John Thackara: What does the future hold for humanity?

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Posted May 30 2021 by John Thackara of Tongji University
John Thackara on the future for humanity

This is part 1 of a conversation with John Thackara – senior fellow of the Royal College of Art, visiting professor at Tongji University, Shanghai, founder and director of the Doors of Perception sustainable design conferences, and author of many books, including How to Thrive in the Next Economy.

Hello John

Good Morning

I’m doing a series of interviews with people for an upcoming book on building a new economy around a mutual credit core. I want to talk to you about why we need to change at all. What’s the big problem?

There are lots of big problems. I suspect readers know most of them. I ‘m a sustainability person. My question is ‘why do we willingly trash a planet that is our only home?’ All the crises from Covid to unemployment and war – what drives it all?

What do you mean by ‘trashing the planet’ and what are good sources on what’s happening?

I’m a mid-career environmentalist. I met a man called Leo Jansen in 1993 – an eminent scientist and a member of the Club of Rome. He told me ‘you do know we’re living 5-10 times beyond our means?’ I asked what he meant. He said that the planet can support a throughput of energy and materials of so much, and we’re using 5-10 times as much as that, which will end badly, unless we radically reduce our impact on the planet. Then I realised that science was convinced that something has gone wrong, and what are the consequences of that?

So when you say throughput, what is it and what damage does it do?

Fair question. I didn’t know – it’s a numbers game. They wrote a book called Factor Four – the Club of Rome’s official statement on how much more energy and materials the world was using that is sustainable, particularly when we have an economy that has to grow all the time. The damage came out in lots of different ways. But people look out of the window and they don’t see the damage. The doom / bad news is very abstract, and the thing that came home to me is that in terms of my personal relationship with place and people, we’re not suffering in the rich countries – but there’s something bad going on. Eventually I stopped being obsessed by scientists and learned to talk to artists, historians and philosophers, who said the big problem is that we’re disconnected from nature, and don’t think about it. We’re disconnected from the damage. So this is the gap between what the experts are saying and what we see day to day. This is what some call a metabolic rift – in our behaviour and cognition. There’s a gap between the condition of nature and our day to day lives. We don’t experience it.

And although climate change is in the mainstream now, I still find that a lot of people don’t take it seriously – they think it will be warmer, and maybe a bad idea to live close to the sea – but what else is wrong?

I agree. I don’t think climate change exercises people, including me. People don’t experience it day to day. They can’t see it. I don’t blame people who are not turned on by the climate change argument. It’s also a constant flow of terrible news, so even if you believe it, it’s so global and all-encompassing, it makes people feel powerless.

I tend to focus on biodiversity loss – but again it’s always bad news. The report that really got me was a German study on the loss of insects. In some places in Europe, we’ve lost around 80% of flying insects. I remember driving on a summer’s evening in the 20th century – you had to stop every half an hour to wipe the dead bugs off the windscreen. That doesn’t happen any more. People might think ‘so what – fewer creepy-crawlies is a good thing. But it’s the base of the food chain, that everything else depends on. And they’re the pollinators and soil manufacturers. If we can’t live with insects, we’re in serious trouble.

I agree. I remember when my dad drove me down the Doncaster by-pass when I was a kid. He complained about too many insects messing up the windscreen. Nowadays we don’t have that problem. Birdsong, certain flowers, little things like that are diminishing. People notice those things, but think they’re too small to be significant. Climate is too big, and the things we care about seem too small to complain about. So people keep quiet.

So how do we explain ecological problems to a wide audience – in a way that they’ll listen to?

So I spent 20 years wagging my finger, like many campaigners, about the terrible way we run the world. I realised that people switched off. I don’t blame them, because I switch off if someone wags their finger at me. So I now focus on the positive – where someone has restored a hedgerow, or planted some pollen-rich plants in their garden or windowsill. People growing food etc. Small, local, social activities that one can share. Once you start to look for it, it’s amazing how much of it is going on. But it’s mostly below the radar, so it doesn’t register with the media, which focuses on the big and the bad.

Lowimpact.org is all about helping people change the way they live, but I know that it’s not enough – not when we live in a system that encourages people to consume more and more, and to consume from the corporate sector, which sucks wealth out of our communities and concentrates it. And that’s exactly what most people do – the lifestyle message doesn’t reach most people. So your book was called how to thrive in the next economy, which is more than lifestyle change. So what is this next economy, and how do we get there?

Well, the title sounds a bit sleazy – a bit like a snake oil salesman from a business school. But my publisher insisted on that title. I wanted to call it How to be a Slime Mould, because I think the new economy is about millions of small actions, which, when you add them all together, they begin to become the next economy.

I thought for a second then you wanted your book to be called How to be a Slime Mould, but that can’t possibly be right, can it?

It’s absolutely true. I heard a lecture once by a woman who was mesmerised by the ability of slime mould to get food and occupy its niche in the world. Slime moulds are one example of nature being very cool. But my publisher said it was too hippy, and they wanted to call it something with a broader appeal. I came across a physicist called Ilya Prigogine, who said that big systems change because of the accumulation of lots of small changes. Small changes have meaning and significance.

