What happens when you put a group of smart people together in a room for a day and ask them to re-imagine what a prosperous society looks like? This was the essence of last week’s ‘The Nature of Prosperity’ event, hosted by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) at the Royal Institution in London. While there was a sub-theme of ‘Reviving Democracy’, in reality it was a very wide-ranging discussion that, at times, was wildly theoretical but at others was extremely grounded.
It all seems extremely pressing, given the climate emergency and the inability to continue as we have been on a finite planet. As such, the structure of the day was ideal – other event organisers take note – as it allowed time for all of the speakers to chew over the topics, expand on their ideas and then take questions from a similarly smart audience (present company excepted!).
Reoccurring themes were political short-termism, the misalignment of education (for a separate analysis of this theme, click here) and economics, the failure of corporate governance (click here) and the importance of considering future generations.
Democratising future generations
The day was presided over by Professor Tim Jackson, who has written a book on the subject – ‘Prosperity without Growth’. He has argued that the operating principles of the macroeconomy need to shift from productivity and profit towards service to society. Work needs to become a desirable and meaningful cultural participation, investment should be aligned to a commitment to the future, and money should be issued by a progressive state for social good.
“At the moment, there is no obvious way from here to there,” admitted Dr Miriam Ronzoni, a Reader in Political Theory at the University of Manchester. In large part this is due to a lack of democratic political will. There needs to be fostered a form of solidarity – the fact that we are all in this together – and a lot of cross-fertilisation. She gave the example of the responses to eurozone austerity, polarised as a call for a more just federal Europe and ‘escapism’ back to nationalist states. It needs something in between, she argued – “that we are all in this together but in our different ways”.
The barrier caused by short-term politics is clear. Simon Caney, Professor in Political Theory at the University of Warwick, cited Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which have increased since the 1990s despite the clear need to cut them. Climate change, health, education, infrastructure design and so on need long-term solutions, often with delayed impacts, whereas the focus is typically short-term. “Political life is resolutely short-term… the way decisions are made is quite myopic.” Again, he turned to the EU, with its reaction to the financial crisis being one of reactive coping rather than dealing with the underlying issues. There are cognitive biases, motivational problems, a political system focused on election cycles, a failure to consider young people (let alone future generations), and the transitory grasp on power, which means decisions can be undone.
“The future gets crowded out in discussions,” said Caney. Crisis follows crisis and, on too many occasions, politicians add to this by creating the impression of additional crises that are not crises at all – such as Donald Trump’s way of portraying immigration at the Mexican border.
Caney has written: “One core constituency is missing. Children and those yet to be born will have to live with the decisions reached but they do not possess any electoral power over those decisions… Future people are powerless”. This is contrary to one of the central virtues of democratic self-determination. Environmental sociologist, Rebecca Altman, has come up with the term “time-bombing the future” in relation to her work on chemical compounds that are now in our food, water, human bodies and blood streams. Severely harmful to health, they are expected to last many years.
From here to there
Caney suggested “vision for the future” days – “otherwise I fear we will just look down all the time”. There shouldn’t be a dichotomy here – amidst the need to look strategically, it is also the case that policies and reforms for tackling current issues can be very good for the long-term as well.
A dedicated Committee for the Future which would scrutinise legislation, among other things, could bring the time and space to think long-term. Finland has had such a body since 1993, albeit with a fairly limited remit, Caney pointed out. Hungary had an ombudsman for the future, created in 2008 but, ironically, without its own long-term future: it was scrapped in 2011. Caney was one of a couple of speakers to recommend the Welsh Assembly’s Future Generations Act – “we could do a lot worse than follow the Welsh model”.
There needs to be an exploration of what actually works, who are the agents of change (including young people as embodied within the school strikes and the people power of Extinction Rebellion), and what entities can carry things forward, including citizens assemblies and juries.
Ronzoni pointed out that people who struggle to make it to the end of the month tend not to vote green – how do we get their votes too? She argued that it won’t come from the “regressive green” approach implemented by French president, Emmanuel Macron, that put the burden on the poor through a carbon tax on fuel while he simultaneously cut taxes for the rich. She felt a solution could be the increasingly touted Green New Deal, but one that those who feel left behind could rally round. “When a narrative sticks, things can move quite quickly.” The question is, what is that narrative, she said.
In terms of top-down measures, different speakers cited carbon taxes and social discount rates on economic valuations (as compellingly proposed by Yale economist and Nobel prizewinner, William Nordhaus, among others, and starting to be taken up by some countries and individual states and cities), as well as new ways of accounting, such as enforcing companies to report on their Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
An interesting example is in British Columbia, with its early introduction of a carbon tax (applied to the purchase and use of fossil fuels and covering approximately 70% of provincial Greenhouse Gas Emissions). It did so while simultaneously lowering the price of other goods, thereby creating the right economic effects but without the toxic politics. Harnessing the power of money is part of the requirement, said Caney: “Subsidising fossil fuels is an insane thing to do”.
