for many other natural and social sciences, all ‘pulled down’ to a reductionist vision. The point is not that this has not yielded considerable benefit, only that it promoted a method of investigation whose cost was the postponement of our comprehension of emergent properties. As that recognition has sunk in, many disciplines have recognized they have reached the point of diminishing returns to reductionism.

Figure 4: The ‘Reductionist Valley’ (Tape, 2016)

3.4. A Systemic Spring

Encouragingly, there is now a ‘Systemic Spring’ underway in which multiple disciplines are racing to incorporate the insights of complexity thinking into their subjects, with the natural and social sciences having the most to gain. Indeed, in general terms, the more ‘complex’ the object of a discipline’s enquiry, the more there is to gain – or, equivalently, the more that the reductionist world view has inadvertently held back.

As Brian Arthur, one of the key proponents of complexity in the field of economics, recently expressed it: ‘complexity is not a science, rather it is a movement within science.’26 If so, it is the complement, with a 300-year lag, to the reductionism that preceded it and which, virtue of ‘going first’, came to be baked into our sense of what science should even be.

The poets always knew!

Non-scientists have always looked in on this valley from its ramparts and hailed warning, but their cries were too easily dismissed by scientists within a culture keen to divide art from science – itself a reductionist stamp!

Poets – the masters of relation – sensed exactly what was happening, from early on. Wordsworth, in 1805, commended his friend Coleridge for not succumbing to the fashion to choose to see the world in parts and then believe it was actually divided:

‘No officious slave
Art thou of that false secondary power
By which we multiply distinctions, then
Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made.
To thee, unblinded by these formal arts,
The unity of all hath been revealed.’27

Coleridge had not been blinded by the new ‘formal arts’ – the ‘sciences’ – into dividing the world.

Similarly, William Blake’s famous lines of 1802:

‘…May God us keep
From Single vision and Newton’s sleep.’

Blake, perhaps more accurately, allowed that reductionism was a vision, but only a ‘single’ one. The point is not that reductionism has not been beneficial, but that it relies on and reinforces a ‘single-ness’ of vision. This singular vision is what has been cemented into our science and so into our culture. Werner Heisenberg, one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics, sensed how deeply our penchant to divide had sunk and how difficult it would be to root out:

‘The Cartesian partition has penetrated deeply into the human mind during the three centuries following Descartes and it will take a long time for it to be replaced by a really different attitude toward the problem of reality.’

Heisenberg’s comment – mind, singular – betrays his understanding that a way of seeing the world had sunk into all our minds together via the binding dynamic of culture and that any change in attitude will have to be a collective endeavour – no less than the transformation of our hive mind.

What is genuinely exciting about systemic science is that it introduces a rigorous way of seeing relation over part – of seeing the connection to which Blake and Wordsworth were privy. It is hardly poetry, but it may be science building itself a ladder out of the valley and towards a broader vision on terms the scientific mind can accept. To use McGilchrist’s metaphor, it may be the left brain discerning a path out of the ‘hall of mirrors’.

Could we have avoided the ‘valley of reductionism’ altogether? Or was it inevitable? In some sense, the whole shape of the journey was triggered by ‘simpler’ things having yielded their secrets sooner than more complex things. But of course! Our deciphering of the world could hardly have been from complex to simple! The perhaps unavoidable consequence is that a way of seeing that worked for simple things became anointed as the way to investigate more complex things until its limitations became apparent. Is this just part of growing up? Have advanced alien civilizations stumbled along the way, too?

3.5. The Matrix of the Emissary

The real-world consequence of this today is that, with a lag, reductionist thinking has shaped our socio-economic form and our sense of how to self-organize. Gregory Bateson, one of the most prominent system thinkers of the 20th Century, who tried to lean against the reductionist tide in the social sciences when it was at its height, said:

‘The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.’

Mainstream economic thought of the 20th Century is one of the principal means by which we have accomplished this dubious feat.

We conceived of Homo Economicus and built a logical model of the world around that conception and have ever since been trying to live up – live down, really – to that self-image. We have been striving to make our behaviour fit a simple model rather than adjusting our models to a new comprehension of our complex behaviour. Effectively, a subplot of our broader mind-culture co-evolution has been a ‘mind-market coevolution’, in which human minds have made markets have shaped minds.

