Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Let’s sing, not shop: an economist dreams of a sustainable city

(Last night I attended the launch of 'London 2062', a compendium of essays put together by Sarah Bell and James Paskins of UCL, to which I contributed the text below.  It was lovely to have been accompanied by my son Alex, who stands a decent chance of actually seeing London in 49 years...)


When imagining a London of 2062, it is easy to get excited about the possibility of personalised jet packs, hover cars and low-cost space travel.  My personal hopes are just as fantastical: I want to see microwave oven-sized waste disposal machines, which generate energy and heat as a by-product, in every home; and 3-D printers that use nano-materials to build the products I want at the touch of a button.

As these imaginings immediately illustrate, there are dangers in looking far ahead: we may simply be left looking absurd, either now or in the future, once it arrives.

Nevertheless, there are uses for long-range scenario-planning.  Firstly, it can help us to make normative judgments - do we prefer this possible future or that one? And, secondly, by navigating back from our preferred future, we can begin to think about the kinds of things that we might do now, or soon, that would steer us in the direction of our preferences.

The idea that we can choose our direction of travel is not merely an expression of belief in the power of democracy.  It is also an assertion about the nature of an economy.  An economy is not  a closed system that tends towards dynamic equilibrium, the parameters of which are deterministic: it is, rather, a complex, adaptive system, the rules of which are socially determined and contingent.  The economy is a human construct and, as such, we have the ability – and, indeed, the responsibility – to shape it to suit our needs.  Over a period as long as 50 years, we should certainly be able to make the kinds of choices that will steer our economy in one direction rather than another.

The ‘steering’ is not, however, some mechanical act, in which we pull various levers and pulleys to make the ‘machine’ go in the direction we want.  It is, rather, a more subtle and ultimately powerful process in which underlying behavioural norms are challenged and modified in a far more organic fashion.

I want to suggest that there is available to us a much more sustainable London in 2062: and a much less sustainable one; and which one we end up with will be, in large part, a function of the way in which a variety of norms pan out and interact.  Here are three examples:

·         Masculine/feminine – London is presently a macho city, characterised by needlessly tall buildings, aggressive corporate behaviour, narcissistic decision-making and damagingly ruthless individualism.  Left unchecked, these behaviours will continue to generate extreme levels of social inequality, the unrestrained consumption of finite physical resources and an environment of profound psychological stress for the majority of London’s citizens.  A more femininised city – attending to notions of care, concern, inclusion, small-scale production and consumption – would, by contrast, inherently counter such trends.  A more sustainable London in 2062 would come about not through direct measures to – say – reduce CO2 emissions but, instead, indirectly and more powerfully through the development of a greater ethic of care.

·         Walled/open – a great deal of London’s economic life currently happens behind walls.  Corporate decision making is opaque: wealthy citizens immunise themselves from their ‘neighbours’ by living in gated communities; political processes are dominated by lobbyists and careerists conversing in inaccessible settings.  A London of 2062 in which these barriers persist would probably function as a city, but it could not possibly be described as sustainable.  A sustainable London would be one in which inclusion and participation was ordinary, in which openness and transparency were normal.  In this more open London, social injustices, environmental harms and wealth inequalities would be more apparent to all, increasing both the demand for change, and the political will to act.  Improved outcomes would emerge organically from the change in the underlying logic of social interaction and would not need to be ‘engineered’ through interventions from ‘the top’.

·         Material/de-material – the London of 2012 remains a citadel to consumer-led capitalism, even in the teeth of recession.  Londoners, and the tens of thousands of tourists that visit the city, go shopping as if the world is going to end (!) and spend stupendous amounts of money on largely pointless products.  It is conceivable that this could continue and that a London of 2062 will be wealthy enough to protect itself from the reality that will by then have come about, in which the effects of climate change will have become severe and in which a great many natural resources are either seriously depleted or have already vanished.  But better, surely, to begin the process of weaning ourselves off our addictions, and to de-materialise our economy and our lifestyles. Let’s learn rather than spend; let’s sing rather than shop; let’s stop with all the stuff.

At a time when unemployment in London – and, indeed, the rest of the UK and across Europe – is so high, and when governments and politicians are frantically seeking the economic growth that will save us from the present debt crisis, there is a risk of appearing somewhat disingenuous when offering suggestions for the short term that do not appear immediately to address the urgent problems faced by so many fellow citizens.

But it is at precisely such a time that the ‘new’ is required.  It would surely be a mistake of the worst kind to spend inordinate efforts to return to some mythologised ‘business as usual’, for the sake of short term credit, when it is so obvious – to everyone? – that it was ‘business as usual’ that got us into this mess.  In such a spirit, and in light of the three longer-term themes just discussed, I offer three propositions for immediate action that could, I believe, not only begin steering London in the direction of genuine sustainability but could also deliver some shorter term gains that would benefit us all.

Firstly, I would like to see the language of competition replaced by the language of collaboration.  Individuals and communities naturally collaborate with one another, but the discourse of business and politics has become monopolised by notions of endless competition.  We need to reclaim the discourse, and reshape the space within which we make our decisions.

Secondly, I’d like to see a dramatic increase in the extent to which social and economic assets are under the direct ownership and control of communities.  This would help to de-couple the ‘real’ economy from the financial economy; and would give individuals and communities a much more direct stake in the future.


Thirdly, I’d like to see us attend to the notion of ‘sustainable play’.  Human beings are inherently creative, sociable animals, but this better side of our nature has – like so many other aspects of our lives - been appropriated by market capitalism.  We need to claim it back and demonstrate – to ourselves, as much as anything – that we can interact, exchange and be fulfilled without reliance on a piece of branded equipment.  We don’t see many advertisements encouraging us to go for a walk, for example, for the simple reason that is exceptionally difficult for a corporation to make money out of us if we’re out and about doing nothing so complicated as having a stroll.  But going for a walk could, from such a perspective, be the most radical thing you do all day.  Go ahead: take that step.



