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The Progress Illusion w/ Jon Erickson – EP166

Professor Jon Erickson is an ecological economist and advisor to policymakers including Senator Bernie Sanders. In his new book The Progress Illusion, he criticizes what he calls “the fairytale of economics” and argues we are failing “to design an economy that is socially just and ecologically balanced.” Show host Gene Tunny discusses Prof. Erickson’s new book with him in this episode of Economics Explored. 

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About this episode’s guest: Jon Erickson

Jon D. Erickson is the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at the University of Vermont, faculty member of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment. His previous co-authored and edited books include Sustainable Wellbeing Futures, The Great Experiment in Conservation, Ecological Economics of Sustainable Watershed Management, Frontiers in Ecological Economic Theory and Application, and Ecological Economics: a Workbook for Problem-Based Learning. He is also Adjunct Professor at the University of Iceland, and has been a Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania, Assistant Professor of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and visiting professor in the Dominican Republic, Norway, Germany, and Slovakia. Outside of the university, he is an Emmy-award winning producer and director of documentary films, co-founder and board member of numerous non-profit organizations, past-President of the US Society for Ecological Economics, and advisor to state and national policymakers. Jon lives in Ferrisburgh, Vermont with his wife Pat, their occasionally visiting sons Louis and Jon, and a menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and donkeys.

Links relevant to the conversation

You can buy The Progress Illusion and if you listen to the episode Jon will reveal a discount code:

https://islandpress.org/books/progress-illusion

Transcript: The Progress Illusion w/ Jon Erickson – EP166

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Jon Erickson  00:03

Since at least the night, late 1970s. For a country like the United States, we’ve been in a progress recession, the GDP has grown, grown, grown, grown. But these alternative metrics, whether it be GPI, or surveys on quality of life, or the ecological footprint, these things have not improved. They have not kept up with the pace of growth, right.

Gene Tunny  00:25

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 166 on the progress illusion, a new book from Jon Erickson, Professor of sustainability science and policy at the University of Vermont. Professor Erickson is past president of the US society for Ecological Economics. And he’s an adviser to state and national policymakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders. Please check out the shownotes for relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Jon or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right oh, now for my conversation with Professor Jon Erickson on his new book The Progress illusion. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Professor Jon Erickson, welcome to the programme. 

Gene Tunny 01:00

Thank you so much. 

Jon Erickson  01:03

It’s a pleasure, Jon to have you on. I’ve read your new book, progress, the progress illusion, reclaiming our future from the fairy tale of economics. So given this as an economics podcast, there’s definitely a lot to talk about with your new book. Yes, yes. So can I ask you first? Why do you think progress is an illusion? What are you trying to communicate in this book, please?

Jon Erickson  01:56

Sure. Sure. Yeah. So the progress illusion is really a reference to a fairy tale of humanity’s place and purpose in the world. Certainly, economics isn’t the only discipline that is subject to the solution, but it’s the one that I’m trained in. It’s a story that economists like myself have been teaching and practising for decades, decades that, you know, every time we see the size of the global economy double, which doubles every 25-30 years at current growth rates, that we erode the very foundations of life and human societies in the process. So, in this book, I questioned that, that reigning logic, that reigning story, I unpacked various dimensions of this grand illusion of economics, you know, which I see as an illusion of history and a lot of economics programmes, mine included, we don’t teach the history of economic thought we don’t discuss the debates of, of economists of the past. It’s an illusion of the individual, me, so much of the focus of economics is on the individual and what’s best for the individual in the assumption that whatever’s best for the individual is best for society. So I unpack that and think about the debates over that question. It’s an illusion of choice. I mean, economics sort of sets itself up as the science of choice. But it’s always framed this choice at the margin, right, the choice of the next incremental decision. Yet, when you add up all those decisions together, we very often get into situations that the original decision makers never would have voted for. Right. And ultimately, it’s an illusion of growth and illusion of, you know, a sort of fairy tale or dream of infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

Gene Tunny  03:52

Gotcha. I think it’s interesting. You mentioned that there were these debates, and they’re not always well covered in economics. I remember. I remember learning at least about Malthus, and there was the Malthusian prediction or his his view that, well, we’re in trouble because any economic growth we had, we just ended up having more children, and we’d be back to subsistence. Whereas I think the way that economists started to view that was all well, we solved that problem with technological progress. And, but I mean, look, I understand the point that that’s in a few 100 years or over the last couple 100 years say we’ll be able to do that. Who knows if that can continue indefinitely? I mean, who knows what shocks are coming? So, I mean, maybe, is that what you’re arguing? We could be we could be too optimistic based on recent history.

Jon Erickson  04:48

Well, look, I mean, we’re recording this in the second week of November during that latest Conference of Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. And there’s ample evidence to show that this economic system we’ve created is putting dangerous strains on the global climate system, right? A climate system that is, is increasingly called as chaos as in danger of, you know, collapsing the whole experiment of the economy. So, you know, we can go back to Malthus if you’d like. But we’ve always seen that a growing economy creates benefits, and costs. And what we’ve seen, particularly over the last three or four decades is as those benefits have become super, super concentrated. And the costs have been spread out on more and more people, and especially on future generations. So we’re in kind of, you know, yet again, a kind of Malthusian tragedy.

Gene Tunny  05:51

Right. And so is that your biggest concern at the moment, climate change, or other other concerns,

Jon Erickson  05:58

tThere are plenty of concerns to go around. But having a habitable planet is a big one. It’s a big one that fellow economists are concerned about. You know, economists have been part of various signatures, signatories to various pledges of action. It’s a concern that’s related to mass extinction. It’s a concern that’s related to growing inequality and persistent poverty and declining quality of life, even in the richest countries. You know, I think it was, I think it was Alcoholics Anonymous, right, that said, you know, when you do the same thing over and over again, expect something different. You know, that’s the kind of insanity. And that’s what this book is about.

Gene Tunny  06:39

Right? Now, you mentioned, well, you talk about the fairy tale of economics, you mentioned you were trained in economics, do you still consider yourself an economist?

Jon Erickson  06:50

I mean, I often describe myself as an ecological economist, because I’m really trying to understand interdependencies between the economic system, and society and culture and the social system and the environment. I see this work as reforming economics for sure. I’d love someday, where we didn’t have to have all these kind of competing camps and different flavours of economics, we could just call it economics. But since I really don’t identify with the mainstream of economics, I tend to call myself an ecological economist.

Gene Tunny  07:22

Right? And you tell a story in the book about how just something like that was it the JEL, the Journal of Economic Literature codes, and you were stunned? Yeah, the way that Yeah, could you tell that story because of those fascinating, I’d never thought the JEL. Yeah, would be so controversial, or yeah, but please tell the story. I thought it was a good one.

Jon Erickson  07:47

I don’t know that they were controversial it just it just gave me pause. When I saw that ecological economics was given its own code, and treated as a sub discipline of a field that we were trying to overturn or be the alternative to. And this really is, you know, this, this is, you know, reflect on kind of why I wrote this book. You know, it’s a reflection on my career in Ecological Economics, when ecological economics was formalised in the late 80s and early 90s, before it got to JEL code, books and journals and organisations and degree programmes, and folks like me were supposed to be created to try to question the mainstream and reform it. So in many respects, this book is kind of my midlife crisis book, where I take a critical look at the history state and fate of this movement of ecological economics as an alternative to the mainstream. Funny story about 10 years ago, I was the president of the US society for Ecological Economics, and one of these professional societies that have emerged to support this field. And I was at our conference at Michigan State University, and I had thrown my back out. So I was like, during most of the meeting, I was horizontal in my hotel room, just miserable, just really grumpy. I was laying on my back, trying to write notes for my presidential address right, to the society’s membership. And I just was so grumpy, so grumpy, so grumpy. And it really got me thinking about the state and fate of ecological economics, and made me think about like this code, Q 57. Right, the seven hundreds plus subject areas of economics, and how ecological economics was increasingly being absorbed by the mainstream, including by folks who call themselves ecological economists. In fact, at that meeting, there were just, you know, all of these sessions on monetary valuation of ecosystem services, which I saw as, you know, a real slippery slope, you know, can we sort of challenge the mainstream with the logic of the mainstream and commodify nature. So, in a lot of ways that kind of grumpy week in Michigan, set the stage for this book, and, and my desire to really critique my own field.

Gene Tunny  10:16

Right. Okay. So I probably should provide some background on so these JEL codes, they’re the codes that you would put at the bottom of an abstract for a journal paper or a conference paper to signal this is the field or that the field of economics are the sub discipline of economics that it’s in. And so that helps them identify where it should go in conferences, for example, which session. Now, it’s interesting you mentioned how environmental economists have come to start valuing nature or to quantify environment, environmental damage, or to value what a wetlands are worth or in I mean, as a, as an economist, I’ve done various exercises like that in the past. I just want to understand where you’re coming from, do you think that’s the wrong way to go about it, to think about the the economy or the environment to think about? Well, we’re doing this many dollar dollars of damage to the environment, and therefore we need to impose this, this cost this charge on people who are damaging it, and to make sure we have, you know, where I’m going, what we’re trying to get ya get some sort of, we’re getting some solution by having the right taxes and charges in place or Pigovian tax, for example, what do you what are your thoughts on that, Jon?

Jon Erickson  11:43

Yeah, that the field of environmental economics and and before that natural resources, economics, really preceded this field that I’m describing of ecological economics, really treating the economy as an ecosystem, and environmental economics has its roots in the late 1960s, early 70s. And, you know, reaching back to Pergo, in the 20s, and 30s. And fitting the environment inside the marketplace, right, using prices to correct the so called market failures of what were framed as environmental externalities. So that’s how I was trained at Cornell University, I was in an agricultural economics department, learning natural resource, environmental economics, and kind of, you know, buying into that logic of, of the environment is just a failure of the marketplace. Ecological Economics. So that’s valuable. And that’s pragmatic. And I’ve done my share of work that is trying to make the case the economic case for environmental protection. The challenges is when that tool when that approach, when the sort of expansion of cost benefit analysis to environmental concerns, when that rises to a worldview, right? When you commodify all of nature and when you reduce all social relations of humanity to market logic, we start to run into what economic historians or people in the 40s and 50s The Economist name is escaping me right now, the fellow who wrote The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi. Yeah, the Karl Karl Polanyi warned of the merging market society, right. Whereas the rules and priorities of a market system that envelop the democratic system, that envelop our social and environmental values. So I’m okay using economics as a tool and treating economists as mechanics or janitors to sort of tune the market system. But when economists are sort of framed as overlords of the social environmental system, right, or conveyors of a master worldview, that’s where my hairs go up. And that’s, that’s largely what this book is about, and thinking about the progress solution of economics.

