Episode #103 Your money or our lives: Economics, in a post-COP world with James Meadway
How can we shape our economies in a post-COP, decarbonising world? How can we build a way of exchanging value that actually works in favour of our planet, not against it?.
Dr James Meadway is an economist whose work has focused on developing viable alternatives to neoliberalism, and has published widely on democratic ownership, environmental economics, and automation and the digital economy.
He was previously economic advisor to John McDonnell when he was Shadow Chancellor, and was chief economist at the New Economics Foundation. He is currently writing a book on the British economy after the 2008 crisis, and appears regularly on broadcast media as a commentator on UK politics.
James holds a PhD in economics from the University of London, masters degrees in economics and economic history, and a BSc in economics and economic history from LSE. He has taught at SOAS, City, Cambridge and Sussex Universities.
In this episode, we explore the repercussions of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow and how the world might respond – in particular, how we might respond as individuals, and as communities.
Manda: In today’s podcast, I’m speaking to James Meadway, who came to my attention when he was the economic adviser to John McDonnell. And as anyone who listens to this podcast will know, I think John McDonnell would have made a superlative chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK and that the UK could have become a shining light, a beacon, of how the world’s economies could be shaped to get us through. And then the establishment got a big fright in 2017 and got really hard hardcore in 2019, and that didn’t happen. So James Meadway went off and became a director of the Progressive Economy Forum, which is looking at all of the good things that we could still do in spite of the clock ticking ever towards midnight. And I first interviewed James back in July, I think, and we had technical difficulties and decided it really didn’t work, and we rescheduled it for just after COP. Actually, the last few days of the COP conference. And the Gods of technology obviously really don’t like this one, because in this instance, my end did not record, which has never happened before or since, I’m glad to say.
Manda: And so what we’ve done now is I’ve listened through to what James said and I’ve rerecorded my bits, so it doesn’t sound perhaps as smooth as it might do. I possibly sound slightly less inarticulate than I usually do. But I wanted you to hear James because he is one of our foremost progressive economic thinkers and we need to change the economy. That is obvious as we move forward into whatever is this generative future that can happen. It cannot be predicated on extractive neoliberal profit above all else, fossil fuels running the country, economics. We need a new model. So in talking to James, I was endeavouring to help us work a way through to what that might be. I have several other economists scheduled for later down the line, closer to Thrutopia because I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we are heading in the right direction. So. With that in mind, people of the podcast, please welcome James Meadway.
Manda: So, James, thank you so much for yet again coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast and for phoning in from Bahrain, which I have to say is a lot warmer, I’m sure, and possibly even more politically stable than we are in the UK, possibly even less right wing. Probably not true yet. Anyway, as we always start, can you ease us in to how you went from being economic adviser to John McDonnell to being a director of the Progressive Economy Forum?
James: Well, look, the reason we ended up with this job is because PEF, the Progressive Economy Forum, had been set up a few years ago by Patrick Allen and John Weekes, primarily, as a way of trying to to promote what you might call Keynesian economics and anti-austerity economics in particular, that both of them thought there was a real issue with the way that economic issues were being reported, the way that policy was being developed and the need to kind of push back against some of the sort of more bizarre ideas out there. That the government has a kind of piggy bank out of which it takes money and into which we put our taxes. You still actually do see some of this and quite frequently from people who really ought to know better by this point. You see it on the BBC. Sometimes you see it from particularly not so much the economics journalists who have got more sense and do have some ideas of what they’re talking about. But a lot of this Westminster reporting; like Rishi Sunak’s Piggy Bank or the idea that, you know, because as this morning the economy isn’t growing quite as fast as the Office of Budget Responsibility said it would, so that means that Rishi Sunak has to make cuts or raise taxes. These sort of set really bad ideas about what’s going on. So it was set up a few years ago to do that.
James: It worked very closely with John McDonnell when he was shadow chancellor, developing bits of policy, and then I got asked to come in and work as director to sort of get it going again in these these strange new post-pandemic times that we’re now in. And really, what got me there, I think, was, well, partly just working for John myself as his economic adviser from when he was appointed chancellor to the shadow chancellor and never quite made it to chancellor to the end of 2018. And prior to that, I was chief economist at the New Economics Foundation. And prior to that, of course, there are various other jobs and done a PhD and taught economics and written some things and all sorts of things. So so that’s my kind of policy background, if you like, getting up to this point. I’ve always been… Sorry. I was gonna say I’ve always been involved politically with all sorts of other things. You know, there was there was a lot recently over the summer talking about 10 years, 20 years, God help us, since the Genoa protests against the G8. So I was heavily involved with the anti-globalization movement, with the movement against the Iraq War, with lots and lots of other political activities of various sorts over the years.
