#RedefiningProsperity: Persevere or Pivot?

Last night’s Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) dialogue on Redefining Prosperity forced me to ask: should we presevere with our change strategy to date, or should we pivot to a new approach? The decades of self-declared failure of expert-led change tells me we need to pivot. If you have policy proposals, but no means to have them implemented, then you don’t have a transition roadmap. Let’s use those expert insights in a wider social and political process of imagining a tomorrow which is nourishing for all.

The tragedy of expert-led change
Jorgen Randers is amazing. He was part of the original Club of Rome team who wrote Limits to Growth all the way back in 1972. He’s spent decades using systems approaches to create brilliant insights. We all owe him a deep debt of gratitude for his work and efforts. But he is at the heart of a tragedy for us all.

His most famous work is the original Limits to Growth itself. Graeme Maxton, the current Secretary General of The Club of Rome, pointed out last night two crucial features of that report. First, the trend lines match the ‘main sequence’ prediction made all those years ago – a main sequence which has system collapse from poison of pollution in the 2030-40s.

Second, he emphasised again that they said there is a limit to the growth in the ecological footprint of human civilisation. Too often they were accused of saying there are limits to economic growth. What matters is not the increase in the value of market transactions but the increase in throughput of energy and materials. There’s a limit to how much our one planet can provide as raw materials and – much, much more importantly – absorb as pollution and waste. (We’ll run out of climate before we run out of fossil fuels, for instance.)

Our problem is that the economic growth we have at the moment does indeed also increase the ecological footprint. In principle you might have a growing financial value of activity with a reducing volume of resource use, pollution, waste and emissions. In practice, that’s not the world economy we have. (I’ve discussed this in a previous blog.) Also, Maxton claims the type of economic growth we have now does not reduce inequality or extreme poverty. The latter is controversial. World Bank figures show extreme poverty going down. Maxton’s claim is that, if you add inflation to the extreme poverty threshold then the proportion in the world has gone up.

Then Randers shared his experiences working for decades on policy proposals that would work, if only people put them into practice. He was candid that he had failed. He had proposals that would cost Norwegians – rich Norwegians, who’ve had 2 generations of free education and free healthcare – a mere £150 a year to put the country on a sustainable path. Still, people rejected them.

Randers’ and Maxton’s solution is to come up with better recommendations, ones which do give short-term benefit and politicians should be able to sell, in their new book Reinventing Prosperity. They persevered with their change strategy.

Here are the recommendations, the sustainability transition roadmap for a developed world nation, which they say will cost about 1% of GDP per year for 20 years:

  1. Implement green stimulus packages financed with freshly printed money – pay people to produce a better environment.
  2. Pay workers while they are moving from a dirty to clean jobs – reduce resistance to greener economy.
  3. Pay people who takes care of others at home – reduce burden on public nursing homes.
  4. Restrict trade when needed to protect jobs – keep jobs even if it lowers owners’ profits.
  5. Tax fossil fuel at source, and redistribute the tax money in equal amounts to all citizens – transfer income from those who use lots of fossil fuel to those who use little fossil fuel.
  6. Tax crop and rich – transfer income from rich and poor.
  7. increase inheritance tax – ditto.
  8. Increase pension age – help elderly maintain an income.
  9. Encourage unionisation – increase wages [through greater bargaining power] and reduce owners’ profits.
  10. Shift taxes from income to resource use – reduce tax on work and increase on gasoline and electricity.
  11. Legislate more compulsory vacation – increase leisure, reduce stress, share paid work with more people.
  12. Introduce a guaranteed lovable income from everyone who needs it (below a minimum level) – increase people’s control over their lives.
  13. Pay women to have 1 child or less – increase temptation to have a small family.

Solved, right? Because these do feel like proposals which, if you implemented them, would make a significant difference. Well, not so fast. If you have policy proposals, but no means to have them implemented, then you don’t have a roadmap. You have ideas with nowhere to go.

