S1. E16. Paul Ekins

Prof Paul Ekins is Professor of Resources and Environment Policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources within the Bartlett School Environment, Energy & Resources, Faculty of the Built Environment (UCL page, Google Scholar, Wikipedia page). His work focuses on the conditions and policies for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy, and he is an authority on a number of areas of energy-environment-economy interaction and environmental policy.

Paul was a co-founder of Forum for the Future in 1996 (along with Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin). That is how we got to know each other, though he left Forum in 2002, and I joined in 2003.

Paul has rich things to say on how he shifted from being a professional classical singer to environmental campaigner, to a world-leading academic on the environment-economy nexus. He touches on why he believes we need economic growth, and why hope is better than optimism. For him, “every tonne counts” is a better slogan than “1.5C, still alive”.

We recorded this on 20 April 2022.



The book of Paul’s doctoral research: “Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: The Prospects for Green Growth”.

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres “the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

Wikipedia article explaining weak and strong sustainability (Paul mentions at about 09:40).

Wikipedia article explaining Planetary Boundaries.

Strong Environmental Sustainability Index on UCL website (mentioned at 10:15).

UNEP’s International Resource Panel

Longue duree‘ on wikipedia.


0:50 – Q1 What are you doing now? And how did you get there?
06:41 Q2. What is the future you are trying to create, and why?
09:13 – BONUS QUESTION: What would a sustainable world mean for you?
15:50 – BONUS QUESTION: Where do you disagree with those who say that economic growth is bad?
21:03 – Q3. What are your priorities for the next few years, and why?
23:56 – Q4. If someone was inspired to follow those priorities, what should they do next?
26:01 – Q5. If your younger self was starting their career now, what advice would you give them?
Q6. Who would you nominate to answer these questions, because you admire their approach?
28:52 – Q7. Is there anything else important you feel you have to say?
29:06 – BONUS QUESTION: Are you optimistic?

Quotes and themes

-“I can say that I started my PhD at the age of 40, and only became a permanent academic at the age of 46. So you know, that it is possible to change direction quite, quite late in life.”

-“So these three aspects of sustainability [environmental, social and economic] are all interrelated in some way. They can all be measured, but they have different implications if you transgress certain thresholds. My real fear, and one of the reasons why I focused on the environment, is that I’m afraid that systematically transgressing the environmental thresholds with regard to climate biodiversity, pollution of various kinds, will bring the whole system crashing down around our head at some point in the future, because the environment is so resilient. It’s impossible to say exactly when that’s going to happen. Yeah, but I think all the evidence suggests that we’re on we’re on track for that to happen in this century. And that, of course, would be cataclysmic.”

-“It’s just don’t try to look further than five years ahead. I mean, I think people who think they can plan out their entire life almost certainly going to be wrong and take the wrong decisions. So three to five years, I think, is the maximum.”

-“It’s perfectly clear to me that none of the issues we’ve been talking about are going to go away.”

-“So in a business, gearing yourself up to be able to respond, either within the business, or museus use, or to add something to your CV that will enable you to go out into other businesses that wanted to move in those directions. Again, I cannot imagine that that wouldn’t be a good investment.”

-“[Asking ‘are you optimisitic?’] is the wrong question. As an academic, and as someone who likes to look at evidence, if I’m to be honest, there is nothing to be optimistic about. if you don’t get out of bed on Monday morning, you are miserable. And anyone who comes in touch with you is miserable, and you’re not making any difference to the issues that you’re doing.”

-“So I have come to the feeling of drawing a distinction between optimism and hope. And hope is eternal. And the other thing is that actually, any difference you make is worth making.”

-“I’m a bit critical of this target of 1.5 degrees, I can understand this political salience. But when we sail through it, and we will sail through it, everyone will think, Oh, dear, we’d missed that target. It’s all over. But of course, it’s not all over. Yeah, because 1.7 degrees is better than two degrees, two degrees is better than 2.3 degrees.”


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