Thursday, 10 October 2013

A theory of almost everything in four-and-a-bit diagrams (with no apology to Ken Wilbur)

[Correct title, from 12 October, is: 

"On being a good grain of sand"]

Today I gave a valedictory presentation to my friends at SmartCSOs.  Since the presentation consisted of a series of diagrams sketched at speed on a flipchart, I thought I'd translate it into blogspeak just in case.

Diagram 1

It looks like a hierarchy, but it is in fact a pile of sand.

Above the pile, obviously, is a grain of sand, falling in the direction of the arrow.

Mathematicians whose names regretfully escape me wanted to know if they could predict what would happen for any given grain of sand: would it cause some sort of landslide? And, if so, how big?

After no doubt thousands of hours of experiment, and a no doubt similar amount of time doing maths, they demonstrated conclusively that it is formally impossible to know what will happen: it is a partially chaotic, complex system.  All you can know - and this you can know with considerable certainty - is that, if you drop many grains of sand, over a long period of time there will be a LARGE number of small slides, and a SMALL number of big slides.  A bit like this:

Diagram 2

This hyperbolic curve, Mark Buchanan demonstrated in Ubiquity, is, well, ubiquitous.  Across a whole range of both physical and social systems one sees the same patterns - lots of small changes, and only a small number of big ones.

SmartCSOs, of course, is concerned with a big change.  A very big change.  It is concerned with nothing less than a 'great transition' in the entire global economy; indeed many involved with SmartCSOs are concerned with and/or working on a great transition in global consciousness, whereby we all finally become one.  (See the 1937 sci-fi novel 'Starmaker', by Olaf Stapledon for an explanation of how this works.)

The implication of the sandpile experiment for SmartCSOs - and, indeed, for anyone else working with the hope of producing a dramatic change in how things are -  is rather sobering: there is no way of knowing whether the efforts you are making will cause a big landslide or a tiny one.

HOWEVER one other thing you can be sure of is - there cannot be a landslide unless there is a pile.

Gandhi put it thus: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."

You may not be the one that causes the 'big one'; but unless you're in the pile, then there is no chance at all.

(My ambition these days, in light of this, is: be a good grain of sand.)

Diagram 3


This is what the landslide is up against.  It's a stylised network diagram with three dominant nodes.  (You could think of it either as a structure inside the sandpile, like a lattice holding the thing together; or perhaps as a netting, wrapped around the base; in either case, it's a crystal-like structure that holds the sand pile in place, enabling it to grow bigger or remain (apparently) stable for longer than would otherwise be the case.)

In this example, the diagram represents the world of economics - no, more accurately, the world of economists.  There is, I suggest, an inter-locking nexus of economists in locations A, B and C:

A - the Treasuries of major (and most minor) world governments

B - the world's fat financial institutions

C - a number of elite universities around the world that teach economics

The universities are in the business, of course, of supplying well-trained economists into the labour market, the demand for which comes almost exclusively from either A or B.  A and B engage with one another closely in running the economy, so it makes sense to have them able to communicate in the same language.  That language is orthodox neo-classical economics; and there we have it, a closed, self-reinforcing and ever-more-powerful sub-system with its own language, narratives and energy.

(Refinements such as OECD, IMF etc would all fit very neatly into the diagram, of course: they're the same people, trained the same way, speaking the same language, believing the same 'stories'.)

If you want a big landslide, this sub-system is in your way.

Diagram 4a

Here's your bog-standard S-curve, time along the bottom, quantity up the side, an almost-invariant pattern illustrating the uptake of a new thing-in-the-world (normally thought of as applying to products, because it's easiest to get the data, but applying just as fiercely to behaviours and beliefs - automatic washing machines, mobile phones, the internet, major world religions, you name it) (And here's a reference, just in case...)

Diagram 4b

It's easiest to think of the process as occurring in four stages:

A - initially the new thing (in the jargon, an 'innovation') is used or believed by a tiny number of people - the vanguard, the avant guard, the prospectors - the weirdoes

B - some stuff happens (the really important stuff, it turns out) and 'early adopters', normally 'cool' people that the rest of us admire, start to use or believe the thing

C - it goes mainstream, as everyone starts to copy the cool people and everyone starts to copy everyone else (conformance to social norms is either the single most powerful factor influencing our behaviours, or one of a very small number of such factors)

D - and by now it's simply 'normal'

But hang on just a moment...

Diagram 4c



There are two big, big issues.

Firstly - for how long might, or will, or could or should a new thing hang out in the A zone?  What if it's decades, or centuries?

Secondly - some magical stuff happens in the B zone.  This is the place where it is determined whether the new thing will go mainstream and provide us with the new normal D1; or whether the new thing will perish, vanish, peter out into the unrealised possible future and now perpetually marginal D2.  It is the place where the lattice-work of institutional resistance has its tightest knots, where those with anything to lose from a transition to D1 will inevitably focus their energy.  (They really don't mind if you hang out in the A zone; indeed, it can sometimes be helpful to them if you do, because then it doesn't look as if their stopping you...)

For something like SmartCSOs - or, indeed, any ambitious programme of change - it is imperative, in my view, to think long and hard about these two things.

If, as the data is increasingly showing and many increasingly believe, the environmental and human damage being inflicted by contemporary capitalism requires urgent action, then we simply can't afford to spend much time in the A zone.  Our introspections and our personal journeys; our favourite metaphors and our preferred 'models'; our fervent discussions and our thought-provoking blogs; all lovely.  But we really don't have much time.

And if we don't look very carefully indeed at what happens in the B-zone, and prepare accordingly, then even our finest deliberations may get us simply to the place of being treated as interesting and irrelevant by the cool people, and as a marginal distraction by the power-nexus.

As grains of sand, we can't guarantee anything of course; but if our aspirations to wisdom and ethics are to be of any value, then they oblige to at least maximise the odds of success.




