Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey (personal website, twitter, wikipedia). He is the director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), a multi-disciplinary, international research consortium which aims to understand the economic, social and political dimensions of sustainable prosperity. He is also a successful playwright.
It was an extraordinarily rich and honest conversation, covering (and this is just a taste):
- Moving from playwright to accidental economist because of the Chernobyl disaster.
- Allowing the playwright aspect to explore the conflicts within himself on the economics of prosperity.
- The struggles of being an outsider pushing at the mainstream.
- Trying to create a society based on the vastness of meaningful relationships and purposeful lives, rather than the flat, narrowness of economic growth.
- The need for partnership culture, rather than a domination one, though still with some role for competition that encourages us all to raise our game, without fearing we’ll lose everything.
- Providing capability to the next generation, so voices of today have the space to speak, while having respect for how the past generations helped created that space.
- The importance of following your north star, and treating challenges to you from the status quo as the crucible that forms you.
I make an quotation error. it was Max Plank (not Thomas Khun) who said that scientific revolutions proceed one funeral at a time. Towards the end, Tim makes a similar error: Ode: Intimations of Immortality was Wordsworth, not Tennyson.
Tim uses one swear word (f*ck) as part of a story about being rejected by mainstream economists.
Latest book: Post-Growth — Life After Capitalism
Previous book: Prosperity Without Growth (must read, by the way).
The Inner Game of Tennis (also my notes on the book here).
0:55 – Q1 What are you doing now? And how did you get there?
7:45 – BONUS QUESTION: After walking into the Greenpeace office the day after Chernobyl and asking to do something, did you stay there long?
9:37 – BONUS QUESTION: Do you feel that you’ve combined that storytelling of being a playwright into the analytics of being an economist? Is there a way in which you not just that they’re two separate strands of your life, but they’re now woven together in your practice?
15:47 – BONUS QUESTION: It must have been very difficult to establish a sort of credibility for yourself, with mainstream economists?
21:00 – Q2. What is the future you are trying to create, and why?
27:27 – BONUS QUESTION: The future Tim is trying to create, inspired by past thinking, is a society based on meaningful relationships. But has it existed in practice? And is there a practical way of getting from where we are now?
43:04 – Q3. What are your priorities for the next few years, and why?
51:14 – Q4. If someone was inspired to follow those priorities, what should they do next?
54:50 – Q5. If your younger self was starting their career now, what advice would you give them?
57:26 – Q6. Who would you nominate to answer these questions, because you admire their approach?
58:40 – Q7. Is there anything else important you feel you have to say?
-“You describe me as an ecological economist. And that is how I describe myself. But I do think of myself in some ways as a kind of accidental economist. I ended up working in economics, largely because I was driven by one particular fairly passionate moment in 1986, when I watched the impact of the meltdown in Chernobyl.”
-“Chernobyl really dragged me back to my sense that actually, accidentally or not, I had developed some skills that were relevant to the challenge of a sustainable energy system for a society that actually needed desperately to wean itself off dangerous tech technologies and, and environmentally damaging energy systems.”
-“So I walked to the next day into the offices for Greenpeace in London. And I said, I’m someone who is sitting here writing plays, but I’ve got a degree in mathematics and other one in philosophy and other one in physics, and I kind of want to do something, and they set me to work.”
-“I was very struck by actually, the importance of the role of economics. And the more I learned about economics, I was also struck by how narrow it is as a discipline. Because I had come to it in a very unconventional way, I guess, I was open to the possibility that it could be very differently construed as an ecological, Ecological Economics, I found a kind of intellectual home.”
-“The playwriting gave me a space to explore the emotion to explore the depths, to explore the some of the intellectual ideas [of economics and disciplines related to prosperity] in a very, very different way.”
-“When you’re an academic, you have to make your case you have to write your book. You have to stand by your book. You have to be the person who argues such and such about prosperity and growth. And of course, you can become that person, you can become that idea. But actually, we really, in our depths as human beings, are never just one idea. There is always the kind of conflict and the playwriting allowed me to explore that conflict. It allowed me to talk to my own dark side, to understand who the people were within me, who were actually the rampaging anti environmental protagonists, that I would meeting in daily life as the opposite to me, but actually, I could discover them in me as the playwright.”
-“I think some of my best characters as a playwright, actually, were the people who espouse the completely opposite view to one, my, my intellectual life was following.”
