Category Archives: framing

20 years ago…memories of 9/11

There are many reflections around with people’s exoeriences of 9/11. Here are mine.

20 years ago, I was at my desk in PwC’s Charing Cross building, trying to watch a webcam in a New York street, wondering what was happening.

20 years ago, I was evacuated out of the Charing Cross offices, because they were judged a top level terrorist target and “there are planes missing over the Atlantic which are heading for London”. (Turned out that wasn’t true, but we were right to evacuate.)

20 years ago (if my memory is right) I had a long-arranged dinner with a university friend, who I knew through campaigning. We wondering if some extremist element of the pro-environmental anti-globalisation movement had done something terrible. We worried that would kill progress on climate change.

Thank goodness we were wrong about the perpetrators. But all the Left Internationalist energy went into Stop The War. I agree with Antony Barnett that the failure of democracy there (millions marching, but still the UK invaded Iraq) destroyed trust in our governing institutions (see The Lure of Greatness).

Strong pro-environment protests had to wait until Occupy (responding to the Great Crash) and then XR. The anti-globalisation impetus was, eventually, picked up by the nationalist Right of UKIP, Trump, Oban, Modi et al.

An irony of the Brexiteer success is that the ‘woke’ leftists of the late 1990s were making the same arguments about loss of the local, and the damage of unconstrained globalisation. One lesson: national identities are very, very strong for many, many people (see Jonathan Haidt’s research here).

In times of crisis, the vast majority people will turn to the imagined community of their nation, and expect their government to protect them. That disappoints Left Globalists like me (and most of the people I know). But we should be prepared for that to be true again as the dislocations and disruptions of climate change play out.

20 years ago I wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US. I agreed with Le Monde when it said “we are all Americans now”. Later, I supported the Afghan invasion (and still think that was the right thing to do; the mistakes were afterwards, including the invasion of Iraq).

20 years ago, I had only been to New York once. Now I have been ten or twenty times. I love that city, London’s sibling in many ways: global, diverse, a disproportionate density on the nation, a financial centre, a cultural centre, faster-paced than other cities in its country. I felt sad then for the terrible suffering. Watching the documentaries this week, I do again — and sad for the terrible suffering that followed.


Is ‘One ESG Framework To Rule Them All’ really a good idea?

Amongst finance professionals there is a consensus that a single sustainability framework will unlock the investment for a better future (aka we need ‘One ESG Framework to Rule Them All’) . I am sceptical. This post unpacks my four challenges:
(1) Adapting requires requisite variety.
(2) Waiting for perfect delays good action, and learning.
(3) Hypothesis: investment chases opportunities with outsized returns, not ones with good data.
(4) Universal solutions serve incumbent power.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but it must acknowledge the downsides of a universal framework imposed from above.

The One Ring (source: wikipedia)
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Why I’ve come to loathe this cartoon

Many friends who are part of the sustainability movement love the cartoon ‘but what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?’. I don’t. Basically, if you think climate denialists shouldn’t lie to get the world they want, and/or if you think we shouldn’t imply we’d lie to get what we want, then you shouldn’t use this cartoon.

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#ReadingNotes ‘Can the Study of Global Order be De-centered?’ by Andrew Hurell

The paper argues that international relations has been too little aware of its deeply western-centric character. The critics are strong when they say that this helps to preserve existing power structures, but that critique can give too much weight to representations, too much fixated on single contexts, too static and too ‘local only’. Scholars need to pluralize, to relativize, and to historicize.

My own thought is whether acting with the intention of ‘decentering’ (rather than ‘decolonialising’) might open up the field of what can be imagined for the future in ways that are not pre-defined by the past.

This post is part of the #ReadingNotes series, see here for more (including format and use of bullet points).

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Preparing for a full spectrum approach to climate change

The lively debate in the US on a Green New Deal shows that rich countries are not yet ready for a ‘war economy’ footing on climate change. But the extreme threat of the climate emergency mean that the time has come for innovation policies that prepare us for that shift in the near future.

