These aren't my words. They're the words of an engineer. I don't have a great history of hitting it off with engineers as they seem to think in a different way from me, so I work hard to not shut my mind down and get cross at what I see as a mechanistic and linear way of thinking when one hoves into view. One notable exception is the very remarkable Patricio Morales, a Chilean engineer working in SE Asia on sustainable resource consumption in hotels - he's the dude...). And I like this one, too. I've made bold the paragraph that really struck an extra chord, too - on the danger of becoming so involved in one's specialisation, it legimitises not thinking systemically...but to be honest, there's a lot of stuff that resonates here.
See what you think. This was published first in 2015, in "Sustainability: new questions, new answers" published by Anglia Ruskin University Global Sustainability Institute, and edited by Rosie Robison (you can see her talk at our Psychology of Change event here) - from whom I have permission to re-post here, and to whom I say thank you.
Working positively to redirect growth: a personal perspective
Tim Hughes, University of Cambridge, firstname.lastname@example.org
It is with some trepidation that I write this article, and I will start by explaining why. As a researcher in systems engineering (developing mathematical techniques for designing systems which achieve desirable outcomes through the appropriate use of feedback), I am accustomed to working within the relative comfort of mathematical argument. By carefully stating my assumptions, I can speak confidently about my findings, reassured by a watertight logical argument. The broad subject of ‘sustainability’, addressed in this book, is much more messy. I am unable to reach the same level of confidence as I feel in the rest of my work. Consequently, to date I have kept my interest in sustainability mainly on a ‘personal’ rather than ‘professional’ level.
Much has been written on the topic of sustainability, and one wonders whether there is anything new to say. However, one intention of this book is to reflect the voices of those working in a wide range of disciplines. And so, in this article, I will use my own words to convey several observations on sustainability that I have read elsewhere and which resonated with me, and I add some personal reflections along the way. These observations offer a perspective on growth, encompassing both the present growth in the use of ecological resources, and the growth in the demands on individuals in the workplace. I have been encouraged and inspired by the vision of many authors who have articulated ways that we can redirect growth in order to both improve our wellbeing and reduce the burden we impose on the environment. In sharing this vision, I hope you might also find similar inspiration.
A key point that I wish to make in this article is that exponential (i.e. rapid) growth is an inherent property of certain kinds of systems. Also, this type of growth leads to big effects over time, even though the change from one day to the next can be barely perceptible. Exponential growth is where the rate of growth of something is proportional to the current amount of that thing, the textbook example being your bank balance. When something grows exponentially, the time it takes to double in amount is constant: if you have a loan which charges 10% interest, and you make no repayments, then the amount owed will double every 7 years.
The powerful effects of exponential growth were strongly articulated in a book I read recently: Limits to Growth: 30 year update by Donella and Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers. At first, the notion seemed so familiar to me (as a researcher in systems engineering) that I wondered why it needed stating. However, on further reading, I began to understand the reason for the emphasis. Firstly, when there is a limit to the resources in the system (for example, global oil reserves in the world economy), then a system experiencing exponential growth can, from a gradual start, approach this limit very rapidly. Consequently, by the time it is apparent that the resources are being exhausted, it may be too late to take evasive action.
Secondly, exponential growth is a property of certain types of systems, and to change the pattern of growth requires a change to the properties of the system. For this reason, it is typically system properties which are responsible for outcomes that persist over time despite the use of interventions aimed at changing them. These interventions are typically ineffective because they are based on an insufficient understanding of the relationship between the outcome they wish to control and the system which causes it. Indeed, in describing these systems, it is usual to encounter an apparent circularity: you have a large credit card debt, so you get charged a lot of interest, and so you have a large credit card debt, and so forth. This reflects the inherent circularity due to the feedbacks within the system itself. By understanding the effects of these feedbacks, it is often possible to re-design our systems in order to achieve favourable outcomes.
What lies behind the current direction of growth?
It seems to me that many current social, political, and economic systems are geared towards growth in a direction which is not favourable for society as a whole. The predominant concern addressed in Limits to Growth was the growth in the use of ecological resources which is leading to the exhaustion of many of these resources. Connected with this growth has been the emergence of a consumerfocussed society in which material possessions are used to convey the status and personality of their owner. This, in my opinion, has led to a growth in the demands and stresses on individuals in the work environment. Moreover, I believe that these stresses are compromising the capacity of society to challenge and re-engineer its systems in order to address the issues of ecological degradation. The persistent increase in environmental damage, despite the intentions of many to reverse this trend, provides evidence that changes to our systems are necessary. These will be most effective if they encourage preservation of the environment and mutual respect among people as the norms. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss seven of the mechanisms, and some of the feedbacks between them, which I see as partly responsible for these trends.