By persevering, Randers and Maxton have assumed that this is primarily a technical challenge: how can we, as experts, come up with better proposals that others, non-experts, should just accept?

What didn’t occur to them was to speak to the people who kept rejecting the ‘obvious’ policy proposals. It didn’t occur to them that our situation might primarily be a political challenge: how can we, as experts, work with others, non-experts, to create a sustainable future? How can we have a political narrative that gives us all a role in that search?

It didn’t occur to them there might be another way, or that persevering with a failed change model will lead to more failure. Or that acting like technocrats who can just impose solutions actually undermines the trust people have in institutions, and is part of why “people have had enough of experts”. That the way they were acting might be part of the problem.

It didn’t occur to them to pivot. And that is a tragedy for us all.

The audacity of hope
Fortunately the other speaker was former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. His perspective was a mediation on the audacity of hope.

For Williams, to prosper is to believe that tomorrow could be nourishing for you and those you care about. Hope is the degree of confidence that I can look forward honestly but without panic. It is not like optimism, re-describing the world in the best possible terms. Instead, Williams’ hope refuses to ignore the world as it is and refuses to accept it must stay the same. This side-steps some of the challenges from Dark Mountain or John Foster’s After Sustainability critique that hope sweeps the bad news under the carpet.

The claim is we need the sense of a tomorrow that’s not empty and not threatening, for ourselves and the lives of others we can imagine. So, for Williams, any project redefining prosperity is a project on imagination: “what sort of imagination do we need in our world today to have hope?”

What if prosperity was about learning how to inhabit our world, including our imaginative world, in tune with the rhythms that are around us, with boundless curiosity and brutal honesty?

Crucial for Williams is imaging others in the future we construct for ourselves, and also imagining with others that future we might share. In this telling, redefining prosperity is a collective, creative act.

He had much more, but this is the flavour. When placed against the decades of failure of an expert-drive technocratic approach, then I hear it as a call to pivot.

As he said, “we are not going to be looked on with gratitude. We are not going to honoured ancestors, the way we are going.” It is our responsibility to change the things with our control – essentially, our way of being and how we try to put change into practice – so we can look our descendants in the eye and say we tried.
It’s not easy to pivot…
Now, I’m not saying it is easy to pivot. Especially when you have spent a lifetime inventing and perfecting specific tools and habits of thought. The Club of Rome is very much in the ‘hard systems’ school: it is possible to perfectly describe a system, and come up with the right solutions. What matters is studying the system. The contrast is with ‘soft systems’ school, which says one’s understanding of the situation depends on your perspective (no perfectly objective God-like view) and any proposed solutions are partial and contingent. What matters is testing your understanding of the system through action with others.

With that background, it’s easy to understand why Randers was tempted to call democracy a stupid approach to decision-making (he didn’t quite say that, he did say “shall we call it stupid?”). Also, one can see why the Chinese government – run, as it is, by engineers – gets Randers approval for just getting on with the right policies.

And I’m also not saying I agree with all that Williams said. His notion of imagining others in our personal future rather begs the question: which ‘others’? Others I am related to? Others I know personally? Others who I culturally identify with (and usually of the same race, nationality and class)? All others today? All others, including those as-yet-unborn?

While I might think it crucial we go for the widest notion of ‘others’, what appeal does that have for someone with a narrow version of ‘others’? Why should they draw their circle of concern (to use Peter Singer’s phrase) as wide as Rowan Williams does, or as wide as I think they should?

…but that’s what’s needed.
What I am saying is that persevering with a technocratic approach hasn’t worked. In a world where people have voted for Brexit and Trump, it’s not good enough to keep on saying they should accept our proposals.

Instead, let’s use those insights in a wider social and political process of imagining a tomorrow which is nourishing for all.


One thought on “#RedefiningProsperity: Persevere or Pivot?

  1. Paul

    Hi, David. You might take a look at the MAHB Global 21st Century DebateGraph Project: debategraph.org/mahbdgwelcome. And DebateGraph itself. It might be a useful tool. Please get in touch if you have any questions.


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