Or something like that.




Eleven slogans, more or less

I, and others, have castigated the culture of 'more' that characterizes western consumerism. Enough, I cry!  Let's have less!

But this is not enough: with less of some things, we shall perhaps have the opportunity for more of other things.  Indeed, if the argument is right that to persuade great numbers of people to choose a new way of conducting their affairs will require a positive story to be told - and such an argument surely is right - then the 'more' that they will get by making fundamentally different choices needs surely to be spelled out.

Or worked out.

As a starter for ten, therefore:

1. Less stuff, more time
2. Less shopping, more sitting
3. Less driving, more gazing
4. Less stress, more conviviality
5. Less haste, more conversation
6. Less bullshit, more truth
7. Less acquisitiveness, more generosity
8. Less tech, more song
9. Less money, more friends
10. Less competition, more collaboration
11. Less me, more care

Or maybe that's a starter for eleven?


Saturday, 5 October 2013

The later that we waited for is now

Charles Bukowski's phrasing was:

"The days run away like wild horses over the hills"

Last weekend, which I spent predominantly in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall conducting an experiment in which I persuaded conference delegates to use Lego to un-pack their childhood dreams and explore what had become of their desire to be a doctor or a pilot or a whale, the recurring phrase was:

"Life gets in the way."

And there are, indeed, real events in the real world which take the form of obstacles (those things, as Adam Phillips points out, that tell you about what it is you want) and which can all-too-easily consume great swathes of time until:

"One day you find, ten years have got behind you, no-one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun"

And if Pink Floyd doesn't do it for you, how about the Talking Heads:

"How did I get here? Letting the days go by..."

And if you want to get to the top of your localised fitness landscape in order to assess the view?

"Well I wouldn't start from here."

But here is where I am, and there's still plenty of that Dark Side of the Moon decade to go, and the two recent blogs that could easily have been here are, instead:

Here - a muse on hyper-mobility in London for London Remade

Here - a reflection on my weekend in Shoreditch for Brook Lyndhurst

OK.  As ever - enough.


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Everyday Sexism - Pushing Back

I drafted this a couple of weeks ago; and the Caroline Criado-Perez affair prompts me to post...



Some while ago I pledged that, when the opportunity presented itself, I would challenge any ‘everyday sexism’ that I encountered. An opportunity arose on Wednesday.  As I cycled between Shepherds’ Bush and Acton, late afternoon, I became aware that the car perhaps 100 metres in front of me had slowed down and someone inside the car was calling, or yelling.   Then I noticed the young mum, dressed for the sunshine and walking with her three year old, on the pavement travelling in the opposite direction to me and the car.

“…darlin’...”  “…gorgeous...”  “…marry me!...” came the snippets from the car.

The car having slowed down, I, on my bike, was nearing it, quite rapidly.

“Well done mate!” I called.  “Very grown up.”

He had slowed to a halt in the middle of the road; the woman was now twenty or thirty metres behind us; and I was about to pull level with the car.  The driver – the only occupant and clearly the source of the offensive remarks - was leaning out, aware now that someone had shouted at him, but clearly bemused.  As I levelled with the window, I had veered to the right – anxious, I think, that he was in a car and I was on a bike, and if things turned nasty it could get, well, dangerous – and I said:

“She wants to suck your dick mate! She does, really, she wants to such your dick!”

And he spluttered and began to shout and I turned off the road (I had in any case been intending to turn right) and I felt that I’d pitched it about right: ironic, belittling, shaming.

But is that right? My hope, I guess, is that the next time he’s on the verge of yelling something from the safety of his car some flash of humiliation, some memory of the fleeting shame he experienced, will cut him short.




Friday, 12 July 2013

An intriguing example of how short term market considerations produce insane outcomes; what this means; and what we might do


(A blog that is too long and has a ridiculous title, because I want to put you off)

If you've walked along a British high street recently, it will come as no surprise to you to learn that ‘vacancy rates’ – the proportion of shops that are closed – are remarkably high.

Actually, if you live in London, you may not have noticed.  London, ever more de-coupled from the real world and fuelled by funny money from “high net worth individuals” and the  “financial and business services sector”, has a vacancy rate of around 7%.

Elsewhere, the years of austerity and falling real incomes have taken their toll.  Try Hartlepool, or Newport, or Dudley: a third of the shops are shut.

(It’s not just the high streets, either.  Once upon a time there was a narrative in which consumer spending was merely moving to those awful ‘out of town’ retail parks: no longer.)

It’s mainly to do with the fact that we all do all our shopping via the interweb, of course, which means that, despite the televisual insights of Mary Portas, the plangent efforts of her dozen pilots and the pronouncements from her state-gestated daughter the Future High Streets Forum, the hard-arsed evidence suggests that things are only going one way

There are, of course, genuine and uplifting efforts to do something about this: but they are not only small-scale, fragile and fragmented; they are up against a hidden and very considerable barrier.

To you and I, and so far through this piece, a shop is a shop is a shop: a rectangular space with stuff inside that you can, if you wish and you have sufficient credit, buy.

However, there are those for whom a shop is not a shop, but an ‘investment class’.  Someone, somewhere, owns the shop.  Or, to be more precise, an entity with an investment portfolio encompassing gilts, equities, commodities, futures and so forth, also includes property assets within that; and, within property, retail.

Now, I have to confess that I assumed that, since the kind of people who would do such things are likely to be either the aforementioned “high net worth individuals” and/or elite members of the “financial and business services sector” (collectively, and henceforth, the “crazies”, if for no other reason than it has been the relentless pursuit of their interests at the expense of all others that has brought about the current craziness) that it would be impossible to find out anything about what these people are up to.

But lo! A miracle! An august assembly – the Association of British Insurers, the Association of Real Estate Funds, the British Council for Offices, the British Council of Shopping Centres, the British Property Federation, the Investment Property Forum, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Urban land Institute (I just can’t be bothered with the hyperlinks I’m afraid) – have published the marvellous “Property Data Booklet 2012”, which contains some exceptionally useful ballast.