Overuse of environmental resources to repay debts
Our present financial system has created a high level of debt with a tendency for this debt to increase over time. One way this happens is through the interaction between bank lending and house prices. Banks have an incentive to lend money due to the profit they earn from interest payments. As there is a risk of borrowers defaulting on their loans, the banks find mortgage lending particularly appealing, since they are able to repossess property if repayments are not made. Due to planning restrictions and construction lead-times, an increased availability of mortgages is more likely to lead to a rise in house prices than an increase in the number of houses. Since housing is a necessity, then the demand for houses will not reduce much in response to these increasing prices. In fact, sustained increases in house prices have caused housing to be viewed as a prudent investment.
Consequently, the demand for borrowing increases, and banks are willing to fulfil this demand. Thus, an increase in the supply of mortgage lending leads to an increase in its demand which leads to a further increase in its supply, and so forth; and the level of debt grows over time. Those in debt then find themselves having to work long hours to service this debt. This also creates a drive for increases in human productivity. Regrettably, this often comes at the expense of the environment, as the simplest way to increase human productivity is for each worker to use more of the natural resources which are undervalued in our present economy. These points are explained with great clarity in the book Modernising Money, by Andrew Jackson and Ben Dyson.
Feedback between supply and demand
By using undervalued environmental resources, industry can produce greater quantities of goods than the present level of demand. To shift the surplus, demand is then created through advertising. To satisfy their aspirations for advertised products, people must either work longer hours or be more productive in order to earn more income. This causes a further increase in supply. In this manner, there is a growth in the consumption of material goods. Moreover, this behaviour becomes normalised over time, to the extent that advertising is now so pervasive that its effects on our buying habits are rarely recognised, and society encourages people to aspire to a high income lifestyle irrespective of whether there are sufficient resources to support this.
Specialisation leads to dependency (yes yes yes - Ed)
It is the norm for many people in developed countries to aspire towards higher education and professional careers. Among the several reasons for this is a desire to attain status and to finance high levels of consumption in response to social pressures. To fulfil these aspirations, people are encouraged to seek jobs which have increased levels of training, specialisation, and responsibility. While this was undoubtedly beneficial in the past, it is questionable whether further increases in the levels of specialism and responsibility are appropriate today. In particular, it can cause a loss of skills which are important but undervalued in our present economy, and an increased dependence on others. For example, low wages and decreasing job availability has reduced the number of young people going into farming in the UK, which may lead to a greater reliance on imported food as the current generation of farmers reach retirement. An increase in specialisation can also cause greater geographical migration of labour, both of the specialist to the location of the specialised job, and of migrant workers from less developed countries to provide the services which the specialist no longer has the time or ability to complete themselves. In turn, society becomes more reliant on money to pay for services. It may also lead to a decline in the level of personal responsibility the specialist feels about subjects outside their specialisation, which they may consider to be ‘someone else’s job’. This could lead to a societywide feeling of helplessness when faced with challenges which lie outside the domain of established specialisms, such as the current issues relating to the overuse of ecological resources.
Targets and metrics (yes yes yes! Ed)
There is a current trend towards a target-oriented culture. People are becoming increasingly reliant on metrics to judge success, and there is a drive to improve on previous performance. This culture is being passed down to subsequent generations through a teaching system which encourages the capable to take increasing numbers of examinations and expects annual improvements in examination performance. In addition, the present rise in the levels of student debt is likely to provide further incentives for people to seek higher paid jobs and work longer hours.
Short term gains and cost cutting
In the past, investment gains could follow from material growth as our capacity to use available environmental resources expanded. To maintain profitability in the face of depleting environmental resources, it is becoming increasingly necessary for companies to reduce their costs. This can result in efforts to reduce quality, reduce tax liabilities, or seek the most undervalued goods. By minimising their tax liabilities, some companies are no longer providing the tax revenues necessary to pay for the infrastructure (transport, education, healthcare) required to enable them to produce their goods. This expense then falls on the workers, who are again required to work harder to maintain their incomes. This is being further exacerbated by a financial system in which the people responsible for making the investment decisions have little knowledge or interest in the long term objectives of the companies in which they invest, and are encouraged to take risks to achieve short term gains as they are not personally liable when losses occur.
