Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"

Sandra Waddock

As others have stated, Richard Norgaard has done us a great favor in articulating the perspective that much of today’s thinking about the economy is premised in a belief system that is adhered to as diligently as many adhere to religious belief systems. Like any belief system, what he terms economism has its ardent adherents, as well as more moderate members (like behavioral and ecological economists) who offer different, more broadly defined views. It is the strict adherents, however, that Norgaard targets in his compelling essay. He offers us the terms “economistic” and “economism,” along with “Econocene” as new memes by which to identify some of the problems of the current economic paradigm.

Memes are replicable cultural artifacts, the cultural equivalent of the gene. Genes transmit traits from one generation to the next by carrying DNA, and thereby act as instructors that make molecules for the next generation. The concept of the meme was put forward in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who wanted a cultural equivalent to the idea of the gene. Memes, as defined by Dawkins and elaborated by Susan Blackmore in a book titled The Meme Machine, are the basic building blocks of culture. They can be words, phrases, ideas, images, and other replicable configurations that we immediately identify and that resonate with us. Their meaning, when successful, readily translates from one individual to the next. Think, for example, of the Nike swish, the Coca-Cola bottle, or the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid,” a hallmark slogan from one of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns. In whatever form they take, successful memes resonate and replicate among people, creating the foundations of belief systems, ideologies, and religions (as well as advertising campaigns and any number of other aspects of culture).

Memes are important because they shape the framing of ideas, and their resonance determines how accepted they become. If they are not readily understood and replicated, they are unsuccessful. If memes carry too many different meanings, it is hard for people to agree on them. If they are too narrowly defined, they cannot resonate with as many people as necessary. I think that Norgaard is largely correct in identifying economistic thinking as a “widely held system of faith,” a set of memes (or what is sometimes called a memeplex) that creates what amounts to an ideology.

The memes that underlie economistic thinking include ideas about growth, measured by GNP and company profitability; consumption; materialism; and the idea that the purpose of the firm is to maximize shareholder wealth. Memes associated with sustainability or humanism still need to be developed at the same strength and power of replicability that economistic memes have gained. Because such memes are so important, we who are interested in putting forward a great transition towards a more sustainable and equitable planet for all need to find ways to agree on memes that are powerful, succinct, able to capture meaning in short, memorable phrases, and replicable to many people because they resonate with hope and aspiration.

Economistic thinkers have successfully created an array of memes that resonate broadly and spread widely. Humanistic and great transition thinkers need to agree on a similarly-focused, aspirational, resonant, and replicable set of memes that convey the benefits of a more sustainability-, people-, equity-, and socially-oriented approach to our world. So far, we have been hard pressed to do that. But the time is now, and Norgaard’s helpful essay points us in the right direction in identifying the faith-based premises on which economistic thinking is founded. It is up to us to figure out what the right memes are that will forward an alternative—but equally compelling—perspective.

Sandra Waddock
Sandra Waddock is Professor of Management at Boston College Carroll School of Management. Her latest book is Catalyzing Transformation: Making System Change Happen.

Cite as Sandra Waddock, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism," Great Transition Initiative (December 2015),

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