For example, all the commercial property in Britain has a value of £717 billion.  Who knew?

And, of this, £227 billion is retail property!

And, of this, about 5% is in the hands of private investors, about 4% in the hands of charities and old-school trusts; and virtually all the rest is in the hands of gigantic financial institutions (mainly pension funds) and listed property companies.

Now here’s a thing.  It is a general and simple rule in economics that if the demand for something falls while supply remains unchanged, the price declines.  In the case of shops, this translates as: if a landlord can’t lease a shop at a particular price, he or she should progressively reduce the price until he or she can, in fact, let it.

From the occupier perspective, of course, the rent is a cost that will need to be met out of income from selling whatever it is they sell; so, to be sure, they’ll need to sell something.  And it also true that the rise in – for example – the number of charity shops, who certainly pay lower rent than a commercial occupier might, is a sign that some landlords, at least, are showing some flexibility in rents.

But – and here comes the catch – a commercial property investor or pension fund expresses itself to the financial market through the value of its assets; and the value of its retail assets is in large part a function of the expected income stream over the lifetime of the asset; and is calculated not on the basis of the actual money it is receiving in rental income, but on the ‘rental value’ of the property, a presumed hypothetical value when everything is ‘normal’.

If you admit to the ‘market’ that your assets are worth, say, 11% less than you said last year (11% being the current vacancy rate on the average British high street) what do you suppose would happen?  Yes: your share price would crash, your investors would flee, your high-octane world among the crazies would come to a torrid end.

So – it is less costly for you to deliberately keep your row of shops on the high street empty, potentially for years, than it would be to allow independent traders and other local worthies and weirdoes to occupy those shops on lower rents. 

In short, a major reason for the current high vacancy rate and the major block on the transformation of Britain’s high streets into new areas of play, leisure and conviviality is the outcome of the perverse structure of the reporting mechanisms in the UK’s financial system and, yet again, the interests of those crazies.

They have to go.  Really.


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

What if we just slapped them in the face with a fish?


I was delighted to see the indefatigable campaigner Simon Birkett yesterday calling for a ban on diesel vehicles:

"All diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of London should be banned by 2020."

The evidence now made available to us shows that the most polluted of these parts is the stretch of the North Circular at Walthamstow.  This will be no surprise to any reader who has ever driven there.

But can we really ban diesel vehicles from the North Circular?

Well, I propose this:

All commercial vehicles operating within the M25 must be emission-free by 2023

This is simply taking the LEZ to its logical conclusion.  Here’s how to do it:

We build a series of large consolidation centres at key junctions around the orbital.  This is a concept that has been successfully implemented in the construction sector, and developed further for the Olympics.

Any and all commercial deliveries that originate from outside the M25 will have to use the consolidation centres to transfer and, if appropriate, partition their loads onto smaller, predominantly electric vehicles.  All intra-London movements would only be allowed if they are zero-emission.

The costs of building the consolidation centres will be considerable.  Each centre could easily be 20 acres; and with land prices and development costs a programme of, say, 10 centres ringing the city could cost – ooh, let’s use a round number, with no NPV nonsense - and call it a billion pounds.

There’ll be other costs too, of course.  All road hauliers will say that this measure would increase their costs (new vehicles, levies to use the consolidation centres, that sort of thing), and this would be passed on to consumers, so the prices of all transported goods – which is, after all, pretty much all of them – would go up.

And, of course, many businesses will predict that the increase in their cost base would exceed the willingness or ability of their customers to pay, and they would go bust.  So there’s a cost there, too.

But hang on.  The deadline for the change is ten years away.  Over that time frame virtually all users and operators of commercial vehicles will in any case buy a new vehicle.

Also, new market entrants will see the opportunity presented by the consolidation centres and develop new distribution offers (think of Zipcar, for example). (Heavens, we could even think of setting up a publicly-backed mutual to run services from the consolidation centres if we wanted.)  If you (as a retailer of goods) decide that you can no longer afford a van, then someone will figure out how to provide that service for you. (That’s the miracle of the supply side under capitalism.)

It’s also possible that these zero-emission vehicles will be more expensive that their traditional alternative.  Well, yes, maybe that’s true now; but would it still be true in 2021, or 2022 or 2023?  Demand for such vehicles has been limited so far (it’s a catch 22, of course; there’s insufficient demand because the prices are high; and insufficient investment in increasing supply, which would reduce the price, because there is insufficient demand).  Well what if you made these kinds of vehicles and knew that literally hundreds of thousands of them were going to be needed, soon, because London was going to ban diesel vehicles? You’d want a share of that action, wouldn’t you?  So supply would increase – and the price would come down.

So it’s possible – I’d hazard probable – that the net additional costs to the freight sector – and, by extension to the ‘consumer’ – will be zero, or so close to zero that it would disappear as background noise.

(I’m aware, of course, that there will be effects from all this on the rest of the world, especially Britain, beyond the M25; but, on balance, this article is already long enough and the full justification for why I think the displacement and second-order effects will net out positively will just have to wait for another time.)

And the consolidation centres?

Well, another thing we know is that “The health costs of air pollution in the UK have been estimated at up to £20 billion a year”.  (Reflect on that for a second.) So let’s say that London’s share of this is 20% (roughly in line with population, but a bit higher to reflect the fact that London has worse air pollution than anywhere else).  So that’s £4bn.

How much of this £4bn is attributable to emissions that come from commercial diesel vehicles?  Well, that’s a tricky one.  There is much weaselling in the world of measuring air quality, because of the weather and the winds and the hundred and one different things that could be in the air that affect human health, and scientists not wanting to make a claim that can’t be precisely verified and so on and so forth.