Influence of special issue groups
The high levels of economic growth over the past two centuries are in a large part attributable to a rise in the use of fossil fuels. This has led to a society-wide dependence on fossil fuels to maintain the standard of living we have grown to expect. As a consequence, the fossil fuel industry has considerable influence over decision making processes. As is clearly articulated in the book The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, the value of these companies is based on projections of a continued use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. These companies therefore have both the motivation and the power to encourage society to continue to pursue increases in fossil fuel use.
Disconnect between cause and effect
The effects of ecological degradation typically occur with a time lag, are difficult to attribute to specific causes, and can occur in areas which are geographically remote from the original cause. It therefore does not seem surprising that there is a reluctance to make changes when faced with strong social pressure to continue with ‘business as usual’. The tragedy, as I and many others see it, is that growth has gone beyond the point where we are able to satisfy our basic needs of food, health, and shelter, and yet continues to advance in the pursuit of increased material wealth. And, despite our capacity to satisfy our needs, there are still many who do not have access to basic goods and services.
So, is it possible to halt the growth in the amount of material goods produced, ensure basic goods and services are distributed to all, and maintain growth in human welfare? I feel this is possible, as positive human-to-human interactions, and positive interactions with the natural world, often serve to increase our wellbeing yet come at little or no environmental cost. If these interactions are also attributed a financial value then it is possible to maintain a level of economic growth without the same detrimental ecological degradation we are currently experiencing. Examples of the kind of changes which could effect this, relating to each of the seven preceding points, include: (i) taking measures towards reducing national and household debt, and excusing the debts of developing countries; (ii) decreasing the pervasiveness of advertising; (iii) assigning greater value to care and household work; (iv) reducing the frequency of school and university level examinations; (v) establishing a taxation system which is respected and recognised for the value it brings to society; (vi) reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while supporting the transition of the fossil fuel industry to more sustainable activities; (vii) engaging with the effects of environmental damage on people in other parts of the world, and in future generations, and feeling positive about the lifestyle changes we make to reduce this damage.
A transition to a society based around growth in welfare will require a change in our social systems, which are currently geared towards material growth. Envisaging a change in these systems often seems utopian, and a long way from the present situation. However, if a change does occur, it is likely to be gradual at first, so as not to seem so unusual. This is a feature of the exponential growth discussed at the beginning of this article, which starts off gradually, and then accelerates to the point of causing relatively rapid change. As an example, suppose a trend emerged towards people making a positive decision to dedicate more time to community-centred projects and household tasks such as childcare and cooking. People making this change then derive greater happiness from spending more time with their family and the local community, and from being able to see the effects of their work on a local scale. By seeing the positive effects of this on the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole, then more people are encouraged to make this change, and the benefits of this work become more recognised within society. Because they feel more respected and confident about their position in society, people become less inclined towards material goods.
In time, subsequent generations come to aspire towards this lifestyle, leading to a further increase in welfare and decrease in the consumption of material goods. The preceding example may seem somewhat idealistic, and one may question whether it will lead to changes within the necessary time-scales, and of a sufficient magnitude, to address the significant challenges faced by today’s society. It appears that our effects on the environment are already causing major changes to the earth (e.g. the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the rise in the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, or, more controversially, recent increases in extreme weather events), and it seems increasingly likely that these effects will continue over the next century even if we stopped all ecological degradation today. Moreover, to make the changes required to reduce the risk of greater environmental damage will require concerted action on a global scale and soon. However, it is proving very difficult to agree on fair and proportionate changes for each country, and many countries are failing to meet existing pledges. This is evidence that the vision and leadership shown by those who wish to exercise positive changes on a global scale is hampered by the underlying behaviour of the systems within which they operate. I therefore believe that the most effective changes we can make, if we feel strongly about these issues, are on a personal level. Our actions will have an effect on others and, given enough uptake, may lead to an accelerating effect. I feel this is particularly likely to be the case if it becomes a part of our education and the values we give to our children, both through teaching and through personal example.
Want to read more? Take a look at Limits to Growth: 30 year update, a book by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows, published in 2004.