Central to that model – and to our current faith in markets – is the left-brain inspired idea that society can be reduced to rational individual ‘agents’ endowed with entirely independent preferences who exchange parts of the world in a market system that has the magical power to ‘add everything back up’ to arrive at the best of all possible worlds. It is a seductive vision – magically self-coherent and entirely insulated from any external limitations. It sounds exactly like the sort of place that the reductionist left brain would wish to inhabit.

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th Century Scottish historian, memorably described the market systemas a ‘cash nexus’. It is a quote often wrongly attributed to Marx because Carlyle sought to emphasizethe depersonalization of the relationship between employer and employee. The market system seemed torender human relationships down to their monetizable strands. Thus reduced, ‘labour’ could be allocated to its most efficient use. With time, a more market-centric culture has left progressively less space ‘to value an individual for anything other than their earning power’.29 Indeed, an economy is – ceteris paribus! – generally deemed stronger the more its ‘labour force’ is ‘mobile’ and, hence, the more its people are uprooted and dislocated. The end result is a sparer social fabric.

Two centuries after Carlyle, people formerly members of communities have become ‘human capital’ summableinto ‘social capital’ wholes. Moreover, to Carlyle’s social concerns are now added environmental concerns subject to the same dynamic that sees Nature reduced to decontextualized ‘natural capital’ fragments.

Photo editors wishing to depict the ecological consequences of capitalism typically run images of chainsaws, bulldozers, or smokestacks, but it is the bland financial spreadsheet that causes most of the damage, for this is the primary tool the human mind now draws on to guide where the chainsaws and bulldozers should go.

The spreadsheet is the left brain’s software of choice – an endless plane of regimented cells awaiting numerical input. The financial spreadsheet – modelling a financial statement – is the prime decision-making tool of a market society and it encourages, very literally, a gridded or matricized view of the world in which real world parts have been decontextualized and rendered down into monetized units. In our economically ‘sophisticated’ culture, when we make the decisions that transform the matter and energy of the world, this is the world we ‘see’. The ubiquity of the financial spreadsheet – and our default deference to its outputs – represents a highly consequential triumph of left-brain perception over right-brain perception.

In turn, it leads us to see the market system asa matrix-like overlay placed upon a more complex social and ecological reality, encouraging certain perceptions and actions while simultaneously blinding us to others. Carlyle’s ‘cash nexus’ is the work of the left hemisphere. The market system is effectively the Matrix of the Emissary.

While this matrix has many beneficial properties, it cannot do justice to the emergent aspects of human society and global ecology that are often greater than the sum of their monetizable parts and are now the source of our sustainability concerns. The decontextualized nature of the market system – in failing to recognize physical limits and in being ‘incomplete’ – is its weakness, but we have led ourselves to deny the significance of this. Alas, a society that elevates an incomplete market system to primacy under the belief that markets have ‘got it all covered’ dangerously disembeds its operating system from underlying reality.

Polanyi’s unheeded warning

We missed another warning from someone who saw all this. Karl Polanyi, like Bateson a polymathin an era that venerated specialization, cautioned in 1944:

‘To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment… would result in the demolition of society.’30(emphasis added)

It is not that the market actually disembeds from society and ecology and becomes somehow safely detached, but, worse, that it remains embedded in society and ecology and transforms those foundations but with only a dull and blinkered sense of the damage it causes. It is left-brain thinking at scale. Bull in a china shop stuff.

Again, the risk of reductionism is its ‘single vision’ -markets as sole director of our fate. In a critical ‘sliding doors’ moment for human history, Polanyi’s warning was drowned out by Hayek’s Road to Serfdom of the same year, which was the launching pad for the neoliberal ideas that shape our contemporary world. Hayek’s ideology would be hitched to subsequent ‘complete markets’ theories establishing a sense of infallible markets to create the policy agendas for Reagan and Thatcher.

Today’s neoliberalism, deeply founded on the view of omnipotent markets, is what results when youapply scientific techniques suitable for analysing dead things to the living fabric of society and ecology, and ride them to their logical conclusion, without looking up along the way.