Manda: It seems to me that in your early years you were very politically involved on the progressive side of politics. I think left and right are now pretty much anachronisms in terms of how we think. But when you were younger, you were probably considered on the left. And I wonder for someone who was obviously already very politically aligned and motivated, what was it about economics that made you think you’d be able to change the world in the way you wanted if you were to go and study that?
James: Yes. And this was this was a mistake because obviously what you actually get taught, if you do economics in almost any, this is still the case, but it’s a bit better than it was before 2008, but not much better. If you do economics at almost any university in Britain, you’ll get taught basically a bunch of maths that to be crude is there to demonstrate why Margaret Thatcher was always right. It’s there to say free markets are, in fact, the best way that you could ever run society. People are rational, utility maximisers. Only now, ok, we’ll sort of adjust that ever so slightly and say they’re not quite entirely rational. And this is how you should really be thinking about how society is and it’s pretty useless. You notice this if you, particularly before the crash, if you did a degree in economics, you’d come out the other end of spending, what, three years as an undergraduate and realised that you had some ideas about how to demonstrate a proof of how general equilibrium exists. But you couldn’t really tell anyone what was going to happen to interest rates or unemployment or any of the things that people tend to think of, as this is economics. What is the economy actually doing? It’s significantly useless for a whole bunch of real world questions.
James: They got exposed in 2008, and there’s been sort of a process of reforms driven by students who protested about what they were being taught, quite rightly, about the need to to break out of this very, very tight, basically, useless paradigm that still dominates how economics is done in the main, this neoclassical paradigm, this neoclassical way of thinking about the world. Student protests helped move that, the profession itself, I think, has recognised that things need to change a bit. And it’s been subjected to all these sort of fairly dramatic shocks and events over the last few years. Not least of which, of course, is the pandemic over the last 18 months or so. So things have shifted a bit there. But certainly when I entered university, it was a big mistake to do economics with the thought that this will be an interesting way of talking about politics because it isn’t. What it turned out to be is, I mean, it’s quite a way to learn this stuff if you basically disagree fundamentally with everything you’re being taught. It sort of forces you to learn it quite well. It’s not necessarily the best way to do this, but it’s not a bad way to pick up what the thing is all about, if you just think this is fundamentally wrong, because then you have to work backwards and sort of think about why is this wrong?
James: And if it is wrong, what is happening? And if it is wrong, why do these people think like this? Which is, you get into their head and start to have to understand why it is that people are going around making claims about how humans behave, when they’re organised in a society as we all are. But we’re going to pretend as if they’re just completely atomised individuals who can only relate to each other on the basis of their magic utility function that rattles around in their head, whatever it might be. So, so you have to try and get into the space of thinking about that. But it was a huge mistake in that sense, and I’d strongly recommend people don’t do economics if they’re remotely interested in, like how society works or want to do something to change the world. It’s as Joan Robinson, who is a very brilliant economist who died in the early 1980s and said the purpose of learning economics is to know when economists are lying to you, and that’s basically it. There’s no real other reason to do this.
Manda: And she’s right, obviously. This echoes very much something that I remember one of my early teachers saying about Caesar, which is the reason to read Caesar, is to work out why he’s lying.
Manda: And of course, he was lying because he was a politician and he was giving a narrative back to the people, particularly in the Senate back in Rome, where he wanted to demonstrate that he was fit to be the single ruler instead of a co-counsel as things were in the Republic. But why do you think that economists are lying? Because they’re not unintelligent people, and they must at some point be able to see that the world is not fitting into their models? So why do they go ahead? Rishi Sunak’s piggy bank or this bizarre idea that government spending is like household spending where you have to bring the money in, and only then can you send it out or else you’re going to incur debt and then you’re going to be in real trouble. Governments function by making money. They function by creating debt that people want because it’s stable. As Richard Murphy often points out, if the government called in all its debt or repaid all its debt, then pension funds around the world would be horrified because they like having government bonds. So why is it that people are consistently lying within the mainstream economic forum?
