Author Archives: David Bent

What if the constraint on eternal growth is biology, not physics?

When reflecting on a recent piece on the physics of eternal growth, I was struck that the fundamental challenge is not about physics but biology. Specifically, unless nature can cope with human activity, then it will collapse, taking civilisation with it. But conversely, if we can find a more of human activity which we value more and more that co-evolves with nature, then in principle we could have eternal growth.

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Climate change: thinking about the past and the future

Two weeks on from the IPCC special report on 1.5C – which calls for unprecedented transformation in how we live, especially those of us in rich countries – I’ve been thinking about the past and the future.

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What I’ve been reading (w/c 10 and 17 Sep 2018)

The latest in what is intended to be a weekly series (or *cough* fortnightly) of what I’ve been reading. The aim is to point people towards stuff they will find useful (or help them avoid rubbish). The aim is a line or two on each, so you can understand whether to read it. I also intended to do more in-depth reviews of important books and articles. The headings in CAPITALISED below are how I organise my work.



Stakeholder economy
Earlier this week I gave a talk at a Promoting Economic Pluralism event on ‘Redefining Capitalism: from shareholder to stakeholder economy’. You can see my final slides here. But it did mean I read up on stakeholder economy for the first time in years. And found quite an argument going on.

First, one of the originators and gurus of stakeholder business, R Edward Freeman. With Robert Phillips, he wrote a passionate piece on ’Stakeholder Theory: A libertarian Defense’ (£).

The purpose here is to show how stakeholder thinking is compatible with US-style ‘small state’ political thinking. They want to differentiate Will Hutton-style “large-scale role for government in the process of value creation and trade” from other versions of stakeholder theory.

So, stakeholder capitalism need not be a lefty, progressive thing. It can be a small state, libertarian approach too.

To that end, Freeman and Phillips propose 5 principles for libertarian stakeholder capitalism, which stand in contrast to shareholder maximisation (where you are out to get the other guy, and take no responsibility for your actions beyond a legal minimum).

  1. Stakeholder Cooperation: Value is created because stakeholders can jointly satisfy their needs and desires by making voluntary agreements with each other.
  2. Stakeholder Responsibility: Parties to an agreement must accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. When third parties are harmed, they must be compensated or a new arrangement must be negotiated with all those parties affected.
  3. Complexity: Human beings are complex psychological creatures capable of acting from many different values and points of view.
  4. Continuous Creation: Business as an institution is a source of the creation of value. Cooperating with stakeholders and motivate by values, businesspeople continuously create new sources of value.
  5. Emergent Competition: Competition emerges from a relatively free society so that stakeholders have options. Competition emerges out of the cooperation among stakeholders, rather than based on a primal urge to ‘get the other guy’.


Then there was Jeffery Moriarty in The Connection Between Stakeholder Theory and Stakeholder Democracy. He identified the core of the difference between shareholder and stakeholder economies (using an old Freeman quote), which is very Kantian:

“Each person has the right to be treated, not as a means to some corporate end, but as an end in itself. If the modern corporation insists on treating others as means to an end, then at minimum they must agree to and hence participate (or choose not to participate) in the decisions to be used as such.”

This leads to two distinctions:

  • Who benefits (aka distribution)? Balance interests of all stakeholders for a healthy company (not: run for benefits to the shareholders, which might mean you do care about stakeholders as a means to that end).
  • How are decisions reached (aka procedure)? Stakeholders should have ability to participate in decisions which affect them (not: board answerable to shareholders alone).

This gave him the basis to challenge the main stakeholder theorists. His claim: they had rowed back from past positions, and now said that stakeholder theory does not require changing the current structure of corporate governance. Moriaty disagrees: stakeholder theorists own logic propels them to support stakeholder democracy over the status quo. As such, any  conversation about stakeholder theory should also be able governance and control.


UK wage squeeze
Torsten Bell of Resolution Foundation has a fascinating series of charts on why the UK had a wage squeeze since 2008. Key line:

“The UK’s pay squeeze was so exceptional compared to other countries because of the combination of the sheer depth of our recession (an unalloyed bad thing) with a new (and much more ambiguous) feature of our economy – a devaluation led inflation spike that we have now experienced twice in this decade.”

He also says that people had less negotiating power than in the past but that pre-dated the financial crash, rather than caused by it.


Digitally-enabled ‘New Power’ movements
I finished reading the much-raved about ‘New Power: How Power Works In Our Hyperconnected World–And How To Make It Work For You’ by Hiemans and Timms. There’s a longer piece to be written here. But, the short version: lots to like in their description of how movements happen – and can be steered – in a digital age. But there’s a lot of shadow-side they leave out, until its slipped in the final chapter.

They have a lot of faith that the new power values enabled by digital technologies will be played out in new power operating models. But two clear objections form the real world:

  • New power operating models have been co-opted into old power values in, for instance, Facebook. It’s like the authors have no notion that the major weight of activity is surveillance capitalism, not participatory movements.
  • Cambridge politics prof David Runciman differentiates between scandals (the people change, but the underlying dynamics do not) and crises (the fundamental structural forces get reconfigured). In these terms, lots of the examples of success in the book are scandals, and few are crises. The New Power they describe is limited to improving and perpetuating the current status quo, rather than creating a bridge into whatever is next.


For another week:


Industrial Strategies and a Stakeholder Economy [SESSION SLIDES]

Earlier this week I spoke at on Industrial Strategies and a Stakeholder Economy at an event on ‘Redesigning Capitalism: From shareholder to stakeholder capitalism’.

