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Sustainability with Prosperity: Part 1 The Need

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This is the first of two collections of website entries or posts on one of the key challenges of the century: sustainability with prosperity. The first part will look at the needs for change and the second on ways forward for the future: innovative solutions and different ways of seeing and doing things, different goals – and the processes of innovation, learning and change in society.

For example, the need to attend to:                                                                                         How the way we use materials and generate energy in our economy affects all life systems on our planet, on which we depend,                                                                           How can we use limited resources more effectively and                                                     How we can meet everyone’s basic needs and ensure equal opportunity for there to be stable and healthy societies.

I will address such questions as:

What does it mean to live sustainably within our natural environment in the 21st century? What do we need to change in both our understanding and behaviour and why? How are we to achieve sustainability with prosperity and at the same time maintain and improve the quality of life for all? 

Our technology is now very powerful in its effects on nature and each other, our population continues to grow, and what happens in any one country can affect others across the globe much more than before. Is there a need for greater collaboration and synergy:                                                                                                                        Between us and nature – the living systems of which we are a part, and                  Between us, richer and poorer, within and between societies

Does this mean a new kind of economy and technology? A fundamental change in the way we see and do things, and in how we identify our needs and get them met – a change in our culture and mentality?

Are these changes to co-exist with a changing capitalism?

Has social evolution towards another kind of economic and socio-cultural system started? How far is there a shared felt need for a change and what are the signs of it?

How much do we need to change, how can we make this attractive and possible, and how can technology help?

Does economics need to be a multidisciplinary subject covering all natural and social sciences?

Part 1: Forces for change, felt needs and challenges in adapting to them        

1. Destruction of our Habitat

Human activities are now causing dangerous damage to the earth’s living systems and the sphere of life (biosphere) on which we depend – on land, in water and in the atmosphere: “ravaging” them as Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and recently President of the Royal Society, put it.

Martin Rees

Martin Rees

This is now called the anthropocene period due the impact we are having. As E. O. Wilson puts it: us humans have “palaeolithic emotions” (i.e. useful as hunter-gatherers), institutions that can bring out the worst in people (“evil” as he calls them) and “God-like power”. Gregory Bateson wrote around 40 years ago: the power of our technology demands an equal sense of responsibility towards our habitat and that Darwin should have given his book (Survival of Species) the title of “survival of species and habitat”.

We run the risk of causing irreversible serious damage to our habitat and its ecosystems in four key areas:

(1) Global climate change                                                                                                          Virtually all climate scientists agree now that we are fast approaching a point of irreversible temperature increase, and that this is largely due to human activity, population growth and the nature of our technology. Rising temperatures can cause extreme weather conditions leading to drought and flooding that can affect food production, and in turn cause death, disease, mass migration and extinction of many plant and animal species. It can damage or destroy oceans, rain forests and soil. For the effects of temperature increases at each stage up to six degrees and how the effects accelerate see the book by Mark Lynas . It received the Royal Society Prize in 2008. For a summary see the effects of climate change by degree of temperature increase see this six page PDF .

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

James Lovelock  proposed in the 1960’s that the living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system, and that the living parts, the biosphere, have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment that acts to sustain life. Refinements of this hypothesis resulted in the ideas framed by it being used in fields such as Earth system science,  biogeochemistry, systems ecology, and the emerging subject of geophysiology.

He has argued that the lack of respect humans have had for the biosphere, through the damage done to rainforests and the reduction in planetary biodiversity, is testing the earth system’s capacity to minimize the effects of the addition of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that give rise to global warming. This in turn warms the oceans, which prevents the rise of oceanic nutrients into the surface waters and eliminates the algal blooms of phytoplankton on which oceanic food chains depend. The phytoplankton and forests are the main ways in which the interacting system draws down greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, to take it out of the atmosphere. This eliminates the planet’s negative feedbacks and increases the likelihood of homeostatic positive feedback potential associated with runaway global warming. Predictions about this, initially extreme from Lovelock, are uncertain as the systems involved are complex. For more on the uncertainties in predicting the accelerating increase in global temperatures see the work of David Wasdell in videos here: first an explanation and introduction to a new study and then an update .  And further updates on his own website.

David Wasdell

David Wasdell

There is hope that we can keep the rise to 2.7C by 2100 following the 2015 Global Climate Change conference if the intended nationally determined contributions of 146 countries accounting for 90% of emissions are adhered to, and a five year review process agreed for ratcheting up to nearer the 2% limit considered to be safe by scientists. But there is much doubt about this due to the uncertainties in predicting the accelerating effects.

Sceptics remain and vested interests are fighting to maintain the technologies that

Jeremy Leggett

Jeremy Leggett

emit carbon. But in many ways the tide is turning around climate change at lease (see “The winning of the carbon war by Jeremy Leggett, and his e-mail summaries and commentaries on the Great Transition drama.

Lord Martin Rees sees the debate now to be about the ethics around our obligations to future generations more than about climate change itself. For more on his views see the TED talk .  He calls for the commitment of scientists, engineers, economists and all disciplines, of politicians and the general public – a commitment similar to putting a man on moon in the 1960’s, but from all countries, The Global Apollo Program as it is now called. This needs to attend to both stopping putting so much carbon and other greenhouse gases into the air and to taking carbon out of the air through carbon sinks and other methods that mimic nature. We will watch for updates on progress on this.

(2) Extinction of plant and animal species and loss of biodiversity There does not seem to be sufficient awareness and appreciation of the implications and importance of this for us: the quality of our life is linked to that of all living species – see the work

Kathy Willis

Kathy Willis

of Kathy Willis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford University  and Director of Science at Kew Gardens, UK, where she has initiated the Kew World Report . All species (microorganisms, plants and animals) within ecosystems have a function and some are more key than others for the survival of the system as a whole, due to the interdependencies between them. Extinction rates of plants and animals are rising (destruction of their habitats through other uses of the land being a prime cause), and there could be mass extinction in the biosphere – which, as the Nobel prize winning scientist E. O. Wilson put it, future generations will least forgive us for. For the urgency of the situation see the iBooks on Life on Earth free to download from his Biodiversity Foundation

(3) Pollution Limits to maintain the Resilience of Ecosystems                                         The most intractable wastes are nuclear wastes, hazardous wastes (like human synthesized chemicals), and greenhouse gases (such as CO2 and methane). They are chemically the hardest to sequester or detoxify, and economically and politically the most difficult to regulate. A recent report by the Stockholm Resilience Centre highlights the high risk of the biogeochemical flows of phosphorous and nitrogen, pesticides and fertilisers alongside changes in land use and the loss of genetic biodiversity, and the increasing risks of climate change (including 1 and 2 above). See a report and TED talk on all the nine planetary boundaries, or safe limits to keep within, to maintain the resilience of our ecosystems. 

(4) Demands on our Planets Resources and Ecosystems: the Limits to Growth – An integrative model

We are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. For a video interview with Peter Jones on this website go to.

Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows and the Club of Rome published the Limits to growth in 1972 and then Beyond the limits in 1992 when we had in many areas “overshot” our limits or expanded our demands on the planet’s resources and sinks through exponential growth in population and industrial production or output per capita, beyond what could be sustained over time; our “ecological footprint” had moved beyond the “carrying capacity” of one earth. The model integrates climate change, pollution the loss of biodiversity and habitat and the degradation of soil and oceans, population growth, poverty and inequality, linking to sections 1, 2 and 3 above and to 5, 6 and 7 below.

The Limits to Growth study and its updates used the theory of systems dynamics developed at Jay W. Forrester’s Institute at MIT to create a model. The model (World3) focuses on key factors or variables that have the greatest effect. It keeps track of stocks such as population, industrial capital, persistent pollution, and cultivated land. In the model those stocks change through flows affecting these such as births and deaths; investment and depreciation; pollution generation and assimilation; land erosion, use and development. Internal feedback loops within the structure of the system influence the entire system behaviour and the outcome of various scenarios. For example, as more land is made arable, what’s left is drier, or steeper, or has thinner soils. The cost of coping with these problems dramatically raises the cost of developing the land—a nonlinear relationship.

For more than a century, the world has been experiencing exponential growth in a number of areas, including population and industrial production. Positive feedback loops can reinforce and sustain exponential growth, and shorten the doubling time. From 1930 to 2000, the money value of world industrial output per capita grew by a factor of 14—an average doubling time of 19 years.

The model was used to create different future scenarios based on different amounts of resources available, different levels of agricultural productivity, birth control and environmental protection. The authors developed the model to understand the broad sweep of the future – how the expanding global population and materials economy would interact with and adapt to the earth’s limited carrying capacity over coming decades – not to make predictions. But the energy economist Matthew Simmons wrote (around 04), “The most amazing aspect of the book is how accurate many of the basic trend extrapolations … still were some 30 years later.”

In the scenarios only drastic measures for environmental protection proved to be suitable to change the systems behaviour, and only under these circumstances could scenarios be calculated in which both world population and wealth could remain at a constant level.

It has been “business as usual” from 1970 to 2010 with both the population and the economy growing and so we moved into overshoot by 1990. It was expected that delays in human and institutional decision making would lead to overshoot. Delays or mistakes in perceptions and in responses to try and keep the system within its limits can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from the momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded, where we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. Most scenarios resulted in an ongoing growth of population and of the economy up to a turning point around 2030. In 2004 in the 30 Year Updatethe authors concluded that humanity is dangerously in a state of overshoot.

There have been changes and developments in technology but technology and markets by themselves are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse, as they are merely tools to serve the goals of society as a whole. For this we would need to have a different concept of growth as an Increase in the quality of life rather than an increase in material turnover. This would mean more security, greater happiness and wellbeing and sustainability.

If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimise for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

While there is more awareness and there are new technologies and institutions, there is no fundamental change yet in our obsession with economic growth as material turnover.

Click here for a little more on this extract and to read full synopsis online or to download as a PDF.

A useful and clear short video summary of the 2004 update of the Limits to Growth explains the basic concepts and the conclusions and corrects misunderstandings or misrepresentations. See the Club of Rome website where you can also find its reports and current projects.

2. Growth in Population

Population growth together with increasing industrial output are key drivers of the problems caused by making excessive demands on our ecosystems for food and resources, creating more waste and pollution than can be handled, taking too much land for habitation or production and, by more greenhouse gas emissions, increasing global temperature to a level that threatens life on land and in the oceans, and makes whole areas uninhabitable and dead. Population growth can give rise to many other challenges too: poverty, lack of healthcare, rising unrest and crime. See the website Population Matters.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

Jorgen Randers

Jorgen Randers

This is supported by David Attenborough , the English broadcaster and naturalist and Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors of Limits to Growth. 

In 1650, the world’s population had a doubling time (100% increase) of 240 years. By 1900, the doubling time was 100 years. The world population increased as countries began to industrialise from 1750 on, and dramatically so in the 20th century, due to medical advances and agricultural productivity. When The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, there were under 4bn (billion) people in the world, doubling in 47 years – much faster. There were more than 6bn in 2000, approximately ten times as many people on Earth as there had been in 1700. In 2015 there are now 7.3bn and current forecasts are around 9.5bn by 2050, and between 9.6bn and 12.3bn by 2100, 40 – 75% higher than 2015 – hopefully not more than 10.95 billion (3.9 billion or 50% higher than 2015, a growth rate of 0.59%). The annual global growth rate (percent growth over a period divided by number of years) peaked at 2.2% in 1963, and has declined to 1.14 in 2000 and 1.08% in 2015. If the global population in the last half of this century increases by 1.5bn then the annual rate over those 50 years will be 0.36%.

The decline in population growth rate is due to the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. For the stages countries go through, and variations, go to.

While the decline in population growth rate is forecast to continue for this century it will not down to near zero; population is likely to be still increasing according to the latest projections, as growth remains high in Latin America, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How far and when all countries reach the stage where birth and death rates are in balance and the rate of population growth goes back to where it was in agrarian economies, 0.5% a year is uncertain, and unlikely in this century. Hopefully though fertility rates will come down to a global average nearer to 2 per woman in the population.

3. Poverty and the Difference between Rich and Poor

(1) Extreme Poverty and The Gap between Rich and Poor Countries

In 1800 poverty evenly distributed across world, then the gap grew between developing and other economies. This gap is closing as China, India and now the more peaceful African economies have been developing over the last 30 years. South Korea invested in improved child mortality and human conditions and then economic growth. This has shown to be one of the shortest routes.

The UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 set a target of reducing the extreme poverty rate in half by 2015, a goal that was met 5 years ahead of schedule in 2010; that year the World Bank estimated that around 1.29 billion people (18.4% of the world population then) lived in extreme poverty, as measured by subsisting on less than US$1.25 per day at 2005 prices. On September 23, 2015 the UK-based Financial Times reported that the World Bank intends to revise its income-based benchmark upward, to $1.90 a day. As a result, poverty numbers are likely to swell, according to that paper.

But income alone can be a misleading indicator of poverty. The 2010 Human Development Report introduced the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which measures not only income, but also basic needs. Using this tool, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that roughly 1.5 billion people remained in extreme poverty as opposed to the conventional figure of 1.2 billion. As this figure is considered more “holistic,” it may shed new light on relative deprivation within a country. For example, in Ethiopia, 39% of the population is considered extremely poor under conventional measures, but 90% are in multidimensional poverty.

Another version of the MPI, known as the Alkire-Foster Method, created by Sabina Alkire and James Foster of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), can be broken down to reflect both the incidence and the intensity of poverty. This tool is useful as development officials, using the “M0 measure” of the method (which is calculated by multiplying “the proportion of people who are poor by the percentage of dimensions in which they are deprived”), can determine the most likely causes of poverty within a region

Regional differences are key as this reduction in extreme poverty over 20 years since 1990 took place most notably in China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Vietnam. In other countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, extreme poverty increased between 2005 and 2011.

It seems unlikely that extreme poverty will reach “global zero” (reduced to 3%) of the population by 2030 as the UN and World Bank target suggests. Many think that the global reduction will slow down, especially in Africa, so that it will take five decades to reach this level. The most pessimist predictions over the next 20 years estimates is that 660 million will be still in extreme poverty in 2035. For a more optimistic view see:

Prof Hans Rosling, professor at the Open University. “Don’t Panic: How to end poverty in 15yrs” shown on BBC2 11 Oct 2015.  See also the Open University website .