Bateson, again:

‘Epistemological error is all right, it’s fine, up to the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which that error becomes immanent in monstrous changes of the universe that you have created and now try to live in.’

Unwittingly, and through no-one’s explicit design, we reduced ourselves.

Perhaps it was unavoidable, but now we know. In elevating economic thinking to primacy, we wrapped a market part-world around us. In Ursula K. LeGuin’s phrase, ‘we live in capitalism’.

3.6. Right Brain Therapy?

Also alert to latest developments in neuroscience is American psychologist, Allan Schore, who has crystallized the implications for individual mental wellbeing in his concept of ‘right brain therapy’.31

Rooted in new understanding of the role a holistic, emotionally dominant, right brain plays in supporting mental health it emphasizes empathic connection and the significance of non-verbal communication in achieving interpersonal awareness and understanding. It is effectively a program of rehabilitation for a right brain withered by modern culture.

Details aside, the very idea of a ‘right brain therapy’, from only 2009, is an interesting marker of where humans have arrived on their long journey of self-awareness. Only very recently have we been able to locate in one half of our brain certain of the functions deemed integral to mental wellbeing. But the very need for explicit restoration of right brain health is suggestive of its debilitation as apossible consequence of today’s cultural arrangements. It suggests that normal life can induce a mental imbalance – a sort of cerebral version of the javelin thrower’s complaint – in which daily routines somehow build up one side of the brain to overpower the other, which duly falls into relative atrophy.

McGilchrist – who cites Schore’s work – does not use his term but leads us towards the idea that civilization’s largest problems might benefit from collective right brain therapy. Not, to be clear, in a forced authoritarian way, which would not work anyway, but in the sense that the scale and stubbornness of major problems simply may not yield to a more-of-the-same technological fixing mentality, but instead require deeper cultural rebalancing, through a ground-up awakening. Wishful thinking on my part? Perhaps, but cultural movements do, of course, happen.


Indeed, if we are willing to contemplate long-term cultural shifts, our much-feted Western Enlightenment starts to appear lop-sided – effectively one-brained.

Intriguingly, we use the term Enlightenment for two major cognitive developments: the Western Enlightenment of the 17th Century and the Buddhist Enlightenment of 5th Century BC. They offer strikingly divergent recommendations about how to be in the world. Western Enlightenment is about using reason for human progress, crystallized in a quantitative-based scientific method. Buddhist Enlightenment intuited that human striving is the source of unhappiness and that progress has treadmill or trap-like characteristics. The Western Enlightenment, right from its Baconian outset extolled an extractive attitude towards Nature – ‘let the human race recover that right over Nature which belongs to it by divine bequest’. It is a worldview that leads one eventually to describe Nature as an ‘asset’ and as ‘natural capital’. Buddhism does not even recognize Nature as separate.

Possibly the time is ripe for some Third Enlightenment – a meta-Enlightenment?! – which might reconcile why it is that humankind already hastwo major Enlightenments on the books. The current crop of humanists who marshal much data to plead the case for more Enlightenment seem trapped inourquantitative paradigm. The fruitful question is not ‘how Enlightened are we’, but rather ‘how are we Enlightened’? In what way? Fittingly, a qualitative question, not a quantitative one.

If it seems frivolous to propose the solution to our problems is some new ‘Age’, as if such a thing might be produced to order, consider that the momentous recognition of the Anthropoceneis exactly the sort of event that might induce an Age. The crystallizing of the Anthropocene is a stunning milestone in the history of human self-awareness – ‘Oh, I see, we’re that big!’ Big enough to change planetary processes. Big enough that Earth is not the immutable backdrop we assumed it to be. Possibly, the only feasible response to such a profound reappraisal of our context is an equiproportional change in human cognition and self-organization. Indeed, with simultaneous advances in Earth sciences and neurosciences, our sense of the world and of the brain we use to navigate it, is changing rapidly and dramatically, with us sandwiched in between. It is impossible to imagine that human beings will not be deeply changed by current events.

Where Einstein said you cannot solve problems with the same sort of thinking that created them, what McGilchrist effectively says is that you cannot solve problems with the same brain hemisphere that created them. What I suggest from a lowlier perch, and what Kumar invited his LSE hosts to consider, is that we are unlikely to solve problems that have arisen from economic primacy with thinking that upholds economic primacy.

