Report by Andrew Norman on ‘Inequality and the Green Economy’ at the St Paul’s Institute, London, Tuesday June 21st
This turned out to be a good evening consisting of a very interesting panel discussion. It was chaired by Paul Cook (Tearfund’s Advocacy Director & member of its Senior Management Team overseeing their policy research, lobbying and campaigning teams in the UK) replacing Nigel Harris their CEO.
The four members of the panel each spoke for a few minutes and then we finished the evening with questions to them from the floor.
Video’s of the talks are available on this site: http://www.stpaulsinstitute.org.uk/videos/2016/jun/21/inequality-and-the-green-economy
These were the points I brought away with me from what they said:
Irene Guijt (Head of research, Oxfam GB) stressed the connections – e.g. between issues of inequality/ environmental implications/ inclusiveness in how the richest tiny percentage increasingly have the same wealth as the huge percentage of the poorest, and that gap widening, in the UK and other countries globally – likewise at how the small top percentage are using greatly more carbon than the large bottom segment – we need a more systemic view of what drives poverty – so Oxfam are very concerned about the link between inequality and he exercise of power, e.g. the amount of money US energy firms regularly spend on lobbying government – these connections we need to understand better
Tony Greenham (Director of Economy, Enterprise & Manufacturing, RSA) first asked, ‘what is an economy?’ A: ‘A system of rules and institutions for meeting human aspirations and needs’. It’s often assumed that the way an economy works is just as a natural feature, so that there just must be a market economy. But this is a powerful myth, he said, i.e. a market is not really ‘free’ because it is socially constructed – designed. An economy is a system – which we have designed. At this point in history we urgently need a renewal of democracy so that we might redesign the economy in the light of the goals we would identify as being most desirable, which, he suggested might be: planetary health, universal economic security, and being able to live meaningful lives. He said that a circular economy would help because it is restorative. – quoting Schumacher, “modern man talks of a battle with nature forgetting that if he won the battle he would find himself on the losing side as part of nature” So we need ‘a different kind of democratic engagement’.
Ken Webster (Head of Innovation, Ellen MacArthur Foundation) promoted a circular model for the economy as offering a solution to ]some of the key problems we suffer from – the redundancy of conceiving of an economy as being like a machine – better that of a system with feedback, like learning is, like good relationships are – so i.e. complex, adaptive systems rather that the take-make- break-dispose linear model we currently use. “A circular economy is regenerative, it closes the loop, it reduces input and increases output and can address inequality because if we design out waste more opportunities are created for everyone. “A revived democracy comes when you can participate more.”
Joanne Green (Senior Policy Adviser, Tearfund) Tearfund sees how we’re stuck in the bind: ‘the more we develop economically, the more we damage the environment’. But a circular economy is a concrete
alternative: it helps with growth, employment and environmental care, helps those in poverty, creating jobs as growth is allowed for, improves health with better living & working conditions, it is a worldview “which places the economy firmly within the natural world”, i.e. away from the extractive, exploitive model.
Lastly, I append below the text of the sermon which I then preached the following Sunday.
with all good wishes
Sermon on 5th Sunday after Trinity : 26th June 2016
Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’, he chose that way. I guess this was because his project was nothing less than the spiritual renewal of the Jewish tradition – which, of course, was centred on Jerusalem. So he aimed for the centre.
In all the debate leading up to the EU referendum one of the major issues was the consequences it had for the economy. Now we’ll find out. But arguably it is the economy that’s at the centre of how we manage our life as a society. Last week I was asked to attend a panel discussion in London – to report back to Green Christian – on what’s called the circular economy. So, first of all I had to make sure I’d got my head around what that was!
At the moment we have a linear economy – which is sometimes summed up as a take-make-use-& dispose kind of system. So we want stuff, we get it, we consume it, and then we get rid of what’s left – typically in a land-fill site, an incinerator or just as particles into the atmosphere. But that isn’t the way living things usually operate. Biological systems consist of organisms which process nutrients that are then fed back into the cycle; weather systems move round the globe and interact with all that’s going on; ocean currents are the same; even the orbits of planets are nonlinear. One of the great insights Alan Turing had was to think of making a machine that mimicked the human mind – we call it Artificial Intelligence now and it’s what modern computers are already starting to do. Other scientists have taken the same approach, studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell for example. Maybe this makes a lot of sense: looking for the natural ways to solve our problems, ways that are sustainable, and which rely not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.
The diagram on the front of the Weekly Leaflet illustrates how a circular economy works. A desired product is designed and then made, it’s sold and well-used; maybe it does break, but then it will, if possible, always be repaired because it has to stay in the loop; eventually it is recycled and then fed back into the manufacturing process all over again. This encourages the selling of services over against products, as also keeping it all as local as possible. Money circulates more – and surely we’d all prefer a system that’s not allowing the ever smaller top percentage of society have ever increasingly more money than the bottom percentage of people which also continues to grow? Prices come to reflect real costs, and wealth is uncoupled from resource consumption. Interestingly a circular economy was identified as national policy in China ten years ago. In the UK it could create new opportunities for growth, reduce waste, make for a more competitive economy in the global market, help us to feed and resource our more independent nation – and with all that lessen the environmental impacts of our production and consumption. The EU had already started to recommend a circular economy – but there you are – however, now here’s an optimistic thought: maybe a more independent UK could feed-back into Europe the benefits of a circular economy?
But why should we be thinking about this in church? Why in a sermon? Because a circular economy of the spirit is healthy: when faith-value-worship-action – together with our personal attitudes and behaviour – when that all connects up, the one feeding into the other; then our faith is how we live.
If Jesus did set his face to go to Jerusalem he would have known that he was going to run up against the complacency and fearfulness of ordinary people, and conflict with the vested interests of the powerful. Likewise the idea of a circular economy might not appeal to everyone! But the churches can help to promote the thinking – which is what we were discussing in London, and what we’re hoping to do nationally through Green Christians; individually we can look for ways in which we are already beginning to organize our lives in this more circular way; and as St Nicolas’ eco-church here consciously to use resources well, recycle, and feed-back into our ongoing life, rather than just to take, use thoughtlessly, and dispose of heedlessly.
In all the negativities of our post-EU place in the world this is something positive we can do. Perhaps the most centrally important thing any nation can do: to set our faces in this direction and then, after putting our hands to the plough, simply not ever to look back.