There are a variety of factors that may reinforce or instigate the existence of extreme poverty, such as weak institutions, cycles of violence and a low level of growth. Recent World Bank research shows that some countries can get caught in a “fragility trap,” in which the above factors prevent the poorest nations from emerging from low-level equilibrium in the long run. Moreover, most of the reduction in extreme poverty over the past twenty years has taken place in countries that have not experienced a civil conflict or have had governing institutions with a strong capacity to actually govern. Thus, to end extreme poverty, it is also important to focus on the interrelated problems of fragility and conflict, which the UN recognises. At the same time ending extreme poverty is an investment as it can prevent conflict and war.

In 2013 The UN published a report by a “high level panel” on post-2015 goals. It stated: “Ending extreme poverty is just the beginning, not the end. It is vital, but our vision must be broader: to start countries on the path of sustainable development.”

Moving out of extreme poverty means families on average have two rather than five children independent of culture and religion which helps to address the issue of population growth. To attend to environmental sustainability countries need to reach higher levels of economic development

(2) Country Differences in Living Standards and Global Co-operation for Environmental Sustainability            

Poor countries naturally seek to address poverty and to achieve the standard of living of the rich countries. This they feel needs to be addressed first before playing their part in addressing the environmental problems of climate change, and depletion of resources and biodiversity. In Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs survival comes first before attending to the needs of future generations and the wider living systems of which we are a part and on which we depend.

They seek compensation for the suffering and costs arising from the environmental effects of the technologies for development used by the richer nations, such as climate change and increases in global temperatures as well as more localised effects on ecosystems, livelihoods and communities resulting from the actions of multinational corporations.

But they also seek at the same the same economic development using these very same technologies that cause such damage to our shared global environment, and so damage to us all, alongside those that are more eco-friendly, such as renewable energy generation. India plans in 2015 to build a new coal power station each month (extracting and burning 1bn tonnes a year) to achieve its goal of 8% growth in GDP, while carbon capture technology is still undeveloped – following the example of China. They aim to eradicate extreme poverty and need to cope with nearly 400m more people over the next few decades. “You did it – it is our right to do the same – you cut your emissions first”.

In the Brandt report in 1980 it was clearly stated that environmental and social sustainability go together.

Rich and poor countries with high and low levels of emissions per person need to be treated differently in the move towards equal emissions per person across the planet – by contraction in permitted emission levels each year until convergence, or by cap and share.                                                                                                                 

(3) Inequality and Capitalism                                                                                

Capitalism helps to reduce poverty through investment to move poorer countries into the next stage of economic development and hopefully beyond. But in the current system, economic growth benefits the rich more than the poor: it generally occurs in the already rich countries and flows disproportionately to the richest people within those countries. It is often easier for rich populations to save, invest, and multiply their capital.

Thomas Picketty

Thomas Picketty

Thomas Picketty published a book in 2013: Capitalism in the 21st C: The Economics of Inequality based on historical research in Europe and the US since the 18th century. The book’s central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth. He argues that when growth is low, then wealth tends to accumulate more quickly from the rate of return on capital than from labour, and tends to accumulate more among the top 10% and 1%, increasing inequality. He sees this continuing in the 21st century, while the last century he sees as an exception to this, due to the great depression, world wars and government policy after world war two. This implies that not only is inequality a feature of capitalism, but that it increases as long as the rate of return on capital exceeds economic growth. If growth needs to be carefully managed to achieve sustainable prosperity, this feature of capitalism needs to be managed also. Unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability.

But he can only see this trend towards greater income inequality being reversed through state interventionism.  He proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce this and avoid the vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority. Piketty proposes that a progressive annual global wealth tax of up to 2%, combined with a progressive income tax reaching as high as 80%, would reduce inequality, although he concedes that such a tax “would be politically impossible.” Richard Wilkinson (see next section) has other ideas on minding the income gap so that societies can be prosperous and stable and provide a good quality of life for all.

See more on Picketty’s data on inequality and some of the criticism See and also go to  for a summary of the contents and of the responses to it. It is also be made into a documentary film.

See also the studies of global inequality by Branko Milanovic Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation 

(4) Degree of Income Inequality within Countries

This affects the stability and health of societies and the quality of life for all: it is a key factor in sustainable living.

The degree of income inequality varies – in the UK for example it increased greatly in the 1980s, then more gradually in the 1990s, but in 2014 fell back to what it was two decades before (early 1990’s). Richard Wilkinson stresses the importance of minding the income gap so that societies can be prosperous and stable and provide a good quality of life for all. Thomas Picketty says income inequality matters as it causes social and economic instability. Richard Wilkinson’s research goes further in setting out the effects of a wider gap. Wilkinson and Pickett have shown in their 2009 book

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Kate Pickett

Kate Pickett

Spirit Level, and on the Equality Trust website, that there is now a body of evidence that in richer countries income inequality, not the average income of a society, has harmful effects on the health, well being and quality of life in a society, and leads to a variety of social problems. This affects both high and low income groups: everyone is better off if there is a lower gap. Their study focused on 23 of the World Bank listed richest societies, and the income of the top 20% was 8 – 9.8 times higher than the bottom 20% in the more

unequal societies and 3.7 – 4.0 times higher in the more equal. Keeping within a healthy degree of income inequality can be more important than economic growth once material standards of living are at a good enough level.

For more on this in this website see:

Income inequality and social problems,

Social and psychological effects of income inequality,

Human nature and how societies are organised,

Income inequality and sustainability.

See also on YouTube a number of talks Wilkinson gave after publication of this: one in Canada (after 5 mins intro by host), another  and a third

4.  Political Order, Governance, Concentration of power and the Voice of the Citizen

The evolution of forms of political order continues and together with inequalities has a great effect on the stability and health of societies, and their ability to adapt and work with larger systems of which they are a part – both international networks or organisations and the natural environment and biosphere. All this affects the quality of life for all. In both liberal and non-liberal economies and countries, the strength and efficacy of state institutions (and, these days, the rule of law even in countries that are still strongly tribal or controlled by an army) is critical. This includes intolerance of corruption. Whether a government is more autocratic or democratic, it needs to be in touch with and hear the voice of its citizens and to provide for them in order to be stable and effective in the longer term. The centralisation or concentration of power in business corporations or governments or the media is usually destabilising and can be destructive. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” as the saying goes: a balance of powers is needed – and was built into institutions in many countries as the political order evolved over the last millennium.

Over the last century we have seen a growth of large multinational corporations (MNCs). In many cases their income exceeds that of smaller countries. There are of course economic advantages of size, such as economies of scale and influence. But at the same time they are very powerful and influential. National and international regulations may be insufficient to control their actions where these affect local communities and their natural resources and livelihoods or ecosystems – such as forests, rivers and oceans that can also serve an important function in the world and the biosphere as a whole. These might be crucial in maintaining the temperatures and climate that support life and food sources, in preserving necessary species diversity and in absorbing or treating pollution in water, soil or air. There is a risk that, driven by the profit motive, they will pursue one set of goals and values to the exclusion of others unless restrained by institutional investors and shareholders and by government regulation that can be enforced.