While our sustainability crisis presents as rising sea-levels, shrinking forests and disappearing species, the front line of our struggle is the corpus callosum that divides the human left and right brain. This is where our sustainability crisis will ultimately be resolved, or not.

4. What to do?

So, what should we do?

Asks the left brain!

By this point, your left brain – logical and utilitarian -is desperate for practical suggestions, preferably with bullet points.32 Joking aside, I will indulge the left brain because the point is ‘not that it might be a good thing if the entire population had a left-hemisphere stroke’, but that we need to restore balance – to use both brains, not just the one we keep using.33

Here are two ideas:

  • Reverse our perception of primacy; and
  • Create a left brain AND right brain culture, by revitalizing our sense of ‘public’.

4.1. Reverse the Primacy

We have got the primacy – between left and right, between economic and ecological – the wrong way around.

An important detail of the history of neuroscience is that the left brain was long deemed the superior hemisphere – an assumption now forced into reappraisal by McGilchrist, Schore and others.34 The left brain was accorded primacy because of its control of language and other higher-order faculties, such as analytical thinking, that most conspicuously distinguish us from our primate cousins. But it is now clear that the left brain can only do its beneficial work within the broader contextual awareness the right brain provides. If anything, primacy lies with the right brain upon which foundation the left brain is entirely dependent. It is the right brain that is the Master, the left the usurping Emissary.

Schore, too, argues for the primacy of the right brain, which is chronologically foundational in the human lifespan.35 It is firmly in the driving seat during the crucial development period of infancy, before the slower-developing left brain comes ‘online’ and language skills are acquired. Moreover, throughout life, the right brain remains the dominant hemisphere for monitoring one’s own emotions and those of others’, and so for interpersonal connection.

However, and very curious this, the left brain seems entirely unaware of its dependency upon its neighbouring hemisphere. Their different ways of being in the world induce an intriguing asymmetry: a right brain alive to the connection in the world knows that it needs the left brain, while a left brain intent on division seems not to know that it needs the right brain.36 This asymmetry reveals itself in the general pattern of stroke cases. A right brain whose fellow left brain has suffered a stroke is likely to sense that something has been lost, while a left brain whose fellow right brain has been injured can carry on oblivious.

A similar asymmetry seems to repeat at the level of human culture. The broader vision of the ecologist has room to understand the role the economist plays, but the economist – and the businessman and the investor – do not seem to know that they need the ecologist.

Inside-out stewardship

Our market-centric culture has granted primacy to the economist, not the ecologist, which may be the wrong way around. Of course, we do have to ‘manage our house’ (economics), but we must also be mindful of the state of Nature’s house (ecology) and of how the management of our house at the local level affects Nature’s house at the global level. In getting the primacy and nesting wrong, we are stewarding our planet from inside-out rather than from outside-in.

Keynes, who would probably feel more comfortable with today’s systemic thinking than many other 20th Century economists, captured a part of the ‘inside-out’ problem in the relationship between the stock market and the broader economy:

‘When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.’

This pattern repeats at the next level up: when the stewardship of our ecosystem becomes a by-product of the activities of the economy, the job is likely to be ill-done.

Put the layers together and our situation today is that we are managing the planet as a by-product of an increasingly frenzied stock market – one part automated algorithms, one part chat room raiders-which is virtually oblivious to environmental context even as it transmits the signals for how to allocate the financial capital that transforms the energy and matter of the world. The bull in the china shop does not even know it is in a china shop!

Market advocates have sometimes likened the market to an ‘intelligence’. But if it is intelligent, it is very much intelligent in the way the left brain is intelligent: with a limited view of the world – a ‘part world’ – that it nonetheless believes is whole. McGilchrist has remarked: ‘the left brain doesn’t know what the left brain doesn’t know.’ By the same token, the market doesn’t know what the market doesn’t know, but we have told ourselves it is all-knowing: ‘markets are the solution, government is the problem’.

Human sustainability will require that we nest markets within a broader conception of human self-organization. Our challenge is not to build a sustainable economy but to develop a sustainable culture that has an economy.

