Category Archives: framing

Let’s be inspired by Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope.

‘Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope’ by Bill Sharpe is a tremendous book for anyone who works on profound change. Below I hope I can give you a flavour of it, and why I was inspired. My key takeaway:  rather than aiming for distant, definitive visions, we would be better to act from a shared awareness of the future potential in this present moment. Continue reading

Diffusion vs Creative-Destruction: which theory should #sustainability system change agents be using?

The default approach to change for many #sustainability organsiations has been based on diffusion. Twenty years on, I find myself drawn to a different theory, one of creative-destruction. 

Over the last few years I’ve been wondering about the methods we’ve been using the shift corporations, and on sustainability in general. Recently my thinking has been accelerated by chairing the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum, speaking with Dr Anna Birney and other fellow change agents, and reading Tomorrow’s Company’s excellent report on UK Business.

It seems to me that we have two theories for how change will happen in play: diffusion and creative-desctruction.

The default has been leading players will adopt through enlightened self-interest, and that the path to scale comes from diffusion. A group of pioneers try out new management practices which make the three principles real. They learn and improve from that experience. The pioneers share their insights with their peers, through informal gathers and formal conferences. Some fast followers adopt the improved methods, which are revised again, shared again to the next cohort of adoptees. And up the S-curve we go, until the laggards are forced by regulation (either laws or contractual requirements).

How well does that story describe the reality? We’re twenty years older, and it is still the same usual suspects. When I was chairing the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum, it was pretty much the same companies up on stage and in the audience. Now, many were doing great stuff. But where are the new adoptees? Where is the next cohort? Where is the momentum? It is possible we’re about to go through the inflection point of run-away adoption, but I’m not convinced.

My question, to myself as much as anyone else: is the diffusion theory of change fit for purpose for the corporate sustainability field, or for sustainability in general?

There is a second theory of change in play, of creative-destruction. The best version for this blog is probably Berkana Institute’s Two Loops. One loop is the old ways, which are declining. The key players here are the stabilisers, who want to keep going with the old ways for as long as possible, and the hospice workers, who help the old ways (and the organisations who refuse to change) to die. The second loop is of the new ways. These are started by originators, and helped by mid-wives. A final role is the wave-rider, who helps people make sense of the change.

Under a creative-destruction theory, we shouldn’t expect the current incumbents to change unless they are forced by competition or regulation. Even then, jumping successful from the old to the new wave is rare. Instead, we should expect the new practices to come from new players, who accrue significant advantage over the old guard. Under creative-destruction, time spent trying to change stuck incumbents is time wasted. Time spent originating the new, or being a mid-wife to it, is time well-spent.

What evidence is there of this being a better description of what’s going on? Well, the recent Tomorrow’s Company report says that corporates are not reinvesting their profits in themselves, they are giving it back to investors. That would fit with them seeing no more opportunities for themselves. In my interpretation, there are still opportunities out there, just not ones that the incumbents – stuck in their normal routines – can grasp. Frankly, the incumbents have had 20 years – where’s the results?

Also, we are seeing many new sorts of organisations. There has been a rush of social enterprises, cooperatives and for-benefit organisations.

If we go by a creative-destruction lens then change agents should be working with the emerging initiatives, institutions and businesses, the ones which will be powerful tomorrow. The ones that are digital start-ups today, and the unicorns of tomorrow. The ones who have a home nation from the emerging world, which are about to go global. The implication is to try and have these organisations adopt a purpose beyond profit and so on in their more formative stages.

Why? First, they are still developing, and so can better be shifted (in contrast a corporate behemoth has a pretty stable culture and way of doing things). Second, as they grow they will create the pressure for the current incumbents to respond, more than brilliantly researched and written reports ever can.

Personally, I find myself acting as a mid-wife, a wave-rider and maybe an originator. This all comes from believing creative-destruction fits our circumstances better than diffusion.

Does anyone have any thoughts? Would be very pleased to find out I’m completely wrong!

‘In shocking times, sustainability needs to pivot.’ Closing remarks to edie 2017 Sustainability Leaders Forum

As chair of edie Sustainability Leaders Forum 2017, I could close the event with my key themes: 1. the context is shocking; 2. there are leaders making great strides; and, 3. even so the corporate sustainability field needs to pivot. This piece was first posted on edie.

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Book review: Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap is brilliant, prompting big questions on how to transition to #sustainability

Alex Evans new book, The Myth Gap, argues that, to address the challenges of sustainability, we need to go beyond technicalities to the very stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s brilliant, urgent, timely. We definitely do need global constellation of myths of a larger us, a longer now and a different ‘good life’ which together shift our collective values base.