Gene Tunny  14:08

Right? Is the problem that we have this objective of maximising economic growth where we’re concerned about GDP, are you arguing? We’re not as concerned about these environmental measures? How do you what do you think we should be concerned about? Or how should we be making decisions as a society?

Jon Erickson  14:30

I’m making the case that 21st century economics should reflect 21st century problems and values. I think when the mainstream of economics or what we often call neoclassical economics was formed in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Maybe the focus was well placed on growing an economy of the efficiency of market system right, of taking power away from the church and state and putting it into the hands of the consumer. and producer. You know, it’s much like thinking about an ecosystem at the early stages of any ecosystem. It’s the pioneering species that are prioritise its growth and competition and resource exploitation, that is prioritised. But as the system matures, as the system grows into a fixed, fixed environment, the goal should change, right, the goal should move away from growth and towards maintenance, bitterness, towards durability, towards resilience, away from competition and towards cooperation right away from sort of thinking about the number one priority is to grow our way out of problems, to realising that growth itself creates problems that growth can’t fix. So Ecological Economics reflects a maturing of economic thinking, that reflects the challenges of the 21st century.

Gene Tunny  15:59

Right. Okay. So it seems you’re, you’re concerned about the problems that growth can’t fix. Okay. You don’t think regulations can help? I mean, because we’ve got cleaner air?

Jon Erickson  16:12

Not exactly. I mean, I think we need to move beyond just economic instruments to fix things using the market to fix market failures, right. But really trying to find that balancing act between market mechanisms and government regulation between improving and making government work better, instead of the opposite narrative of, you know, government is the problem, not the solution. No, in this book, I reflect on kind of my own upbringing in the United States, and my parents generation, you know, and growing up in the Kennedy years, where the narrative was, you know, you know, ask not what your, what you can, what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country. And I grew up in the Reagan Thatcher generation, right. And the Reagan narrative was, you know, it’s all about the individual, it’s greed is good. Don’t ask what you can do, you know, do for your country, get government off our backs, you know, that’s what we need to do. So, I think in an age of climate chaos, in an age of the sixth mass extinction, and an age of growing inequality, the narrative has to change, the story has to change, we have to recognise that a system and an economics that was created in the context of a 1940s 1950s expansion out of the Great Depression had its day. And now, the realities of our time, need to need to start to shape a new reality.

Gene Tunny  17:44

Okay. And so what does that? What does that mean, Jon? Does that mean, we need? Do we need redistribution policies? Is that what you’re arguing for to address inequality? We need greater environmental? Well, we need to prioritise the environment. I mean, that’s gonna be I mean, obviously, the environments important, I’m not denying that. I’m just thinking in in Australia here. I mean, it’s we’ve got very stringent environmental regulations already. And if we have more stringent environmental regulations, it’d be very difficult to develop anything. So I’m just wondering what it all means is it? Does it mean, we have to accept a lower standard of living in the future? are you pessimistic about technological change or ability to to innovate our way out of these constraints? Could you talk about that, please?

Jon Erickson  18:38

Yeah, I think that’s too narrow of a frame. When you think about economy environment, and what I’m concerned about, there is reams of evidence show that so called advanced economies, such as the United States and Australia, built on hyper individualism, built on the legacy of a social disease that sociologists call affluenza, right, or this addiction to consumerism, that this model of progress has leaves a little lot to be desired. And that in fact, maybe we’ve been in a progress recession for some time now. Scholars in the United States and Australia and dozens of other countries around the world have been estimating for years now. What’s called the genuine progress indicator, something that is meant to be compared to the more common gross domestic product. And what this indicator does is it recognises that a growing economy has benefits and has costs. In fact, I first discovered the GPI when I was in grad school in the early 1990s. And in the US, we were in in the the bush one recession. And there was a beautiful article written in the in the Atlantic and it had the title of something like if GDP is up. Why is America so down? Right? We were kind of in this recovery state. And people were, you know, economists are saying, hey, the economy’s growing, we’re all good again. And the average American, I’m not good, I can’t make ends meet. I’m miserable. And the same narrative has popped up at the tail end of every recession ever since ever since. In fact, it started working on this book at the tail end of the so called Great Recession. And the same thing was happening, we were using the instruments of economics using mainstream thinking to grow our way out of problems. And the average person was saying, who is benefiting? And who does who? Who’s paying the cost? Yeah. So the GPIO through this series of 26, some odd calculations and says, What are the true benefits of a growing economy? And what are the costs? What are the environmental costs? What are the social costs, and have shown quite convincingly that since at least the night, late 1970s, for a country like the United States, we’ve been in a progress recession, the GDP has grown, grown, grown grown. But these alternative metrics, whether it be GPI or surveys on quality of life, or the ecological footprint, these things have not improved, they have not kept up with the pace of growth, right. So we have to start asking at these kind of higher levels. What do we do with this for right? What’s, what’s the new balancing act in a maturing economy? How should we reprioritize what is the good life? And how should we I mean, you frame it as accept the lower standard of life, the standard of living the material standard of living, I frame it as as asking the question, how do we live better? How do we how do we live well, within our means?

Gene Tunny  21:47

Yeah, sure. I can, I can understand that. I guess what I’m thinking, Jon, is that at the moment, in Australia, one of the big issues is, well, the rising cost of living, high inflation relative to wages, and the lack of housing, I mean, we’ve got a dire shortage of housing here in Australia. Now. I mean, look, there are a variety of reasons for that, possibly. But I mean, at the moment, when I’m looking at things, I’m thinking a bit more economic activity to construct houses would have been good over the last 10 to 20 years. And, and we’ve got rising cost of energy. So yeah, I take your point, I think I think a lot of people out there would be concerned though, about this. Yeah, that they that, yeah, I’m not I’m not necessarily wanting to criticise what you’re saying, I understand where you’re coming from. I’m just yeah, that’s where I’m coming from, if that makes sense.

Jon Erickson  22:51

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And that’s the big question, right? Like, can the same kind of thinking that got us into these current messes? That is making the billionaire class hugely, hugely more material well off, while the rest of us feel like we’re on a treadmill, just barely getting by? Can the same kind of system, right? That has privatised the benefit of growth and socialise, the costs? Can that continue? Or should it continue? Right? Should we sort of create a social movement and start to ask, what is the economy’s purpose? Who is the economy? And growth for whom and for what? Now, you know, when I debate economists, they always say, like, come on, come on, you know, you’re not being fair economics is just a model. It’s a model of progress. All models are wrong, some are useful, right? They quote George George Box. Right? All models are wrong, some are useful. And I said, Yeah, I, I agree, all models are wrong, some are useful. But what box didn’t ask is useful for? Right. So in the US, we’re seeing these energy prices, and we’re seeing record profits to oil companies. In the US, we’re seeing housing shortages, right? Yet we’re seeing record rents to the ownership class. In the US, we’re seeing families, you know, struggle to get by in these kinds of post pandemic months and year. And kind of returning to, you know, try and train as quickly as we can to get back to normal, right? Pre pandemic years. And a lot of us, and a lot of folks that are most vulnerable in this current system, are saying we don’t want to go back to normal normal was already in crisis.

Gene Tunny  24:47

Yeah, yeah. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  24:55

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Gene Tunny  25:24

Now back to the show. Okay, can I ask about that genuine progress indicator? Who’s producing it? And can I ask him about what, what some of the the variables that go into? It are? Please, you’re really interested in that? Because look, I understand the criticisms of GDP. And I mean, at least if we’re destroying, or we’re subtracting from the environment, or we’re, we’re damaging the environment that you probably should recognise that as some sort of disinvestment or a loss of capital stock. So yeah, would you be able to explain the genuine progress indicator, please?

Jon Erickson  26:04

Sure. I mean, it starts with the basic premise, right, that the economy is subsystem of the environment, and that when the economy grows, it has opportunity cost. So I mean, it’s a basic, it’s built on basic economic system has benefits and has opportunity costs. So with GPI, we start with consumption, the biggest part of GDP, and we say, Okay, let’s take consumption, and then let’s correct it for income inequality, to recognise which what Pergo recognised in the 1920s and 30s, right, that growing incomes grow and give diminishing returns, right, that the next unit of of income to a rich person creates far less welfare society than the next income, a next unit of income to a low income family or a low income person. So we correct for income inequality. We then go through a series of calculations that for example, take consumer durables and GDP and say, you know, a society a GDP benefits by building a throwaway society. With durables, washing machines, automobiles, long lasting expenditures, if they were out often have to be replaced. That’s great for GDP. Right. But is it good for progress? So we say, Okay, here’s the expenditure of durables, and here’s the benefits of durables, right? Over time, these things are supposed to last more than a year or two or three years. So there’s economic adjustments, there’s an adjustment for over for underemployment, right. Idle work, people who wish they could work more. So it’s got that kind of basic economic logic built into it. But then there’s a whole category of depletion and pollution costs, right? We shouldn’t be treating depletion of our soils, our water, our air, as income. In fact, any business that treated depreciation of capital assets as as income instead of costs wouldn’t be in business very long. But that’s exactly what we do in our economic book keeping for nation states. Then there’s a whole series of interesting calculations on the social side of thing, right, we have to recognise that the GDP only recognises the value of your time in a market, earning income, earning wages earning profits. And so what the GPI the genuine progress indicator says is that there’s, um, use trade offs, right? Every hour extra hour work, the opportunity cost of that is an hour, not with your family, an hour, not in your community. And now we’re not leisure. So rather than feeding every single hour at work as a benefit with no costs, GPI goes through and says, let’s be honest here, right? Work is good, up to a point, income is good, up to a point consumption is good, up to a point. But we have to recognise that consumption and income and growth have diminishing returns. And at some point, at some point, the growth of an economy creates more costs than benefits. What Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, who, unfortunately passed away a couple of weeks ago, called an economic growth, right, a growing economy that creates more cost and benefits. Okay, we could do a whole podcast just on GPI, so don’t get me going.