Colin Crouch

Colin Crouch

See Colin Crouch on the power of large corporations and the effects of neo-liberalism and trust in the markets

Some trade agreements between countries and global regions can increase the dominance of short-term economic gains over the quality of life for future generations. For example the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) conducted outside the public eye between the EU and US is about reducing regulatory barriers to trade for big business, such as: food safety law, environmental legislation, banking regulations and the sovereign powers of individual nations. The process is undemocratic and secretive.

As Steve Randy Waldman has pointed out on his website  technological change creates new concentrations of power (such as Google) that demand state action to protect a more broad based sharing of wealth and democratic government.

When a regional common market moves to form a federation with a parliament, a shared bureaucracy and a common currency demanding shared fiscal and monetary policies as in the European Union, it feels as if an undemocratic regional super-state is being created, with a complex process of negotiation between ministers from a number of countries. The movement towards ever greater union rather than close co-operation between nation states creates a backlash in which the demand for more local control can override the economic and other advantages of co-operation between the countries in many areas as seen recently in the UK voting to leave the EU.

In an age of increased globalisation and interdependency through innovation in the technologies of information, communication and transportation, international organisations and forms of governance are needed. But national sovereignty and identity prevails. International organisations such as the UN need the full agreement of the Security Council to intervene for peace and to protect against the excesses of war, and international agreements, such as the Climate Conferences, can only progress at the pace which most nations feel ready for, facilitated by international co-operation between countries.

Some Westernised liberal democracies are in dire need to reform as whole segments of a society can feel unheard and forgotten without their interests and needs being represented or even understood. This can be lower income groups or second or third generation immigrants. This can be destabilising both from within (as with the UK exit from the EU and the growth of extremist movements or political parties) or from without (vulnerability to the import of terrorism). Reform is not only necessary to address this but also to build a social consensus where needed on different important issues as they arise in an age of continuing turbulence and change.

In the 1980’s with the growth of neo-liberal ideology and belief in free markets, political party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by commercial media and broadcasters who then became the most important builders of social consensus. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. (See Colin Crouch 2004 book called Post-Democratic Society) Organised civil society lost ground. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual.

But elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. An example of this the citizen convention. This is assembled by returning to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called (similar to selecting juries). Experiments with sortition have been successfully applied in the US, Australia, the Netherlands and Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic together). (See Reybrouck on citizen conventions ). There is a social movement promoting sortition.

David Van Reybrouck

David Van Reybrouck

This can be a mixture of 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, a random group put together by an independent research, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The group might meet one weekend per month for more than a year. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens.

The decisions made by such a convention do not have the force of law but it is essential that action is seen to be taken by the government as a result. Legislation arises from the interaction between the convention and an elected chamber, and may involve a referendum.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of society, politicians can get further than they can by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens can give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum. The rest of society has a chance to follow and contribute to the deliberations. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate. The risk of corruption is reduced, election fever abates and attention to the common good increases.

5. Unstable financial and economic systems: Regulation of Markets and Size and Diversity of Suppliers

The crash of the financial system in 2008 had three main underlying causes: deregulation of markets, alongside the globalisation of the economy and the development of information and communications technology. Deregulation began in the early 1980’s, the Reagan and Thatcher years. It followed a neo-liberal ideology that discarded contradictory evidence and was not based on a sound understanding of how economies function, the limits of markets and how to make them work – as the economist Joe Stiglitz has stressed. The safeguards set up after the Great Depression in the 1930’s were abandoned – such as the separation of investment banking from retail banking.

As Colin Crouch Professor of Governance and Public Management at Warwick University Business School has said: We know that when markets are extended they generate what is known as “negative externalities” – damage caused by market behaviour that does not enter into the cost calculations of those producing it. The most obvious and biggest examples concern pollution, climate change and exploitation of nature to the detriment of future generations. Left to itself, the market only rarely gives firm incentives to reduce any damage it causes to the general environment. But there are many other less obvious examples of such externalities, such as the exaggerated and highly disruptive effect produced on the economy by the movement of vast funds of speculative finance. Or the need to control food processing businesses that supply convenient tasty food that affects health and life expectancy, and which in turn increases demands on the health services. The single-minded concentration on profit maximisation undermines values and common decency. In his book on the non-death of neo-liberalism he emphasizes the power of large corporations and the effects of under-regulated markets.

Governments had to bail out the banks as they were so big that they could not be allowed to fail as the effect on the economy would be disastrous. This removed the natural boundaries set by the market itself, going out of business as a consequence. On top of that those who had profited from the excesses did not seem to suffer – but the poorest in society did suffer as there was a hole in public finances and the reduction on government spending hit them hard. This increased the sense of injustice and the anger at the failures of the capitalist system.

There has been an increase in regulation of banking since. Barclays in the UK began separating its investment and retail businesses in 2016, eight years later. The German banking system has more diverse set of institutions of different sizes and constitutions, where regional savings banks and co-operatives, which make up 70% of the banking sector, are mandated to provide credit for productive use, the common good and for financial inclusion, and local savings are used for local loans and small businesses, with profits staying within the region. This was previously looked down on, but is now seen as a sound model. Alternative forms of exchange and finance have emerged since the crash. There are blogs on this site on the instability of the financial system (from a talk by Lord Adair Turner) and on conference on

Lord Adair Turner

Lord Adair Turner

transforming finance and our money system held by a network of organisations in the UK that co-ordinates innovation in this area and how money is created through credit offered by commercial banks.

We have known how to reduce the degree of leveraging in financial markets, how to tax the volume of transactions in those markets, and how to protect banks’ main holdings   from speculative activity. But the power of big business and the predominant ideology of the time prevented government action until there was a disaster.

Hopefully now the learning from the crash of the unstable financial system can be applied generally to the managing of markets and the economy in ways that meet more comprehensively the needs of human beings and living systems of which we are a part, around a set of goals that put the quality of life, indeed all life, first, in which a sound and stable economy would be a part.

Reforming capitalism and regulating markets sufficiently, and allowing a diversity of institutions and models of the economy and ownership to flourish together (as in German banking and in alternative forms of finance and exchange) might then be seen as the way forward in facilitating the emergence of an economy and ways of governance that fit the needs to the 21st century and beyond.

6. Will Capitalism remain the dominant economic paradigm?

The capitalist system helped improve the material standard of living immensely but at a cost, to people and more recently to our natural environment. It may have fulfilled its function and had its place in history while still having a role –in a different kind of economy that fits the needs of the 21st century.

In the last 250 years capitalism has been the dominant organising framework for economic activity with an accompanying narrative on human nature. As Rifkin points out, every economic paradigm has a source of energy, and a means of communication

Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin

and mobility. In the first century of capitalism these were coal mining, railways, and the telegraph. To build the infrastructure for these and to provide cheaper products affordable to larger numbers of people, companies needed national rather than local markets and to raise massive capital. To do this they needed to integrate economic activity across markets, regions and then countries. All this raised living standards and provided many benefits. But the rich got richer as the flow of wealth was to the top, to those controlling these big corporations. Some economic paradigms create more concentration of wealth and power. Recently it has been noted that the accumulated combined wealth of 65 people equals that of half the population of the world. Many have been excluded from the benefits of capitalism, despite the attempts of left wing governments to redistribute them through taxation. The capitalist system also tries to turn and package everything it can into a commodity that can be priced and exchanged in a market as property, even trying to price the priceless. The market mentality can then enter into areas of life and human activity and exchange for which it is not suitable, and erode the ethics and values that underpin civil society and the quality of life. In Part 2 we will look at both changes in what people feel they need and also at signs of new forms of organising our economy and society so that it meets our needs more comprehensively, including our needs for a healthy natural environment.

