Mark



How to Thrive in the Next Economy
by John Thackara


CHAPTER 1 Changing: From Do Less Harm, to Leave Things Better

A green thread runs through this story: a growing recognition that our lives are codependent with the plants, animals, air, water, and soils that surround us.

Sustainability is not something it be engineered or demand from politicians; it’s a condition that emerges through incremental as well as abrupt change at many different scales.

American citizens today use more energy and physical resources in a month than our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime.

The exponential growth of anything tangible, or energy consuming, cannot continue indefinitely in a finite universe.

Surely, you may counter, economic growth could be decoupled from energy growth and be free to expand to infinity that way? Well, no. Multiplying money always expands an economy’s physical impacts on the Earth. “Energy is the capacity to do work; it’s the lifeblood of activity,” explains physics professor Tom Murphy. “Think it through: to keep GDP growing indefinitely on a fixed energy diet would mean that anything requiring energy becomes an ever-smaller part of GDP, until it carries negligible value. But food, heat, and clothing will never be negligible needs. There is plenty of scope for economic activities that use less energy - but that is not the same as reducing energy intensity to zero.” Indefinite GDP growth is Not Going To Happen.

Reduced affluence is an impossible sell.

It takes astronomical amounts of fossil-fuel energy and money to deploy “green” energy systems. There would be far fewer wind turbines, for example, if they had to be manufactured, installed, and maintained using wind energy. A lack of cash flow for investment in infrastructure will eventually bring the system down.

Many smart people believe that growth will go on forever because that is all they have known in their lives. They believe in the inevitability of progress because, in their lives at least, things have always progressed. They believe that bold actions should be taken without regard for consequences because there haven’t been any negative consequences - or rather, non that they have experienced personally.

When a system must grow in order to survive, but the work it enable is destructive, the consequences are catastrophic.

It doesn’t matter how many brands proclaim that their products are verified, accredited, or certified as being sustainable; so long as growth remains a company’s prime directive, any promise to leave the world as “unspoilt as possible” will remain an empty one.

The commodification of nature has spawned a related but no less baleful phenomenon called “biodiversity offsetting.” This is the idea that the destruction of an ecosystem by mining, Greenfield development, or a large infrastructure project can be “offset” by the creation of a new patch of nature somewhere else.

Could a paradigm shift in our understanding of “progress” and “the economy” be imminent?

Post-materialist thinking.

If, in the age of networks, even the smallest actions can contribute to transformation of the system as a whole, then our passionate but puny efforts so far may not have been in vain. It’s like the picture in a jigsaw puzzle that slowly emerges as we add each piece.



CHAPTER 2 Grounding: From Heal the Soil, to Think Like a Forest

Industrial agriculture is an extractive industry.

The drive to scale up food production was a powerful incentive to bypass complexity, but a management approach that works well in car factories or software has turned out it be self-defeating when applied to the land.

If maintaining the fertility of soil is a core principle of ecological agriculture, so, too, is a commitment to think in longer timeframes than markets - or even than individual human lifespans.

Dead wood is the life of the forest.

It’s possible to make a living in ways that respect, and not harm, other life forms that are also trying to make a living there.

Social-ecological systems, in which often diverse communities are finding ways to share rights, responsibilities, and power in ways that put they nterest of the land and its soils first.

What researchers describe opaquely as “adaptive ecosystem-based management” is at heart a social and culture process, not a technical one. A sense of belonging and shared responsibility for the land.

The time is ripe for a new model of stewardship that “draws from the past and seizes our day to leave a sustainable legacy for the future…we need to retrain our present-day kings from headlong exploitation, depletion, and destruction of our social and biological capital.” “The world is calling out for more responsible long-term thinking.”

“In an age when speed, profit-taking, and consumption are undermining the sustainability of the world as we know it, we would be wise to adopt more of the mindfulness, long-term ethical investment and care for the wider community that are the hallmarks of stewardship.”

Growth is measure in terms of land, soil, and water getting healthier, and communities more resilient.

Thinking and acting at the scale of a bioregion has a spiritual as well as practical dimension. We are born with an inherited aesthetic tendency to appreciate an intimate connection with the world.

Systems thinking, I concluded, becomes truly transformational when combined with systems feeling - which is something we all crave. “We yearn for connection with one another, and with the soul,” writes Alastair McIntosh, “but we forget that like the earthworm, we too are an organism of the soil. We too need grounding.”



CHAPTER 3 Waterkeeping: From Harvest the Rain, to River Recovery

An emerging future in which the ways we use and think about water are once again shaped by knowledge of place and watershed.

It takes 700 gallons of water to grow the cotton used in my T-shirt, 2.5 gallons to manufacture one sheet of office paper, 37 gallons to grow enough beans for a cup of coffee, 384 gallons for a pizza Margherita, 1 gallon to produce one single almond in California.

Capitalism is not uniquely to blame for this madness. Preindustrial societies were no more inclined that we are to leave water in its natural state.

Physical work and grassroots social organizations are the most important ingredients.

A latent passion to reconnect with rivers and watersheds can unleash tremendous social, cultural, and design energy.

Because the rice terraces are hydrologically connected to each other, the farmers have had to solve a complex coordination problem: who gets to use how much water, when, and how?

Nature is not a machine. It is a complex living systems, including social ones, whose cycles operate at different speeds that are determined by a multitude of different contexts. Natural time does not progress in straight lines; it moves in cycles that are shaped by the unique qualities of different locations.

The lesson of the Balinese story is not that indigenous knowledge is a superior alternative to scientific knowledge; we need both - but not in a hierarchy with science on top.

Work with nature and not against it. We must subjugate machine time to organic, ecological, and even geological tempos. The natural systems that sustain us move at a slower rhythm than today’s economy does.