Gene Tunny  29:40

Yeah, that’s fine. I might. I’ll have another look at it. Because, I mean, it’s one thing that comes up in various conversations I have, and I’ve been looking at the national accounts recently, I’ve had people on talking about that and their conceptual foundations and we’ve, we’ve we’ve mentioned that every

Jon Erickson  29:58

time we have a recession Yeah, the critique of GDP comes up, right? Yeah. Like, hey, wait a second growth isn’t providing what’s going on here. And every time coming out of recession, we question the metric. And then we kind of start growing again and says, Okay, let’s go back to normal. Yeah. But we have to kind of keep revisiting these alternatives. You know, the original architect architects of GDP back in the 30s, and 40s. Were very careful to say this is not a measure of human progress, human welfare. This is a measure of economic activity, which contributes to human welfare, but is not in and of itself. human welfare.

Gene Tunny  30:40

Yeah. Yeah. I agree there. Now, what about what can be done? Do you have a set of policy recommendations? Jon, are there? What would What do you think needs to be done? Are there things that there will be things that need to be done by governments? Are there things that need to be done by individuals? I mean, it sounds like, Well, okay, maybe you tell me if I’m wrong here. But when I read your book, and I heard about the progress, I was reading about the progress illusion that concerns about how we were consuming too much, I mean, do we need to show that we as individuals be consuming less Is that is that part of your argument? We should we shouldn’t be going on as many overseas trips, we shouldn’t be using the car as often we should think about our purchasing decisions, not get a new washing machine or get a I only get one, when it breaks down, try to repair things. What are you arguing in this book? Is the solution?

Jon Erickson  31:40

Well, what would an economy look like? That was built on maintenance resilience and cooperation is that growth, efficiency and competition, right, a late stage maturing economy like yours in the Australian ours in the US? That’s, that’s what I’m asking, you know, an economy, a mature economy should have different goals than an economy at pioneering stages. So it really is about a reprioritization of our goals, especially on consumption, right? Because there’s ample evidence to show that we in the West are over consumers, and our kind of addiction to consumption is creating psychological problems, social problems, that consumption has been kind of become a cure for social ills, right? Like, it’s a distraction. I mean, the whole advertising industry is designed around the idea of kind of making you and I feel bad about ourselves, right. And to sort of fill the void with more consumption. And I actually think this is one of the lessons coming out of COVID. Right, as sort of people were, especially, you know, high income people who, who could weather the storm, better than most, were forced to slow down, were forced to pee at home, were forced to kind of reevaluate life’s priorities, and found out that, you know, this kind of ever, burning hamster wheel of economic growth isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. So it’s the reprioritization of goals, which is going to have to reprioritize policy instruments. Daily Herma, daily use the analogy of a plinth Plimsoll line, I’m not sure I’m pronouncing that right, of a cargo ship. Right. So this is the line that’s painted on a ship, very easy technology. And as the as the cargoes ship is loaded, it sinks into the water. And when it gets to the line, you’re supposed to stop, right, because you’re in, you’re in danger of overloading the ship. So if we sort of reprioritize and think about the principle line of an economy, we can’t just more equally or equitably distribute the cargo of an overloaded ship and expect it to be resilient. We can’t just more efficiently load an overloaded ship and expect it to weather the storm. As the pump, some land goes underwater, right. And there’s ample evidence to say that we are kind of in an overshoot on a lot of environmental parameters. You’re in danger of sinking the ship, especially in stormy waters. So this analogy implies that as we run up against planetary boundaries, planetary limits to growth, the scale of the economic system is way more important to stress than distribution or efficiency. And if we can’t count on a growing system to solve distribution problems, then we’re gonna have to quickly think about the fairness of this distribution of benefits and costs of that system. And then it only then can we get to efficiency, which is the priority of economics. So this means that you know, new policy instruments stuff that focused on scale distribution, then efficiency is the way to go. And I talk a lot about this in the last chapter book, as I kind of wrestled with the idea of how did I put it radical pragmatism? Right? Yeah, that’s a pragmatic things that we can do now, for example, to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, you know, home weatherization, and carbon taxation, and, you know, maintenance of our systems, electrification of transportation, transition to renewable energy. But all of these are really hard to do in an economy that continues to bloat an economy that continues to grow. So we have to be thinking about the scale of a system. And that’s probably the radical part of radical pragmatism, right? What’s it going to take to rein power away from the status quo, that part of the system that’s benefiting from this growth model, and create an economy that works for all?

Gene Tunny  36:05

Okay, so I’m just wondering what exactly that involves? And is this part of this whole idea of D growth? Is that what you’re arguing for? I’ve heard about this concept of D growth, that that’s coming up, and there was an article in the FT about it the other day. So you’re just wondering, what needs to be done? I mean, do how do we, how do we have that, though? How do we recognise those constraints? I mean, you mentioned carbon tax. I mean, that’s something that, but you’re also saying that that’s not going to be enough and mean, given current magic

Jon Erickson  36:41

bullet, but it changes that changes the system? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, degrowth is the sort of social movement side of ecological economics, if you will. It’s a question of, how do we orchestrate a just transition to a right sized economy. Now in some parts of the world, and for some people in the world, you know, growth still creates more benefits and costs. But there are plenty of parts of the world and plenty people in the world where growth, Grace, more cost and benefits, right. So we have to orchestrate a kind of Race to the middle. And in fact, if you plot something like the HDI, the Human Development Index, which is a UN level index, this used to sort of monitor, you know, the benefits of development. If you plot HDI at national levels against energy per capita, you get this curve, right that the initial development improves considerably, with just a little bit more energy use per capita a little bit more than final impact per capita, Right. but only to a point that we get into this kind of club of countries, where continuing use of energy continuing depletion of the environment, continuing materialisation of the economy, doesn’t improve development doesn’t improve the HDI. And you get this long tail with countries with the same HDI of countries that that consume 20 or 30, or 40, or even some cases 80% less energy and material. So countries like mine, the US were way out on this tail, where we’re not getting improvements in human development. Yet, we’re consuming way, way, way more energy than the average human right. And way more energy in the countries that have similar levels of development, similar qualities of life. So what are we doing? Right? We’ve got to orchestrate a race to the middle and whether you call that d growth for the rich countries, and to be more agnostic about growth for everyone else, like grow, where it makes sense and shrink where it doesn’t. That’s the kind of century that we’re in. That’s the biophysical reality of the new economy.

Gene Tunny  38:57

So Jon, do you need a command economy to actually to orchestrate this transition to a right sized economy? I’m just trying to think about how this would happen. Because I mean, people, a lot of people out there, just, you know, they’re trying to live their lives and do the best they can. And a lot of people have to a lot of families, the couple have to work two jobs. They’re trying to make ends meet. I mean, they Yeah, they probably wouldn’t see themselves as as living a hugely materialistic lifestyle, but then compared with other parts of the world. Yeah, sure. It probably is. Yeah, I’m just wondering how we how we can do that. I mean, I’ll

Jon Erickson  39:37

yeah, yeah. My trainer has economists. I assume you’re trained economists. We were sort of taught these, these two different DS, roughly two different models, market economy and a command and control economy. And we were taught that this command and control thing is inefficient and unfair and results in a kind of an over regulated world and we need to the market economy is not perfect, but may Is it better than command and control? I’ve come to realise that that’s a load of BS. The market economy is also a command and control economy, right? Markets are designed by those and power markets are social constructs, especially the last three or four decades of neoliberalism has created a kind of free market experiment, right? That is concentrating the benefits and widely distributing the costs. So talk to the average guy or gal on the street and ask them, Is this economic system working for them? And if they say no, do you say, well, let’s double down on the logic of the system? Or do we try something different, right. So we’re finding that more cooperative forms of of economies are resulting in more shared benefits and shared costs. Were working with a group called the next systems project that has been sort of systematically cataloguing different political economics systems, local skills, community skills, United States that have dramatically different outcomes and dramatically different structures. It’s not just either or of command and control of free markets. It’s blending things in between, it’s the continuum in between, that is the secret sauce. So I don’t buy that we immediately just have to go to command and control. Although in crisis, what we learned from COVID is what happened is the world’s government goes goes to command and control, right? If climate is a crisis, if, if environmental depletion is a crisis, we might be using the very system of free market thinking, to push us into a state where the only option is going to be command and control. And I don’t want that you don’t want that. People don’t want that. We want our basic liberties and freedoms. But we want to do it in a way that creates an economy for all for children and for for future. I also kind of reject the the narrative of economic freedom, right? Because that’s awesome. That’s also painted as freedom to do things. And instead of freedom from tyranny, right, freedom from the impacts of, of the environmental costs of a growing system, freedom from the social inequalities, of a system that’s geared towards making the billionaire class even richer. Freedom from the costs of growing economies, what we should be thinking about, not freedom to do things to our neighbours, to our environment, and to future generations that ultimately are going to come back and bite us in the tail. Yeah, a buy in any of this.

Gene Tunny  42:58

Well, I’m interested in the new systems project. I’ll have to make system next systems project. I’ll have to look into that. I mean, do you have any examples of those communities you’re talking about?