7. Looking ahead to Part 2: Ways forward for the Future                                                                                                                                                                          Sustainable Prosperity within ecological limits and a Good Quality of Life for all – are these incompatible needs within the current system?

As seen in Part 1 for our survival and the survival of the habitat on which we depend we need not just to reform capitalism – though this may be part of the solution – but change our concepts of wealth, growth, and quality of life. This would entail a broader understanding and a greater social consensus on what the quality of our life, and of our wellbeing, depend on: the quality of our societies and the quality of our natural environment alongside material living standards. We have seen how, once material needs are sufficiently met the degree of income inequality and the balance in social organisation between reciprocal co-operation and status or dominance hierarchies (the health and stability of a society) affects our health, our access to information and our opportunities to progress through access to more than basic education and through personal rights and freedom, choice and inclusion (see Wilkinson and the Social Progress Indicator). There is a felt need for more mixed forms of organising, sometimes enabled by the internet, such as horizontal networks and collaborative circles alongside hierarchy, and the humanising and localising of economic exchange, and more local control over it.

As the updated Limits to Growth stated in 2004, a sustainable scenario for the future would mean stabilising population and output per person and creating technologies to preserve resources and the biosphere. See summary of the update. But technology and markets by themselves are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse, as they are merely tools to serve the goals of society as a whole. For this we would need to have a different concept of growth as an Increase in the quality of life in all its senses rather than an increase in material turnover. This would mean more security, greater happiness and wellbeing and sustainability. This requires a richer concept of the quality of life, which would include the quality of the natural environment. This in turn requires an ecological awareness and a connection with nature, preferably from early years.

So two themes are emerging around which a social consensus can form for a redefinition of the goals of society as a whole:

Growth as the increase in quality of life rather than the quantity of material turnover

An economy that emphasises collaboration and reciprocity both between us and with nature

There is a growing awareness that if society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain – rather than be working in tune with the environment and needs of all, now and in the future. In short, society has been developing technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it. The signs of this, alongside the human needs that are not met by our current economic system, are disrupting the current economic paradigm.

While there are signs too of the development of low carbon technologies and greater efficiencies in the use and reuse of materials and resources the concept of growth remains the same while the need for change is all the more urgent.

The Limits to Growth model was used to create different future scenarios. Most of them resulted in an ongoing growth of population and of the economy up to a turning point around 2030. This is now fast approaching. There is a greater awareness than there was and for some a greater sense of urgency. There is a growing consensus at a global level as shown in the Climate Conference in Paris in 2015 as many countries have begun to address climate issues at local level since 2011. But there is not yet a comprehensive social consensus in countries that incorporates an integration of sustainable social, economic and environmental objectives. This would create a new paradigm for our societies, economies and technologies as well as our relations with our natural environment. There are encouraging signs of innovation which demonstrate realistic alternatives in technology and in ways of doing things. But until a new way of thinking about quality of life in all its aspects (economic, social and environmental) takes shape any hope stemming from these signs is not likely to be well grounded yet. It seems we are in what the Chinese have called a spring-autumn period: the old ways of organising society and our lives are dying and the signs of new ones are emerging. Maybe in such a period of transition the new and old will coexist in society while experimentation with, confidence in, and attraction to, the new in diverse forms reaches a critical mass, perhaps accompanied by the emotional shock of disasters in a larger scale caused by the outmoded old system. Many have seen an epochal change or major paradigm shift occurring in society with the onset of a new millennium. Once problems or issues arise that cannot be explained or resolved well enough within the current paradigm and system, inconsistencies build up and fester until there comes a point at which there is a strong felt need for change and people see that the fundamentals of the current system need to be questioned and changed. In such times of turbulence we need to work together, with a clear sense of what is needed and important, and how to go about it, so that we can build our confidence and hope and exercise our creativity, with a sense of urgency and realism – rather than becoming the victims of the anxiety, powerlessness, anger and despair that lead to escapism, distraction and denial.

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy’s writing on the great transition has inspired many in finding an way of participating actively with others in it. The founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, described what he saw to be a major transition and the key role human beings play in being part of it, both unconsciously and consciously.

In Part 2 we will explore all this further.

For the full synopsis by Donella Meadows and her co-authors in 2004

For more information on how change the drivers, structure and dynamics of a system such as the one described in the Limits to Growth see Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows (Earthscan) and chapter six on leverage points and places to intervene in a system to enable change – see also a paper on this. This is based on the system dynamics model developed by Jay Forrester at MIT (Pegasus Communications 1990) and see www.systemdynamics.org for the system dynamics society.

 

 

A Social Progress Index

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The Social Progress Index measures the extent to which countries provide for the social and environmental needs of their citizens. Fifty-four indicators in the areas of basic human needs (such as personal safety, sanitation, shelter, nutrition and basic medical care), foundations of wellbeing (such as health, access to basic education, information and communication, environmental quality – including greenhouse gases, biodiversity and habitat), and opportunity to progress (personal rights, freedom and choice, tolerance and inclusion and access to education).

In the top 10 countries in 2016 were the Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway), Canada, Australia, Switzerland, The Netherlands, UK, Iceland and New Zealand. The US was 19th.

“The Social Progress Index proves that GDP is not destiny,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of the Social Progress Imperative, the US-based nonprofit behind the rankings. “We need more countries to be like Costa Rica, which squeezes a lot of social progress out of its modest GDP.” Costa Rica’s modest GDP per capita is just US$14,232, but the nation amounts to the world’s biggest over-achiever when it comes to social progress measures. Costa Rica came in at 28th on the list of 133 countries ranked in the report

Citizen Conventions for Complex Issues

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“What kind of democracy is appropriate to an era of fast, decentralised communication?” Asks David van Reybrouck. “How should the government in the UK and other democracies deal with all those articulate citizens who stand shouting from the sidelines?” He goes on:

In the years after the second world war, western democracies were dominated by large mass parties, and they held the structures of the state in their hands. Through a network of intermediary organisations, such as unions, corporations and party media, they succeeded in being close to the lives of individual citizens. This resulted in an extremely stable system, with great party loyalty and predictable voting behaviour.

This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when discourse was increasingly shaped by the free market. Party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by commercial media, commercial broadcasters also entered the field and even public broadcasters increasingly adopted market thinking. Viewing, reading and listening figures became hugely important – they were the daily share price index of public opinion. Commercial mass media emerged as the most important builders of social consensus, and organised civil society lost ground. The consequences were predictable, as citizens became consumers and elections hazardous.

Parties began to see themselves less as intermediaries between people and power, and instead settled into the fringes of the state apparatus. To retain their places there, they had to turn to the voter every few years to top up their legitimacy. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. The passions aroused among the populace diverted attention from a far more fundamental emotion, an increasing irritation with anything and everything pertaining to politics.