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Reform vs Revolution vs Restoration approaches to sustainability

What do we mean when we talk of ‘sustainability leadership’? This is addressed by Jem Bendell et al in a new paper, who use critical theory to unpack both ‘leadership’ and ’sustainability’. After reading it, I find myself framing sustainability as about shared dilemmas (not problems), regretting managerialist capture, and pursing a restoration approach (rather than reform or revolution). I also suspect we need to find a pragmatic, fundamental approach to change, though I’m not sure what that will be.

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QUICK TAKE @IPPR #EconomicJustice launch: great content; worry about impact

Earlier today IPPR launched the interim report of the Commission for Economic Justice. Here’s my quick take on the report and the discussion around the launch.

The basic description of the ‘British economic muddle’ is familiar

While there are no surprises, IPPR and Michael Jacobs have all done us a favour by articulating things so clearly. In a nutshell:

– The economy is no longer raising living standards for a majority of people.

– That poor performance arises from deep, long-term weaknesses, especially:

  • World-lagging productivity in many businesses.
  • Low investment rate compared to peers, even adjusting for our service bias and even with as a world-leading financial sector.
  • Largest percentage current account trade deficit in G7, despite a surplus in trading services.
  • Current activity fuelled by growing consumer debt, in part driven by government refusing to borrow even though interest rates are at all-time lows.
  • We want public services but we’re not willing to pay for them.

– We face profound challenges and opportunities:

  • Brexit – a momentous change in our governance and trading.
  • Globalisation – challenge those trade imbalances.
  • Older population – proportionately fewer workers to finance pensions and healthcare.
  • Technological change – will the gains from automation go to owners, to consumers, to workers?
  • Environmental degradation – including the impacts of climate change.

All of this is supported by many graphs and much discussion. Fantastic.

My further sense from the discussion was just how strong the system archetype of ‘success to the successful’ is in the UK. If you own your home (as I do) then your wealth has gone up, and the ladder to join in has been pulled away from the rest. If you’re a productive business then you get the profits to reinvest further – something the weaker companies don’t do. London enjoys the positive feedback loops of being a world-leader, as does Cambridge and Oxford. Rest of the country? Not so much. Well paid or got a cushion of wealth? Then you can take risks with your career by moving or starting your own business. Don’t have that, then you, relatively, fall further back.


Recommendations: too technocratic to be a policy sea change akin to 1940s and 1980s

The report is right that fundamental reforms of this scale have happened twice in the last century: the Attlee government bringing in the Welfare State in 1945; and the Thatcher government overcoming stagflation by pushing free markets and so on.

Both of those were political earthquakes which profoundly realigned what was considered orthodox for the following generation. The recommendations, as they stand, are all good technocratic things to do. But, do they ignite and demonstrate an utter shift in the political economy?

  1. Put economy on stronger institutional foundations, driving more investment through greater certainty.
  2. More competitive through industrial strategy, supporting entrepreneurs and shifting financial and corporate governance.
  3. Wiring the economy for justice, promoting ‘good jobs’, a reformed tax system and spreading wealth more fairly.

Imagine the chant:

“What do we want?”
“Stronger institutions!”
“What do we want?”
“A strategic approach to industry!”
“What do we want?”
“Justice for All (the weaker of the early Metallic albums)!”

Perhaps I’m being unfair on an interim report for a think tank, rather than the conference speech of the opposition leader. But if your lead-off recommendation is stronger institutions, you know you have an economist writing your report.

IPPR’s Director was very clear at the start that, if you don’t have a vision then change becomes directionless. One the first page of the summary there is a paragraph with a description of the economy we’re aiming for: dynamic, people flourish; better jobs; geographically balanced; economics rewards distributed fairly; decent house; within environmental limits; partnership between business, trade union and government sectors.

That’s quite a laundry list of Guardian-friendly desires. Who can say no to motherhood and apple pie? But also, who is compelled to act with a broad vision with such a technocratic way forward?


What alignment of social forces is realistically available to make this happen?

Which takes us to the substantive problem. I agree with the analysis. I imagine I will agree with the final recommendations. But, what will happen as a result?

