Economist who inspired many to take interest in ecology


RICHARD DOUTHWAITE:ECONOMIST, ECOLOGIST and writer Richard Douthwaite, who has died aged 69, is best known for his book The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet(1992).

This explores why the existing economic system is dependent on economic growth and how the pursuit of growth affects the environment and society.

In this newspaper, Michael Viney praised a “big, rich book with an old-fashioned resonance: economics as morality”.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan this week said: “Richard will be remembered for the kindness and creativity he showed as he worked on the development of a new sustainable economy.”

Describing him as an “intellectual cornerstone for the environmental movement in Ireland”, he added: “At this difficult time in our country, his wisdom and good humour in presenting an alternative economic analysis will be sadly missed.”

Environmentalist and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology lecturer Mark Garavan said: “The only meaningful tribute we can now pay to Richard is to listen to the rest of his ideas and forge together the human ecological society he and many others have thought and dreamed about.”

Director of the independent think-tank Tasc Nat O’Connor, in a tribute, highlighted Douthwaite’s “vital contribution to the deeper social debate about the role of the economy in society and how to make it sustainable”.

Born in Sheffield in 1942, he was one of four children of George and Margaret Douthwaite. He worked as a journalist before studying economics at Essex University. He continued his studies at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, where he also worked in the government’s central planning unit, looking at the effects of tourism on the economy.

After four years, he moved in 1968 to Montserrat where he worked as a government economist for two years, acting as a “one-man IDA”.

He saw the 1973 oil crisis as a turning point, the first indication of things to come. “The world got out of that crisis remarkably quickly because every country allowed inflation to take the sting.”

Looking for somewhere secure to ride out the storm if things went seriously wrong, he settled in Ireland. Because of the small population and low degree of urbanisation, it seemed a better place to survive the worldwide economic crash and subsequent “siege economy” he believed was on the way.

Based in Cloona, Westport, Co Mayo, he worked as a journalist and writer, contributing regularly to The Irish Times.

He lectured at the constituent colleges of the National University of Ireland, at Goldsmith’s College, London School of Economics and other third-level institutions in England, Scotland, Sweden and Hungary. He addressed international conferences as well as sometimes speaking to audiences of fewer than a dozen people in small towns and villages.

Twenty years ago, at a conference on rural development, he made a heartfelt plea for a return to the de Valerean notion of food and comfort, cosy homesteads and romping of sturdy children.

De Valera’s speech in 1943, he said, was the last time we had a coherent expression of a set of values in relation to rural Ireland.

Since then we had learned the wonders of economic growth, which had taken on a life of its own. It was likely that steep increases in the cost of fossil fuels would force us back to 1950s methods of production. He saw this not as a setback but as opening the door to new possibilities.

His second book Short Circuit (1996) gives many examples of currency, banking, energy and food production systems which communities can use to reduce their dependence on an increasingly unstable world economy.

In The Ecology of Money(1999) he calls for different currencies for different purposes and for changes in the way in which money is put into circulation so that a stable, sustainable economy could be achieved. He edited Before the Wells Run Dry(2003), a study of the transition to renewable energy in the light of climate change and oil and gas depletion. He also edited To Catch the Wind(2004), focusing on how communities can invest in wind energy.

He was economic adviser to the Global Commons Institute, London, from 1993 to 2005, when it developed the “contraction and convergence” approach to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions which has won the backing of many countries.

He was a co-founder of Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, and assisted the foundation to devise the “cap and share” framework for emissions reduction being considered for adoption by the Irish Government.

He was a former member of Comhar, the government’s national sustainability council, and a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute. In 1994 he stood unsuccessfully for the Green Party in the European Parliament election in Connacht-Ulster.

His work and writings influenced many people to become involved in environmental and sustainability issues. His colleagues at Feasta – along with many others – will remember him for “his unique and far-reaching intellect, the clarity of his thought and writing [and] his warmth and laughter”.

He is survived by his wife Mary, their sons Boru and Jo and daughter Lucy.

Richard Douthwaite: born August 6th, 1942; died November 14th, 2011.