In 2004, the British sociologist  Colin Crouch came up with the term “post-democracy” to describe this new order (see a review of his book with this title.

Colin Crouch

        Colin Crouch

Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent part, responding only to the signals given them

The Italy of Silvio Berlusconi came closest to fitting this definition of the post-democratic state but elsewhere too we have seen processes that tend in that direction. Since the end of the 20th century, citizens have started looking like their 19th-century predecessors. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual.

After the rise of the political parties, the introduction of universal suffrage, the rise and fall of organised civil society and the dominance of commercial media, another factor has now been added: social media.

At the beginning of the 21st century, citizens could follow the political theatre, minute by minute, on radio, television or the internet, but today they can respond to it from second to second and mobilise others. The culture of immediate reporting now has instant feedback, resulting in even more of a cacophony. The work of the public figure, and especially the elected politician, is not made easier by any of this. He or she can immediately see whether new proposals appeal to the citizen, and indeed just how many people the citizen can whip up. New technology gives (some) people a voice, but the nature of this new political involvement makes the electoral system creak at the joints all the more.

Commercial and social media also reinforce one another – picking up each other’s news and bouncing it back to create an atmosphere of perpetual mudslinging. Tough competition, loss of advertising revenue and falling sales prompt the media to produce increasingly vehement reports about increasingly exaggerated conflicts. For radio and television, national politics has become a daily soap opera, and while editors determine to some extent the framing, the script and the typecasting, politicians, with varying degrees of success, try to slant things this way or that. The most popular politicians are those who succeed in altering the script and reframing the debate – in other words, those who can bend the media to their will.

Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

People care deeply about their communities and want to be heard. But a much better way to let the people speak than through a referendum is to return to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called. In ancient Athens, the large majority of public functions were assigned by lot. Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Experiments with sortition have been successfully applied in the US, Australia, and the Netherlands. The most innovative country so far is certainly Ireland. In December 2012, a constitutional convention began work in order to revise several articles of the constitution of Ireland. Its members were not just a committee of MPs working behind closed doors, but a mixture of elected politicians and ordinary people: 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. This group met one weekend per month for more than a year.

An independent research bureau put together the random group of 66 citizens, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The diversity this produced was helpful when it came to discussing such subjects as same-sex marriage, the rights of women or the ban on blasphemy in the current constitution. However, they did not do all this alone: participants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in on the subject of gay marriage). The decisions made by the convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament, then by the government and then in a referendumBut it is essential that recommendations are seen to be seriously considered and implemented with explanations for any aspects not implemented.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of Irish society, politicians could get further than they could have by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens could give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum.

What if this procedure had been applied in the UK before the EU referendum? What if a random sample of citizens had a chance to learn from experts, listen to proposals, talk to each other and engage with politicians? What if a mixed group of elected and drafted citizens had thought the matter through? What if the rest of society could have had a chance to follow and contribute to their deliberations? What if the proposal this group would have come up with had been subjected to public scrutiny? Do we think a similarly reckless decision would have been taken?

Sortition could provide a remedy to the democratic fatigue syndrome that we see everywhere today. The drawing of lots is not a miracle cure any more than elections ever were, but it can help correct a number of the faults in the current system. The risk of corruption is reduced, election fever abates and attention to the common good increases. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate. Citizens chosen by lot may not have the expertise of professional politicians, but they add something vital to the process: freedom. After all, they don’t need to be elected or re-elected.

Juries for criminal trials that are chosen by lot prove that people generally take their task extremely seriously. The fear of a chamber that behaves recklessly or irresponsibly is unfounded. If we agree that 12 people can decide in good faith about the freedom or imprisonment of a fellow citizen, then we can be confident that a number of them can and will serve the interests of the community in a responsible manner.

If many countries rely on the principle of sortition in the criminal justice system, why not rely on it in the legislative system? We already use a lottery like this every day, but we use it in the worst possible form: public opinion polling. As the American political scientist James Fishkin famously remarked: “In a poll, we ask people what they think when they don’t think. It would be more interesting to ask what they think after they had a chance to think.”

Democracy is not, by definition, government by the best, elected or not. It flourishes precisely by allowing a diversity of voices to be heard. It is all about having an equal say, an equal right to determine what political action is taken.

In order to keep democracy alive, we will have to learn that democracy cannot be reduced to voting alone. Elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. In Utrecht, the fourth city of the Netherlands, the city council now drafts by lot 150 citizens to co-create its sustainable energy plan. These processes may become a permanent feature of any modern democracy.

The most common argument against sortition is the supposed incompetence of those who have not been elected. A body of elected representatives undoubtedly has more technical competencies than a body chosen by lot. But what is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread?

Besides, the elected do not know everything. They need staff and researchers to fill the gaps in their expertise. In much the same way, a representative body chosen by lot would not stand alone. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens. Legislation could arise from the interaction between it and an elected chamber.

The arguments put forward against sortition are often identical to the reasons once put forward for not allowing peasants, workers or women to vote. Then, too, opponents claimed it would mark the end of democracy.

If David Cameron had opted for the genuine participation of citizens (before or instead of the EU referendum), he would have obtained a much clearer view of what people really wanted, a powerful list of shared priorities, an agenda for further negotiations, and created much less distrust between the masses and the ruling class. On top of that, he would have gained global admiration for daring to tackle a complex challenge by an innovative process that values people’s voices instead of counting their votes. He could have set a new standard for democracy, rather than serving as its gravedigger.”

This is an edited extract from the book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy by David van Reybrouck (translated by Liz Waters). The Bodley Head, 2016. See also the article on it in the Guardian newspaper

 

Income Inequality and Sustainability: Healthy Societies and Healthy Ecosystems

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It is now become clear in the first two decades of the 21st century that further economic growth in the most developed economies does not improve health, happiness and wellbeing. The degree of income equality is as important as, if not sometimes more important to, the quality of life than growth, once a certain level of net national income is reached. More equal societies are safer, have better health, have fewer social problems, and, with better quality of social relationships, are nicer to live in. The savings in public expenditure that come from a healthier, safer society can be used to invest in health, education, culture and support for those in need, as well as research, and the transition to green technology and infrastructure. From this we can see ways of improving the quality of life without more economic growth, while choosing carefully where material growth is purposeful and environmentally sustainable within specified limits for a set time. This comes at a time when there are many factors disrupting our current economic system and capitalism as we know. But for a low growth economy to be acceptable there has to be a shift in societies to a high quality of life and human satisfaction coming more from being in a more sociable society than from simply from the goods and services that can be bought.

Achievements, creativity and innovation in all spheres of life can be the same in more equal societies, and perhaps even greater as those lower in status positions would be less likely to see themselves as inferior and so be more confident in fulfilling their potential in different ways. Having smaller income differences does not mean that people are any the less different in their potential and achievements.