Jon Erickson  43:10

Well, it’s examples of of. So you take the US and you think that we’re this kind of, you know, outside looking in and the narrative on the mainstream news channels is that, you know, we’re this free market, capitalistic system. It’s actually not true. So much of what makes the US economy work is cooperative ownership, collective ownership, state run, companies, state state run banking systems, state state runs systems of have that make the the economic system work. Take the banking sectors, trillions of dollars and coops where the depositors get votes on the matters of their banks. Take agriculture and education, and even energy and electric utilities. So much of those industries are run by cooperatives. In fact, electricity cooperatives deliver electricity, the United States, to a well over half of the geography of the high states, to rural communities, where the sort of economics doesn’t work for for industrial companies. There’s experiment after experiment, after experiment of different kinds of political economic institutions that have that we have lots of lessons to learn from. And this is what I meant in the beginning, when I talked about you know, economics, part of the Progress illusion is this kind of illusion of history right. To think that the current economic system, the neoliberal system, the free market, system, is is is the only one is has been perfected, right? Is the kind of logical inclusion of everything along the way, and that we don’t have to learn from our history. We don’t have to revisit the debates. We don’t have to consider the morality of our economic choices, or their biophysical consequences. And yeah, there’s a lot. I mean, I speaking mostly as a, you know, from the perspective of an American, maybe it’s different in Australia. But man, we have this sort of US centric view of the world, that everything we do is right. And every thing that we do is the best that ever was. And we don’t need to learn from our history. And we don’t have to need to learn from other other experiments around the world. And where I land is, that’s some pretty insular thinking,

Gene Tunny  45:45

huh? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. We’ll start wrapping up soon, Jon, this has been Yeah, really thought provoking. So it’s good to have you on the show. could ask you about neuro neuro economics. So you talk about that in the book. This is a new field, I’ve only learned about recently, what what’s that? What’s your interest in that field? And what’s it broadly trying to tell us? Or what’s it found?

Jon Erickson  46:11

Yeah, sure. Well, so this is where, you know, I’m kind of researching the book, like, what are some alternative ways to think about the human agent and our economic models? Because the economics, we’re taught a very, very, very narrow version of humanity, right, which is sometimes called like a subspecies of human homo economic is, yeah, isolated individual at a point in time, right, who

Gene Tunny  46:36

just wants more? The rational utility Maximizer? Yeah,

Jon Erickson  46:40

exactly. Exactly. And both within economics and outside of economics, you know, we’re learning that when we test our theories, with real data, and not just abstract mathematics, that this sort of foundations of this rational actor model, unravel. So what I do in the book is I explore what you might call borderline disciplines, right? Where economists have cooperated with other disciplines, especially other natural science disciplines. And so neuro neuro economics is one of those examples where economists have collaborated with neurosciences to ask questions of proximate cause. Right. So in science, we think of proximate cause and ultimate cause. And then the case of economic decision making proximate causes asking how we make decisions, whereas ultimate causes more a question of why do we make decisions that we do? Neuro economics is an example of a borderline disciplined, proximate cause where, literally economists are taking tests objects, with their neuroscience colleagues, asking people to solve economic puzzles, or make economic choices that are watching their brain light up, right, and trying to understand where and when do the kind of precepts of the rational actor model hold up? And where don’t they? So it’s one of these Borderlands this was, such as neural economics is an example. But also behavioural economics, experimental economics, where we’re trying to kind of understand the brain in the case of economics, the whole human case of behavioural economics, groups of humans in the case of experimental economics, groups of groups in the case of institutional economics. And then there are entirely evolutionary history as a species in the case of evolutionary economics. So these are all examples of, of the isolated discipline of economics, starting to cooperate with other fields, and building what I call in the book, borrowing from the biologist, EO Wilson, a more conciliate form of economics, where we find the jumping together of knowledge to really watch it watch the 21st century version of this field.

Gene Tunny  49:13

Right now. Okay. Well, yeah, oh, it’s something I want to have a closer look at, because I definitely recognise the limitations of that. That standard economic model. I mean, for years, economists were saying, Well, it’s, we recognise that all the assumptions are a bit unbelievable. But as long as it makes good predictions, and it’s, then it’s fine, but it turns out, it may not actually make good predictions. So,

Jon Erickson  49:39

I mean, I gotta go through the history of you know, the running joke, of course, right is that economists have successfully predicted seven of the last three recessions. So it’s, this this model of the rational actor model turns out to be not a very predictive model, or a model. Again, all models are wrong, some are useful. But we should start asking useful for whom? And it turns out this this isolated model is useful for the billionaire class but not useful for the rest of us.

Gene Tunny  50:10

Right I so we might start wrapping up, I’m keen to just learn about, what are you hoping this book we’ll achieve? Jon, what’s your What are your hopes for this, this book,

Jon Erickson  50:22

my generation, I’m 50 birthday this month, I’m 52 going on 53 My generation was inspired by the works of a number of like, you might call a renegade economist, right? Who sort of solid different path. Folks like Herman Daly, who I mentioned to, we just recently lost that 84 years old. I mean, Herman was on a similar journey that I was he started out with aspirations to be a growth economist, he thought that the logic and approach of market fundamentalism could be sort of bred when he was training to be an economist in the 50s and 60s, to solve problems, particularly problems of poverty, right to grow the economy, lift people out of poverty, but in his own educational journey, set against the aspirations of the Great Society in the US in 1960s, the civil rights and environmental movements of the 60s and 70s You know, he was inspired by inspired, inspired by the work of earlier group of renegades folks like Nicholas Dzerzhinsky regime who wrote on energy and the economic problem, bringing the principles of physics into economics, Kenneth Boulding, who wrote the infamous article, the economics for the coming Spaceship Earth that was really coming to terms with the opportunity costs of a growing economy inside of a fixed ecosystem. John Kenneth Galbraith, who, whose social critique in the affluent society really sort of, you know, early on question a society built around, creating more and more affluence into an affluent class. And, of course, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was really impactful on Herman’s thinking, and design of an economic study of economy inside environment. So, you know, these sorts of scholars were also inspired by long standing debates about the function and purpose of the economy, you know, really going back to the classical era of economics, when economics was seen as as a branch of moral philosophy, right. Not not a pseudo science hiding behind abstract mathematics. So Herman’s work was another kind of link in the chain. His work on economics, the life sciences, first big published article, his work on steady state economics in 1977. Book, his work on for the common good that he wrote in 1989, with a theologian, John, John Cobb, you know, he was created another link in the chain that was trying to build a study of economics as if people and planet mattered. So I hope, you know, this book is yet another link in this chain of link that comes from my generation, that can continues to build a kind of more modest, more humble economics that can contribute to social well being and environmental, environmental protection, and not just simply,

Gene Tunny  53:39

okay, well, I’ll put a link in the show notes. So if you’re in the audience, and you’re interested in, in the in the progress, illusion, and look, it’s got a lot of, it’s got a lot of great information in it. Lots of lots of great analysis, and it’s very thought provoking. So I certainly enjoyed or I learned a lot reading it. I thought it was good. I liked how you went through the evolution of of economic thought and all the debates and even what I was struck by was, I didn’t realise that was Tinbergen, the famous Dutch economist. Yeah, he had a bit of a Nobel Prize winner. Yeah, he ended up he started to question the whole the the economic growth narrative in the was it the 80s or 90s? Are some of the you tell the story along those lines, I thought was interesting. Yeah. Yeah. So I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Okay, Jon, any final thoughts before we wrap up?

Jon Erickson  54:42

Look, I really appreciate this. Thanks so much for your podcast. I was listening to a bunch of your past thoughts in preparation for this and this is such a great show. Very valuable show. And yeah, folks are interested in this book. It’s, it’s been published by Ireland press which is One of the bigger nonprofit publishers of environmental books in the US and give your listeners the secret code. If they order a book from Island Press they get 20% off if they answer the enter the code illusion so but on my capitalism have there for a second

Gene Tunny  55:17

okay, is that all is that this capitalization matter is what did you just tell me that and I missed it sorry was

Jon Erickson  55:24

no I don’t know that it needs to be capitalised. But it’s the word illusion is the code for 20% off.

Gene Tunny  55:30

Okay, good one. Well, I guess people try it and if, yeah, hopefully it doesn’t matter whether you capitalise it or not, or try and capitalise that, that doesn’t work. Without caps. Okay. Very good. Okay. Jon Erickson. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation and really appreciated your insights. So that’s been terrific. Thank you. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of economics explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact at economics explored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

Thriving w/ Wayne Visser, Cambridge & Antwerp sustainable business expert – EP130

In Economics Explored EP130, we explore a new book Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy, by Professor Wayne Visser of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Antwerp Management School. Wayne is reassuringly optimistic about the future of the planet due to a variety of technological and business practice changes that mean we are approaching “tipping points”, after which we will rapidly reduce the stress we are placing on the environment – all going well, of course, as nothing is guaranteed. 

In the episode, Wayne speaks about a convergence of positive developments, such as rapidly improving electric vehicles, cultured/lab-grown meat, blockchain and synthetic DNA to aid traceability of supply chains, green hydrogen, and Unilever committing to deforestation-free palm oil (by 2023, and whether it achieves that is still to be determined). You can listen to the conversation with Wayne using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps. 

Here’s a short video clip from the conversation in which Wayne introduces the concept of Thriving:

Links relevant to the conversation

DNA Spray-On Technology Could Revolutionize Food Traceability

Transcript of EP130 – Thriving w/ Wayne Visser

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Wayne Visser 00:04

Being optimistic or at least having thriving as a lens is just a more effective way to be, no matter what the state of the world is.

Gene Tunny  00:13

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 130. In this episode, we explore a new book from a world leading expert in sustainability, Dr. Wayne Visser, who joins us from the UK via Zoom.

Wayne’s new book, published by Fast Company Press is Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy. Wayne currently serves as head tutor, fellow and lecturer at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. He is also Professor of Integrated Value at Antwerp Management School, where he holds the world’s first Academic Chair in Sustainable Transformation, as well as being a world leading authority on sustainability. Wayne is an accomplished poet, and he shares some of his poetry with us toward the end of this episode. Wayne’s new book Thriving considers issues with huge implications for our economies, so I was very glad to chat with him about it. His book contains lots of valuable examples of how businesses and communities worldwide are attempting to make themselves more sustainable.

Please check out the show notes for links to materials mentioned in this episode, and for any clarifications. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions related to this episode or the previous ones, please get in touch by SpeakPipe. See the link in the show notes or email me via contact@economicsexplored.com. I’d love to hear from you. Righto. Now for my conversation with Dr. Wayne Visser on his new book, Thriving. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Professor Wayne Visser, welcome to the programme.