James: Sort of. I mean, basically the reasons why people are lying, have stayed exactly the same since the 1880s or thereabouts, maybe the 1860’s since since the marginal revolution. Since the kind of the potentially radical content of what economics could be as a discipline was basically removed and replaced with some quite dull sort of Victorian maths copying itself from quite dull Victorian physics, which has basically stayed as the bedrock of the subject ever since.
Manda: So then,would you recommend that young people now who are really deeply invested in progressive politics and wanting to see a generative world? Would you recommend that they go and study economics or would you suggest that they study something else?
James: Well, anything, honestly, anything else! I mean, it is well paid. I mean, the statistics tell you that economics graduates seem to be quite well paid. So I mean, there’s that? It’s not nothing to think about, I suppose.
Manda: And the pay does seem to be an issue. When I was studying economics down at Schumacher, they showed us some papers demonstrating that economics students become more selfish and more financially oriented as they go through the course. So they put quite a lot of effort into making sure that we didn’t do that. We created a kind of inter-student gift economy and we had secret friends where we were giving each other gifts without knowing who they were from; endeavouring to make sure that even though we were studying regenerative economics, that took as its foundation, the fact that the current economic system is broken, the model is broken and we need to find a new one; that even though we knew that and we were studying all the alternatives, we still didn’t fall into the trap of becoming neoliberals, I suppose, of becoming acquisitional; of becoming fixated by money and the gaining of money. What would you say about that?
James: You see, I mean, there’s some really interesting… Sort of on the boundary between kind of psychology and economics…but these little games you can set up where people are supposed to collaborate with each other and share things, and you kind of check to see whether people actually want to share it. Classic one being where you give people a plate of biscuits and one person can divide the biscuits between the two people playing this game, and the other person can accept or reject that division. And most people, if they do this, go well, kind of well, look, it’s kind of fair if we have 50 50, most people do something around about a 50 50 split. I get half the biscuits, you get the other half the biscuits. And of course, the other person says, Yes, I’ll take that. Economists, they think, Well, I can make this division. And as long as the other person has at least one biscuit, they’re better off than no biscuits at all. So therefore, I’m going to take ninety nine of these hundred biscuits. You have one. And that’s how you proceed. I mean, systematically, economics graduates are more selfish than graduates in other subjects. The question is whether it’s they go into it because they’re selfish people or whether it’s because they come out of it as selfish people.
Manda: Yeah, to be decided. So we could go down that rabbit hole. But let’s not because there’s so much else that we want to talk about, and we are recording this in the last few days of COP26, the conference of All the Parties, the 26th Conference of All the Parties, which is taking place in Glasgow, where I grew up in Scotland and has been touted quite a lot as ‘the one’ where we actually need to start making a difference. And certainly, looking at all of the activism, the huge, huge numbers of people there and their capacity to be completely articulate and the wide range of ages and the gender balance, and the fact that so many people came from the global south in spite of COVID and transport difficulties, and the fact that trying to find somewhere to stay overnight in Glasgow was almost impossible at anything like a rational price. So it seems to me that on the streets a lot has changed, but I’m not so sure that a lot has changed in the halls where the white men in suits make their decisions. But you are possibly closer to these things than I am, so I was wondering what you thought about the cop and whether you think it’s getting anywhere or likely to get anywhere and whether it’s done what we needed it to do.
James: Two parts. I mean, the first one is what’s been good about it is something you mentioned, which I think is the mobilisation, the attention being paid. Certainly in Britain. And I can’t really judge what’s happening sort of in terms of reporting the rest of the world. Although my sense is that this is a much bigger event than it would have been 10 years ago or even five years ago, perhaps in Paris. I mean, yes, five years ago. That my sense is that the world’s attention has moved onto this issue in a much more significant way than it was really in the fairly recent past. And that includes a mobilisation of civil society and the sophistication of the demands and the requests being made by civil society, and particularly by some developing nations around what should now be happening. It’s very interesting to see things like loss and damage really moving up that list of of what COP concerns itself with. In other words, the idea that frankly, that climate change is already happening, it’s going to get worse from this point and therefore there is a need to deal with the cost of that climate change, which are going to fall very, very largely on people who are mostly not responsible for that climate change. So there’s a basic kind of global justice question that is starting to really, really come quite sharply through in the discussions around this. And that’s as well as the sort of more the bit that’s always been there in COP, which is the more sort of technical discussion about what is the pace of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions globally that needs to take place.
