Blogs >> Starting where we are, going where we need to go - David Bent

Starting where we are, going where we need to go - David Bent

Earlier this week I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Schumacher College to talk about the role of business in the transition to a sustainable future. Normally, in my day job is Director of Sustainable Business at Forum for the Future, I’m more radical than the people I am engaging with. I spend most of my time working with Big Business, being a critical friend, trying to push them just as much as they can handle (and no more) on making a more sustainable world. But, here at the College, I would be the least radical, the most accepting of the status quo.

How would the students react to my pragmatism? How would they react to my propositions that some varieties of economic growth can be good, and some large corporations are trying as much as they can to be part of a sustainable society?

The simple answer is: they reacted with a determination to try to understand, and with an appreciation that working through different points of view can sharpen your thinking – and occasionally change it. Which is, of course, what happened for me too.

On day one I proposed that we have to start from where we are. Thanks to the various victories of the neo-liberalism, we have shrunk the role of the state and massively expanded the role of markets. Consequently businesses touch many parts of our lives, and are key players in the markets that shape so much human activity. My experience is that leading businesses – all too few in number – are seeing that their medium- to long-term viability relies on a dynamic society. They have an enlightened self-interest in creating a sustainable future.

That doesn’t mean we can rely on incumbents to change the world – transformational change in markets comes through creative-destruction, after all. But it does mean, for me anyway, there can be a positive role for business in the transition.

But we know businesses must grow to satisfy their owners, which implies economic growth. As you might imagine, this caused objections from the students. My question to them: if we could have increasing amount of human welfare and a reducing amount of environment impact, then what does it matter if there is growth in the financial value of activity too?

This is where they helped to sharpen my thinking. I had assumed that ‘bad’ economic growth was where environment and/or human welfare got worse, and ‘good’ economic growth increased welfare but was absolutely decoupled from environmental impact. The students pushed me further: if economic growth concentrates power that reduces the resilience of society, then that is a bad form of growth too.

In fact, that’s a good way to understand the recent financial crisis. The form of economic growth had created financial behemoths who were too big to fail – the very opposite of resilient. When one fell over, only hasty (and debt-inducing) government action prevented a financial meltdown.

There is one area where I might have to change my mind. For a few years now I have confidently asserted that what matters is outcomes, not motive. Should we care if someone wants to create a profit if the widget they invented has positive spill-over effects?

But, said the students, what if the profit motive determines what outcomes are possible? What if - without the deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment of deep ecology – that same innovator invents a new widget with negative spill-over effects?

I’ve also come away with areas to think more deeply about. For a few years now Forum has been using an articulation of a sustainable economy called Horizons. Developed with Innovate UK (the UK’s innovation agency) and Aviva (an insurance house), Horizons gives the environmental limits we need to stay within, the social and political foundations (from equity through long-termism to accountable governance) we need to maintain and the essential needs we must meet. If your economy meets these conditions then you are sustainable, we have been saying.

But now I wonder. Because Horizons has nothing to say about how the different elements in the economy relate to one another; how, in short, it is organised. I wonder what would happen if we said an economy needed to be organised aligned to the ecological design principles of complexity, resilience, panarchy, and cooperation? A small question to ponder.

Thanks

My pragmatism means I accept that business – and markets – have a role to play now. But what if a truly sustainable economy needs to be organised differently? Aren’t there moral limits to markets, and therefore on the role of business?  If that’s the case, then I shouldn’t just casually assume that business and markets (as we currently understand them) can deliver a sustainable future.

We do need to start from where we are, which means helping businesses to play their part in the transition. But we also have to go to a global society where billions of people can choose how they live their lives, aligned with the natural world.  The roles of business and of markets may change massively.

So, I appreciate the chance to bring some of my expertise and experience into the Masters, and have the gift of questioning my long-hidden assumptions as a result. A beneficial exchange.


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