Barefoot Economics

Manfred Max-Neef is a Chilean economist and founder of the Centro de Estudio y Promoción de Asuntos Urbanos (CEPAUR). In 1981 he wrote the book for which he is best known, From the Outside Looking in: Experiences in Barefoot Economics, which describes his experiences practicing economics among the poor in South America. He worked for about ten years in areas of extreme poverty in the sierras, in the jungle, in urban areas, in different parts of Latin America. HE discovered that he had no real “language” in that environment, and that we had to invent a new language. That was the origin of the metaphor of barefoot economics, which is the economics that an economist who dares to step into the mud must practice. The point is that economists study and analyze poverty in their nice offices, have all the statistics, make all the models, and are convinced that they know everything that you can know about poverty, but, according to Max Neef, they don’t understand poverty at all.

So, first of all, he claims, we need cultured economists again, who know the history, where they come from, how the ideas originated and so on. Second, we need an economics now that understands itself very clearly as a subsystem of a larger system that is finite, the biosphere. Hence economic growth is an impossibility. And third, a system that understands that it cannot function without the seriousness of ecosystems. And economists know nothing about ecosystems. They don’t know anything about thermodynamics, anything about biodiversity. In addition, we must bring consumption closer to production. If you bring consumption closer to production, you will eat better, and you will have better food. You will know where it comes from. You may even know the person who produces it. You humanize this thing. But the way the economists practice today is totally dehumanized.

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