4.2. Rebalance Culture by Re-legitimizing Public

If the goal is cultural change, you might now be expecting that I will prescribe meditation, advise you take up art or poetry, or get out into Nature more often. Certainly, please do such things as they all amount to beneficial ‘rebalancing’ activities with demonstrated benefits for mental health. However, our real challenge is to scale up the insights of ‘right brain’ thinking beyond the minority of our time that we can often devote to such practices. Just as our left-brain mindset owes much to its reinforcement and amplification by left-brain-favouring institutions, so the key to rebalancing may be to rebuild and re-empower institutions that have, not always knowingly, upheld right brain behaviours.

So, now you are perhaps anticipating that I will recommend mandatory Church attendance, or similar. Again, please do, but somehow forcing everyone to attend Church hardly seems viable – though it becomes ever clearer what all that was about. Of course, the central organizing myths of religion crumbled before a sceptical modern mind, but in secular society’s withdrawal from religion, we have also withdrawn from the acts of congregation, ritual, prayer, moral reflection, even singing together, all of which, in different ways, cultivate or play on right brain faculties. Wonderfully, Oliver Sacks described the act of humans singing together as being almost a ‘binding of nervous systems’.37

In a sense, a more secular society has thrown out the bathwater with the Baby and it was the bathwater that may have been the thing.38 The rise of systems science might yet lead Science to find Religion – its supposed nemesis. ‘Oh, so that is what it has been for all this time.’

Revitalizing ‘public’

Unfortunately, even if a renewal of spirituality and religiosity emerged, we may not have time to wait for its effects to take hold. However, if the putative benefits of such right-brained biased activities are to re-learn and re-appreciate the deep connectivity of our social and natural worlds, the secular institutions that can act upon that insight and can take steps to honour and protect the relational nature of our society and ecologyare ‘public’and public-affirming institutions – from community through civil society to the various levels of government.

If a left-brained culture has enabled – and been reinforced by – the ascendancy of the private-enabling market over non-market institutions within human self-organization, then we might attain a more sustainable culture by revitalizing the institutions left behind by that ascent. Indeed, before the ‘neoliberalism’ that has been ascendant for the duration of the ‘Great Acceleration’, there was an ’embedded liberalism’ in which market and non-market institutions were more finely balanced.

Critically, the potential benefit of such a rebalancing is to reinvigorate those institutions that can complement the markets by standing up to them! The real value of government is its potential not to amplify market forces but to modulate them.

Of course, today’s story is that the government should unleash market forces and then stand back. This was premised on the idea that the market was ‘self-regulating’ – in the complex systems sense, i.e. self-balancing. And, in many instances it is. If the demand for bread increases, the price of bread will rise inducing more supply so bringing the price back down again. The market ‘self regulates’ or rebalances, in this way all the time.

However, the market is not only self-regulating, but also susceptible to positive reinforcement loops that can become runaway problems. This was crystallized by Brian Arthur in 1990, when he identified that economic systems did not just exhibit ‘diminishing returns’ – or balancing loops – but also, quite commonly, ‘increasing returns’ – or reinforcing loops.39 This may have been hard to spot in 1990 but is now much easier to grasp in a world of ‘winner take all’ businesses and technology platforms.

Moreover, the possibility of reinforcing loops in the economic system can accumulate to make a reinforcing loop of the whole system! A telling marker is that our biggest problems – global debt accumulation, wealth inequality, climate change and biodiversity loss – all exhibit runaway, vicious spiral, dynamics. Because neoliberalism has granted markets primacy, and because markets are vulnerable to large-scale runaway loops, neoliberalism is effectively a runaway feedback loop of a human operating system in which large swathes of the global population are now swept up.

McGilchrist notes that the left brain, unlike the right brain, can become ‘sticky’ or set in its ways with the consequence that:

‘The left hemisphere tends to positive [or reinforcing] feedback, and we can become stuck. The right hemisphere…is capable of freeing us through negative [or modulating] feedback.’40

This happens this way around because the detachment of the left brain’s vision means that it can create loops for itself, sealed off from interruption or re-grounding by the real world. It is precisely the ability to decontextualize – which enables focus and the conception of exchangeable commodities – that also creates the vulnerability to runaway dynamics. Similarly, this capacity to disembed is at the heart of economics’ long denial of real-world limits.

