In the next few days I am taking part in a debate with the minister of state for energy and climate change, Charles Hendry, on the subject of whether economic growth is incompatible with sustainable development.
I was sitting in a cafe pondering this issue when inspiration came from an unlikely source – an extremely large sign, perhaps 10 metres across, fixed above the bar: “Sometimes the only way to create something new is to go all the way back to the beginning.”
It reminded me of Einstein’s remark that the thinking that got us into a mess cannot, by definition, get us out of it.
Much of the current sustainability debate is based on an acceptance of the existing capitalist system as it is. We rarely re-evaluate at a deep level what it is we are seeking to achieve as a society and whether the existing structures are helping or hindering.
As a result, solutions to the multitude of problems we face, from climate change and biodiversity loss to resource and water scarcity, tend to be built around iterative change.
While those modest moves forward are welcome and create a foundation for taking the next step, many of us recognise the risk that we are fiddling while Rome burns. The signs are all there if we wish to see them: weather pattern changes, debt levels, hikes in the prices of food and raw materials, and widening gaps between the rich and poor, north and south.
Often these are viewed in isolation, but the true value of the idea of sustainability, as opposed to corporate responsibility, is the ability to see social, environmental, ethical and economic issues as interconnected. That is why there is increasing recognition of the need to develop systems-based approaches to change.
We have gone through many cycles of boom and bust, but there is the beginning of a recognition that this time may be fundamentally different and we cannot just assume that everything is going to get back to normal. Also, do we really want things to get back to normal?
As George Monbiot pointed out the other day, we have inflicted more damage since 1950 to the planet’s living systems than we achieved in the preceding 100,000 years and continued economic growth in the UK has done most people few favours.
So if the traditional measure of GDP to measure the health of a nation is close to becoming obsolete, how can we measure what success would look like if we went “all the way back to the beginning.”
The truth is that it is easier to point out the problems than find a systemic solution, in part because the world looks so complex from the outside and individuals feel powerless in relation to the challenge.
But it is vital that we are able to articulate a better future and the time to do that is now. We know from psychology that a crisis offers an individual their best opportunity to contemplate a new way. But if that opportunity is missed, it can lead to even greater levels of depression, or a sense of meaninglessness.
Jackson highlights how in developed countries, continued growth and the policies which promote it, undermine what is most important to us: health, happiness, good relationships, strong communities, confidence about the future and a sense of meaning and purpose. He also suggests a new alternative macroeconomic model. But one book and one person is not enough.
So what do you think? It would be really valuable not only to hear your views on systemic solutions, but also to point us in the direction of other innovative thinkers and ideas that we can all benefit from in terms of deepening our understanding and our sense of hope.
If you have any thoughts on systems solutions, or you’d like to pose a question to other readers, please post them in the comments section below. To post, you’ll need to registered to comment on the guardian site.