Four home truths about the struggle to build a sustainable economy musings of a young londoner gas meter car


One of the blurbs on the back cover of A Finer Future describes it as an ‘entry ticket to the movement for sustainable well-being and a better world.’ And that it is. The book may be short on original ideas, but it is an impressive synthesis of much of the best recent thinking on everything from regenerative agriculture to regenerative economics.

That we are headed towards a cliff edge has been the conventional wisdom of the sustainability movement for at least fifty years. The original Limits to Growth study of 1972 used then state-of-the-art system modelling techniques to show that, assuming the global economy continued to grow indefinitely without decoupling in absolute terms from resource consumption and ecological impact, civilisation as we know it would essentially collapse before the end of the 21st century.

The authors of A Finer Future, like many others, warn that we are right on track to hit the buffers in the next few decades. electricity grid australia They cite a 2015 NASA-funded study into the history of civilisational collapse — the ‘Human And Nature Dynamical’ (HANDY) study — which found that, under conditions ‘closely reflecting the reality of the world today… collapse is difficult to avoid.’

One of the themes that lurks hidden beneath the surface in this book is ownership. gas tax in texas It rears its head occasionally, as, for example, in the story of Interface, the carpet tile manufacturer founded by the late Ray Anderson, a pioneering industrialist who became, in the 1990s, an early champion of the need to do business in a way that does not undermine the natural systems on which we rely.

These are not isolated examples. Consider another (not from the book): Danish energy company Ørsted transformed itself from a fossil fuel giant to a leading provider of renewable power in less than a decade. This was only possible because its majority shareholder through the transformation period was the Danish Government, which meant it had an owner willing to be patient through a prolonged period of depressed earnings. Without that buffer, the markets would likely have forced Ørsted to stick with its existing business model, screwing the planet but returning more cash to shareholders in the short term.

And is it entirely coincidental that Novo Nordisk and IKEA, two of Europe’s most consistent corporate sustainability leaders, are both foundation-owned? I don’t think so. electricity dance moms full episode Ownership, in the words of Marjorie Kelly, author of Owning our Future, is ‘the underlying architecture of our economy. It’s the foundation of our world. How ownership is framed is more basic to our daily lives than the shape of democracy.’

The more I reflect on the question of why most companies today are failing to serve people and planet, the more I am drawn back to this issue of ownership. electricity names superheroes It simply isn’t feasible for a publicly listed company, however well-intentioned, to place the same importance on its social and environmental bottom lines as it does on its financial bottom line.

Ownership is just one of the foundational structures of our economy that needs to be redesigned. So too does taxation: the authors of A Finer Future call for a shift away from taxing labour and income towards taxing instead ‘those activities, like excessive energy and resource use, that are undesirable.’ And welfare: they advocate implementing some form of Universal Basic Income. They want to transform the goals of economic policy: from maximising GDP and labour productivity, to maximising societal wellbeing and resource productivity.

In part, this failure is a symptom of neoliberalism’s success: ‘the neoliberal narrative has been extraordinarily successful in convincing us that our governments are inefficient, ineffective, and unnecessary.’ Too many smart, committed, progressive people have turned their back on politics and public service because all they see is dysfunction. gas engine efficiency In doing so, they — we — have ceded an easy victory to the ideological zealots of the “free” market right.

The crux of this particular telling of the story is a little-remembered 1971 memorandum by an American corporate lawyer (later a Supreme Court justice) called Lewis Powell. Powell was commissioned by the US Chamber of Commerce to develop a strategy for re-legitimising big business in the wake of the radical, anti-corporate turn that US politics and culture took in the late 1960s. The resulting memo advocated building up the business community’s political power and using it ‘aggressively and with determination’ to promote a “free enterprise” agenda.

At the time, neoliberal ideas had been around for at least a quarter of a century — the Mont Pelerin Society, of which Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman were the leading lights, had first met in 1947 — but had had little impact on mainstream politics. Within a decade of Powell’s memo being published, Reagan and Thatcher were in power and neoliberalism’s takeover was practically complete.

How did this happen? ‘A variety of foundations and donors assembled staggering amounts of money to implement the strategy that Powell had laid out.’ In Washington DC, think tanks were set up to prepare the neoliberal policy agenda. electricity dance moms episode In California, the Pacific Legal Foundation set about embedding the concept of tax cutting and protection of property rights into California law. It also groomed a young actor called Ronald Reagan for public office. Across America, marketers were hired to help sell the neoliberal message to ordinary citizens. Political institutions at all levels — from local school boards to national broadcasters — were targeted.

Taking the Powell Memorandum as their inspiration, a group called the Wellbeing Economy Alliance has drafted the Meadows Memorandum (named after Donella Meadows, the late systems thinker and lead author of Limits to Growth). electricity bill cost per unit The trouble is it’s more of a wish-list than a strategy. The Meadows Memorandum is symptomatic of a wider failing of the modern sustainability movement: we are utopian about the ends to which we aspire, but too often squeamish and vague about the means of getting there.