But most London Boroughs are clear that traffic is the single largest source of nasties in the air; so let’s say, for the sake of argument, that 20% of all air pollution in London, on average, is a result of commercial diesel vehicles; and that this would be gone by 2023.

There’s probably not a straightforward linear relationship between improvements in air quality and reductions in respiratory ill-health and concomitant declines in health spending; so let’s guess that a 20% decline in air pollution results in a 15% decline in health expenditure.

Well that’s half a billion pounds.  A year.

Which you could use to – oh, I don’t know – fund a network of consolidation centres around London? In just two years you’d save enough money to pay for it.  And, in fact, if you wanted to fund such things over a 25 year period (a la PFI) then you could assume much smaller reductions in health expenditure, and factor in borrowing costs and the costs of all the various hangers-on that inevitably accumulate around big projects and maybe some transitional relief to very small businesses - and it would still stack up.

So what, exactly, is the problem?

Well, there are two answers to that.

The first is that regulators and legislators are as fearful of the future as ordinary consumers and are frankly terrified of upsetting ‘business’ in any way that might endanger ‘growth’.

By way of illustration, back in 2007 or 2008 I had the opportunity to listen to John Selwyn Gummer talking about his then recently completed study “Blueprint for a Green Economy” (which, though well received and – in my view, at least – impressive, has not only been airbrushed completely from current government policy but is, interestingly, remarkably difficult to find in hyperspace…)

Anyway, someone in the seminar asked a question about planning and building standards, with the inference that it was all well and good to call for higher standards of ‘green-ness’ in buildings, and to propose delivering those standards through the planning system, but it was well known – said the questioner – that the standards included within planning applications were progressively eroded during the actual development process, and that most buildings were nowhere near as green as they were ‘supposed’ to be and that the main reason for this was the chronic and acute shortage of building control officers.  That is: no-one ever checked whether the commitments made by developers to secure planning permission were actually implemented, so developers acted, rationally, on that basis.

Sorting this is simple, Gummer responded (if I remember correctly).  It is simple if you understand how business works.  Having introduced new and stretching green targets through planning, he explained, he would (if in charge) simply demolish the first completed building that had failed to meet the promised standard.  No flim flam, no negotiation, just a straightforward and direct use of the powers that are available.

You would only need to do this once.  No business would want to countenance the risk of this happening to them; it would be far more sensible (commercially sensible) just to build the building as you’d promised.

This astonishing policy bravura is almost impossible to imagine in the current climate; but is breathtakingly right.

Same thing applies with banning commercial diesel engines from inside the M25.  Businesses (and, especially, their representative bodies) would moan and whinge bitterly between now and 2023, and would no doubt commission and publish innumerable studies showing that the end of the world was nigh; but the reality is that businesses – or, more precisely, the supply side – simply get on with whatever it is they do within whatever constraints are operating at the time.  Within weeks of the imposition of the ban, I predict, it would seem as if it should always have been like this.

Smoking in pubs and restaurants, anyone?

And the second part of the problem is the reassuring and bland alternatives that are made available, one of which landed in my Inbox just a few hours ago: “An affordable transition to sustainable and secure energy for light vehicles in the UK” from the Energy Technologies Institute.  I wish I could be more positive, because I think that, in general, the ETI is trying to do good stuff; but this report, apparently the result of four years’ work, has been funded by entities including Shell, E-On and EDF (turkeys voting for Christmas, natch) and fails – for example - even to define ‘affordable’.  It would be harmless, but for the fact that it makes the genuinely effective and radical solutions seem impossible.

But it’s not impossible.  Entrepreneurship, indeed capitalism, is the means by which the supply side figures out how to give us what we, the demand side, want.

And I want cleaner air, and fewer people dying, in London. Soon.  Now.

So let’s just do it; slap them in the face with that fish.


Friday, 14 June 2013

What if, 50 years from now...

Script from a lecture delivered May 2012 at UCL

(posted in the week that Mayor Johnson set out his 'vision' for 2020)

When imagining a London of 2062, it is easy to get excited about the possibility of personalised jet packs, hover cars and low-cost space travel.  My personal hopes are just as fantastical: I want to see microwave oven-sized waste disposal machines, which generate energy and heat as a by-product, in every home; and 3-D printers that use nano-materials to build the products I want at the touch of a button.

As these imaginings immediately illustrate, there are dangers in looking far ahead: we may simply be left looking absurd, either now or in the future, once it arrives.

Nevertheless, there are uses for long-range scenario-planning.  Firstly, it can help us to make normative judgments - do we prefer this possible future or that one? And, secondly, by navigating back from our preferred future, we can begin to think about the kinds of things that we might do now, or soon, that would steer us in the direction of our preferences.

The idea that we can choose our direction of travel is not merely an expression of belief in the power of democracy.  It is also an assertion about the nature of an economy.  An economy is not  a closed system that tends towards dynamic equilibrium, the parameters of which are deterministic: it is, rather, a complex, adaptive system, the rules of which are socially determined and contingent.  The economy is a human construct and, as such, we have the ability – and, indeed, the responsibility – to shape it to suit our needs.  Over a period as long as 50 years, we should certainly be able to make the kinds of choices that will steer our economy in one direction rather than another.

The ‘steering’ is not, however, some mechanical act, in which we pull various levers and pulleys to make the ‘machine’ go in the direction we want.  It is, rather, a more subtle and ultimately powerful process in which underlying behavioural norms are challenged and modified in a far more organic fashion.

I want to suggest that there is available to us, from among a broad array of possibilities, a much more sustainable London in 2062: and a much less sustainable one; and which one we end up with will be, in large part, a function of the way in which a variety of norms pan out and interact.  Here are three examples:

·         Masculine/feminine – London is presently a macho city, characterised by needlessly tall buildings, aggressive corporate behaviour, narcissistic decision-making and damagingly ruthless individualism.  Left unchecked, these behaviours will continue to generate extreme levels of social inequality, the unrestrained consumption of finite physical resources and an environment of profound psychological stress for the majority of London’s citizens.  A more femininised city – attending to notions of care, concern, inclusion, small-scale production and consumption – would, by contrast, inherently counter such trends.  A more sustainable London in 2062 would come about not through direct measures to – say – reduce CO2 emissions but, instead, indirectly and more powerfully through the development of a greater ethic of care.

