Clouds in Paper

On holistic economics, interdependence, and the need for flexibility in learning.

By Robert Wanalo

Gilly Stewart via Unsplash

The rainy season is fleeting. Clouds disperse, making space for the glaring sun. The time of year has come when it is more conducive to stay indoors. Yet, here I am, sitting beneath a sprawling tree. Staring at the grass, I wonder what Thich Nhat Hanh meant with his invitation to “see the clouds in each paper.”

I recall recent conversations with colleagues and friends, pinballing between multiple topics, heads, hearts, scenarios, memories and Zoom screens; unconfined and unisolated. Landscapes of attention tended together, whose semi-permeable boundaries allowed for news to come in, and for paradigms to engage in rhythmic motions that would eventually be called ‘shifts’. It was one thing to read it, but it was something else to begin to feel the meaning of Nhat Hanh’s aphorism.

Trees make that which nests gestating words and pictures; a piece of paper for your thoughts. The providence of the clouds’ precipitation and the constant gardening of the soil’s microbiome are the historical makings of a tree. My exhale is its inhale. It’s chlorophyll is a kitchen; carbon from my body may well be digestively sequestered into the belly of the browsing goat. Modestly disguised behind a stationary, stoic, and sentinel stature is a sophisticated dance of conviviality linking the tree to so many things.

Is economics, then, just economics? Various emerging versions of the discipline draw attention to the dissonance between the current economic system and the living systems of human and more-than-human life, and the need for transition into harmonious, life-supporting forms of economy. But this challenge is more than economic, it seems. Yes, there is need for a more holistic kind of economics, but alongside that, there needs to be a cultured recognition of how interdependent this field is with other forms of study and experience. And, alongside that, a calibrative flexibility to shift and change according to emergence of new insights.

Nhat Hanh’s observations of interbeing can be seen as an invitation to research the things that exist around things, and to notice how our perception of any given thing changes as we continually notice patterns of interaction and interdependence around it. Coming back, as always, to my tree: After noticing the manifold relationships surrounding it, it may then seem less like a green-haired, bark-skinned lump of potential lumber, and more like family — a patient grandmother whose entire existence is devoted to giving providence to all life that surrounds her, and who benefits from intergenerational impulses to care for that which has survived the times.

Yes, there is need for a more holistic kind of economics, but alongside that, there needs to be recognition of how interdependent this field is with other forms of study and experience — and a flexibility to shift and change according to emergence of new insights.

The ‘economics 101’ diagram was problematic from the get go. The ‘economic man’ leaves the household to earn and contribute at the workplace, which produces commodities, about which he will make informed decisions as to what types and amounts of ‘bacon’ to bring back home. Statically held within this framing are assumptions about gender, the sanctity of work and the workplace, and the market as the source of all that is necessary. Where is nature in all of this? you might ask — to which the casual answer might be, “somewhere among the factors of production”. The framing is coherent, yet abjectly devoid of nuance. There is no adequate framing of the interdependence of the different aspects that make up the framework. At the same time, what’s missing from the framework remains unacknowledged. This selective blindness is inherent to modern economic practice.

I’m curious about the contextual shifts that the field of economics takes when it is nestled, like the old tree, in its true place among the family of things — when its edges begin to chafe against other contexts among which it exists, such as family, science, and health. What happens when we pursue the patterns that connect seemingly disparate contexts to each other? Transdisciplinary approaches are far from new propositions. Yet in sectoral practice, it becomes a difficult business to look at one’s work from multiple angles. My concern is how individuals and organizations engage in mutual learning in the relational ecologies within which they exist.

What is revealed could be described as an intersectional approach to economics. The very nature of how economics is theorized and practiced shifts when you begin to approach it from multiple directions.

Following organizations like the Instituto BancoPalmas, The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, and the Democracy Collaborative, what is revealed could be described as an intersectional approach to economics. The very nature of how economics is theorized and practiced shifts when you begin to approach it from multiple directions. These organizations have factored in how people will be involved, what assets will be drawn upon, and how sustainable practices show up in any given pursuit. The emerging bodies of ideas that are ‘Community Wealth Building’ and ‘Solidarity Economics’ thus have a more expansive and nuanced view of economic praxis than their more classical counterparts.

Clouds on paper. Grapes in wine. Tears in song. While an intersectional lens enables a significant shift in insight and approach, it seems that life’s complexity invites us to go further. Bayo Akomolafe agitatively suggests that, “The world is too unwieldy to be systemic. The world is too messy, too promiscuous, too agential, to be predictable; to be algorithmically convenient or conservative.”

One may be left wondering whether complexity is too complex to be conceivable, and thus practical? I don’t think so. Our innate human capacities are expansive. Our attention is itself like the humus in soil, casting a wide net of sensitivity towards our relationships and interactions, collecting a lot more information than we are consciously aware of. The mathematics and trigonometry that, by inconvenience, become an imperative part of art-making, the multiple histories and sensibilities that surround preparations of food, the fine lines between rebellion and obedience that we learnt to walk in school, the way friendship emerges from odd and mysterious encounters… All these things, and so many more, overlapping, constitute the unspoken knowledge and awareness that’s alive to us as humans.

While an intersectional lens enables a significant shift in insight and approach, life’s complexity invites us to go further.

This talk by Annapurna Mamidipudi is a revelation of the capacity we have to engage with and integrate multiple streams of complex information, and how this awareness lives, not just in the mind, but in the body, and in metabolism with the broader socio-ecological body that surrounds us. She describes how the practice of weaving is artisanal, cultural, natural, spiritual, seasonal, relational, and technological.

Sensitivity to information from and between each context makes for an uncanny, somewhat somatic calibration through which the fingers learn to count in inches, and be in mathematical synchronization with the legs. She describes this artisanal practice as one that interplays between multidimensional complexity and a mundane, everyday pragmatism. An enterprise of relationality, where economy is one of the many flows of value acknowledged and in circulation within the flow socio-technical ensemble that is the Hydrabadi weaving industry. The paper, in other words, is inseparable from the cloud.

I feel both moved and called to pay attention in this way. To acknowledge what sites of ideation and practice I am a part of, how my actions ripple out into the broader ecology, and how they conjoin with the efforts of others to form overlapping patterns of collaboration. We are learning from each other, with each other, and from our interaction with the broader environment.

(Maybe these are humble reflections of something that others might consider established cultures of transdisciplinary practice. But in this emerging sector, where learning happens every day — and one may well learn an amazing new insight that challenges the established premises of one’s work, to the point of stress or paralysis— it seems that these reflections help keep me open, reflexive, and flexible to the contortions and shifting that are so present in this work, as I continue to engage, individually and through my vocation, in the business of tinkering around the edges, imbibing and developing praxis around the news of interdependent, intersectional, and transcontextual forms of economic practice.)

Feeling inspired? Here are three things you can do right now:

  1. Find out more about the Ubuntu Lab Institute — an applied online-offline learning program for change-makers, leaders, and innovators across Africa — where Robert is a faculty member.
  2. Help promote this article by sharing these posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Sign up here for email alerts when articles like this are shared on social media.
  3. Explore transcontextual enquiry further at a Warm Data, and use your search engine to find a Warm Data Lab near you.

Robert Wanalo is a Post Growth Fellow.

A patchworker, absorbed in the practice of weaving ideas, relationships, and information into fabrics of possibility, he is a sucker for good conversation, and could be anything from an instigator of depth to a catalyst for humor and mischief. He lives in Kisumu, Kenya, where the quiet moments of dawn and dusk are his favorite times for hot beverages and solitude.

Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.




Guiding the way to a full circle, #postgrowth economy beyond capitalism.

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