But missing for me was the waft and weave of the practice of acting on the ‘myth gap’. How can we learn from experiences of people who’ve already been trying? How else might we generate the stories we reach for to explain the transition we’re facing, especially without requiring a globally agreed assembly of myths or using stories which rely on deadening destinations? 

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around” Terry Pratchett, quoted approvingly in The Myth Gap.

For the last decade or so, anyone who wants a progressive but clear-sighted view on development and international relations could do worse than read Global Dashboard. One of its founders, Alex Evans, has been an active practitioner in development as a New Labour special advisor to DfID, in international policy setting with as a secondee into UN Secretary General’s office and an academic too. He also co-wrote the super, short think piece ‘Towards a Just and Sustainable Economy’ – one of the best summaries I’ve read.

So I was excited to learn he’d written a book. This review starts by outlining Evans’ arguments, the why, what and how of the myth gap – most of which I basically agree with. But I found that there were more areas to explore, which I cover in the final section.

“On one hand, we’re poised right on the cusp of a genuinely global us – with a global social media network, a global library of knowledge, a global economy, global  governance institutions, a global sense of who we are. On the other hand, we’re also on the verge of an unprecedented  disaster in which we allow climate change – or other areas… – where our technological know-how risks surpassing our ability to use technology wisely….And, while I’m basically optimistic, an extremely bleak outcome is obviously possible…The single factor that will do most to decide how we fare, as we face this test, may ultimately be which stories –  myths –  we reach for to explain the transition we’re facing.

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#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.

Encountering nature, considering intention

This weekend I was on a retreat in lovely rural Kent with folk from the artistic and creative communities. We were enquiring into our relationship with nature. I started thinking of art as an instrument for change but made that thought seem outmoded. Instead, we encountered nature, each other and the qualities of experience that might help us move beyond modernity.

One weekend in Kent is not going to be the pivot in a many-decade transition. But it can – and has – reaffirmed my connection with my purpose, and with others of aligned purposes. As one moment among many, the weekend can be part of a frothing, bubbling wavefront of possibility, reaching out into a better future.

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Starting from ‘art as an instrument for change’
For the last few years I have been worried that the sustainability movement had taken a turn to technocratic and managerial. Campaigning on legislation, getting companies to have better strategies – these are necessary steps. But they are not sufficient for the profound shifts in our lives, our economies and out societies. Still relatively untouched are the values we have and the stories we tell each other. The sustainability movement just hasn’t been reaching far outside the ‘sustainability’ bubble. Adam Werbach pointed out that environmentalists were winning the policy battles but losing the cultural war.

At the same time, I was wondering where the artistic response to the the shock of the Anthropcene was. Of course, there are specifics one can point to. But, for such an enormous, all-encompassing crisis that puts nothing less than the future of human civilisation as we know it at risk, well, there’s just not a lot about. If art is how society makes sense of what is going on, then we need more art that engages with the sustainability crisis.

So, last weekend I went on a retreat at the Quadrangle Trust holding a particular question: how can I foster more artistic engagement with the challenges of sustainability, in ways that can help society act urgently? I thought we’d get into actions, perhaps an art prize or something like that. How wrong – and worthy! – I was, and it’s a good thing. Instead we went deeper, in order to go further.

 

Encountering art as not just instrumental
The hosts of the weekend had curated a variety of experiences. We gave attention to our bodies through yoga and mediation. We touched the world as if the world was touching us through blindfolded walks in fields. We – 20 or so near-strangers – cared for each other as family by cooking together. We heard thought pieces from artists, writers and futurists. We walked around the local valley, wondering at the trees, the light, the landscape. We had a ritual of fire starting and whiskey drinking. Overarching all those was a care – love, even – for helping people have an experience which connected them with nature, with each other, with the best of the past and the needs of the future.

What I have realised – a much-forgotten insight – is that the artefacts of everyday life come from cultural values, and these in turn come from fundamental assumptions (following Schein’s process model). The sustainability crisis comes from the stories we tell ourselves, but these in turn rest on the assumptions of the modern world. That we can separate subject from object. That mind is separate from matter. That only people have proper mind, and so all the rest of nature is infinitely lesser. That we can nature is inert, and we can treat it how we like. That quantitative data from repeatable events is proper knowledge, and qualitative experience in context-specific situations is dubious knowledge. That we should make decisions rationally, not emotionally.

I knew this, of course, from reading Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive, Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Peter Reason and Hillary Bradbury’s introduction in the Handbook of Action Research and more. I knew it, but I had forgotten. That is, I knew it as ideas, and had forgotten it as a more-than-rational reality, as a lived-in life.