Wayne Visser  02:23

Hi. Great to be joining you.

Gene Tunny  02:25

It’s fantastic to have you on, Wayne. Yes, very happy to be chatting with you about your new book, Thriving, which is on a topic that is of great interest to me, and I know to many of my listeners. It’s this issue of sustainability. Climate change is related to that, obviously a big environmental challenge. I’d like to explore what your book is about, why you wanted to write it, what those key messages are. First, I’ve just got a couple of questions about your work. You’re at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Could you tell us a bit about that, please?

Wayne Visser  03:20

Yeah. Great pleasure to be talking to. The Cambridge Institute is a department of the university that was set up many decades ago actually, firstly, mainly, at the request of the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, one day soon to be king, I guess, who’s always had a passion for sustainability. He set up a business and environment programme through the university, and it just evolved from that. And ow they it’s a very large office and runs many, many programmes, I head up their business sustainability management online programme, which is getting great traction. We have upwards of 900 students, taking that four times a year. We’re seeing the uptake. I’ve been associated there for nearly 10 years, and I really see how it’s changed. In fact, 20 years. Yeah, since 2003. Really, the interest levels are up, and the demand for solutions, especially from business, is really rising.

Gene Tunny  04:39

Right. You’re certainly right about Prince Charles. I remember visiting his country estate, just as a tourist, Highgrove in Gloucestershire, and before you go on a tour of the estate, you have to sit through a 10 or 15-minute video of Charles, of the Prince of Wales talking about the importance of sustainability. I think he’s into organic farming and that sort of thing. I’ve certainly seen his commitment to that, so very good…

Wayne Visser  05:19

He was way ahead of his time, especially on the organics side, or what they sometimes call in Europe, Europe bio. Many of the programmes have been very specific. We have very good climate legislation in the UK, for example, and also in Europe. That’s partly down to the Prince of Wales Business corporate leadership group that we set up at Cambridge on climate change, where we tried to be an intermediary between business and government, because business was saying they couldn’t be bold in their commitments, because they didn’t have clear policy guidance, and the politicians were saying they couldn’t be bold in policy, because they thought business would lobby against them. Playing that kind of role has been very, very effective in making the progress that we need to make.

Gene Tunny  06:11

I’d like to ask you later about good legislation in the UK. and EU. I’m interested in what you consider good legislation. That’s something we can chat about. Also, you’re a professor at, is it University of Antwerp, is it, in Belgium?

Wayne Visser  06:31

Yes, Antwerp Management School. It’s actually a sister organisation of the university, but it is independent. Yes, I have a chair there in sustainable transformation. It’s supported by corporate partners, BASF, Port of Antwerp and Ronstadt. I run the Sustainable Transformation Lab there, where we mainly work with corporate partners on advancing sustainability, but also on embedding it into all of the teaching for the full-time and the executive MBA students.

Gene Tunny  07:04

BASF, this is one of the biggest chemical corporations in the world, isn’t it? It’s a huge company, isn’t it?

Wayne Visser  07:14

It is, and right there, Port of Antwerp Zone, which goes for more than 30 kilometres, has one of the biggest chemical clusters in the world. And of course, it’s a great challenge, I must be honest, because the chemical industry has many, many impacts, and is one of the institutions, one of the sectors that has to transform, if you look at something like climate, and it’s not easy. There are massive technology investments that have to be made, whether that’s on using green hydrogen, to get their energy for their crackers, or even going for carbon capture and storage, investing in renewables, which they’re doing as well. But at least they’re one of the progressive ones, I would say, and they really are seeing that this is the future and they have to invest in it.

Gene Tunny  08:10

Okay, Wayne, what was that word you used? Was it crackers?

Wayne Visser  08:14

Yes, yes. Crackers are just the way that they get them, the molecules, the chemical molecules, how they break them apart. This is a very, very intensive, energy-intensive process, much like many other industries. Smelting I know is being done in Australia, for example, aluminium smelting, cement making. These are all very intensive industrial processes where there is no easy solution. For climate change, they really have to come with new technology, such as green hydrogen, where you get the renewable electricity to power the creation of hydrogen from water normally. That takes a lot of energy. But once you have that hydrogen, that can then create the heat that you need for these large industrial processes.

Gene Tunny  09:07

We might have to chat about that a bit later. I guess one of the things I’ve been fascinated by is just how a lot of these big corporations are… They’re seeing the future and they realise—well, many of them, I mean the more enlightened ones are realising, we probably have to get on top of this now, to start addressing this, or we could lose out in the future. I think that’s an example of that. Very good. One other thing I’ve saw in your bio, which I thought was really interesting, so you’re also a poet as well as a pragademic, if I’ve got that right, or pracademic. You’re a pracademic. You’re an academic and you’re also doing practical things involved in policy. You’re also a poet, and it turns out you’ve written 40 books. There are books on both environmental issues and also poetry? Is that right?

Wayne Visser  10:14

Yes, it is a mix. I must say, the majority of them are on sustainable business. And they range from the encyclopaedic, literally because I did an encyclopaedia the A to Z of corporate social responsibility, nd I’ve done a world guide on sustainable enterprise covering countries around the world, so that kind of reference work through to yes, even a fiction. Some poetry books, but also some fiction. There’s a parable on leadership, called Follow Me, I’m Lost, about a goose, a Scottish goose, who gets lost on the way to leadership school in London and ends up in Africa, travelling down and meeting strange creatures who each teach him a leadership lesson. There’s the full range.

Thriving is, I would say, in the middle. It’s really written for a broad audience. But it is about how we change society and the economy fundamentally. It includes some of the poetry actually in the book, as well as many stories, both personal stories, but also stories of the innovation that’s happening. I guess we’ll dive into that. But that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book is, there’s so much doom and gloom around now. Look at the statistics on many trends. Some of that is justified, even what’s going on in the world today with war breaking out in Europe. It’s hard not to be pessimistic, but you also have to take the bigger picture and see this global system that is in transformation and is actually speeding up. Many of the signals are all headed in the right direction. There’s so much innovation out there. This book was about capturing that innovation that’s happening.

Gene Tunny  12:09

That sounds great. That sounds great. With Thriving, so what you wanted to do, is basically you wanted to counter the doom and gloom. Is that what you’re saying? You think there’s too much doom and gloom? There’s actually a lot of innovation occurring out there, and are you trying to suggest, okay, given all of this innovation, this is what the appropriate policy settings are? Are you touching on policy settings at all, Wayne?

Wayne Visser  12:43

I touch on policy, but I would frame it like this. In fact, I start with something in the early chapter, called the Stockdale paradox. And this is named after Admiral Stockdale who survived a prisoner of war camp, I think he might have been in there for seven years, and came up with this philosophy that what you need to do to survive and thrive is to face the absolute reality, all the brutal facts, completely honestly. So don’t kid yourself about the state that you’re in. But at the same time, you can never give up faith or hope that things can change and can get better.

You’ll see in the book, it’s not a book of denial, or wishing things were better. I set out a lot of the facts on what’s going wrong, what’s really challenging, when nature, society, and the economy are breaking down. But then I look at the larger system and I look at how systems change, especially living systems, of which society is one nature is another, organisations as well. When you distil it down to the scientific principles of how those systems change and thrive, you actually see many signs that we are heading into a tipping point of change towards the better. It’s not that we don’t face these big challenges, but we’re seeing many transformational signals. And most people are not aware of that. And so yes, they get trapped in the pessimism or the doom and gloom.

It’s also that, you know, being optimistic, or at least having thriving as a lens, is just a more effective way to be, no matter what the state of the world is, because if you’re trapped in in pessimism, you’re disempowered. You sort of just give up before you’ve even made it a try to tackle the issues.

It’s a little bit philosophy, but it’s also backed up by some science of how change happens. And then lots of examples of where business especially, is really charging ahead and bringing the solutions that we need and starting to scale them, which is something that in my 30 years plus working in sustainability was always missing. We always had many of the solutions, but they weren’t scaling. Now they’re scaling. Tesla’s one of six trillion-dollar companies now, and its core mission is a sustainability mission. It’s to speed the transition to sustainable energy. That’s scaling. And it’s valued at more than all the other auto manufacturers, even though it makes less than 1% of the cars.

Gene Tunny  15:53

That’s extraordinary. That’s extraordinary. I want to go back to this point you made. You’re generally optimistic. However, you did note before that there are places where nature, society, and the economy are breaking down. Where is that, Wayne? Are you able to describe or tell us where that is most acute, because we hear all of these horror stories about bad things that could happen, tipping points, and all of that, but where are things breaking down? Could you tell us, please?

Wayne Visser  16:30

This gives a little insight into the structure of the book, really, because I structured into these six great transitions that we’re going through and that we need to go through. There are two breakdowns in nature, two in society, and two in the economy. I’ll briefly touch on each.

In nature, what we see is huge breakdown in ecosystems, so degradation of ecosystems. You’ve got the Great Barrier Reef on your shores there, and it’s literally dying, bleaching, just as one example. The loss of species is actually catastrophic right now. We are going through the sixth mass extinction. And we’ve lost 67% of wildlife populations since 1970. Something that took 3.8 billion years to build up on the earth, we’ve wiped out in one generation.

Yes, huge breakdown in ecosystems. But there is this counter movement of restoration, so protection and restoration of ecosystems. Yu start to see, there’s in fact a lot of work going on through the UN trying to create an equivalent international agreement to the Paris Agreement, which is on climate change, to have one on nature now. There is a widely promoted target for the world now to protect and restore 30% of our land and our oceans by 2030. Likewise, there’s a lot of work going on around deforestation coming out of the 26th Conference of Parties on Climate Change in Glasgow last year, where we have now more than 90% of the world’s countries committed, that have forests, committed to end deforestation and reverse it in the next few years. A lot of movement happening there, and a lot of big companies starting to actually put money into helping to protect and restore. If you look at the Bezos Earth Fund, putting more than a billion into the Congo, the rainforest in Africa, which always gets forgotten about because we know the Amazon, but the second largest tropical rainforest is the Congo. So that’s one example of a transition.