While it is too simplistic to equate the market to the left hemisphere and the government to the right – government work involves much left-brain-type activity – the broader pattern is the thing. To the market’s part-world mechanics, government is the principal vector by which we can re-ground the market with our superior awareness of the state of social and ecological fundamentals. Hence, a revitalized sense of public – as a counterbalance to private – might be the only way we can resolve global ‘public goods’ problems that have arisen, perhaps inevitably, during a period of market primacy.

Government is in the loop!

A key problem is that our contemporary narrative, ‘markets are the solution; government is the problem’, has snared governments in this loop. The private market Emissary has usurped the cultural Master – no matter that markets are entirely dependent on a ‘rule of law’ which only the Master can uphold!

Governments increasingly use economic performance – even stock market performance! – as a measure of their success, which negates their ability or even interest to counteract markets. Other loops are more tangible, still. For example, corporations use profits to lobby for lax regulations that enhance profits which can be used to lobby for more lax regulations etc. This dynamic – Friedman’s Feedback Loop, call it – has inexorably neutered government’s ability to improve human welfare by modulating market forces.41

As these loops have run over the past few decades, so our collective capacity to act on any principle that conflicts with profit has diminished. It has been impossible to argue that we ought to value and protect our environment for moral reasons, not just monetary ones.

Such challenges can only be resolved at the public level. The broader problem is that free democratic societies can only respond to any new large-scale emergency if a majority understand – and accept – the situation. Hence, the educational work of the IPCC, Al Gore, Cristiana Figueres, David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, and many others has been so critical – even as they have had to suffer insults from those who would shoot the messenger.

Which brings us back to the key institution that is education and to Mr Kumar’s advice for LSE. For, one way to promote understanding – and acceptance – is to aggressively accelerate systemic thinking at all levels of society.


I sincerely hope LSE consider Satish Kumar’s suggestion. It feels as if there is some institutional, civilization-bettering, leadership up for grabs. I do not mean to slight well-established centres of ecological economics – at universities of Vienna, Vermont, Leeds and atKumar’s Schumacher College among others – but for one of the top 10-ranked economics universities to embrace ecology on ecology’s terms might stimulate thinking and action well beyond its walls.

I might even up the ante and suggest that such a step might soon be a reputational necessity as a systemic reappraisal of 20th Century economics is likely to be harsh. The world’s economics departments and economics-based business schools are fast confronting a legacy and credibility challenge.

A ‘Systemic Spring’ is beneficially propelling systemic thinking up the disciplinary stack via multiple disciplines’ embrace of complexity. The ease of modelling and comprehending complex systems will only increaseas the ability to run agent-based computer simulations becomes ever quicker and cheaper. A developing Systemic Spring in human thought may be the remedy for the ‘Silent Spring’ of which Rachel Carson warned.

Systemic thinking will not only enhance economics’ ability to understand issues it already cares about – an intra-economics gain – but more importantly, it will also force the discipline into a new meta-economic awareness of its nested position relative to other disciplines. This will mark a welcome reversal from the hubristic ‘economic imperialism’ by which certain economists believed they had answers not only for their field, but also for other fields too.42 In reality, economics is a reductionist carve-out of commodifiable pieces of the larger complex systems of society and ecology.

Where McGilchrist argues that our modern problems stem from the left brain having lost sight of its dependence on a foundational right brain, a critical surface manifestation of this dynamic has been economics’ having lost sight of its dependence on social and ecological foundations.

Satish Kumar’s provocative idea was of course good rhetoric for a lecture, but name changes alone cannot achieve much. They take time and risk being merely symbolic – see the corporate world for examples. More meaningful and more actionable is to commit to develop the research and pedagogical capacity to bring ecological thinking not just into LSE but into all economics departments and business schools. Assuming such institutions know something of competition, they might ponder if it is not them who takes up the opportunity of the day, will it be one of their rivals?

Indeed, I wonder for how much longer it will be tenable to offer economics as a program without a prerequisite course in ecology or meta-economics, and ultimately metaphysics. Economics is a very powerful way of thinking that has many spill-over consequences beyond its boundaries. We may not want future practitioners of economics to be oblivious to those consequences any more than we want operators of heavy machinery not to understand the potential hazards of their own Earth-transforming equipment.