 

Going forward with…
The effects on me were physical, intellectual, and social.

…greater energy
Physically, despite late nights and active days, I was energised. More alive-feeling than before. Reds looked more red, greens more green.

…a new bet on intention…
Intellectually I was stimulated by ideas about the base foundations of how we understand reality. The finger of blame i often pointed at philosophers like Descartes with his dualism and Francis Bacon hoping that nature will be “bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets”. Post-modernists of various stripes had reacted against that, with what some call the language turn, but their thinking is still defined by what it’s following than what it is enabling (the clue is in the name: post-modern). When it comes to finding a foundation beyond modernism, I have been attracted to Arnie Naes’ deep ecology, with his notion of self-realisation within the wider Self. Various folk brought other proposals on new foundations. For instance, that all of nature may be made of the ’stuff’ (so no division between people with minds and rest) but need not share an aligned purpose.

As a former physicist, the most intriguing was Hardin Tibbs on a theory that tries to address the basic strangeness of quantum theory: how can something be a wave and a particle at the same time? The Transaction Interpretation says: by breaking our received notion of time. A source sends out a wave going forward in time, many receivers send out waves from the future going backward in time. There’s a ’handshake’ between the wave from a particular receiver and the wave of the source. Running time forward, that looks like a particle.

Mad? Well, yes. But no less mad than the many-worlds interpretation. Simply, there is no way to address what we know about activity at the quantum level which can fit with the ‘common sense’ that we’ve developed for our human-scale experiences today – for instance, that we are separate from an inert nature that is ‘out there’.

So, what if we don’t know, and can’t know, the base reality underneath our experience is really like, what are we to believe and how are we to act? How are we to live? Modernity gives us certainty that nature is inert, and predictable (if you have a big enough computer and enough computational time) – which also implies that we have no free will. But if that certainty is not justified, then what?

Transaction Interpretation opens up the possibility that the world is not deterministically going through the motions. What if the future can come back to the present, the present can reach out to the future, for a handshake? What if the sequential flow of time we experience is an illusion? What if, instead, intentions – conscious and unconscious, deliberate and accidental – help shape the future, ready to receive us proceeding forward? What if the universe was not just ‘out there’, but ‘in here’ too – being co-crafted by our will?

Of course, Transaction Interpretation is but one of several. It may not be right. But we know for sure that the Newtonian science  – that justifies the modernist assumptions of reality – has been replaced. Anyway, the specifics of the science don’t matter. What matters is whether it’s worth acting as if intention can make a difference.

Which gets us to a new version of Pascal’s Wager. The original says, better to believe in God than not. If God exists, the aetheist may have fun life but then goes to hell forever, while the believer can have a fun life (perhaps a little less fun), and then goes to heaven. If God doesn’t exist they can both have fun lives which both then just end. Why take the risk of being an atheist?

Do I believe I have free will? Well, if I don’t then I can only have the illusion of agency. Is it better to reconcile myself to that, or – in the vast un-knowability of reality – to believe there is a sliver of possibility that I might have agency? In which case, how might we use our free will? What is worse, to act as though the future possibility with the greatest potential energy has the greatest possibility of occurring, or to act as though it is certain we only have the illusion of freedom? Is it better to bet our knowledge of the physical sciences is complete, or is it better to act as though our intention and actions have meaning, have potential, have effect? What’s the downside of acting as if we are composed of inherent possibility that we can guide?

The implication: act as if your intentions – conscious and unconscious, deliberate and accidental – help shape the future.

…therefore the qualities of experience we evoke now matter
Our intentions are not just about outcomes, they also include the steps along the way. No longer can the ends justify the means (if it ever did), because the means is also a part-determinant of the ends. If we want a future with particular qualities, then these also need to be evoked in the experiences we have along the way.

Interestingly that mirrors one of the common features across the artists and creatives who were there. Many placed the biggest emphasis of their work on the process of creating an artefact (whether a sculpture or a theatrical performance), rather than on the artefact itself. I was at an opening night of a painter recently in my local gallery where he too was saying the art is really in the process. Which is fine, except the gallery wanted too sell me the picture, a very distanced experience of making constant judgements and adjustments that was his focus. The implication is that the form of art required is one where people can take part, and not just as receivers.

Outwith art itself, the wider implication for sustainability is to foster experimentation that is simultaneously in the nature of the artefacts – the product, service, business model, whatever – the values that underpin it, adn the assumptions on which those values rest. Efforts that are deliberately biased to trial and error, learning and improvisation in content and in form.