The second breakdown is depletion of resources. This is many, many nonrenewable resources, whether it’s water or timber or topsoil. All of these are being depleted at an alarming rate, nothing like what the earth can sustain. This has been going on—we call it the great acceleration—since about 1950, when we’ve had this exponential growth of economics, of economies and consumption, and of course, resources are finite.

The solution there is renewal of resources. This links to one of the market solutions I write about, which is the circular economy. How do we get it so that everything we use in our products and services either is made from nature and goes harmlessly back to nature—that’s one type of circle or loop—or is made artificially like chemicals and plastics and metals and so on, but continues to go back into manufacturing in an endless cycle. That’s the circular economy. Today, we’re around about 10% circular in the world. This is a massive transition. We have 90% of the economy that we need to change from a linear take make waste economy to a take or borrow, make and return economy. So that’s the second transition. Those are the two breakdowns and breakthroughs in nature.

In society, what we’ve got is disparity. Despite all of our economic growth over the last 50 years, inequality has gone up in almost every country. Even though we’ve had hundreds of millions of people coming out of poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor has gotten wider. And effectively, the rich are getting richer, faster than the poor are getting richer. And this has all sorts of social implications as well. If you look at a book like The Spirit Level, they do the research on this, and they find all sorts of social problems occur in the countries that have the highest inequality, including many developed countries.

The counterforce to that is responsibility. It’s actually to have what we call an access economy where we take care of diversity and inclusion. And again, there’s a big movement for that, but still a long way to go. If you just look at gender equality. If you look at the gender pay gap, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take more than 250 years to close that gap, if we continue on current trends, which is just ridiculous in the 21st century, but we still have a lot of progress to make there.

And then we have the second breakdown in nature, which is disease, which we’ve learned a lot about in the last few years with lockdown and everything else.

Gene Tunny  22:07

Sorry, Wayne, this is in society, you mean, is it? Second breakdown in society, disease.

Wayne Visser  22:13

The second breakdown in society is disease. We know all about COVID and communicable diseases, but the interesting thing is that 70% of people die from non-communicable diseases. These are things like heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancers. Many of these are lifestyle related. In fact, 40% are preventable because they relate to what we eat, especially how much meat we eat, in particular red meat, and also processed foods, and whether we live in toxic environments, polluted environments. Of course, there are things like stress as well that take that toll. What we want is revitalization, and so the well-being economy, which is again, a massive opportunity, lots of investment in innovation, lots of technology going in there, really exciting things happening, but plenty to do there. So those are the two breakdowns, breakthroughs in society.

Then if we look at the economy, I talk about disconnection. This is the technology piece. What’s happened is that we think we’re all connected, but we’re not. There is still roughly half of the world, maybe three or four billion who still don’t have an internet connection. Many, many billions still don’t have a mobile phone or live outside of mobile phone signal areas. The world is not all connected. And this refers to what we call the digital divide. It basically is an amplifier for inequality, because technology gives us opportunity. We have to really look at that gap and work on closing that gap. Meanwhile, of course, many are streaming ahead with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with 5Gg and artificial intelligence and virtual reality and all of those things, and so the gap potentially gets wider. So we have to address that.

Then there’s a second kind of disconnection, which is that the machines start to disconnect us. This is really about automation. 25% of jobs today are at high risk of automation, and another 70% at medium risk. It’s not that we want to go backwards, but we have to look at that and take care of that, start re-skilling people, upskilling people, to be ready for that hugely disruptive transition.

The solution there is all about, I call it rewiring. It’s really the digital economy, but it’s mainly about using all of those fantastic technologies, like big data, like 3Dd printing, like all of the other things, to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Artificial intelligence, huge potential there, but we very quickly found out that it’s racially biased. We have to take care of how technology is being used and whether it’s being used to solve the problems. I really believe that it does bring many of the solutions.

The last one is disruption. This has to do with crises and catastrophes, which we’ve also learned a lot about recently. This is where climate change comes in. If you look at the wildfires, you look at the storms and floods and the droughts, you know all about that in Australia, but also all around the world now. It’s costing the world hundreds of billions, of which roughly only a third is insured. You’ve got two thirds of the millions of people who are affected by this just left hopeless, so tackling this and other crises. By the way, COVID is another example of a massive disruption. You get industrial accidents, also disruptive. BP lost 50% of its value within 50 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, just over 10 years ago, and has paid $65 billion since.

All of these have to be addressed. What do we want? We want to move to resilience. That’s the breakthrough. That means making our institutions but also our infrastructure more resilient. Some of that is physical infrastructure, like building flood walls and having buildings that can withstand earthquakes and lots of other very practical things we can do, but it’s also about how you build the economy, because what we’ve discovered is that our economy is very brittle in the crisis. Look at what’s happened with supply chains during COVID or during the Icelandic volcano a few years ago. There’s no longer any slack in the system to take the shocks. We think we’ve been very clever by making everything super efficient just in time, everything delivered, next-day delivery, everything like that. But actually, it makes us more vulnerable. This is all to do with a risk economy, everything that can reduce risk, but also help us survive and thrive through crises. Those are the six transitions.

Gene Tunny  27:28

That’s a very comprehensive overview. I’ve probably got comments on a lot of what you said, but I’ve got to ask you about that Icelandic volcano. That’s the one that no one can pronounce the name of, or certainly I can’t, if I remember correctly. Can you remind me what happened there? You mentioned that as an example of a disruption.

Wayne Visser  27:48

It was obviously just, they have a lot of volcanic activity there. But this one was so big that this cloud just spread across Europe and grounded everything, so planes couldn’t fly. As soon as you start messing with logistics, not only does it mean people literally stranded all around the world in countries, but also business grinds to a halt because of all of the trade that happens through logistics. It’s just an example of that kind of disruption. We’re starting to see more and more, the recent supply chain disruptions around COVID, but also to do with the oil price. Lots of these shocks just show us that… Even my book was delayed by over a month, because suddenly, there was no paper. They couldn’t get paper in the world. So we have to prepare for these kinds of shocks. This is the new volatile world, the VUCA world.

Gene Tunny  28:55

Yeah, well, it’s certainly taking a while for everything to get back to normal. I’m an economist, and I’ve got great faith in the ability of markets to adjust ultimately, but it takes time. We could have these sort of disruptions for another year or so. I think I saw one estimate.

Wayne Visser  29:21

And remember, the kind of COVID type disruption, earthquakes, volcanoes are a bit random, but COVID will most likely happen again. It still has a bit of course to run, but another type of infectious disease, we can expect those again. In fact, it’s linked to these risks we’ve been talking about because as we’ve wiped out nature, zoonotic diseases, which are these diseases that leap from animals to humans, also as we have this huge industrial agricultural system with livestock, the chances of, again, diseases going from animals to humans actually is going up. We can expect that kind of shock again. But all of the analysis that we’ve seen of climate change suggests that COVID is just a very mild dress rehearsal for what’s coming on climate change. The point is that we should be expecting to live in a world of disruption. We have to know how to cope with that, and how our economies can cope, how our organisations can cope, and personally, how we cope.

Gene Tunny  30:30

What will that disruption from climate change be, Wayne? What are your thoughts or what’s your expectation as to what we’ll see? You mentioned wildfires, and I guess flooding as well. We’ve just had some flooding here in Brisbane, where I am, on the east coast of Australia. Look, there’s a big debate. It seems to be it’s difficult to attribute any particular natural disaster or to say that that’s related to climate change. I’m not sure you can do that. But certainly, I understand that it could increase the risk of these things, so I accept that. What do you see as the potential future if we don’t stabilise the CO2 in the atmosphere?

Wayne Visser  31:28

You’re right, there’s weather, and there’s climate change, and weather changes. It’s hard to link individual weather events to climate change, although there is now a scientific centre that is doing exactly that through statistical analysis, showing the probability that this could have been just a normal weather event, without the climate driver. They can now very quickly, actually, on most events, give a rating as to whether this is likely to be climate related.

But essentially, what we’re going to look at is just more extremes, I think that’s one of the one of the mis-sellings of what was originally called global warming. People thought it’ll just get a little bit warmer, we’ll go to the beach a bit more. But actually, it is climate change. It’s more disruptive, because it’s hotter and it’s colder. The storms are more intense and more frequent. That’s for complicated reasons, largely that the oceans are warming up, which makes the weather more unstable. Just everything that used to be a very rare occurrence, like a massive storm or extended 10-year drought, will just become the new norm. Temperatures that we never used to see—Canada had its highest temperatures in the last 12 months—will again become the new norm.

This has impacts on all kinds of things. It has impacts on agriculture, of course, the food system, to survive those floods and droughts, but also the climate is moving. So if you’re in a particular area, and that’s no longer good for agriculture, because everything’s got warmer, then that becomes a problem. Tropical diseases will increase because we’re moving to a warmer world. So places that never had to deal with things like malaria or Dengue fever suddenly will be dealing with those. So there are health impacts. And also remember that for every degree, on average, warmer that it is, people are less productive. And there are statistics on that as well. You have economic losses as well, as the world gets warmer.

So lots of different impacts, but it’s all about the volatility and the extremes of climate and wheather our infrastructure and our organisations and even our homes are just ready for that. As I said, you know, only a third is insured of all the climate damage that we’re seeing year on year. So for two thirds of people, it’s not covered.

Gene Tunny  34:25

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  34:30

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Gene Tunny  34:59

Now back to the show. Wayne, I think what’s terrific, what you’ve done is really good with these six great transitions, I think you call them, so two in nature, two in society, and two in the economy. And if you hear that, then you’re thinking, oh, okay, there’s some big challenges that the world faces. How are these going to be addressed? It sounds like you’re relatively optimistic. To what extent will they be addressed by what’s happening with business, business transforming itself with innovation that’s occurring right now? And then how much needs to be addressed by government policy, or changes in the household that could be encouraged by government policy—changes in households and business? Could you take us through that, please, because just looking at that, those six great transitions, it looks like we need some sort of, I hate to say great reset, because that’s become such a controversial term and really triggers people, so I don’t want to say that. But could you take us through, how are we going to get through this, please?

