John Thackara: What does the future hold 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Daniel Scharf May 30th, 2021
I am afraid that I would be more likely to read “How to be a slime mould”. The more I read about the world of mould, fungi and lichen the more I believe that they could contribute to our mental and physical wellbeing. I would urge al those engaged in planning issues; commenting on plan-making or planning applications to suggest that the planning authority see the plan or proposal in the context of the bioregion and to promote forest gardening at every opportunity.
Having been inspired by XR I am now seeing Climate Emergency Centres as the next big thing. But, from what John and Dave say, it is important to build or foreground “nature” (ie biodiversity loss) into this process.
2Organicweirdybeardy June 1st, 2021
I love the concept of highlighting the positive. I think biodiversity should definitely come first as one of our problems. Society does not respond to PPM or numbers. If we want change we have to give it a human dimension. Showing people how things can get better is the solution. The current mantra of environmentalism is “things could get crappy but we can stop it” I love “imagine how great we could make things”
Please inform us when the book comes out. How can I as a small business set up a small mutual credit contract?
3Dave Darby June 1st, 2021
Organicweirdybeardy – initially we’re looking to help set up ‘clubs’ of businesses that already trade with each other. We’re talking with small business networks, social enterprise networks, accountants, local authority people – even local FSB or Rotary groups – anyone who might convene a club. Then small businesses can find their local club and join. Anyone local to you who might be interested in convening a club?
(I’ll definitely let you know when the book’s out – publishing date is next January. I’ll be blogging about it and putting info here).
46degrees June 1st, 2021
What platforms or technology exist to help facilitate this?
If I’m in a club with 20 other business’s each with their own employees, do they pay those employees in mutual credit? do they accept mutual credit as tender from customers? is it exclusive to business’s? Could you loan in this “currency”?
I don’t think that many employees would accept mutual credit unless the system is very well developed.
if a business only accepts mutual credit tokens how does a customer get said tokens?
If I’m a new and fragile business what can I do to make normal money, establish and still trade or support these networks?
5Dave Darby June 1st, 2021
6degrees – the important thing to remember is that we’re not suggesting a replacement to the current system overnight. We’re just developing things around the edges. There’s a group of people developing software to provide to ‘clubs’ – local networks – ie networks of businesses that already trade with each other. We’re talking with a food network in Plymouth initially, but we’re also talking with other groups around the country. The Credit Commons protocol already exists, for federating local groups – http://www.creditcommons.net/. It’s starting business-to-business. But Sardex introduced a business-to-employee scheme a couple of years ago and it’s doing well. The decision to pay employees in mutual credit is down to the business and the employees, but I’m guessing not for a while, and only a small percentage to start with. Not sure what you mean by loan – it’s just numbers in an account, not a thing.
Mutual credit is nothing to do with tokens – it’s accounting. See https://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/mutual-credit/
Mutual credit clubs can help new businesses to launch – if they’re joining a group of businesses who are committed to trading with each other.
You can trade in a mix of bank-money and mutual credit. The less money there is around, the handier mutual credit becomes.
[Also, we’re initially starting with credit clearing, as it’s easier to understand and immediately beneficial. If 10 businesses all owe each other 5k, they could just ‘clear’ it so that no-one owes anyone anything. But they don’t have that information, and so they might struggle – they might go into debt to pay suppliers etc. But a club would give them that information – it won’t be as simple as everyone owing each other the same, but the credit they have with each other could be cleared. They could then pay what was necessary to bring themselves back to zero each month – or not even do that – just stay within pre-agreed limits, which means they’d then be a mutual credit club as well as a credit clearing club.]
66degrees June 1st, 2021
Very interesting. I’m used to seeing money as a thing, a commodity which is why it is hard to imagine it just as data between peers. I think what you are saying is that this isn’t a system it’s a method. I could pay my employees a small bit in mutual credit but mostly in money. We could use networks as a backup or bones? I’ll make sure to do more reading on Credit Commons, as I have to read the white paper anyways. How could I keep things profitable while accepting mutual credit? Do I have to get enough people to trade in it before it becomes valuable?
Thank you for your patience,
7Dave Darby June 1st, 2021
6degrees – that’s it exactly. Most people have got used to money being a thing, a commodity (now it’s the most traded commodity in the world). But mutual credit is just credit between peers, numbers in accounts, not a commodity.
Start small and grow I think. Sardex started in 2009 after the last crash, and now has 4k businesses and is trading $50 million worth of value per year (but with no actual dollars or euros). Grassroots Economics in Africa now have 50k businesses and $3 million worth of trade per year. https://www.lowimpact.org/mutual-credit-in-africa-will-ruddick-grassroots-economics-foundation/
Not sure what ‘profitable’ means with mutual credit. You work, you get credit, you use the credit to get things from other people who work. Where’s the profit? Yes, the bigger a network gets, the more useful it becomes to its members.
I don’t mind answering questions here because other people can see them and it stimulates interest, but we definitely need an FAQ section and a forum on the MCS website when it’s ready (that’s mutual credit services, the people building the clubs).
86degrees June 2nd, 2021
It might be that i am misunderstanding profit here. If my account grows more than it shrinks (I receive more than I pay) I can use the excess to reinvest into assets. What would stop a business from growing it’s credit and essentially hoarding? Does this means it can even be used between two entities?
In a mutual credit network is there an advantage to being a sole trader or a limited company?
9Dave Darby June 2nd, 2021
There’s no interest, so no benefit from hoarding. Plus there are credit and debit limits on accounts. Mutual credit is an exchange medium not a store of value.
106degrees June 2nd, 2021
I see.. Do individual consumers start with credit or do they have to earn it? I know Will Ruddick gave people 100 to stimulate trade. Is that helpful? Going back to the loan, if someone wants to use credit to start a business but they have 0 credits what can they do? Could they go into debit and than pay it back once their business starts producing?
11Dave Darby June 3rd, 2021
It’s business-to-business (as in, existing businesses), at least to start. Then we’ll see what develops. Grassroots Economics put 100 credits into small businesses’ accounts to start, and don’t allow them to go below zero – but it’s exactly the same idea – i.e. zero is equivalent to their negative limit. Will’s thinking is that people don’t like negative numbers, which is fair enough.
126degrees June 3rd, 2021
That helps clear things up for me. It is an exchange medium for a form of barter between business’s. So different established business’s will pay for goods and/or services with credit and that credit could be used to but their goods and/or services. Did I get that right? this is still a novel idea to me so I’m trying to wrap my head around it.
13Dave Darby June 3rd, 2021
yep – except it’s not barter, in that you don’t have to find someone who has what you want and wants what you have. you can use your credit to buy from anyone in the network.