Change needs to be systemic though, doesn’t it? I hear what you’re saying – lots of small changes can result in big changes, but I live in London, where the vast majority are pretty unreachable. It’s about consuming a lot and earning a lot of money.

I lived a lot of my life in London. My daughter lives in London, I have a lot of friends there. If I told them to consume less they’d think I was a fool. But would they like to have better food on a daily basis, they’d say yes, where can I get it from. Or would you like your child to spend a day a week in a forest – yes, that would be great. If you look at all the features of a healthy life, people are in favour. I can’t speak for Londoners, but there are an awful lot of fantastic things happening in London that have a bit of what a healthy life could be like. London National Park City – London is filled with little green spots and back lanes, and abandoned buildings filled with weeds and life. The National Park City is a map of people’s favourite nooks and crannies on a website. You can go and find little growing areas, or parks that have been neglected, or bit of disused railway track that has a lot of biodiversity on it. There’s so much of that around. I think it’s established that there is more microbial biodiversity in cities than in wild nature. Cities are messy places filled with nutrition called waste, trash and sewage etc. There’s a lot of diversity there that’s for the most part invisible. Among public health people, there’s a big debate about what’s a healthy city – after Covid, obviously – and there are those who think that if a city concretes over waste land and gets rid of all the messy bits, it will become healthier, but actually, the microbiologists and epidemiologists say that that would make things worse. Actually, cities could be much healthier if we gave everyone the capability of cultivating a square yard somewhere.

So your attitude is focus on the positive. I guess the problem is that biodiversity loss isn’t slowing down is it? I’m afraid that most people won’t hear that message and won’t change enough.

I agree that people don’t hear messages, so my mission in life is not to be a message emitter, but to create conditions and events and moments in which people can experience things for themselves. So for example I’ve done work with people in Italy, in farming communities and small villages that have been abandoned. We don’t tell people to move to the countryside – we just find examples of people with small farms or restaurants or ceramics businesses or olive mills, and demonstrate that there’s a lot of pleasure and success and joy in running small rural enterprises. You don’t even have to leave the city – you can be a part-time member of that movement. In Italy it’s amazing how many people have a friend with an olive grove, or a rural enterprise of some sort. There are a lot of people who go to the country to do work, rather than just go on holiday. I think we can do a lot like that. Homemade food, for example – where you know the person who grew it or baked it – you have some sort of relationship with the people involved with your food. It’s a much more fulfilling and nice way to live. It’s not just for rich people or passionate environmentalists. It’s pretty widespread now. In London there are people from all over the world, who feel passionately about food, and are happy to share recipes, attend food events etc.

I read your article on Ikea. I really liked it. Ikea is a company that wants to be very very sustainable, but also wants to keep growing forever, needs to be told that it’s not possible. Can individual lifestyle change make any real difference in an economy that has to grow forever?

I think personal changes are valuable if they make you feel less pressured and stressed, but they won’t change the system – you’re right about that. But I think the system has smoke coming out of the hood and is heading for the ground anyway. The world is in such a dire state, economically as well as with Covid etc. that we don’t have to attack it, just think about how to build the elements of the next system. Historians tell us that systems don’t change overnight. There are long periods of disorder, out of which comes something else. I think that’s where we are at the moment. So I try not to get upset at corporations or politicians. It’s much more fulfilling to talk to someone with a farm, or a bakery etc. and talk to them about what they need to be able to do things differently. Sometimes I might be able to introduce them to someone who could help them.

Yes – most people I interview believe we’re headed for a crash – whether because of environmental degradation, economic collapse, nuclear war etc.

There’s a World Economic Forum risk report from 2016. It shows a lot of global problems, from financial panics, war, mass migration, pandemics. The things they were worried about then are happening now. I think we’re in the middle of a crash – it’s not some future event.

I guess our task is to help get things in place that can catch people if everything does fall over.

That’s why your work is inspiring to me. You demonstrate lots of people who are involved in mutual credit, or mutual support in lots of ways – for the most part small-scale. The tools and the platforms you’re talking about – I think we have to be ready to learn. I’d be surprised that when your book comes out, if it doesn’t have a big readership, because people will think that now is the time that we have to learn about this stuff. Before, it was people like me, with strange ideas, or people with strange ideas about money – but those ideas no longer seem strange when the situation becomes dire. But now people are ready to learn and to take these ideas forward.

Highlights

  1. We’re disconnected from nature, and don’t think about it. We’re disconnected from the damage. So this is the gap between what the experts are saying and what we see day to day. This is what some call a metabolic rift – in our behaviour and cognition. There’s a gap between the condition of nature and our day to day lives. We don’t experience it.
  2. I’ve done work with people in Italy, in farming communities and small villages that have been abandoned. We don’t tell people to move to the countryside – we just find examples of people with small farms or restaurants or ceramics businesses or olive mills, and demonstrate that there’s a lot of pleasure and success and joy in running small rural enterprises.
  3. Historians tell us that systems don’t change overnight. There are long periods of disorder, out of which comes something else. I think that’s where we are at the moment. So I try not to get upset at corporations or politicians. It’s much more fulfilling to talk to someone with a farm, or a bakery etc. and talk to them about what they need to be able to do things differently.