There is also the narrative of human development, including spiritual growth, said Dr Jonathan Rowson, director of Perspectiva, philosopher and chess grandmaster. Religions, along with large corporations, wealthy patriarchs and “very unusual people” are among those who think long-term. Among other progressive developments that could foster the change we need, he cited MIT’s U.Lab, which seeks to find a way to move from what senior lecturer at MIT, Otto Scharmer, has called “organised irresponsibility”. This involves connecting with a deeper level of our humanity and with our “emerging self”, discovering who we are and who we want to be as a society, then bringing this into business to transform capitalism.
Experts also need to commit in different ways, said Will Davies, Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths and author, most recently of ‘Nervous States: How Feeling took over the World’. He gave the example of Ted Schrecker, with his take on populism and public health, whereby an alternative to neoliberal messages could be a rallying narrative such as “Stop, you’re killing us!”, albeit Schrecker admits “the politics of science and evidence in a ‘post-truth world’ are unavoidably complicated”.
Davies points out that climate science deals with an object – climate – that exceeds unmediated human sensibility. While the consequences of global warming are now entering every day experience on an all too frequent basis, the object known as ‘climate’ only exists thanks to networks of satellites, computer models and weather stations around the globe. The cry, he suggested, should be “Stop, you’re killing everything!”
Trust in scientists, including climate scientists, remains relatively high but universities are increasingly drawn into political controversies and populist accusations of liberal elitism, political correctness and ignorance of national interests (that can manifest itself in “viciously nationalistic terms” such as the elimination of the Central European University from Hungary in 2018). Climate deniers might portray scientists as anti-capitalist or hypocrites, living the lifestyles that they criticise in others.
The Democratic Deficit
In the last session of the day, the focus turned firmly to political democracy. The always eloquent Green MP, Caroline Lucas, pointed out that the need for urgency was really testing the democratic system. Setting a zero emissions target of 2050 is akin to dialing for an ambulance and being told it will arrive in 30 years’ time. And, of course, promises need to be backed by action, not taking the UK government’s lead of moving further forward with expansion of Heathrow airport on the same day as the emissions announcement. If 2% of GDP gets us to zero carbon in 2050, why not 4%, 6% or 8% to get there much faster, she asked.
Bold and drastic action is needed, not tweaking business as usual. The tweet by London mayor, Sadiq Khan, asking Extinction Rebellion to stop their protest so that London could do precisely that – get back to business as usual – was ill-judged, she argued. Non-violent civil disobedience is legitimate, she said (not surprising for someone arrested at a protest outside a fracking site). It should be recognised that actions by the likes of XR are a culmination of previous failed attempts to bring change and also that they often involve breaking one set of laws – such as by sitting in a road – to uphold others – such as a government’s statutory obligation to tackle carbon emissions.
One solution would be citizens assemblies, she felt, whereby people were given the evidence on a topic and were trusted to make decisions. So too carbon taxes which avoid the Macron mistake, such as on flights, with the tax weighted towards frequent fliers – 15% of people take 70% of flights. Even Jesse Norman, Conservative MP and Paymaster General, admitted that it is very hard to make a case against some form of penalisation for using carbon but that this had to be on an international scale.
Perfectly illustrating the failure to consider future generations, Norman asked the audience whether they would have preferred to have been born in any earlier era (the message being, people alive today have never had it so good). To which the obvious retort from a member of the audience was that this might be true of someone born 50 years ago but was unlikely to be the case for a two-year old of today or someone born in the coming decades.
Any vehicle that cuts across political silos to consider policies based on future generations has to have teeth, Lucas pointed out. “Otherwise, I fear we’d have a day of visioning the future and then just go back to normal”. And there needs to be recognition that the climate emergency is hitting poorest people the hardest so that the transition is properly managed.
There could be more jobs in a green economy, she said, but that would be no comfort to someone losing their job in a fossil fuel sector. Workers in Aberdeen, for instance, should be at the forefront of designing the transition as their oil sector jobs close so that the transition is a just one, unlike previous transitions that, for instance, hollowed out coal mining communities.
In terms of the democratic model to address the challenges, more power needs to be provided locally – “we have one of the most centralised governments in the west”, said Lucas. And the first past the post model of the UK is clearly broken. “We have a democratic system that is designed to be a kind of monopolistic system to keep out new voices. And, sadly, it’s doing the job pretty well.” In response to the concern about just what voices could be let in, in these times of populism, she argued that the emphasis should be on tackling the causes, not artificially keeping them out.
This in turn would encourage compromise – something that isn’t a “dirty word” in the European Parliament. Even the architecture of the UK House of Commons is adversarial. “Nuance, subtlety, finding the common ground isn’t what it’s about.”
To the point of populism, in a wise and measured summing up of the day, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said it often comes down to “I’ll show you somewhere comfortable to put your anger – or someone. You itch, I’ll scratch it.”
The CUSP event was the Question Time that the BBC will never make – experts in their fields coming together to debate and provide suggestions to tackle the biggest challenges we face. At least there is plenty of follow-up reading material and further CUSP events to come.