However this may happen, the first point to impress upon the students at a School of Ecology and Economics is that the two disciplines are different in nature because they represent two different ways of ‘attending the world’, both of which are valuable, but which seem to have fallen out of balance. Neither, in itself, is right or wrong, but what may be wrong is not to pay them equal attention. Until our culture is clearer on the significance of their difference, we are unlikely to be successful stewards of the global ecosystem or to have the long future we might.

Ceteris paribus’

‘When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.’

And so, we begin…

Duncan Austin has had a 25-year career as a sustainability researcher and investor. In 1995, he obtained a MSc in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics. Oh, well. He writes as an independent.(

“Change is always in the last resort a change in the habits of thought.”


  1. Iain McGilchrist at ‘Coming to your Senses’ seminar, June 2019, Tewkesbury.
  2. Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Page 65.
  3. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, ‘The “Anthropocene”‘, Global Change Newsletter, 41.17 (2000).
  4. Will Steffen and others, ‘Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet’, Science, 347.6223 (2015).
  6. WWF, Living Planet Report 2020 – Bending the Curve of Biodiversity Loss (Gland: WWF).
  7. Kristofer Covey and others, ‘Carbon and Beyond: The Biogeochemistry of Climate in a Rapidly Changing Amazon’, Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 4 (2021).
  8. Jorgen Randers and Ulrich Goluke, ‘An Earth System Model Shows Self-Sustained Melting of Permafrost Even If All Man-Made GHG Emissions Stop in 2020’, Scientific Reports, 10.1 (2020), 18456.
  9. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Page 162
  10. Satish Kumar, ‘We Need a London School of Ecology and Economics’, The Ecologist, 2021 [accessed 24 January 2021].
  11. McGilchrist. Page 32.
  12. McGilchrist.Page 34.
  13. McGilchrist. Page 54
  14. McGilchrist. Page 67.
  15. McGilchrist. Page 68.
  16. McGilchrist. Page 92.
  17. McGilchrist. Page 107.
  18. McGilchrist. Page 107.
  19. McGilchrist. Page 70.
  20. McGilchrist. Page 623.
  21. McGilchrist. Page 38.
  22. Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, ‘Memes: Universal Acid or a Better Mousetrap?’, Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, 2012.
  23. William Benzon, Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society, 2018.
  24. Philip Mirowski, More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  25. Christopher Tape, ‘Escape from Reductionist Valley’, The Bigger Picture – The Institute of Cancer Research [accessed 24 January 2021].
  26. W. Brian Arthur, ‘Foundations of Complexity Economics’, Nature Reviews Physics, 2021, 1-10.
  27. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), Book II.
  28. William Blake, letter to Butts, 22 Nov. 1802, rpt. in The Letters of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Cambridge, MA, 1968), pp. 59-63.
  29. McGilchrist. Page 624.
  30. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, 1944).
  31. Allan N Schore, ‘Right-Brain Affect Regulation: An Essential Mechanism of Development, Trauma, Dissociation, and Psychotherapy.’, in The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development, & Clinical Practice (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), pp. 112-44.
  32. Of course, when I first met Iain,at an appointment sandwiched between two business meetings, I asked him ‘what should we do?’ This was essentially the form of his answer, by which he gently invited me to contemplate whether my question might contain the seeds of the problem!
  33. McGilchrist. Page 172
  34. McGilchrist. Page 60
  35. Schore.
  36. Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). Page 204. McGilchrist. Page 95.
  37. McGilchrist. Page 189
  38. Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (Penguin UK, 2012).
  39. W. Brian Arthur, ‘Positive Feedbacks in the Economy’, Scientific American, 262.2 (1990), 92-99.Arthur, ‘Foundations of Complexity Economics’.
  40. McGilchrist. Page 162
  41. Duncan Austin, ‘Milton Friedman’s Hazardous Feedback Loop’, Responsible Investor, 14 September 2020 [accessed 3 December 2020].
  42. Edward P. Lazear, ‘Economic Imperialism’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115.1 (2000), 99-146.