What on earth is the economy for?

At 8am on Friday 5th Dec 2014, a perfectly ordinary group of people got together to have an extra-ordinary conversation – to discuss the future of the global economy!

Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people!

Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people!

Andrew Radford, Oliver Brown-Wilkinson, Ellen Heart, Alan Williams, Alastair Sawday, Mike Birkin, Marcus Grant, Dave Powell, Nicola Waterworth, Nathan Williams, John Morrison, Guy Poultney and Darren Hall. Plus, we hope, many more on-line and at future meetings.

The rules:

  • The process should be one of appreciative enquiry
  • We should communicate with others in real time, in the first person, minimising jargon
  • No such thing as a stupid question, nothing is sacrosanct and all points of view are valid
  • A-political, but the debate is part of a democratic process

The aim: To create a new language for the discussion of the global economy, what it is for and how it might better serve the needs of humanity without it being at the expense of the planet.

The context:

  • The world is controlled by an economic system that ignores the true cost of goods and services.
  • By treating natural capital as an ‘externality’, the price paid need not take into account the additional costs of pollution, climate change and waste.
  • Whilst millions of people have a higher standard of living, the gap between rich and poor is growing day by day
  • Our definition of prosperity is driven by a measure of gross domestic product, ratther than any sense of well-being or other human centred metrics.

Appreciative Enquiry:

  1. DISCOVER: The identification of organizational processes that work well.
  2. DREAM: The envisioning of processes that would work well in the future.
  3. DESIGN: Planning and prioritizing processes that would work well.
  4. DEPLOY: The implementation (execution) of the proposed design.

The discussion:

Growth per se is not bad, and neither is profit. However, growth is a widely abused term that has become synonymous with becoming rich, apparently a necessary foundation stone for progress and the measure by which all else is judged. It is the definition of growth that is problematic, and the way in which profit is used that has created a divided and unequal society.

The recent global financial crisis should have been a wake up call, but instead seems to have reinforced people’s belief in the need to protect the existing system. Like children resorting to sugar in times of stress, society has sought out the familiar, rather than bravely using the opportunity to tackle the causes of the crash. Our focus has become increasingly short term, with politics now following the suit of shareholders out for a quick profit. So much so that the vested interests of big business are now driving fiscal policy. It is inevitable, therefore, that anyone daring to question the status quo will be challenged most vigorously.

Compelling narratives from global greats such as Gandhi and the Dalia Lama offer us a human-centric vision, yet neoliberalism dominates western thinking. Modern fiscal thinking has progressed only as far as relying on ‘trickle down’ as the predominant solution to sharing the spoils of progress, with taxation the battle ground between progressive and regressive policy makers. A solution for the majority is access to credit, to the extent that it is now perfectly normal to be in many thousand pounds of debt in order to live. However, a plethora of social science research has presented evidence that would support the hypothesis that money rarely makes people happy, supported by the knowledge that debt is a significant cause of anxiety, depression and even suicide.

But there is hope, especially at a local level. Bristol has many exemplar projects and social enterprises that show us a way forward. These include:

  • The Bristol £More recently, social science research has presented evidence that would support the hypothesis that money rarely makes people happy.
  • Triodos Banks & Rathbone Greenbank Investments
  • Bristol Community Land Trust
  • People’s Republic of Stokes Croft
  • Community Cooperatives such as the Bristol Ferry Boat Company
  • Community led development such as Ambition Lawrence Weston
  • Food projects such as Feed Bristol, Grow Bristol and the Severn Project

Bristol is not unique, but it is unusual. It has a sense of identity that is significantly different from other cities in the UK; it is friendly, community focussed, anti-establishment, unorthodox and creative. Although Bristol as an entity lacks sufficient cohesion and sense of purpose to really stand up for what it believes in, elements of its counter-culture are evident in its expression of discontent. Indeed, this discontent is enough to motivate social entrepreneurs to offer alternatives to those individuals that wish to exempt themselves from mass consumption, mass media and mass debt.

People ‘need to eat’ and to do so, they need to work. This is entirely compatible with one-planet living if the work is carried out within environmental limits. These range from high tech, low impact jobs such as the design of sustainable buildings, supported by the skilled jobs that make a reality of the designs. Scaffolders, brick layers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and kitchen fitters can all be employed within a carbon neutral system if the design process, supply chain and waste management are appropriately managed within a circular system that is based upon renewable energy. All agreed that the current Chancellor seems to have missed this fundamental point. Indeed, the UK and Bristol in particular could be a world leader in the export of such process, design and delivery expertise, helping third world countries to leapfrog the carbon intensive phase of their economic development.

I will end part one of the debate by recording a point about which there was strong, emotional, visceral, universal agreement – that everything we do, every decision that we make, every story we tell should be anchored by an understanding of its impact on the next generation. What on earth is the economy for? It is for our children and our children’s children, and at the moment it looks like our legacy, their future, is bleak.

The conclusions:

  1. The global economy is entirely reliant on the natural resources of the planet and humanity must regard itself as part of the natural world, not masters over it
  2. Prosperity is a more useful term than growth and should be defined in human terms. Therefore, success should be measured through well-being rather than wealth
  3. We should do more to tell the story of ‘green’ Bristol, building on the positive and make it real for people who currently mistakenly think it is beyond their reach
  4. Social justice and environmental justice are inextricably linked, but this concept must be explained in a way that is more widely understood at an individual level

To be continued…

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