-[Combining my words and Tim’s answer] The narrative which goes with the mainstream economics is, we are in a society is made up of competition, rather than society is made up of competition and collaboration. And if you don’t compete, and if you don’t lift yourself above others, continually, then you’re the one who is left in the gutter.
-“I’ve also struggled at certain points [after becoming an accidental economist]. But you know, I’d say this very honestly, struggled with what inevitably you carry with you when you wander into somebody’s territory, which is that you are an outsider. And you are, and that is a disadvantage. So there’s, you know, that, and you have to somehow navigate that sense of what can be quite debilitating inferiority complex.”
-“There was an arrogance there that I thought if I had the right argument, I could go into that arena and I could and and I think that sort of experience very quickly knocked that out of me, but it also to some extent, hardened me and made me realise that there are times at which it is a struggle. It is a fight that you are in there, be being attacked, and all intents and purposes also attacking people because their beliefs are at stake as well.”
-“What I was trying to do [in his latest book, Post-Growth] was to sketch that elements of that future and have a different kind of world. A world built around relationship rather than profit; a world built around cooperation, as much as competition; a world built around a kind of sense of our own humanity, more than a sense of the kind of statistical logic of economic growth.”
-“Looking at the way that industry work, that technology work, that the pattern of consumption work that the world that we were supposed to live in, worked and thinking, that does not capture that essence that I had as a kid, about this deeper and the deeper to me, had something had a lot to do with the relationship to the Earth itself to nature, it had a lot to do with relationships with other people with the depth of those relationships with, with the emotions that came with them, it had a lot to do with a sense of vastness of the cosmos.”
-My articulation of the future Tim is trying to create: “It’s not a detailed model blueprint. It’s more a set of qualities that you’re trying to describe, which are a richer and deeper experience in the world supported by all the different infrastructures, and all the ways in which we live. That is more than just creating meaning through consumption alone, which is often feels like the mainstream push at us is that we should live through what we buy, rather than live through how we experience other people in the relationships we have with them, relationships we have with nature, with the sense of deeper purpose.”
-Question: has a society based on relationships existed in practice? “I would say yes, but it absolutely has existed in practice. It’s existed in human example, that has existed in human experience. It’s possible to identify people in times and places, and that means that it has existed in practice. Has it at anytime been a dominant worldview? I think it’s a trickier question to answer. I’m not sure that it’s been a dominant worldview, in our time and experience…. But I think, you know, even for broadly of the 20th century, 21st century, you know, modernity, it’s not easy to find it as a dominant worldview, in modernity.”
-“[Riane Eisler] says something very, very simple, which is that when you have two genders, and let’s leave aside for the moment, the complexities of gender identity, but when you have, broadly speaking, two genders, their relationship to each other, can take one of two forms, either one dominates the other, or they work in partnership with each other.”
-Following discussing the Inner Game of Tennis “We can become better in competition with each other, if that competition is kind of respectful in particular. And within the context, that doesn’t simply reward winning for the sake of winning, because I think in the sense that that, to me is exactly what I have against the mantra of growth.” [Implication I take: competition is useful, as long as not everything is at stake.]
-“In a system in which all your incentives are material, and economic and financial, and otherwise you’re punished, [then] it’s quite possible that we have actually manipulated human motivation in exactly the direction that we’re being told it exists.”
-“In my work priorities, I think are very much about providing the capability for a next generation.”
-“I want there to be a time at which, and there has to be a time at which those young researchers are no longer young researchers dependent on me, in which my own leadership actually begins to either move away from that task or begins to become less important generally, in the world. And that and that sense of the turning over of the old in favour of the new.”
-“the voices who have been there for 30 something years as I have, and not the voices of today, and the voices of today have to have the space to speak, and actually stepping back and allowing those people into that space is a part of my task at this point in my life.”
-“I think we have a younger generation now that is, for lots of very good reasons, much more impatient for change. And in that impatience for change, we tend to sometimes, you know, demonise the people who have created the space in which it’s possible to change.”
-“if there’s one thing that I want to say to people who, who are struggling with that process now is that is, is to just keep that idea of that Northstar, keep that idea of that of a light that you are following, because everything in the world will try to obscure it from you.”
-“I suppose the other thing I would probably tell that younger self is that [incidents like being trashed in public by senior figures] don’t actually matter. In the end, they are the crucible in which you forge your own experience and your strength in the future. And that sometimes, actually, you know, it’s the successes that you have to be slightly more wary about.”