·         Walled/open – a great deal of London’s economic life currently happens behind walls.  Corporate decision making is opaque: wealthy citizens immunise themselves from their ‘neighbours’ by living in gated communities; political processes are dominated by lobbyists and careerists conversing in inaccessible settings.  A London of 2062 in which these barriers persist would probably function as a city, but it could not possibly be described as sustainable.  A sustainable London would be one in which inclusion and participation was ordinary, in which openness and transparency were normal.  In this more open London, social injustices, environmental harms and wealth inequalities would be more apparent to all, increasing both the demand for change, and the political will to act.  Improved outcomes would emerge organically from the change in the underlying logic of social interaction and would not need to be ‘engineered’ through interventions from ‘the top’.

·         Material/de-material – the London of 2012 remains a citadel to consumer-led capitalism, even in the teeth of recession.  Londoners, and the tens of thousands of tourists that visit the city, go shopping as if the world is going to end (!) and spend stupendous amounts of money on largely pointless products.  It is conceivable that this could continue and that a London of 2062 will be wealthy enough to protect itself from the reality that will by then have come about, in which the effects of climate change will have become severe and in which a great many natural resources are either seriously depleted or have already vanished.  But better, surely, to begin the process of weaning ourselves off our addictions, and to de-materialise our economy and our lifestyles. Let’s learn rather than spend; let’s sing rather than shop; let’s stop with all the stuff.

At a time when unemployment in London – and, indeed, the rest of the UK and across Europe – is so high, and when governments and politicians are frantically seeking the economic growth that will save us from the present debt crisis, there is a risk of appearing somewhat disingenuous when offering suggestions for the short term that do not appear immediately to address the urgent problems faced by so many fellow citizens.

But it is at precisely such a time that the ‘new’ is required.  It would surely be a mistake of the worst kind to expend inordinate efforts to return to some mythologised ‘business as usual’, for the sake of short term credit, when it is so obvious – to everyone? – that it was ‘business as usual’ that got us into this mess in the first place.  In such a spirit, and in light of the three longer-term themes just discussed, I offer three propositions for immediate action that could, I believe, not only begin steering London in the direction of genuine sustainability but could also deliver some shorter term gains that would benefit us all.

Firstly, I would like to see the language of competition replaced by the language of collaboration.  Individuals and communities naturally collaborate with one another, but the discourse of business and politics has become monopolised by notions of endless competition.  We need to reclaim the discourse, and reshape the space within which we make our decisions.

Secondly, I’d like to see a dramatic increase in the extent to which social and economic assets are under the direct ownership and control of communities.  This would help to de-couple the ‘real’ economy from the financial economy; and would give individuals and communities a much more direct stake in the future.

Thirdly, I’d like to see us attend to the notion of ‘sustainable play’.  Human beings are inherently creative, sociable animals, but this better side of our nature has – like so many other aspects of our lives - been appropriated by market capitalism.  We need to claim it back and demonstrate – to ourselves, as much as anything – that we can interact, exchange and be fulfilled without reliance on a piece of branded equipment.  We don’t see many advertisements encouraging us to go for a walk, for example, for the simple reason that is exceptionally difficult for a corporation to make money out of us if we’re out and about doing nothing so complicated as having a stroll.  But going for a walk could, from such a perspective, be the most radical thing you do all day.  Go ahead: take that step.







Thursday, 30 May 2013

Another poem?

Yes.  This one's called:


Rough Guide to Eco-Research

We came and we shouted 'efficient resources!'
we hunted for papers and relevant sources
we charted the data and highlighted trends
we chatted with experts and most of our friends

We spoke with the public and asked for their views
we scoured the websites and followed the news
we monitored surveys and highlighted quotes
we summarised findings and stared at our notes


Then we sat down and had a really good think


We drew our conclusions and wrote a report
we filled it with insights and made it quite short
we kept it robust and we covered all sides
then we met with the client and showed them the slides


Govian perplex

I had that Michael Gove in the back of my church once.  Well, it wasn’t strictly my church; but it was definitely Gove.  It was late 2009, just a few months before the 2010 election.  I was helping my colleagues with our annual charity day, on this occasion making Christmas dinner for what turned out to be about 80 homeless people – mainly East European men, as it happened – and the venue for this hybrid feast of turkey and Polish cabbage was a church hall just off the Askew Road.

The charity we were helping was led by one of those burly charismatics, late 50s and genial, motivated by some unfathomable mix of deep faith and the vicissitudes of his particular life path, and I should probably have known who he was – and should definitely know now – but either way I heard a rumour as I was sweating away in the kitchen that some bloke called Michael Gove was dropping by.

The Tories at that point had been making noise about the Big Society and the importance of the third sector and all that jazz (the days of austerity were yet to come…) so I presumed that the previously mentioned burly genial chap was a well known 'social entrepreneur' and that Gove was dropping by for a photo op – you know, aspirational politician endorses entrepreneurial charity, looks good in the promotional literature, etcetera.

But when Gove arrived there were no cameras; and rather than stay for five minutes he stuck around for close to an hour and a half.

For a while I was impressed; he spent virtually the whole time with the genial fat bloke, clearly grilling him on how all this worked, and how it was funded, and what were the barriers to expansion and so forth.  He – Gove – wasn’t much interested in Brook Lyndhurst, or the people cooking and serving and clearing up, or even the poor people so obviously enjoying their Christmas Party.  No, he was clearly intent on learning as much as he could in preparation for the delivery of the Big Society, and this meant talking to a big man who ran a small-scale, community-based entrepreneurial charity.

