Hazel Henderson, environmental activist and futurist author, dies at 89

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Returning from the park in the mid-1960s, Hazel Henderson was taking a bath to wash off the soot from her young daughter. Ash would fall from the New York sky as incinerators burned the trash, and the skyline would disappear behind a yellowish haze. Some days the air was so dirty it was hard to breathe, and for a while soot and smog were all Mrs. Henderson could talk about.

“You know, darling, you’re going crazy about this pollution,” she later recalled of her husband. “Now why don’t you go talk to the mayor and leave me alone.”

Ms Henderson, a British-born housewife who had grown up hearing stories about the toxic ‘London fog’, took her advice by writing letters to Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. – as well as TV stations and local radio stations – launching a successful campaign to get air pollution readings published in the evening news.

Supported by other mothers she met passing out leaflets on her walks in the park, she won new restrictions on air pollution, especially after smog blanketed the city over the weekend Thanksgiving in 1966.

“We got what we wanted,” she later told the Australian Financial Review, “but not before the New York business community called us communists. It was my first lesson in how ingrained powers resist change.

Ms Henderson went on to spend decades campaigning for social change, from air pollution to broader issues of environmental justice, gender equality and economic development. Describing herself as an “independent, independent futurist”, she has written nine books, published a column in a syndicated newspaper and lectured around the world, influencing political activists such as Ralph Nader, who cited her work during his candidacy for the presidency in 2000 as the party’s Green Candidate.

She was 89 when she died – or “went virtual”, as she called it – on May 22. Her death was announced in a statement from Ethical Markets, the media company she founded to promote “the evolution of capitalism.” The statement does not say where or how she died, but she had colon cancer, according to Nader, who interviewed Ms Henderson earlier this month for his weekly radio show.

A fiery author and environmental activist, Ms Henderson never graduated from college and has worked extensively outside of established institutions. “I always knew I was unemployable,” she once told the St. Petersburg Times. “I would have been fired from any job for insubordination.”

But she built a long career as a gadfly thinker, known for arguing that economic growth should be balanced with environmental protection and for championing the maxim “think globally, act locally”. The Christian Science Monitor once described her as “a formidable synthesizer of new ways of thinking, who would not be offended by critics who call her a crank.”

Through Citizens for Clean Air, the environmental group she helped organize in New York City in 1964, she lobbied for new local, state and federal pollution legislation, targeting pollution caused by automobiles. – “The internal combustion engine should be in a museum,” she said. — as well as power plants and waste incinerators. The group grew to more than 20,000 members, about 75% of whom were women, according to historian Adam Rome’s book “The Genius of Earth Day.”

“The politicians said there would be no interest!” Ms Henderson told the Sydney Morning Herald, recalling one of her early campaigns for new pollution regulations. “Moms and prams descended on City Hall, and not a councilor dared to vote against. It was very sweet and very politically persuasive.

As part of her crusade against air pollution, Ms Henderson learned economics on her own, only to fight better with corporate executives and academics who insisted that polluted air n was just a cost of doing business. She became a fierce critic of economic orthodoxies, equating the field with a form of “brain damage,” and condemned the use of metrics like gross national product (GNP) as a benchmark for national success.

Instead of GNP, she suggested her own report card for the country’s economy, taking into account literacy rates, life expectancy, child development and other metrics.

Ms. Henderson shared her views with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (DN.Y.) in 1967, after he arranged a helicopter ride around New York “to show him”, she later said, “all sources of air pollution and why our group proposed to correct our national GNP. The trip apparently made a strong impression: During his bid for the presidency the following year, Kennedy gave a speech lamenting that the nation “seems to have abandoned personal excellence and community values ​​in the mere accumulation of material things”.

GNP, Kennedy added, “does not measure our spirit or our courage, our wisdom or our knowledge, our compassion or our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except what makes life worthwhile. And that can tell us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.

Ms Henderson later published books, including ‘The Politics of the Solar Age’ (1981), in which she set out to ‘destroy the priesthood of economics’, claiming that ‘three hundred years of oil snake” had resulted in high inflation and unemployment, as well as depleted natural resources and a planet on the brink of ecological disaster.

“You could even say that the benevolent ‘invisible hand’ imagined by Adam Smith has become for a growing number of Americans an awkward and careless ‘invisible foot’, which tramples on social, human and environmental values,” she said. writing, while advocating for a new economic system powered by renewable energy sources.

“Henderson writes in a lively, well-informed, and deliberately outrageous style on matters important to us all,” wrote New York Times reviewer Langdon Winner. “In her best moments, she seems like a capable successor to the late EF Schumacher”, the German-British economist who believed that “small is beautiful”. “Those who are weary of the threadbare liberal economy and repelled by today’s conservative nostrums will find plenty to ponder here,” Winner added.

Some academics were more critical of her work, although Ms Henderson cared.

“My analysis has been vilified by economists as flawed and absurd,” she wrote in a follow-up book, “Building a Win-Win World” (1996). “I learned to interpret that as evidence that I was hitting home.”

By most accounts, she was born Hazel Mustard in Bristol, England on March 27, 1933. (Some sources say she was born in nearby Clevedon.) Her father was a businessman and she describes his mother as a proto-ecologist who grew her own fruits and vegetables, raised her own chickens and bought fish at the local pier.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Henderson worked as a switchboard operator, sales clerk and hotel clerk. She married Carter Henderson, a former London correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, in 1957, around the time she moved to New York. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Ms. Henderson has written for publications ranging from Harvard Business Review to The Nation, and has served as a member or board member of think tanks including the World Business Academy, the Worldwatch Institute and the Council on Economic Priorities. In the late 1970s, she served as an advisor to the United States Office of Technology Assessment and served on panels of the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering.

As support for green energy waned under the Reagan administration, Ms. Henderson became involved in what she called “the socially responsible investment movement,” serving on the advisory board of the Calvert Social Investment Fund. “It was like crossing the Rubicon for me, deciding to be part of capitalism,” she said.

Supported by her second husband, Alan Kay, she founded Ethical Markets Media in 2004. Her husband, the founder of a Wall Street electronic trading platform called AutEx, died in 2016. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage , Alexandra Leslie Camille Henderson; and a grandson.

“Never doubt for a moment that a small group of dedicated citizens can change the world,” Mrs. Henderson liked to say, paraphrasing her friend Margaret Mead, the anthropologist. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever existed.”

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