A review of How to Thrive in the Next Economy

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I had the chance to read an advance copy of ‘How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today’ by John Thackara over the last few days. The book releases in the UK this week, and the US in December.

I’ve been a reader of John Thackara’s Doors of Perception blog for many years, so I was keen to see what his latest book would be like. For anyone interested in the design, environment, energy and sustainability issues of today, and I’d argue all students studying these subjects in schools and universities, this should be a must-read.

It starts off slowly – and for anyone with a capitalist bent of mind it does feel like a very socialist read – but it has valuable facts and stories peppered throughout, which make a strong and important point by the end. ‘How to Thrive in the Next Economy’ is significant because it gives us proof that there are in fact people across the world making real progress towards building a better world in a sustainable way – a goal that in my opinion is the same as that of the best capitalism (think of Unilever’s Sustainability Project or Marks & Spencer’s Plan A for example). By the end of the book, you realise why the book matters: the narrative around complex systems and the interconnectivity of global systems that we are familiar doesn’t often mention local economies (‘edge’ habitats bordering two cultivable patches of land can provide forage plants in between seasons, for example, while simultaneously ensuring the renewal of soil), where human intervention through communities can make the biggest impact. Noah Raford’s work on phase transition and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan effect also come to mind, the former is even referenced: sometimes we are paying so much attention to large-scale processes that the smaller ones get to a critical state and before we know it, we are facing a ‘massive fluctuation and collapse’.

This topic comes up again later in the book, where the author references the writer Robert Neuwirth and the challenge posed by informal systems in developing economies:

‘….diverse, fragmented economies are more resilient than hyper-connected global ones. Economic power in the developing world rests on millions of small-scale businesses, family farms, local traditions and extended social and regional networks that resilience experts are advocating as novelties here in the North. They may or may not be part of the legally recognised economic structure, says Neuwirth, but ‘what happens among all the unregistered street markets and roadside kiosks of the world is not simply haphazard. It’s a product of intelligence, resilience, self-organisation, and group solidarity. It follows a number of well-worn though unwritten rules. It is, in that sense, a system.’

Thackara divides the book into natural themes: the impact of modern-day consumption on land, water, shelter, food, clothing, transport and health. These are bookended by lessons on behaviour change, the power of the commons (as opposed to the tragedy of it) and the need for conscious action. There are some fascinating examples of how people are making a difference within each of these: Zimbabwe’s Operation Hope which is looking to reverse desertification through holistic management, Andhra Pradesh’s Participatory Groundwater Management which pools local information on groundwater levels for common good, the Balinese ‘subak’ system of irrigation developed in the 9th century – still in use today and accredited by UNESCO, and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in the UK in the travel sphere.

It doesn’t all have to be about rural landscapes either. I learnt about Mumbai’s urban research group Crit, who have developed tools to measure what they call the ‘transactional capacity’ of a city and the UK’s Asset Transfer Unit who help communities legitimately take over under-used land or buildings (something I actually feel strongly about: this needs to be way more well-known than I suspect it is). It was also heartening to read that governments like Sri Lanka who benefit hugely from apparel trade with developed countries whilst being threatened on the pricing front by other countries in the region have ‘resolved to compete on the basis that its companies are ethical and sustainable, not just cheap’. Ergo: Garments Without Guilt, which is a harbinger of the activity I’m seeing on this front in the UK with startups like Provenance and Vital Footprint.

There’s lots of trivia as well: Eroom’s Law, for example (Moore’s Law spelt backwards, if you didn’t notice!). And there are many solutions provided, not least of which are the examples discussed.

The notion of land ‘stewardship’ was the most important lesson I took away (as opposed to ‘land use’ – language, as with anything to do with media, matters; Thackara refers to the UK government’s use of words like ‘war’, ‘fight’ and ‘victims’ with regard to dementia sufferers for example, which deepens the stigma and solves nothing). As a society, adopting the philosophy of ‘taking care’ of our resources for our next generations by acting like stewards, instead of depleting it altogether as if we own it all, will make a big difference. If more of us start thinking this way, we can also change the way growth and progress are measured. It is assumed that the bigger we grow, the better it is for humanity – why don’t we speak of success in terms of healthier and more resilient communities instead, as the book asks? I also had a thought about bioregions, which Thackara suggests as a way to reconnect communities with their resources: Special Economic Zones are set up in their numbers by governments in the developing countries as a solution to their economic woes, while hardly anyone considers setting up bioregions in this manner. Money talks, so if there is a way to prove its economic impact, perhaps this will one day become a viable solution (it’s easy to say that we should rise above that, but at a political level it is never that simple).

A return to physically engaging with our environment, a call for leaders to experience for themselves the impact of their high-level policy decisions, and for local culture and knowledge of living systems to take precedence over big data instead of the other way around: this is what the book advocates. Starting out, it did seem all too ambitious for us to achieve in this lifetime. Some of it may well be. But certainly not all of it – that much has been proven – and that’s where we start.

[If you’d like to read extracts of the chapters, they’re here.]

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