Friday, 3 October 2008

Places, Being and Rest

This is the script for a presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago at the UK's Sustainable Development Research Network's annual conference:

The title of this presentation draws inspiration from Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Esher & Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”. Hofstadter’s work draws particular attention to the idea of ‘emergent properties’ and I hope to echo his thinking to consider how the component elements of new communities add up to more than the sum of their parts. It is – or ought to be – the totality of new communities in which we should be interested.

I especially want to suggest that the economics of new communities have not yet been thought through, and that the opportunity exists to move away from outmoded and counter-productive policies in such a way as to embed new and sustainable practices appropriate to an advanced, low-carbon society in the twenty first century. Attention to this element, I want to suggest, has the potential to have transformative impacts in both ecological and psychological terms.

I shall make this argument in three strands:

Place – I shall argue that the prevailing orthodoxy on ‘place’ has lost touch with the uncontrollable and chaotic element of human nature. Against a broad background sketched by the recent efforts of the TCPA, I shall draw on the work of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Colin Ward to suggest that the characteristics of place that emerge from the free interaction of human beings are the most valued and valuable. Ensuring sufficient space for ‘creative chaos’ will be a vital part of developing new communities.

Being – behavioural economics has made huge strides in recent years in achieving a more appropriate understanding of human behaviour than ‘rational economic man’, yet these insights are filtering only slowly, if at all, into mainstream economic policy. I shall draw on the work of figures such as Kahneman, Schelling and Offer to suggest some of the characteristics of lives and livelihoods by which citizens of new communities might be genuinely fulfilled over the coming decades, and the implications of this for both economic policy and economic development

Rest – emerging, in part, from the discussion of ‘being’, but drawing too on work from Kasser, Hodgkinson and Fred Pearce, I shall suggest that an endemic culture of excess – the consequences, manifestations and symptoms of which range from anthropogenic climate change to systemic inequality to depression and obesity – would, if it were the characteristic of a poorly patient presenting at a GP’s surgery, prompt an immediate prescription of prolonged rest and relaxation.

The policy implications of pulling these threads together can, I suggest, be expressed through the phrase ‘the economics of enough’. To enable communities to live in ways that do not imply excessive use of the planet’s finite resources, do not imply systematic inequality and do not imply chronic ‘ill ease’ we need economies to function in new ways, ways that do not depend endlessly on ‘more’ but are able to respect the simply entreaty: I’ve had enough. I shall conclude with some remarks about what such an economy might look like, and how important it is to embed these characteristics in the communities we develop in the UK over the next couple of decades.

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