The event was run by Promoting Economic Pluralism, which is creating and supporting spaces for diverse voices, perspectives and approaches to understanding our economies to help co-create truly sustainable, resilient and inclusive ones. PEP is run by the inimitable Henry Leveson-Gower, who deserves great praise for pushing for requisite variety in economics.

Some people from the session were asking for the slides. Here they are. In a perfect world I would write a blog post of my talk, but the perfect is the enemy of the good. So, better than nothing, here are the key points from the talk:

  • We’re in a profound mess.
  • Industrial strategy is ‘back’ because new approaches are needed.
  • There is a spectrum of industrial strategies, reflecting different political preferences.
  • Addressing transformation failure probably requires a ‘participative’ approach.
  • That makes a ‘stakeholder economy’ both a means and an end.
  • Orientating everything in an economy to address the profound mess means we have to experiment everywhere.
  • There are hints of an emerging practice of transformative, participatory industrial strategy.
  • We need many global ‘social learning cycles’ to get better at using participative approaches in industrial strategies to deliver a sustainable footing.

What I’ve been reading (w/c 3 Sep 2018)

The latest in what is intended to be a weekly series of what I’ve been reading. The aim is to point people towards stuff they will find useful (or help them avoid rubbish). The aim is a line or two on each, so you can understand whether to read it. The headings in CAPITALISED BOLD below are how I organise my work.

Acting in the face of some degree of collapse in civilisation
Deep Adaptation by Prof Jem Bendell is a challenging must-read. He believes the best-available science says that there is an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change, which many mainstream sustainability professionals are in a sort of detail. He hopes:

the deep adaptation agenda of resilience, relinquishment and restoration can be a useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change. Resilience asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Relinquishment asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?” Restoration asks us “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?”

I want to do a deeper response to Jem’s paper. For now, the one line is: while there are parts I quibble with, I do think we are not facing the reality of civilisation-scale diminution. I fear that some current comms campaigns rely on a naive optimism that will not survive the crises to come. We need to be willing to work with the despair  in order to find our ardent motivation which will survive in tough, tough times ahead.

Rupert Read, academic and Green Party wonk, covers much of the same ground in his Some Thoughts on Civilisation Succession. His starting point is that “one way or another, this civilisation is finished” (either because climate change will destroy it, or we will build a new one to avoid being destroyed by climate change). So what to do?

  1. We need to wake up to all this; we need to stop fooling ourselves, and to wake as many others up as we can.
  2. We need to keep fighting as hard as we can to stop the acceleration of the situation toward utter calamity.
  3. We need to start to build lifeboats in earnest.
  4. We need somehow to do this while being all-too-aware of the very strong likelihood that the new civilisation will have to pass through a most unholy baptism of fire.
  5. We need to link up with each other, and face climate-reality and its human implications together.We need to discuss all this more openly, and more widely.We need to try to start living in truth.
  6. We need, for a while, to stop. We need to breathe deeply, and spend some time in Keatsian ‘negative capability’.

Character of society the 21st century
The Young Foundation have a competition to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Rise of Meritocracy by Michael Young, their founder (deadline: Fri 14 Sep 2018). Young wrote it as a science fiction satire (set in 2033, after some populist crises) and warning: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others”.

I’m writing an entry, so I did actually read (actually, speed-read) the book. It is fantastic. The Introduction in particular speaks to how our current crises of liberal democracy  flow from letting those with economic merit rise, and while those without ARE left behind and left out:

  • “Whether or not these [risings] were explicitly organised by the Populists, they were certainly organised by history.
  • “If we ignore the casualties of progress we fall victim, in the sphere of human relations, to…insidious complacency.”

In preparing my entry, I revised some of my favourite writings of the last few years, in particular Jordan Greenhall’s Situational Assessment 2017: Trump edition. The pivotal passage:

“The conflict of the 21st Century is about forming a Collective Intelligence that can outwit and out innovate all of its competitors. The central challenge is to innovate a way of collaborating and cohering individuals that maximally deploys their individual perspectives, capabilities, understandings and insights with each-other. Right now, the [Trump] Insurgency has the edge. It has discovered some key ways to tap into the power of decentralized collective intelligence and this is its principal advantage. While it is definitely not a mature version of a decentralized collective intelligence, it is substantially more so than any collective intelligence with which it is competing and unless and until a more effective decentralized collective intelligence enters the field, this advantage is enough.”

In the London Review of books, Malcolm Gaskill reviews A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America. The review explores how the period of cold in c1500-1700 made colonisation of the Americas really tough. Two points to take.


“The consequences of the cold weather were so serious that they couldn’t be contained politically [across Europe]. In a 2013 study, the historian Geoffrey Parker argued that the ‘general crisis’ of the 17th century, a litany of wars, invasions, rebellions, massacres, epidemics and famines, can be explained by the Little Ice Age. Others have seen the origins of the French Revolution in climate change, when a period of poor harvests acted as what the anthropologist Brian Fagan has called ‘a subtle catalyst’ for the insurrection.”

Second, after many decades of suffering colonists did have success, after they shifted to adapting to the circumstances of cold, volatile weather.

For another week:


What I’ve been reading this week (27 Aug 2018)

…and we’re back. Apologies for lack of blog entries. Busy with work that can’t come into the public domain, yet.

In the meantime, the first in what is intended to be a weekly series of what I’ve been reading. The aim is to point people towards stuff they will find useful (or help them avoid rubbish). There’ll be a line or two on each, so you can understand whether to read it. I also intended to do more in-depth reviews of important books and articles. The headings below are how I organise my work (at least at the moment).

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