I’ve no idea if Director of the Commission, Michael Jacobs, remembers but about a decade ago he gave a talk at the RSA on what made the reform of the 1940s possible (he was speaking about the need for something similar on climate change). His four preconditions:

  1. intellectual case (back then, Keynes)
  2. crisis (the aftermath of the WWII)
  3. public mandate (the Labour landslide)
  4. elite buy-in (apparently businesses liked the demand support of the Welfare State compared to the free market Great Depression)

Today, the IPPR report (and the work of the Resolution Foundation, plus Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth  and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics) all make for the intellectual case. in the UK, Brexit will upend everything. That provides us with the crisis to take advantage of.

But the public mandate: Is the UK populace for economic justice, or do they want cultural security? It was striking that the two politicians on the stage couldn’t bring themselves to be pro-immigration. Even though more young workers makes us better off, many fear immigration. They blame it for lower wages and weaker public services (rather than, say, global labour markets for the former and austerity for the latter).

The opinion polls imply people are willing to take a financial hit to take back control of the borders. One thing is: we’ll see if that’s true when people take the hit (there’s often a survey gap in, say, willingness to pay extra for ethical products). Another thing: perhaps this is good news. It means n one can argue that economic cost-benefit is the true measure of a decision.

And on elite buy-in: are leading government and business figures One Nation Tories or do they wanting to complete Thatcher’s revolution? The General Election undermined the One Nation Tories on domestic economic policy. Many of the leading Brexiteers seem to want to use leaving the EU to deregulate and open up for more free trade. (The irony is that this reduces people’s control and will quite likely leave many people even further behind. But hey.)

Also, while there are many business people who are for economic regeneration and so on, how many are willing to voluntarily raise wages? Or give up the negotiating advantage of zero hours contracts? The rhetoric is strong but the business case – and evidence of business action – is weak.

Final thoughts

So, great content, worry about the theory of change. That worry is something I have with all sustainability and progressive activity – including my own. So, I’m far from having got all that solved. And I’d love to bring my insights on industrial strategy in, and to see if there are ways to move forward without relying on government buy-in.

Could some citizen activity or people-power initiatives start us off. So that, come the next election or the one after that, the social forces are aligned?

Let’s hope. And let’s hope by making that happen.




DRAFT CHAPTER: A path to sustainable 2050: positioned to thrive, and unprepared to struggle (a work-in-progress)

Below is the current draft of a chapter for Fast Future’s ’50:50 – Scenarios for the Next 50 Years’. They’ve given me permission to test my thinking so far. I’d love your thoughts – positive or negative – and connections to other, better thinking.

It is an attempt to imagine the world in 2050 as if what we do now matters. The speculative vision below will be wrong, but hopefully it will be useful. It is one path I can imagine to a sustainable footing. I don’t like all of it, and I don’t necessarily think it’s the most likely future. There’s so much more I’d like to add (links to culture or knowledge production, for instance) – but I’m already twice the word count! It applies some of the analysis from my work on industrial strategy, which you can watch here or see a rough cut here.

Please do let me know what reactions, comments below or via email!


Here in 2050 we ask: given how uncertain the world looked in 2020, how is it that most people are thriving? How did we deliberately and rapidly reduce our impacts on the Earth so nature to thrive? (Gaffney and Steffen, 2017) And, how did that lead to us becoming a two-speed world?

The short answer: back in the 2020s one group of countries tried ‘good growth’ as an open and future-facing strategy – and were able to renew as crises happened. These countries are now the Primary World, where people are thriving in ways that work in synergy with nature. Another group wanted security by preserving the past – and, when the crises came, weren’t able to adapt. This Secondary World is not in sync with nature, but at a much reduced pace and scale that nature can cope with.

Now for the long answer.

  • Late 2010s: Many eras ending
  • Early 2020s: ‘Good Growth’ vs ‘Security For Us’
  • Late 2020s: ‘Renew For Climate Safety’ vs ‘Protect What We Have’
  • 2050: the thriving Primary World and the struggling Secondary World

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People-powered knowledge production and ‘Transformations 2017’


Last week I was at Transformations 2017, the biennial academic conference on transformations towards sustainability, hosted by Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), University of Dundee. I had an excellent time, including presenting my paper on industrial strategy (rough cut here). In this post, I reflect on the importance of people power in knowledge production that is in the service of transformation to a just and sustainable world.

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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