Wayne Visser  36:19

I don’t think it’s wrong to call it a great reset. It’s become a political term. But it is of that scale. We really are looking at reinventing capitalism and going through another industrial revolution that’s very different. World Economic Forum calls it stakeholder capitalism. Now, that’s a huge shift from shareholder capitalism.

But maybe I’ll give you a little insight into another part of the book, which is to look at the underlying science, because the science tells us where the change is happening. There are six keys to thriving, which is an insight into how these complex systems change. One is complexity. This is all about how many relationships there are in any given system. And what we see is the world getting more and more complex. Of course, we’re getting more and more connected. Social media can help; sometimes it can hinder. But just in so many ways, the connections are increasing.

One of the solutions we start to see more and more, partnerships, so companies getting into partnerships with government, with NGOs, and even getting into partnership sometimes with competitors to change the landscape. When Unilever decided to go for 100% sustainable palm oil, which is a big problem in the world today, if they did it on their own it’s useless. They had to convince their competitors as well to do it. The other big ones like Nestle, for example, Procter and Gamble, and so they went through the Consumer Goods Forum, and they got everybody signed up. We’re seeing far more of those kinds of initiatives. It’s all about creating more and more connections.

Then the second one is coherence. This is about having really big goals to aim for. Now we’ve got the sustainable development goals, which are certainly helping, these 17 global goals that all the world’s countries have signed up to, that has created a common focus. But we also see coherence arising around specific issues. Like I mentioned, the 30% land and water protected by 2030, or on climate change, consensus really has emerged around a 1.5 degree warming target, not even two degrees anymore, and net zero by 2050. That’s just become the new norm that everybody is going for. We see this coherence start to emerge in different ways. Policy certainly helps here, because that’s what good policy does is it sets the destination, and then lets business innovate to get there. And we’re starting to see more and more of that good policy. If we look at the Green Deal in the European Union, it’s a great example of that.

Gene Tunny  39:18

Sorry, the Green Deal. I’ve heard of the Green New Deal in the US, but that’s not been implemented. There’s just some sort of wish list from AOC and people of that sort of persuasion, but you mentioned a Green Deal.

Wayne Visser  39:44

Yep. EU Green Deal. It’s effectively Europe’s strategy on climate change. It’s very, very comprehensive and very ambitious. And it touches everything. It’s got a Farm to Fork area which touches agriculture. It’s got a mobility area, around electrification of mobility. It’s got a circular economy element. It’s got a finance element. It’s a very, very strong policy. In some ways, America is trying to copy that with the New Green Deal. Yes, policy helps with the coherence piece.

Then you’ve got creativity, which we’ve talked about a little already. For things to change, for all living systems to change, they need innovation. And that happens through diversity. Again, there’s something we’re working very hard on, but we are living in an age of innovation, no doubt about it. In many of our most difficult problems, we are seeing some amazing solutions coming. If we just pick on one, for example, we know electric cars. I’ll leave that alone, but just remember that that is changing much faster than people think. Norway is burning fossil fuel cars by 2025. That’s just around the corner. In most other countries, UK, it’s 2030. Within 10 years, it’ll really be something to watch.

But take food, for example. There’s a whole movement of course around going more plant based. That makes sense from a health perspective, because 20% of mortality can be reduced just by going more plant based, but also from a climate perspective, and a biodiversity perspective, and of course an animal welfare perspective. But here we see innovation. You’ve seen the Beyond burger and the Impossible burger. These are really engineered to look and taste like the real thing. I know that may be a hard sell in in Australia, but on blind tests, actually, they’ve done extremely well.

Not only that, but we’ve got cultured meat coming. This is grown in labs meat, essentially grown fermented, grown in fat, like you do for insulin. And this is this is going to completely change everything, because again, you don’t have the input of land and water. You have much lower energy input, and you’re not killing anything. You’re literally just taking cells, live cells from a cow, for example, and you’re creating that. In Singapore, you can already go to a restaurant that sells cultured chicken. This is innovation happening very fast. Massive amount of investment going into this.

Gene Tunny  42:41

Sorry, by cultured chicken, do you mean lab grown, do you?

Wayne Visser  42:46

Yes, lab grown.

Gene Tunny 42:48

Wow.

Wayne Visser 42:48

That’s the popular—

Gene Tunny 42:49

In Singapore.

Wayne Visser 42:50

For everything, for steak, and you can literally grow it how you want to try, so lean or however you want it. It is real meat. It’s just that it’s grown from cells rather than the living cow that you have to slaughter or chicken you have to slaughter. And it’s very sustainable, not only in terms of those impacts, but literally, if I remember the numbers correctly, if you’ve got a factory that’s making this, every two days that meat replenishes itself. It grows back. You’ve just got this endless supply of meat that is growing much faster than a cow that you have to grow for months and months, or years. It’s just an example of innovation happening. That’s the creativity piece of the underlying science.

You’ve got a really interesting one, which is convergence. Convergence is very linked to innovation. It’s really the perfect storm. It’s when things reinforce one another. We call this in the science, positive feedback loops. And this is what creates tipping points. And here again, if you look at what’s happening, there are many of these positive reinforcing tipping points. When you were asking do we need more policy, do we need more market forces, what do we need, this is where we’re seeing the convergence because in fact, what we’ve got are the breakthrough technologies, which are starting to scale, plus the policy, which has really been a huge amount of policy reform in the last five years. We’ve just had the UN agree, for example, now to also create a plastics treaty globally, similar to the climate treaty, which countries will need to sign up to. That will happen by 2024. A lot happening on the policy front. Plus the market forces are kicking in. The likes of a Tesla or an Ørsted, which many people don’t know the name, but used to be a fossil fuel company in Denmark, completely transformed to a renewable company and now is one of the largest offshore wind companies in the world. We’re seeing this kind of transformation really happening very quickly.

And then, in addition to that, so we’ve got the policy force, we’ve got the technology force, we’ve got the market force, and then you’ve got the social movements that are kicking in. This is whether it’s the climate strike movement, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Me Too movement, or the extinction rebellion, these are very, very significant, with millions and millions of people, especially younger generations of people, who are just starting to say, “We want a different world. We don’t want our future sold out.” All of these are reinforcing one another.

And if I throw in one last one, finally, finances come on board, coming out of the Glasgow climate agreement. From November last year, there was something called the GFANZ. It’s now the Global Financial Alliance. This is $130 trillion of assets under management that is lined up now from the 450 largest financial institutions in the world, top 10 banks in Europe, top 10 banks in America, all committed now to fund this transition to net zero carbon. Now, practically what that means is they have to go back now to their corporate clients and say, “Show me your plan to get to net zero not only by 2050, but how you’re going to halve your emissions by 2030.” It starts to put massive pressure right through the value chain. All of these things are reinforcing one another, which is why the change is speeding up and why I think on many of these issues, we’re getting to these positive tipping points.

Gene Tunny  47:03

You’ve got a lot of great examples in your book. I would recommend, if you’re listening in the audience, and this sounds interesting, then yeah, please, you should get a copy of the of the book. There’s lots of great examples in there.

I wanted to go back. You mentioned palm oil. That’s something of great interest to me. I’ve done a little bit of work with Indonesian ministries, and palm oils are a major commodity in Indonesia. And if you go to, I think it’s in Bogor, just south of Jakarta, if I remember correctly, there’s a botanic gardens near the presidential palace, and there’s an extraordinary thing. There’s a monument or a statue or a tribute to a palm oil tree I think it is, because it’s such an important crop in Indonesia. I think it was first they imported it to Indonesia from elsewhere in the world, maybe from Africa. I can’t remember correctly. But they tested it in Indonesia, in that the gardens there. There’s a large amount of deforestation, I think in Borneo, due to it. But you mentioned Unilever is now committed to, is it renewable palm oil? Is that right? Is that having a practical impact on deforestation?

Wayne Visser  48:35

Yeah. A couple of things happening there. And you’re absolutely right, I think Indonesia maybe supplies 60 or 70% of the world’s palm oil, along with Malaysia, which provides another 20 or so. It has been absolutely devastating for forests. Indonesia has the third of the world’s largest tropical forests, and that’s really under threat. So we’re destroying these lungs of the earth for commercial interests, because the demand is there. And often the demand is from us in the West, isn’t it, the rich countries, because palm oil is in one in 10 products that we buy, everything from detergents to food. It’s very, very useful.

Yes, quite some time ago now, they set up something called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. This has a way of growing palm that doesn’t have the impact that the old commercial approach does, and doesn’t have the deforestation but also the biodiversity impact. Companies can get certified and supply chains can be certified to that RSPO standard. All the big players are on board, whether it’s Nestle or Unilever or Procter and Gamble. They’ve all committed to go 100% to that. It takes a bit of time, but there are large parts of the sector that are still not committed to that, and so it’s a partial solution right now.

But again, here you start to see the value of policy. Part of the EU Green Deal, one of the most recent things they’ve done in the last few weeks, they have a law being drafted now that they will refuse any export or import of commodities, of which palm oil is one, that can’t prove that they haven’t caused deforestation. The onus is on the supplier. If you’re Indonesia, and you can’t prove that this is palm oil that’s deforestation-free, you’ve just lost Europe as a market. This is going to have huge impacts. It’s not just palm oil, it’s coffee, it’s tea, it’s timber, and several others. This is how change really happens.

Gene Tunny  50:58

Yeah. One of the technologies you talk about in the book is blockchain. Can blockchain help us with traceability, with understanding the origins of or the history of the products that we consume?

Wayne Visser  51:16

Yes, blockchain has massive potential, and is one of those ones, it’s an early stage technology, which still has unfortunate unintended consequences. The upside is traceability. And there are companies using that, to show the sustainability of supply chains. A company called Provenance in the UK is a good example. They track and trace a whole value chain for fish or for gold, and they can show, in a very secure way, every step of that process. Another example is a company called Circularise that does this for plastics and can track all the… They actually even use artificial DNA, which they put into the plastic so that just by scanning it, you can tell at every stage of the supply chain, exactly what is in that plastic and how it needs to be recycled. That’s the upside.