But after a while I began to get just a tad pissed off; Gove was throughout this time surrounded by busy people working hard, in most cases doing tough but elementary things like pouring drinks and ferrying potatoes and suchlike – and not once did he lend a hand.  In fact – and this for me is where my pique began to reach a crescendo – he was increasingly in the way of all the hard work, and appeared to have no idea that this was the case.

Hmm.

So I was standing next to Ellie, looking through the serving hatch from the kitchen, and I shared with her a fragment of my perspective on this matter, and she said:

“What are you going to do?”

So I walked into the hall, found a big pile of dirty plates and handed them to the shadow minister:

“Can you put these over there please?” I asked.


And he did.


Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Cultural Amnesia



What if there’s a 30 year cycle of political will?


The visionary post-war settlement, forged during and in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, endured from the ’45 election until the mid-70s, when the costs of corporatism (exemplified most obviously by the excessive power of the trade unions) collided with an economic crisis (most obviously the oil crises of the early 70s) to comprehensively tip the balance.


With the settlement dismantled, there followed a few years of chaos – IMF bail out; winter of discontent – before the new visionary arrives in the form of Thatcher.


The Thatcherite model endures from the 82/83 phase, until – well, until about now – when the costs of individualism (bankers bonuses, corporations avoiding tax) collide with an economic crisis (which hardly needs spelling out) to once again tip the balance.


We are in the ‘few years of chaos’.  All we need now is the new visionary.


And don’t worry: it’s not Farage.


Sometimes, a poem


Talking the walk

The lightbulb has to want to change itself
and we, who shine much brighter, know the same;
the elegant simplicity of form
belies the darker function of the name

Enlightenment’s an easy place to start:
communication surely is the way!
But words are not enough: if truth be told
our habits and our myths hold greater sway

To change requires a power from within
and empathetic passion from the sky:-
not all will have the strength to make the grade;
not all will even feel the need to try.

From those of us committed to the path
forgiveness and compassion are required
that we should not condemn the weak, or blind
that we should not berate the merely tired

Instead, let gratitude pervade our work
for all that have the willingness to walk
the narrow roads to perilous relief
who know the cure is more than simply talk

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Are you sitting comfortably?


Whenever an actual sum of money appears in the news - someone’s salary; the price of a pint of milk; how much someone won on the lottery; how much someone spent on a boat – its wake has a very particular shape.  It’s distinctive because it is only when the theory and argument is converted into our common currency that we can get its measure.

How are you feeling, presently, about the sum of money known as £53?

It all depends on your perspective, of course.  But I suspect many of us are feeling just a tad uneasy.  £53?  That’s, er, well…

·         It’s the price of a designer t-shirt

·         It is the price of an obscure economics textbook

·         It’s how much you’d pay to watch a premier league football match

·         or to play the latest Tomb Raider

·         You could blow it on a single bottle of single malt

·         or on running away from London (you’d get as far as Nottingham)

And it is also, we are now painfully aware, the amount of money Iain Duncan Smith thinks he could live on if he had to.

Most readers of this blog will, I suspect, have spent £53 or thereabouts on something relatively trivial at some point in the not-too-distant past.  Maybe it made you fleetingly uncomfortable at the time; or maybe you have already reached the point where the sum needs to be considerably larger before it effects some hesitation in your system.  (It’s not just prices that are sticky downwards; so, too, are lifestyles.)  Either way, I know that I don’t want to stare too hard at the £53.  I may once have survived for a week on a sum of that kind; but I only did so in the belief and expectation that it was a situation from which I would at some point escape.

What if there was no prospect of that? Is that ‘fair’?

In Rawls’ formulation of justice, we need all to stare at this number, and our decision about whether or not it is ‘fair’ should be based (roughly) on the probability of us finding ourselves living the life in which we depend on it.  If that’s a bit too abstract, my favourite is the remark by Allen Carr, who suggested that there is not a single parent in the world that hopes that their child will grow up to become a smoker.  Similarly here: if £53 a week is something you hope your child will avoid, then it’s a pretty good indicator that it’s not fair.

What to do, eh? I think I think that there’s scope for action on both the income side and the expenditure side.  On the former, I’d like to consider some sort of ratio between highest and lowest incomes, operating firstly as a social target and, over time, as a requirement; and, on the latter, I’d like to explore some sort of variable purchase tax, with basic items (designated annually by the JRF?) subject to negative VAT and absurdly luxurious items subject to a very high rate of tax.

Loads of practical difficulties, no doubt, but that’s my starter for 10.  Or, ahem, 53.


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The language game of sustainability


(Found this the other day, originally drafted in 2009)

 
 
 

 
 
 
“It is in the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true.”
Gore Vidal

Introduction

Anyone working in the field of sustainability will have had the experience of being asked to explain what it is they do. Very often, the individual asking the question will ask a subsidiary question, along the lines of ‘So what do you mean by sustainability, then?’

Even among those who would describe themselves as involved in sustainability – whether as researchers, practitioners, policy makers or otherwise - it is a not uncommon experience to spend some time with any given interlocutor debating what you mean by sustainability compared to what I mean.

Many of us, weary of such debates, have learnt the art of agreeing, at the very beginning of any given seminar or workshop, to park such questions and get on with the matter in hand.

Were such a state of affairs to exist in some other domain, it would surely be a source of something between bemusement and alarm.  How would we feel, for example, if our doctors or physicists or accountants were not clear on what it is they do, or were unable regularly and coherently to explain it?

That such a state of affairs appears to be the case – and my assertion that it is the case is based upon more than ten years’ research and consultancy experience during which time I have, quite literally, had more meetings than hot dinners – poses two basic questions:

  • is there something inherent to ‘sustainability’ that makes such a situation inevitable?
  • does it matter?