…a new cohort inspired together
The last effect I want to write about was social. By the end, we realised our hosts had created – and we had supported – a ‘place of encounter’. Yes, of nature, but of each other. BY the end I was amazed by the depth of everyone else’s efforts, affirmed in my own, and deeply appreciative of the chance to connect. In what some call The Age of Loneliness, I was no longer alone.

In a many-decades transition?
Believe it or not, there is a lot more I could write about from the weekend. But my final thought is about the longue duree, the long-term historical structures in which specifics occur.

The possibility is that the modernity we are used to is fraying, exhausted. That we are on the cusp – in the middle? – of a many-decades, perhaps even century-long profound transition. In my view, we can’t know exactly where we’re going or how to get there. The way forward I can see is to foster experiences with the qualities we believe are key to a better future. Amongst those are connection in many ways (between your mind and body, your inner and outer arcs of attention, you and the world, you and others, you and the past and future, and so on), conviviality and changes as process (not output). Art has a crucial role to play in those experiences, but thinking of it as an instrument feels too…modern now.

One weekend in Kent is not going to be pivot of the world. But it can – and has – reaffirmed my connection with my purpose, and with others of aligned purposes. As one moment among many, it can be part of a frothing, bubbling wavefront of possibility, reaching out into a better future.

 

Can addressing the productivity crisis address ‘limits to growth’?

Earlier this week I was at the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth. Its mere existence is a sign that the subject is no longer taboo. I left with worries – will it get lost in defining terms? how will it get credibility beyond the usual suspects? are we trapped? – and one big hope. There’s a tantalising prospect that solving the productivity puzzle might tickle the Treasury’s fancy, and require a shift to a sustainable soci-technological basis. 
 
Let’s start with Prof Tim Jackson’s very useful summary of where the limits to growth debate has got to, and then move on to the wider reflections.

Tim Jackson and Robin Webster had written a short report called Limits Revisited for the launch, which considered the limits to growth debate some 44 years after the original Club of Rome report. It has three ways that limits to growth is relevant to today.

1. Resource constraints. The original argument is that, as resources are used up, there is ever-extra effort to get hold of what you need, which has a lower quality anyway. You find yourself over-allocating productive resources to getting more resources, rather than into new or different resources. Economic collapse comes when you can no longer get at the quality resources you need at a level of effort you can sustain. The report talks of oil and minerals.

I’ve always found this an under-whelming argument, and still do. Fundamentally, yes, the Earth is not an infinite source. But this is the sort of threat that our current system should be able to respond to, though doubtless with much pain for incumbent companies and dependent countries. Past oil shocks have been because producers wanted to constrain supply deliberately or we were constrained by refining capacity, not running out of oil. Rising prices pushed people to use more efficiently (e.g. shift in car sizes), invest in expanding processing capacity, invent ways of extracting previously too-hard sources (e.g. shale gas), look elsewhere (e.g. the Arctic), or find substitutes (e.g. move to solar). The Simon-Ehrlich Wager shows we cope.

Also, thinking in terms of traction, this is a non-starter. Some people have been saying “we’ll run out of X material in Y years” for decades, and have a record of being wrong. The original Limits to Growth Report wasn’t guilty of that, and said these effects start in 50-100 years time. But I think this angle, for better or worse, is discredited.

2.Planetary boundaries.  We cannot treat the Earth as an infinite sink. We’ll run out of the ability to deal with pollution and waste before we run out of stuff to turn into pollution or waste. The key example is the greenhouse gas effect. We’re releasing more greenhouse gases than the climate can handle. Result: temperature rises and, potentially, runaway climate change.

For me, this is the scary one because there are no price signals until the impacts hit the economy, by which time it is too late. My memory of the 30 year update of the original Club of Rome report, has soil erosion as the key cause of collapse. The increase in food production uses the soil faster than it can regenerate, and pollution erodes it even further. This fundamentally reduces the scale and quality of food production possible, and so reduces the scale and complexity of global civilisation that is possible.

3. Secular stagnation. This did not feature in the original report, and has come to prominence from mainstream economics in the last few years. One part of this says that growth since the 1990s relied on borrowing, which popped so spectacularly in 2007. Another part says that in the past there were General Purpose Technologies (GPTs) like steam, electricity and internal combustion engine, which increased labour productivity and therefore growth. These have run their course and there are no new ones to replace them. That’s why labour productivity has been going downing the US and UK, why wages stagnated, why people had to borrow to increase their standard of living. The emerging technologies might even decouple economic activity from jobs, which then undermines a broad mass of people having wages with which to buy stuff. We may be going ‘post-growth’.

