Many dislike John Irving’s fiction for its cruel implausibilities, but my friend wanted to push back on that opinion. Implausible things happen all the time, and people are regularly traumatized by them. The comment made sense, coming from this friend, whose recent experience is indeed worthy of a John Irving novel. It was his last remark that struck me. “Everyone needs therapy, more or less.”
The words set in motion a lightning sequence of thoughts. If my friend was right, and everyone got the therapy they required—just to achieve some baseline of health—society would need to find a way to train and employ a great number of therapists. And would that be such a bad thing? I mean therapy not as one more consumer item designed to feed insatiable impulse but therapy broadly understood as any work aimed at the restoration of health. What would our lives be like if more of us worked at jobs that served to heal rather than to wound? What if our economy were organized not for the extraction of value from living systems but for the restoration of their health?
Hardly a beat had passed, and I don’t remember exactly how I responded, except that I used the term, “restorative economics.” It piqued my friend’s interest. He wanted to know what it was and asked for something he might read that would explain it.
It was then I realized that I’d used the term as if it were a thing when I wasn’t really certain that it was. Or if it was a thing—a lesser-known discipline, perhaps, a research field, an item you could look up on Wikipedia—it wasn’t the thing I was referring to. It wasn’t the thing I was referring to because it couldn’t encompass all that was behind what I meant by it. And behind what I meant by it was several years’ worth of reading a variety of texts, some fairly disparate, and the connections between them which are not necessarily gathered under any particular term or in any particular place, except in me, in my own mind, as the reader of those texts.
Readers are nodes in a network of ideas. Readers are essential workers.
The work I did when I got home was to assemble a list, just to understand my process. I’d never used the term before, nor planned to. Why restorative? I stopped at item seven but could have kept going.
1. Chapter 6 of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (2017). In this chapter, titled “Create to Regenerate,” Raworth describes the concept of a Circular Economy. One illustration she used looks something like a butterfly with two wings, one marked “Regenerate” and the other, “Restore.” Raworth’s book is among many that ask this question: What if the purpose of economic activity was not growth but healing?
2. The “restoration story” George Monbiot tells in the first chapter of his book, Out of the Wreckage, A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (2017). “There is something deeply weird about humanity,” Monbiot writes. “We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalize and enforce these tendencies” (14). Monbiot represents a strain of postmodernism when he argues that modern ideologies have overshadowed this understanding of what human beings are. That understanding must be restored, Monbiot argues. “Through invoking the two great healing forces–togetherness and belonging–we can rediscover the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid” (25).
3. Paul Hawken’s description, in Blessed Unrest (2006), of the international ecological movement. He calls this movement (which barely registers in the US), the “largest social movement in all of human history.” Its participants are “willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.” The movement proposes a regime of words beginning with the letter R: “restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, reconsider” (4).
4. Jason Hickel, author of Less Is More (2020), on what life might be like if the economy was designed for healing rather than growth: “People would be able to work less without any loss to their quality of life, thus producing less unnecessary stuff and therefore generating less pressure for unnecessary consumption. Meanwhile, with more free time people would be able to have fun, enjoy conviviality with loved ones, cooperate with neighbors, care for friends and relatives, cook healthy food, exercise and enjoy nature, thus rendering unnecessary the patterns of consumption that are driven by time scarcity. And opportunities to learn and develop new skills such as music, maintenance, growing food, and crafting furniture would contribute to local self-sufficiency.”
Under such a new framing of economic life, “We would not have to feed our time and energy into the juggernaut of ever-increasing production, consumption and ecological destruction. The economy would produce less as a result, yes – but it would also need much less. It would be smaller and yet nonetheless much more abundant … but public wealth would increase, significantly improving the lives of everyone else.”
When I went back and re-read this passage, I read public wealth as mental health.
5. Daniel Christian Wahl’s project in Regenerative Cultures (2016). Wahl also proposes a regime of R’s: “restorative design,” to restore healthy self-regulation to local ecosystems; “reconciliatory design,” to reintegrate humans into “life’s processes and the united of nature and culture”; and “regenerative design,” to create cultures “capable of continuous learning and transformation in response to, and anticipation of, inevitable change.”
6. The entry for “care” in Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (2015). It’s first paragraph reads, “Care is the daily action performed by human beings for their welfare and for the welfare of their community. Here, community refers to the ensemble of people within proximity and with which every human being lives, such as the family, friendships or the neighborhood. In these spaces, as well in the society as a whole, an enormous quantity of work is devoted to sustenance, reproduction, and the contentment of human relations. Unpaid work is the term used in feminist economics to account for the free work devoted to such tasks. Feminists have denounced for years the undervaluation of work for bodily and personal care, and the related undervaluation of the subjects delegated to undertake it, i.e. women. Feminists continue to affirm the unique role that care has in the well-being of humans. … [C]are is fundamental in the support the mental, physical and relational integrity of each and every human being.”
7. Restorative justice, a field that explores and promotes legal modes of atonement for crimes, recent and historical. Individual human beings aren’t the only living systems that require restoration. Social groups, too, have suffered damage and deserve reparations.
Right now I’m flashing on the work being done to remove a mountain of asbestos shingles that had been allowed to accumulate in South Dallas and affect the lives and health of the residents of the African American community nearby. It is a classic case of environmental injustice that is finally being addressed and at least partially rectified. When I think of the work of removal being done now, and the years of work that has led to this moment—the reading, the reporting, the organizing and advocating—I think of this as noble work, as therapy, broadly understood.
A version of this essay appears on the Society for US Intellectual History Blog