“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”

– G.K Chesterton

It’s obvious to more and more people that the economy is struggling. What might be most in need of change is our way of thinking and perceiving the issues: it’s a question of framing.

The cognitive scientist George Lakoff has for years being quite explicit about the importance of framing, claiming that most abstract thinking is metaphorical. Quoting from Aristotle: “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh”. That’s often quite uncomfortable for people brought up with an assumption that the world can be described, is knowable directly and rationally, and that facts will generate new thought of themselves. Lakoff goes further; when it comes to influencing change its crucial that those seeking change ‘know themselves’ in a framing sense.

“Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you – the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well meaning friends”

machine brain

Self acknowledged plutocrat Nick Hanauer and academic Eric Liu have been active in this arena for several years. It is interesting to compare their framing choices with what is usually said about a circular economy. This is the focus for the first of two articles. The source for their ideas presented here is a short New York Times article in 2012. Here is Hanauer and Liu on the existing economic story and what they call the “machinebrain” rationalistic approach. It’s fairly standard fare:

Call it the “Machinebrain” picture of the world: markets are perfectly efficient, humans perfectly rational, incentives perfectly clear and outcomes perfectly appropriate. From this a series of other truths necessarily follows: regulation and taxes are inherently regrettable because they impede the machine’s optimal workings. Government fiscal stimulus is wasteful. The rich by definition deserve to be so and the poor as well.

The roots of a circular economy, in contrast, lie with those thinkers and designers who recognise that:

Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic.

The source for this quote is still Hanauer and Liu. It’s a matter of science, that is what economies are and they follow the ‘rules’ of feedback rich systems. That’s still a very dry, hardly understandable description. What is needed is a suitable metaphor group – a more consistent metaphor, which is more explicit than for example; “taking insights from living systems” which is common in many overviews of the circular economy. Here is Hanauer and Liu’s suggestion:

An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.

In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.

Gardenbrain challenges many of today’s most conventional policy ideas.


One almost visceral reaction to the notion of a garden as a metaphor, let alone ‘Gardenbrain’ as a descriptor is that it reduces or diminishes the human from being in charge to a kind of stewardship. It means a kind of humility, working with the system, being in partnership – it’s somehow ‘fuzzy.’ A garden is also, well, just an old man’s [sic] pastime, an irrelevance surely in the big picture of a technological, fast moving increasingly urban world run by technocrats managing, controlling complicated systems. It’s potentially a big turn off.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but one reality for the ‘machinebrain’ orientated for sure…let’s go on a little. Looking into Hanauer and Liu’s ‘Gardenbrain’ reveals these consequential reframings

Under the prevailing assumption, regulation is an unfortunate interruption of a frictionless process of wealth creation in a self-correcting market. But Gardenbrain allows us to see that an economy cannot self-correct any more than a garden can self-tend. And regulation — the creation of standards to raise the quality of economic life — is the work of seeding useful activity and weeding harmful activity

Is it possible to garden clumsily and ineffectively? Of course. Wise regulation, however, is how human societies turn a useless jungle into a prosperous garden. This explains why wherever on earth one finds successful private companies, one also finds a well-regulated economy, and where regulation is absent we find widespread poverty.

OK, this sounds much like the circular economy, advocating “optimising system conditions” rather than interfering in the detail or seeking to micro manage anything. Taxes are reframed too, of course. Compare the existing ‘story’. Taxes take…“money out of the economy. It is not just separate from economic activity, but hostile to it. This is why most Americans believe that lower taxes will automatically lead to more prosperity.”

But for Gardenbrain types this question illuminates the key role of circulation:

…taxes as basic nutrients that sustain the garden. A well-designed tax system — in which everyone contributes and benefits — ensures that nutrients are circulated widely to fertilize and foster growth. … Jobs are the consequence of an organic feedback loop between consumers and businesses, and it’s the demand from a thriving middle class that truly creates jobs. The problem with today’s severe concentration of wealth, then, isn’t that it’s unfair, though it might be; it’s that it kills middle-class demand. Lasting growth doesn’t trickle down; it emerges from the middle out.

It’s perfectly obvious; perfectly consistent, as all effective deployment of metaphor should be. Feedback rules; feedback reinvigorates. It is restorative and regenerative as with “circular economy” aspirations around materials, but explicitly applied to how jobs are created and the process of tax and invest. Note here that it’s not “tax and spend” since ‘spend’ has connotations of spendthrift, to lose, to diminish the organism [“I’m spent”], of waste. Hanauer and Liu write ‘The word spending means literally “to use up or extinguish value,”’

Making sure there is enough demand for products and services is therefore an obligation of governance and is part of creating effective economic flows. This flows metaphor is, furthermore, deployed in a very interesting way:

Government no more spends our money than a garden spends water or a body spends blood. To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.

Time to take stock. Both a majority of writers and practitioners in a circular economy context and Hanauer and Liu and their supporters might agree on several points:

  • That metaphors and framing matter very much, and that the old linear ‘machinebrain’ tendency is well past its usefulness or appropriateness
  • That an economy is a complex adaptive system full of feedback and non-linear relationships
  • That a suitable metaphor grouping which expresses this rather abstract notion is essential for widespread understanding and action
  • That there is nothing wrong with a prosperous, modern economy which has opportunities at all scales led by business in cooperation with an enabling government – an effective economy, not just an efficient one
  • That the choice of appropriate metaphor illustrates values, and to have political real world change “knowing your values and framing the debate”, as Lakoff says,is vital.

The differences at the moment appear to be whether invoking the Garden and the confection of a “Gardenbrain” is a step forward or a turn off; secondly whether circularity should extend to conventional economic ideas (money and income flows) rather than simply a useful heuristic for materials and energy flows. Hanauer and Liu for their part don’t discuss energy and materials directly. As far as employment goes they actively support rises in the minimum wage.

Is a circular economy, by contrast, mostly about effective resource flows, a technical and design exercise with many upsides? As someone summarised it for me “linear economics tacked onto a circular materials economy”. In this sense it doesn’t challenge the ‘machinebrain’ other than in how to manage materials and energy flows and how to design products and services where recent changes in information technology and volatile resource prices bring advantages to ‘circular’ business models, and those attached to resource efficiency – selling products as services in particular. Perhaps it works so well, exactly for this reason.

Here is how Hanauer and Liu concluded, with a nod to Western society’s deep Judeo-Christian myths. This may be two-edged as so few conservatives would identify with this myth in the modern world. And most liberals would be irritated:

Humans, it is said, originated in a garden. Perhaps that is why we understand so intuitively what it takes to be great gardeners. Find the right ground and cast the seed. Fertilize, water and weed. Know the difference between blight and bounty. Adapt to changing weather and seasons. Turn the soil. This is how a fruitful economy grows.

Perhaps there is a better metaphor to express the economy of the future, in line with its feedback rich characteristics than a garden but what is it? Part two takes up the search for a more satisfactory narrative.

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The Author

Ken Webster

Ken Webster

Ken Webster is Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and he is a major contributor to the development and communication of ideas in this field.