The downside is the blockchain, like cryptocurrencies, takes massive amounts of energy. Until we can solve the energy problem—it helps of course if it’s 100% renewable energy—but so long as it’s largely fossil fuel energy, it’s just adding to the problem of climate change.

Gene Tunny  52:34

I’ll have to look up artificial DNA. I wasn’t aware of that. That sounds fascinating. I’ll put a link about artificial DNA in the show notes. Okay. Before we wrap up, Wayne, I want to ask you about a passage in your book. Now, you talk about economics. This is an economic show. I need to ask about this passage, because I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, but that’s fine. Look, I’m trying to be open-minded on this show.

You write that, “Contemporary economics is degenerative. It systematically disregards ecological limits and fails to ensure that fundamental human needs are met. Economy is good at creating jobs, product services and technologies, but what is the quality of these outputs? Do they create more harm than good? The impacts of economic activity are explained away as negative externalities, as if environmental integrity and social justice exist in some realm outside of the economy, but that is not true. Everything is interconnected.”

Look, I agree everything’s interconnected. My view is you’re probably being a bit unfair on economists. I think contemporary economics is trying to embrace the environment more. There’s a discipline of environmental economics, as I’m sure you’re aware, and even ecological economics, although that’s really sort of a minor discipline. My view would be that economists are increasingly conscious of these issues. I think externalities is an incredibly powerful concept. And it can help us think about potential policy solutions. My concern is that we’re not going to be able to get to net zero globally, because to do so you really need some sort of carbon tax. You need a carbon price of some kind. But to do that properly, you need to have that agreed internationally and you have to have it applying internationally, to the same extent. I just think that we’re just not going to get that international cooperation to be able to do that by 2050. I’m a bit pessimistic on that.

I just wanted to note that, that as an economist I probably… That was the one thing in the book I really reacted to. I’m not negative about the book because of that. But I just wanted to get an understanding of where you’re coming from there. Do you really think contemporary economics is really that bad?

Wayne Visser  55:19

Let me start by saying that I’m not anti-economics, I did a major in economics in my business degree. And I studied environmental, ecological and resource economics in my master’s degree. Economics is a tool that we use to better understand the world and to help manage our economies.

What I think we have to look at is what kind of economics system we’ve had, and what kind of behaviour it’s promoted. Certainly, since the neoliberal economics really took off, since the 1970s, and alongside that, the push for deregulation, it’s been a disaster for the environment. There’s just no other way to say that. It has externalised a lot of the costs. It’s gone for production in places where the environmental standards are the worst, where the social standards of the worst, labour standards are the worst. It has resulted in modern day slavery. We have more people in slavery today than we had when it was officially abolished in the 1700s. That’s all kinds of forced labour. It really hasn’t managed to create a system that is consistently good for all people and for the planet on which we depend. That’s the issue. It’s created an economy that is linear, that take make waste economy, where many of the resources are simply not priced right, they’re just too cheap. If you look at Virgin plastic, for example, it’s just too cheap. It doesn’t take into account those social and environmental costs that we have.

I do think the concept of externalities can be effectively applied to remedy some of this. If we do have taxes on carbon, for example, or on poor social labour standards, this can certainly start to rectify that. But we just have to ask whether those are strong enough.

I actually do believe that we will get a carbon price. It may not emerge as one global price, but I think it’s emerging in different places all around the world, lots of emission trading schemes popping up, lots of companies providing their own internal carbon pricing. I think a consensus will start to emerge on what that price is, and governments will start to impose it in different ways. They have to, because they can’t get to their net zero targets without imposing that restriction on companies and on citizens. It’s definitely coming.

Of course, we don’t get to net zero only by changing production. We also need to invest in nature. That’s the way that you also can draw down some of the carbon to make up… It’s a kind of a Pareto rule, like 80% you need to reduce directly from your lifestyle or your operations or your value chain, and then the remaining 20—or some say it needs to be more like 10%—should be in actually restoring nature, which makes up the balance.

I think all of those things are happening and will happen. I do think there is a brand of economics or a new understanding of economics that can get us there. If you look at Doughnut Economics, which you’re probably familiar with, Kate Raworth and her book, I think that’s the best coherently argued alternative to what would be more conventional economic thinking. All it’s really doing is saying, how do we better build and the ecological limits, or what we sometimes call the scientific planetary boundaries beyond which the whole system is in danger of collapse, and how do we build in those social foundations, the minimum requirements that people need. Economics has been dabbling with those things, but just hasn’t been very effective if you look at some of these trends we’ve been talking about. It’s just how do we improve economics and have a new version that is more effective than we have at the moment.

Gene Tunny  1:00:09

Wayne, you’ve written a really fascinating book with lots of great examples of what business and what communities around the world are doing to try to tackle these challenges to improve sustainability. Is there anything you’d like to say to wrap up, to conclude? This has been a great conversation, and we’ve gone over a lot. I could talk to you for another few hours, but we’ll probably have to wrap up for now. Is there anything you’d like to say in conclusion?

Wayne Visser  1:00:46

Yeah, let me just mention two things, and then I’ll have a cheeky suggestion. One is that there is a chapter on the book specifically on business and how business needs to integrate thriving, the practicalities of how they do that, and there’s six steps to that. That’s based on work that I do with companies, big companies like Johnson and Johnson, where we take them through these steps of integrating. It touches on all kinds of things, on how you consult with stakeholders, how you relook at your values, how you relook at your strategic goals, how you build in new and different metrics, how you redesign your portfolio of products and services. Just be aware that there is, if you’re coming from the business world there, besides all the innovation examples, there’s also this very practical, how do I do this on Monday morning.

There’s a chapter on leadership, because that is really crucial. We are seeing a different brand or a different type of leadership emerging, that is able to tackle these big challenges and turn them into breakthroughs and into thriving. I look at the different characteristics that those leaders have, obviously, with lots of examples.

The cheeky suggestion to end with—I’ve started to do this even in keynote speeches—is to end with a poem, since as you mentioned, I’m not only a professor, but a poet. I just find that it taps into a different part of the brain. With your indulgence, I might just end with one of those.

Gene Tunny  1:02:19

Please. Thank you.

Wayne Visser 1:02:21

I’ll do the one which actually opens the book. It is a poem called Thriving. It even has a stanza that is really all about markets and economics, so you should like it. But see what you think of this. Thriving.

Our life is so much more than a duty or a chore of merely getting by without a why or what for, the law of tooth and claw, the struggle to exist, to rally and resist against life’s slow decay, the way of entropy of living just to see another day, to stay, to endure and survive. No. Life is meant to thrive. In nature, all things grow from seed to tree. We know the cycle of living through giving of reap and so, the flow. Things come and go. The cycles of grooming from sprouting to blooming of stretching for the light, the bright palette of hope, the diverse ways to cope, to cherish and flourish, bursting forth and alive, for nature means to thrive. Society lives too. A melting pot we brew from cultures and crises with spices for flavour and kindness to savour, ideas for conceiving and goals for achieving, that stretch us and bind us, that find us together in all kinds of weather, wanting what’s fair, to care, longing to love and strive for society to thrive. The markets live and breathe in complex webs we weave. The synapses of trade have made the things we need, each deed a chance to lead. While tech is getting smart, yet still it needs a heart, a compass as a guide to tide us through the storm and find a better norm. A breakthrough to renew an innovation drive. Yes, markets too can thrive. All life is meant to rise, to reach up for the skies, to move beyond the edge, to fledge with hopeful cries. Life tries until it flies. It shakes and spreads its wings and trills each note it sings. While given time and space, the race of life is run, full powered by the sun, on land, in seeds, like bees’ sweet nectar from the hive. All life is made to thrive.

Gene Tunny  1:04:57

Very good. Excellent. Professor Wayne Visser, this has been terrific. I really enjoyed our conversation and your poem at the end and fully agree. All life and society and nature and markets are meant to thrive. What a great message to the end on. I’ll put links to all your social media and your website for the book in the show notes. This has been terrific. I really, really value your time and your thoughts and all the great insights in your book. Well done and thanks so much. Hopefully I’ll look forward to your future work. I’d really look forward to chatting with you in the future. That’s been great, learned so much. Thanks again, Wayne.

Wayne Visser  1:05:54

Thanks so much for having me on. Of course, I’m always happy to find an excuse to visit you down under. I used to teach also in Melbourne, and love it down there. I look forward to those opportunities. Just also to say for people, there are different ways to access the book, so not only e-book and hardback, but also an audiobook version, so whatever takes your fancy. Delighted actually that it’s already hit Amazon bestseller status, so really looking forward—

Gene Tunny 1:06:33

Wow.

Wayne Visser 1:06:34

That’s in its first week, and number one on the new titles in various categories, including several economics categories. I’m delighted with that. Just thanks very much for having me on. I love the conversation and I hope your listeners do too.

Gene Tunny  1:06:51

Oh, very good. I’m sure they will. Thank you, Wayne. Really enjoyed it.

Wayne Visser  1:06:55

Thanks a lot. Bye now.

Gene Tunny  1:06:57 Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Big thanks to my guest Dr Wayne Visser and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

What is the Economy? And Why It Matters to You | EP121

What is the Economy? And Why It Matters to You is a new book from UK economics writers Beth Leslie and Joe Richards, who are interviewed in episode 121 of Economics Explored. Legendary music producer Brian Eno has endorsed the book, writing “This clear and comprehensible book is long overdue.”

About this episode’s guests – Beth Leslie and Joe Richards

Beth Leslie is a writer and editor. She became interested in economics when she realised it was a great way to better understand the world around her. Beth is currently the Editor for Economy, a charity that seeks to make economics more understandable for everyone.

Joe Richards is an author, educator and economist. After the financial crash of 2008, Joe’s family lost their business and the home they grew up in. Spotting a lack of public understanding in the economy, Joe’s journey in economics began. Joe campaigned to make economics more accessible for everyone, working with organizations from the Bank of England and BBC News, to local schools and the UK government.

Where you can purchase What is the Economy? And Why it Matters to You:

US https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/what-is-the-economy-9781786995605/

UK https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/what-is-the-economy-9781786995605/

Australia https://www.booktopia.com.au/what-is-the-economy–beth-leslie/book/9781786995605.html

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.