Della Duncan

Interview with Della Duncan on cultivating Right Livelihood [Systems Change]

We are excited to be launching a new course in this new year! Systems Change and the Next Economy is a four-part series launching January 26-27, 2019. It’s focused on changing the system by learning how the current one operates; envisioning and studying alternatives based in justice, equity, and regeneration; and exploring how we can each become active participants in the next economy. What an empowering way to start 2019!

A woman smiling with wooden wall behind her

In anticipation of the upcoming course, we interviewed Della Duncan, alternative economist, teacher, and broadcast journalist. She will be facilitating the first weekend workshop. We wanted to learn more about her passions, perspectives, and experiences in order to give prospective students a glimpse into what they will learn.

The title of Della’s upcoming workshop is “Cultivating Right Livelihood: Embark on the path of inner and outer transition for a more beautiful and sustainable world.” We started our interview with the concept of Right Livelihood.

SC Permaculture: What does Right Livelihood mean to you, and why does it matter?

Della: Right Livelihood is not a job, but rather a calling. Our Right Livelihoods will change many times over the course of our lives. For me, right now, my Right Livelihood is as an Ecological Economist. I’m using podcasting, consulting, teaching and mentoring in order to reframe and democratize economics; to make its study and practice conducive to the thriving of people and the planet.

My favorite definition of Right Livelihood is inspired by a quote by Frederick Buechner- “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” My reinterpretation of this quote is- “one’s Right Livelihood is that place where one’s deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger at one’s highest potential.”

Gladness connects with the conditions that allow one to thrive, to find flow. It may be present in the morning or afternoon, while writing or teaching, whether alone or in a group.

The world’s deep hunger is that which moves each of us or breaks our hearts. It takes many forms: species extinction, racism, sexism, exclusion, oppression, or a simple desire for a better future for one’s children.

Finally, our highest potential is our greatest ability to contribute to the ecological, social, and political challenges of our time. Our Right Livelihoods are both diverse and connected. Each is valuable. Cultivating one’s Right Livelihood illuminates the personal paths which allow each of us to contribute to a more equitable and life-sustaining world.

SC Permaculture: When and how did you first become aware of the concept of Right Livelihood? Is there a story behind that discovery?

Della: After I realized that there was something fundamentally flawed with our dominant economic system (such as how it determines value, fails to adequately meet people’s needs, and relies on the exploitation of people and the planet) and that there are alternatives, I set off on a journey to learn how to contribute to economic systems change.

On this journey, I met a Buddhist nun from Korea who I spoke with about the idea of an economy based on Buddhist principles. During this seminal conversation, I was introduced to many Buddhist Economics projects and principles including the central concept of Right Livelihood.

SC Permaculture: What is economic de-growth and how does it promote Right Livelihood, in your mind?

Della: Here is one of my favorite quotes about what the “economy” is and what its purpose ought to be:

“Economy is not an end, economy is a means, the end is satisfying human needs; that is what the economy is for. The goal of economy should be around what brings humans happiness and wellbeing. But even that is not enough, because we live in a time when the impact of economy on nature and the environment has been so destructive that if you only focus on human needs that will also be insufficient. Economy should be serving the needs not only of humans but of the entire living system, or ecosystem, and the planet herself.”
– Dr. Ha Vinh Tho, Former Program Director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan

Right now, our economies neither serve our needs, nor the needs of the planet and nature. Many people around the world are without access to healthy food, quality education, and adequate housing. Meanwhile, our economies contribute to ocean acidification, climate change, air pollution, and significant biodiversity loss.  

Economic growth is the goal of dominant economic systems, but there are movements for alternatives including the promotion of “de-growth,” “green growth,” or a “steady-state economy.” I don’t identify with any of these. Rather, I see myself as what renegade economist Kate Raworth calls, “growth agnostic,” meaning I see economic growth as a means to an end, not the end itself. I see human and planetary wellbeing to be the end, and I support economic systems change that works toward that end, which in different contexts could mean economic growth or economic de-growth.

One’s Right Livelihood is how we each contribute to the just transition from extractive and exploitive growth-based economies, to economies centered on human and planetary wellbeing.

SC Permaculture: Can you talk a little about the origins of Gross National Happiness, and how you are working with it?

Della: Jigme Singye Wangchuck was a teenager when his father died, leaving him to be the King of Bhutan. He wanted to know how to serve his people, so he walked around the country asking people what they wanted from him. He thought they might say economic development, but instead they told him they wanted happiness. This led him to put “happiness” as the goal of the economic system of Bhutan represented by the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” as opposed to the growth of “Gross National Product” (the market value of all goods and services produced annually in a country).

It is important to point out that the “happiness” in Gross National Happiness is not a pleasurable hedonic happiness. Instead, it is a more altruistic happiness best described in this quote by Former Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigme Thinley: “we know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.”  