In addressing the second question, some sort of normative proposition is required: it only matters if there is some sort of objective which is or is not being achieved.  In the case of sustainability, a conceivable objective would be that ‘sustainability’ should be widely understood – but this would be almost entirely tautological.  A rather more useful, but inherently political objective would be something like: any and all decisions taken with sustainability in mind would be more likely to culminate in sustainable outcomes – such as reduced environmental harm and reduced social inequality – so we would like sustainability to be incorporated into decision-making processes.

If this were indeed an objective – and it is indeed close to the objective of, say, the UK government’s sustainable development strategy – then it seems likely that confusion or dispute over the very meaning and ambit of the term ‘sustainability’ would be something of a problem.

That is, yes, it would matter.

Conversely, if the objective were couched in terms of outcomes – that is, the focus was upon (in this instance) reduced environmental harm and reduced social inequality – then the significance of any confusion around ‘sustainability’ would be more contingent.  That is to say, the problem posed by ‘sustainability’ would only exist if use of the term actually blocked progress; and would not exist at all if, should it be deemed necessary in any particular setting, the term were not used because perfectly acceptable alternatives were available.

That is, no, it wouldn’t matter.

Turning to the first question (“Is there something inherent to ‘sustainability’ that makes such a situation inevitable?”) it may be – for example – that ‘sustainability’ is so multi-faceted, so complex, that any attempt to reduce it to a single term inevitably condenses meaning to the point where the meaning is obscured or lost.  Conversely, it may simply be that ‘sustainability’ is a relatively new word that has not yet had time to permeate in a manner that would make it a simple part of the currency of normal language.

Resisting the first possibility are the examples of other disciplines – medicine, physics, maths, say – which could lay fair claim to being multi-faceted and complex, yet seem to have rather less difficulty maintaining their meaning in either day-to-day or political discourse.  Resisting the second possibility is the fact that ‘sustainability’ as a term referring to some matrix of environmental, social and economic issues is at least twenty years old and is virtually ubiquitous in international, national, regional and local policy and strategy documents.

A synthetic and pragmatic possibility may then arise; namely, that there is something about language itself, and its function as a medium of social exchange, that could help to explain both why a term such as ‘sustainability’ appears rigidly elusive and whether or not that makes any difference.

Language as a Medium of Exchange

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has suggested that the ‘self’ can be understood as a ‘centre of narrative gravity’.  He proposes that the philosophical problems of identifying who and what an individual actually is can be resolved at the level of language: a self is the person with a set of stories or narratives about themselves that refer to the same person.  These narratives will be many and various, and potentially conflicting.  They will change over time, and new narratives will both be a function of existing narratives and will cause revision to those existing narratives.

The complexity of the situation can be resolved through analogy to the physical notion of centre of gravity.  In actuality, each and every part of a body has its own mass and, by extension, its own gravitational attraction.  In practice, these innumerable forces resolve into a single concept – the centre of gravity – which is the theoretical point at which all the components and forces of a body ‘resolve’.

A centre of narrative gravity is thus the aggregate but not average outcome of all the stories we tell to ourselves about ourselves.

New narratives – new notions of who and what we are – will be mediated by our existing story set.  A story that is utterly inconsistent with our existing stories will stand little or no chance of being adopted; a story that fits more easily and comfortably with the existing centre of gravity will, ceteris paribus, stand a higher chance of being taken on board and integrated.

From the opposite end of the spectrum, Nobel-prize winning author Elias Canetti conjectured that a society could be understood as a group of individuals that had a set of shared myths.  That is to say, the means by which people belong to a particular culture or clique or tribe or nation is through the medium of having a set of shared stories, or narratives.  Language – both oral and written – is the medium through which such stories are transmitted.

Eliding these two perspectives presents the notion that societies are built upon from individuals that have common stories; and individuals have stories within them that are societal.  An individual’s centre of narrative gravity includes stories that are the means by which they belong to their society; a society’s myths include the centres of innumerable individuals’ gravities.

Consumerism as Narrative

In this kind of conceptualisation, we could imagine modern western culture as comprising a sustained, broad, inclusive story centred on consumption.  This is a story than enables each of us to belong to our culture (it is a shared story, a shared language); and is a deeply held, personal story, incorporated into our centre of narrative gravity, our sense of self.

Using the on-line tool Wordle, the main headings of this story can be represented thus:


 
 
 
 
 
In the face of such a story – embedded as it is within each of us, positioned as it is as the means by which so many of us belong to our culture – ‘sustainability’ is a narrative too far.  It is a concept that may work intellectually, but does not align with the prevailing narrative thrust that characterises our being.  We can reject the earlier assertions: sustainability is neither too complex nor too young; it is, rather, the wrong kind of story.

Sustainability as Narrative

More precisely, sustainability is the right kind of story, but the totality of the story immanent to it conflicts at a deep level with the prevailing narratives.

Using Wordle again, the sustainability narrative could be:




The simple introduction of ‘sustainability’ cannot possible carry with it the totality of the story implied by such a picture.  An altogether larger process of change is required.

What is also revealed is the possibility that the single term ‘sustainability’ has no particular value as the means by which a new narrative could be constructed.  It matters not, in the story as a whole, precisely which terms – health, well-being, enoughness - are those that carry most currency in which exchanges within society. 

Conclusion

What matters – surely – are the outcomes that are implied by sustainability.  The objectives of reducing environmental harm, reducing inequalities, reducing ill health, stress and injustice, these are things that should be our concern, not ‘sustainability’ in some broader and vaguer sense.

Sustainability may well work as a technical term, as a means of obliging researchers and policy makers and academics to attend to a broad range of issues in a more joined up fashion than they might otherwise do; but its function as an agent of change in ‘hearts and minds’ is profoundly compromised by the functioning of narratives in a language game.

The prevailing narrative of consumerism has a broad set of interlocking concepts that powerfully resist the message currently embedded within the term ‘sustainability’.  If the outcomes associated with sustainability are to be achieved, an altogether more extensive and persuasive set of narratives, capable of providing a new means of social belonging, are required.