As Donella Meadows and her colleagues pointed out in the studies of limits to growth, economic growth can also happen in a sustainable way. A society less obsessed with growth in itself would be “interested in qualitative development, not physical expansion. It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. Neither for nor against growth, it would begin to discriminate among kinds of growth and purposes for growth. It would ask what the growth is for, who would benefit, what it would cost, how long it would last, and whether the growth could be accommodated by the sources and sinks of the earth”. It would attend to fair distribution of wealth and to sufficiency and security for all. Rules, standard, laws, boundaries, social agreements and constraints would be there to protect freedom and the quality of life and not be rigidly controlling.

The WWF report Living Planet positions countries on their ecological footprint per person and the UN Human Development Index to measure the quality of life (based on life expectancy, education and Gross Domestic Product per person). This shows that a good quality of life can be achieved while living within the limits for sustaining all life on earth. Only a few countries are both above the threshold for high human development and also relatively low on ecological footprint – at, or near the limit of, the world’s biocapacity per person. Cuba and Costa Rica are examples where the quality of life is above the threshold and the eco footprint low – as GDP per person is only one factor. Costa Rica has around 97% of its electricity generated by renewable sources (hydro, solar etc) and scores high on wellbeing and happiness. Cuba has life expectancy and infant mortality rates as high as the USA and achieves a low eco footprint without access to the greenest technologies. Others above the threshold have a very high footprint (United Arab Emirates, USA, Finland, Canada, Kuwait, Australia, Sweden, UK, New Zealand for example). In countries with colder winters a low carbon economy and overall resource efficiency can take longer to achieve.

Global warming, and the risks of climate change and its effects such as reducing agricultural yields, food and water supply and increasing conflict over resources, require us to work together to prevent it and to adapt to it rather than for individuals, companies and countries to be finding ways around regulations for their own short-term gain, in a similar way to tax avoidance. Reducing inequality over time encourages more collaboration and reciprocity in societies. Societies that are more collaborative are more likely to collaborate with each other to keep within limits to address climate change and maintain the resilience of life on the planet in a sufficiently diverse variety of form. (See Australia’s Planet Ark Environmental Foundation Trust). More equal societies are more are more public-spirited and ready to collaborate with nature.

More equal societies – and societies wanting to address some of the inequities and costs of capitalism, having enjoyed the improved material standards of living it can bring – are also likely to have a more people participating in developing a more collaborative economy with collaborative forms of investment, ownership and control, production and consumption. This will help maintain income equality and lead to as much emphasis being put on benefits to local communities and their economies and on environmental sustainability as on the economic and financial health of the business. The economy is more likely to be more mixed in its forms of ownership and control than it is now, with capitalism, as we know it, likely to change too. A more diverse mix of forms of organization in a society’s economy means that it can evolve and adapt more easily to changes. Part 2 will address building the future, ways of organizing our economy, different forms of governance in organisations.

Greater income inequality heightens people’s sensitivity to, and anxieties about, social status as it becomes more important as an indicator of self-worth and is seen as a key aspect of identity. So conversely a more equal society is less prone to hyper-consumerism. People are less likely to buy products just to keep up with others – and maybe advertising will play less on this too. This extra consumption of course affects both carbon emissions and resource depletion. If more income and status equality means better health and social relationships does that mean we can maintain or improve our quality of life while consuming less? It certainly helps – but other factors come into play here too. What richer countries consider to be an acceptable material living standard is of course important – but material needs may be less prominent when social and self-esteem needs are also met through better social relationships and social networks. Changes and improvements in technology can also lead to greater efficiency in the use of energy and material resources, and near-zero waste of course. So what is saved at the beginning and end of the product life cycle reduces consumption in a broader sense too. Part 2 will look at the contribution of technology and the internet and the circular economy.

Policies to cut emissions and increase energy efficiency must be applied fairly, and this might be easier to do in more equal societies. Richer people and countries may cause 10 times the carbon emissions that are caused by consumption than poorer. Carbon rations have been considered with equal amounts of allowable emissions for a whole population. Those requiring less sell their unused rations at the end of a set period to a carbon bank for those who want and can afford to buy more. Research in this area has shown that personal carbon trading would be a progressive policy instrument – redistributing money from the rich to the poor – as the rich use more energy than the poor, and so would need to buy allowances from them. This is in contrast to a direct carbon tax, under which all lower income people are worse off, prior to revenue redistribution.

 

 

 

Human Nature and The Way Societies are Organise

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Humans have evolved both to cooperate and to compete, to do things on behalf of others and for themselves. Both can contribute to a sense of self-worth. Experiments involving games around sharing money between pairs (proposer and responder) show that concern about how others are treated is high.

Relationships have been described in terms of two dimensions that reflect the needs for inclusion and affiliation on the one hand, and control and autonomy on the other – see Lorna Benjamin’s revision of earlier versions in her structural analysis of social behaviour:

(1) hostility at one extreme to friendliness on the other, and

(2) control and dependency at one end to autonomy and freedom on the other

And for human social needs, see for example the work of Bill Schultz

Societies of both human and non-human primates are found to be primarily organised either around affiliation, egalitarian reciprocity and co-operation or around power and dominance, and competition for it (and primates have ways of resolving such competition).This varies with cultural differences and historical periodsThe more egalitarian harks back to the core values of the French revolution in 1789: Equality, Fraternity and Liberty.

People need to learn to survive in both types of society, to be able both to establish trust and make friends and to be self-reliant, assertive and handle conflict. In societies organized more around dominance people learn how to attain and express status, and discriminate between status conflicts that they can win and those they cannot. With an aversion to low status some people can seek to be superior in status to more vulnerable people or groups If they feel downtrodden – or avoid being looked down on as a group by segregating and living in their own area.

These two ways of organizing society of course co-exist in varying amounts in different parts of a society (as in different states in the USA as studied by Wilkinson) and they vary also according to the sphere of life, type of organisation and the individual. Studies of cultural differences over the last 60 or so years have identified a number of bi-polar dimensions on which country cultures differ. A useful summary is provided by the Romanian authors Sergiu Balani and Lucia Ovidia Vreja

Many of the same dimensions appear in most of these studies. Three are relevant here: (1) power distance (the degree of equality, or inequality between people in society, reflecting the way the social structure is organised); (2) individualism vs. collectivism (the degree to which people of a society understand themselves as individuals, as apart from the group to which they primarily belong, governing the relationship between the individual and the group); (3) mastery versus harmony (concerning peoples’ relations to natural and social environment).

Some societies with developed economies have ways of countering dominance in their culture, and maintaining an optimum level of equality (the highest 20% in income being 3.7 – 4 times higher the lowest 20% in this study), just as hunter-gather groups did with food sharing, gifts etc. Fairness is needed for social cohesion, and a sense of indebtedness encourages reciprocity.

Inequality grew first as agriculture developed, and there was more division of labour. Different countries have different histories and paths to greater or less equality.

 

Social and Psychological Effects of Income Inequality

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Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett see these as the link in the causal chain between income inequality, ill health, reduced life expectancy and social problems.

What we think about our material and social circumstances rather than just those circumstances alone, have a profound affect on our physical and mental health and on our life expectancy, and create social problems. It is not the average income of a society but the differences in income within a society that affects physical and mental health, once material needs are sufficiently met. Then relative income and relative deprivation have more powerful effects than absolute income. In most of the richer countries in which there is a large difference in status and income, there is a more hierarchical social structure and a more divided society.

