Ian Christie is Senior Lecturer in the Social Science of Sustainable Development at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Surrey and with many associations in academia and the think tank world, not least the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (‘CUSP’) and the New Economics Foundation (‘NEF’).
This conversation took place in early January 2022, soon after the climate negotiations of COP26 but before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It goes for almost 40 minutes because of the richness of Ian’s contributions, especially on the role of democracy and the need for post-growth.
Surrey Climate Commission: “Our aim is to provide an independent and authoritative voice to all organisations in Surrey, whether they be private, or public sector or other, helping them contribute to the County reaching its necessary climate target, to avoid the damaging effects of runaway climate change.”
Post-Growth is also a book by one of Ian’s colleagues, Prof Tim Jackson.
Perspectiva: “a community of expert generalists working on an urgent one hundred year project to improve the relationships between systems, souls and society in theory and practice”
1:19 – Q1 What are you doing now? And how did you get there?
2:50 – Q2. What is the future you are trying to create, and why?
7:32 – BONUS QUESTION: Why should we prefer function democracy to dictatorship?
11:06 – BONUS QUESTION: How do we get from where we are (in the UK) to a healthy democracy that can cope with the challenges we face today?
19:59 – BONUS QUESTION: Do we need to reduce the volume of economic activity (ie degrowth or post-growth) for the most affluent places in the world?
23:08 – BONUS QUESTION: Is it realistic to have conscious conversion en mass amongst affluent populations or whether actually shaping through social engineering as happened in the second half of the 20th century is more realistic?
26:25 – Q3. What are your priorities for the next few years, and why?
30:07 – Q4. If someone was inspired to follow those priorities, what should they do next?
31:38 – Q5. If your younger self was starting their career now, what advice would you give them?
34:06 – Q6. Who would you nominate to answer these questions, because you admire their approach?
36:08 – Q7. Is there anything else important you feel you have to say?
-Acting for our children’s generation and beyond, as sustainable outcomes will not happen in our lifetimes.
-Acting to avoid the worst that could happen.
-Promoting the practices and institutions which are going to be essential to civilised sustainable life In the future: paying attention to democracy; to civic organisation; to the practices and virtues of citizenship at the local scale.
-Sustainable civilisation: secured the ecological and social preconditions for widespread flourishing (and stopped undermining those foundations); and a certain level of social cohesion, trust , justice and legitimacy.
-The contestation and the independence of analysis which makes for effective policymaking in functioning democracies doesn’t really happen In dictatorships; they can they can easily fool themselves.
-With wicked problems that are highly complex and spilling over all sorts of boundaries, then a single shot, top down approach of dictatorship is usually inappropriate. You need the messy compromises, innovations and experiments possible in democracies.
-Dilemma: the most urgent thing is climate action and nature, but is that possible if democracy is being undermined?
-If the US becomes an authoritarian one party state, run by a Republican minority, then there will be zero action at the federal level on climate, with incalculable consequences for the rest of the world.
-To address climate we need to create functioning relationships between different institutions of government, citizens and others.
-There is a revolution going on in provincial UK with experiments on climate and local democracy.
-Need broad consensus politically: climate science is settled; far most costly to fail to act (even though acting is expensive); and sustainability-aligned action fits with all the civilised ideologies of Western democracy, including most versions of traditional conservatism (just not fascism and neoliberalism).
-We must make the most affluent places and people on Earth be enthusiastic embraces of sustainability. This will require consuming less, consuming better and moving towards post-growth.
-Wisdom to pass on to students: lessons from on my mistakes; ask better questions.
-Passing on hope: there is enormous capacities to act, even in the face of the unsustainable diagnosis and the probability that the current generation has had it as good as humans ever will.
-Accepting joyfully that you need to be a jack of all trades, weaving them together so you can seek lasting solutions: seeing things in the round, with a global spatial and long-run temporal perspectives.
-With these priorities, we should go into politics or support local democracy and civic virtues.
-Two disciplines to be a creative jack of all trades in sustainable development: how your society works (politics and contemporary history) and influence and persuasion (social psychology).
-We are on an an urgent one hundred year project to improve the relationships between systems, souls and society in theory and practice (using Perpsectiva’s formulation).
-This late in the game technical fixes are not enough; there will need to be a shift in values.
-We have many reasons to feel we are failing, but there is no point to passive despair. We must keep acting as if we can avoid the worst.