This where I think there is juice. I was at a Cabinet Office event last year on the Future of Productivity. The all-powerful Treasury is worried about where productivity is going to come from, are most Western governments. So, addressing this challenge at least stands a chance of being heard, while the other two just bounce off people’s cognitive frames (regardless of evidence that the planet is not an infinite source or sink).

There are two explanations in play. The lesser, but still useful, is that we’re measuring the wrong thing. GDP is calculated from the financial value of transactions in the formal economy. Famously it misses the informal (like childcare) or things that aren’t in prices, like environmental externalities. That hasn’t mattered too much to policy makers in the past.

But many emerging technologies have near-zero marginal cost, which means the financial value of formal transactions is basically nil even though they are helping people live their lives. Once you put up your solar panel, you don’t pay the sun for its rays. When you have fun on-line you pay very little (especially if you are the product, meaning the company is getting value from the data about you) compared to the off-line activity you would have been doing 20 years ago (think YouTube vs cinema trip). So, GDP is under-stating the welfare from new technologies.

Also, people pay a lot of attention to labour productivity, but almost none to resource productivity. In the past that might have made sense. Going forward, we have many people but not enough planet. So attention needs to shift.

Reforming GDP has been the least successful change effort in recent times. Everyone knows its at best partial, if not downright misleading. The standard sustainability-related arguments have had no impact. Perhaps the productivity crisis – which governments do care about – gives a chance to augment GDP.

The second – and much more important – explanation for the productivity crisis: it’s exactly what you would expect if we are the trough before new technologies are properly taken up. I have to thank the European Futures Observatory for this insight. An established order has grown around the established technologies, including physical infrastructure, skills and schooling, regulation and more. So moving from one GPT to another is painful. You have to dis-assemble lots of how stuff gets done economically and socially before then be able to reassemble around the new GPT. These cycles are known as Krondatiev waves and have been much studied by Carlotta Perez.

If this is true, then the way to solve the productivity crisis is by shifting to the new technologies, especially around digital and renewables. For instance, on energy we keep building a grid for a small number of large generators. That model has had several decades of learning effects; any improvements are incremental at best. We won’t get the full benefits of solar until we we build for a large number of small generators. Because it’s new, it has decades of improvements to come. But it requires incumbents shifting their production basis, or getting out of the way. Frankly, they find it easier to lobby government for the status quo.

That’s not to say digital revolution is a straight win. There’s lots of difficult questions – how to have worthwhile jobs to what does it do to our identities – which I’ve written about elsewhere. Given that its inevitable (try putting that genie back in the lamp) we need to answer those questions, and we need to surf it to a sustainable future.

So, there’s a tantalising prospect that solving the productivity puzzle might tickle the Treasury’s fancy, and require a shift to a sustainable socio-technological basis.

But there there are worries too.

Will it get lost in defining terms? Part of the evening was spent saying how people didn’t like the presentational effect of the term ‘de-growth’ but that some sort of reducing the scale of some sectors was necessary. I liked what Kate Raworth said: we need to move going for growth, with a side-effect of whether people thrive or not, to focusing on people thriving, whether or we’re growing or not. It’s important to find a framing that will speak to where people are starting from. I worry about the need of some (not, I think the secretariat of the APPG) for purity.

How will it get credibility beyond the usual suspects? There are lots of fixed positions on growth. To caricature only slightly: environmentalist say its always bad; economists say its always good. A lot of pro-sustainability folk saying that sustainability is important may be satisfying but it will have no effect. So, the APPG will need to reach beyond the usual suspects. Can it bring in the best and interesting business voices? What about influential commentators? The FT’s Martin Wolf was been important in broadcasting the Stern Review. In his new book about the recent financial crisis he says he “lacked the imagination to anticipate a meltdown of the Western financial system” and praises heterodox economists for getting it more right than the mainstream.

Are we trapped? The final worry is not about the APPG, but about our global situation. Through the debate two things became clear:

  1. There is no path forward which has growth as we’ve known it within planetary boundaries
    AND
  2. There is no path forward for the required de-growth within the politics we have.

Basically, we’re trapped into a civilisation-degrading pattern at a global scale which will take a massive crisis before we act with the urgency and scale required. That is frightening, and depressing, prospect.

The mere existence of Group is a sign that we’re realising we’re in this trap. The Group might be able to spread understanding and acceptance amongst a crucial audience: MPs and senior policy-makers. That is a very worthwhile thing to do. And there is so much more that we must be doing too.