Part of my Right Livelihood as an Ecological Economist is working as a Gross National Happiness Trainer with organizations, businesses, schools, and local governments to change the goal of their systems from blind growth to happiness for people and the planet. This is a process of personal and systemic transformation that includes developing alternative measurement and decision making tools and also works to shift people’s perceptions of why they do the work that they do and how they can bring more mindfulness, compassion, and altruism into their work.

SC Permaculture: For many years you’ve produced the Upstream Podcast. What’s the story behind the podcast, why did you start it, and what have you learned?

Della: In my first job out of college, I worked in San Jose, California as a Sexual Assault Prevention/Intervention Specialist. While there, I heard about the “upstream metaphor” about going upstream from societal issues to address them at their root causes. I witnessed our non-profit’s difficulty in securing necessary funding, the rising levels of inequality and homelessness in the Bay Area, and the depression and anxiety young people around me felt for their futures.

My journey upstream led me to conclude that something was fundamentally wrong with our dominant economic system. I enrolled at Schumacher College and pursued a masters in Economics for Transition. It was there with my co-producer Robert Raymond where I started the Upstream Podcast as a challenge to dominant economic thought and practice.

We offer diverse perspectives and inspiring stories of alternatives. Each interview deepens my understanding of economic systems change, but the key insight that I have gained is that fundamental systems change requires a shift in consciousness away from seeing ourselves as rational, self-interested, utilitarian individuals toward becoming connected members of the biotic community in which all living beings have intrinsic value regardless of their usefulness to humans.

Upstream logo of two triangles and line representing mountains and a stream

SC Permaculture: Who are some of the alternative economists you’ve had the opportunity to learn with and from? What about their work most excites you?

Della: The Upstream Podcast allows me to reach out to and speak with the alternative economists who inspire me. Some of the people that I’ve had the opportunity to connect with include Genevieve Vaughan, the leader of the Feminists for a Gift Economy Network, George Monbiot, a prolific author and journalist based in the U.K., Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the authors of The Spirit Level about why more unequal societies are worse off for everyone, and Kali Akuno, a leader of the Cooperation Jackson movement connecting Black Liberation ideology with solidarity economics in Jackson, Mississippi.

What excites me about the work these folks are doing is that they are all contributing to outer economic transition as well as inner change. Collectively, their work is diverse and unique, but also inter-connected and related, and they each embody the new economy they wish to see.

SC Permaculture: You weave your work with alternative economics with the Work That Reconnect developed by Joanna Macy. What is the Work That Reconnects, how did you get involved, and how do you weave it together with alternative economics?

Della: Drawing from deep ecology, systems theory, and spiritual and wisdom traditions from around the world, the Work That Reconnects is a customizable and experiential workshop that builds motivation, creativity, and courage for our collective transition to a more sustainable human culture.

The Work that Reconnects process allows us to find gratitude for our gifts, to honor the personal, economic, political, and ecological pain we feel, to practice seeing with new eyes by exploring our connections in the web of life, and finally, to go forth, finding ways to embody and enliven, as degrowth activist Charles Eisenstein says, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

I have found the Work that Reconnects to be very important to my own Right Livelihood journey and I have trained and studied with Joanna Macy, the root teacher of the Work that Reconnects to be able to lead Work that Reconnects workshops around the world. The flexibility of the Work that Reconnects also allows me to use its structure and practices to offer alternative economics themed Work that Reconnects experiences to encourage people to join the movement for economic systems change.

I will certainly be including the Work that Reconnects in the upcoming Systems Change and the Next Economy weekend retreat.

SC Permaculture: What do you hope participants of Systems Change and the Next Economy will gain from your talk?

Della: I want the participants to join me on a journey upstream to discover new ways to view the economy, to join the movement for economic systems change, and in so doing, to cultivate and define their own Right Livelihood journey or contribution toward a more just and sustainable world.  

Learn more with Systems Change and the Next Economy: Regenerative Design for People & the Planet

Join us this January 26-27 in Santa Cruz, CA to spend the weekend learning about all of this and more with Della Duncan! Register online here.

Additional information about the Systems Change & The Next Economy course is available at

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About Della Duncan

Della Duncan is an alternative economist, teacher, and broadcast journalist interested in returning the field of economics to the realm of moral philosophy. She holds a Master of Arts in Economics for Transition with Distinction from Schumacher College, a graduate certificate in Authentic Leadership from Naropa University, and has completed Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects Intensive Program. She is also a Gross National Happiness Master Trainer with the GNH Centre in Bhutan. Currently Della produces the Upstream Podcast, teaches courses about economics for transition at Schumacher College, leads Work that Reconnects retreats around the world, and serves as a mentor and consultant for those individuals, local governments, and organizations committed to freeing themselves from the chokehold of capitalism and transitioning to more beautiful, sustainable, and just alternatives.

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