Humans have evolved both to cooperate and to compete, to do things on behalf of others and for themselves. Societies of both human and non-human primates are found to be primarily organised either around affiliation, egalitarian reciprocity and co-operation or around power and dominance. People need to learn to survive in both types of society, organisation or group. Where the balance is skewed towards larger income differences the quality of life is affected for all.

Those lower down in the hierarchy experience more stress and anxiety. People compare themselves with others and can feel in a subordinate position or looked down on, and controlled or excluded from a better life. They can feel they have less autonomy and control over their lives, and so less able to pursue opportunities to achieve, feel competent, and improve their circumstances. The chances of upward mobility decrease. All this means that key social, emotional and self-esteem needs are not met: to be valued, noticed and heard (rather than ignored), to be respected and seen to be competent (rather than humiliated), to have enough freedom to get on with their lives, to be included, accepted and liked (rather than rejected). Individuals differ in how strong these needs are, and whether they express and act on these needs or not, but they are common to us all. (See for example the work of Bill Schultz ).

At a physical level when feeling excluded, inferior, controlled or restricted, unjustly treated, or rejected the pain centres of the brain are activated; when feeling respected and accepted by others, and connected and cooperating with them, the pleasure centres are activated. People low in status, with less control over their circumstances and more socially isolated are more prone to stress and physical and mental illness. In humans stress responses and emotional and mental processes become tuned and programmed to the environment.

Rates of mental illness were found by Wilkinson and Pickett to be five times higher in more unequal societies. Adversity suffered by parents on low income can create relationships at home that increase stress as it is, but infant mortality is lower in more equal societies. The benefits of smaller income differences spread across all income groups.

Social inequality heightens people’s sensitivity to, and anxieties about, social status as this becomes a more important indicator of self-worth and is seen as a key aspect of identity. Anxieties around how they are seen by others can make people inwardly more vulnerable and insecure. This can lead to “conspicuous consumption” (Veblen 1899) and wanting the same as others, and with credit cards, a debt-laden society suffering from hyper-consumerism. Or in extreme cases where people feel humiliated it can lead to rage and violent crime, as studies have shown. In more equal societies people have more opportunity to experience self-worth from meeting each other’s needs – feeling valued and included – alongside sufficient self-reliance, rather than from being higher in a status hierarchy.

The quality of social relations deteriorates as a society becomes more unequal and hierarchical. Fewer people can trust others or feel safe, there is more hostility, conflict and violence. There is less social cohesion; people choose friends from near equals. Empathy between status levels is less common where there is less similarity in material living standards (as de Toqueville found in the early 19th century). There is also more discrimination over gender, age, ethnic or social background, race, sexual orientation. This not only affects the quality of life but also creates more social problems (such as crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, poorer educational attainment), costly to society and the taxpayer. When the quality of possessions becomes the marker of status and identity then striving to keep up with others in material goods also feeds into the excesses of consumerism.

Inequalities have grown in many of the rich countries over the last 25 years of last century and accompanying this there has been the longer transition from local community life to mass society with high geographical mobility over the last 50 years. People used to know and be known by people who remained part of a local community most of their life. Friends and a supportive social network that provides protection are all the more crucial where there are social inequalities and less sense of a local community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Overview of Social Innovation

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This is taken from an article on page 32 of the Observer on 3 April 2011 by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of the Young Foundation, in London and Visiting Professor at University College, London, the London School of Economics and the University of Melbourne. Previously he was:Director of Policy at 10 Downing Street under British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (formerly known as the Performance and Innovation Unit), Co-founder and Director of the London based think tank Demos (from 1993–98), Chief adviser to Gordon Brown MP in the early 1990s.

This short article is linked to the launch by the Young Foundation on 12th April 2011 of a new organisation called Action for Happiness to act as a hub for knowledge about happiness and well being – its foundations, how to promote and measure it etc. .See www.actionforhappiness.org . The Young Foundation, mainly works on social innovation – the design and launch of new social organisations, but also produces some publications on social innovation and the state of British society.

 In this article Mulgan reflects on the rise in popularity of the idea of social innovation. He says that often the innovations that matter most may not be in things but in the way we live together and organise ourselves. While the relevance of, and market for, new technology remains strong, and material needs are important, he points to other human needs that remain unfulfilled, reflected in the growing interest in quality of life, well being or happiness, and the lack of any significant increase in happiness since the mid-50s of the last century in the more developed economies, despite more material wealth and consumption. He alludes to how mental and physical health is better not just in richer societies but also those that are more equal at the same time (c.f. Spirit Level by R Wilkinson and K Pickett which maps income inequality against the UNESCO measures of social and personal health in a number of countries, with income inequality not being linked to right or left wing politics). Social innovation is not new; he reminds us of Robert Owen (the co-operative movement), Florence Nightingale (social and health care reforms) and Michael Young (Which? magazine and the Open University). But it is seen as more critical at this time.

 He defines social innovation as new ideas, organisations and solutions that can change the way we live by addressing social needs in new ways, especially those that reach and empower those in the poverty trap. He gives examples such as Muhammed Yunus’ Grameen bank, a social business or enterprise, bypassing the powerful banks and mafia-like loan merchants in Bangladesh and empowering poor people to look after themselves by having access to “micro-credit”. This has gained recognition through Yunus getting the Nobel prize. He mentions too a commercial venture, M-Pesa, that uses mobile phones in East Africa to provide a new banking system for poor people. Other examples he gives are: urban farms, bicycle hire schemes and holistic child care centres.which in some cases may be co-operatives, in others a local government initiative.

 Social innovation is also defined by its process – a social one – thriving on collaboration, hope and local empowerment, doing things with people rather than to or for them. New ideas and role models or exemplars emerge from local initiatives rather than in university research laboratories. Internet technology is a key enabler of this, he points out, as it uses “crowd sourcing” to share ideas and experiments in new ways of addressing social needs – and I would add that if these innovations can be environmentally as well as economically sustainable while bringing people to act together for a better society then they are all the more relevant.

The way social innovation works he sees as haphazard – and sees this as similar to the way innovations in science and technology in the 19th century came about often through gentleman amateurs. Mulgan argues that there needs to be more support to help social innovations to grow to scale and to influence or shape the wider social system, while recognising that a self-organising social process is an inherent aspect of their development. Government is taking an interest, realising that economic growth alone is not enough. Examples he gives are: Obama’s social innovation office in the White House and a $650M education innovation fund, the EU research and development fund being allocated to citizens ideas as well as new hardware, other countries (such as France and Australia) finding ways to “incubate” social innovation, and the interest of the recent Labour and the current Coalition government in the UK (as well as the French President, Sarkozy) in measuring well being or happiness and assessing government policy in relation to this and not just GDP. This reminds me of the triple measures suggested by the Economist a few years back of net national income, income inequality (looking for a more healthy gap) and the health of the natural environment (rather than GDP alone providing a “grossly distorted picture”).  .

 Geoff Mulgan has written a number of books including: Communication and Control networks and the new economies of communication (1991), Politics in an Anti-Political Age (1994), Connexity (1997), Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government (Penguin 2006) and The Art of Public Strategy (2009). He wrote  numerous Demos reports and pamphlets.

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