James: And you had the breakthrough in Paris back in 2015, in getting the agreement, getting the idea that there would be agreements with different countries to try and move towards this. The challenge of this COP was to then try and turn those things into sort of ongoing assessments and further agreements heading out into the future. And what doesn’t now seem to be happening, is that set of agreements. That the sort of core text of COP, this big document that is being agreed to a sort of Byzantine process, mostly consensus decision making led by Britain as host as the presidency of COP this year, is kind of inching towards something. But it looks like on the most recent assessment, as of this morning, it looked like it was going to fall a very long way short of sticking to the kinds of pledges you would need to get to 1.5 degrees increase in average temperature by the end of the century. That’s the sort of the standard that you get to. By the way, of course, this is still a big increase in global average temperatures over a relatively short space of time. I mean, this is the kind of increase that is already producing the increased number of extreme weather events, the droughts that we’re seeing, the loss of crops that we’re starting to see occurring.
James: There’s a series of things is already happening as a result basically, as far as we can tell, of the planet’s temperature and climate altering quite rapidly. So that’s already happening. 1.5 degrees would restrain some of that, but it wouldn’t stop that. By the time you get to the sets of commitments that now seem to be in place, the sort of temperature increase that I think it was Carbon tracker calculated is that this gets you to get something around two point four percent, two point four degrees or upwards, which is really quite a long way from one and a half and does mean you’re getting into…. Ok, this is where the impacts of all this starts to look really serious on a global level. It’s not just like there is some substantial loss and changes that start to happen. You start to hit really significant and you can put numbers on these kind of losses by mid-century or worse than that you actually increase the risk of hitting some of the kind of tipping points, at which point the whole system goes really chaotic. So you could release huge amounts of methane from permafrost in Siberia, and this sends the whole system completely wild. There’s lots and lots of other sort of much greater uncertainties that creep in at higher temperatures about what’s going to happen in the future. As things stand, the COP agreement looks like it’s going to fall short of that.
James: There’s a slightly more positive story, and it’s the one the British government wanted to tell, which is a lot of the side agreements. Because it’s kind of the main COP process, and the various side agreements that the people in the countries there can agree amongst themselves or large manufacturers can agree and that sort of thing. Those, if you take a very generous interpretation of them and decide everyone’s going to stick to absolutely what they agreed in their side agreements, which don’t carry the force of the main COP text, that you add all of these up and the estimate is this gives you a one point eight degree rise in average temperatures by the end of the century. Because this has no sort of legal force. It doesn’t have the authority of COP. It’s not binding in the same kind of ways. And that would be an optimistic assumption that everybody actually sticks to what they’ve said.
James: Even on those side agreements, there’s some fairly significant bits that are missing out. Like, for instance, the transport and the motor vehicle manufacture agreement. Ford and a few others agreed that they will be phasing out relatively but not sufficiently rapidly, internal combustion engine vehicles. Some major manufacturers, last time I saw with Volkswagen and Toyota both refusing to sign up to this. So there’s a lot of sort of separate moving parts. None of them are moving quite as quickly in the direction that you want to see.
James: We’re talking at this point in time ahead of the agreement in the final text being delivered. It could be the case something really dramatic happens in the next twenty four hours or maybe longer. They’re talking about extending negotiations into Saturday, now. But it strikes me at this point in time, it is rather unlikely. And some of that has to fall onto the approach of Britain in how it’s dealt with the present presidency of this whole process. There have been criticisms, I think, in increasing volume leading up to COP and coming into it, about the kind of lack of focus of government on the process itself. The way in which Alok Sharma, who is designated kind of president of the process, has been somewhat sidelined within government. I’ve also seen some criticisms from various bits of the NGO world about the procedure for how the text is draughted. That rather than draughting a really ambitious text, like the French government did in Paris, which contributed to the relative success of Paris. We’ve got a text that’s the sort of attempt to find a consensus before the consensus exists. So you get not quite a lowest common denominator, but we get something that’s a bit much woolier. And then you ask people to agree to that. And then of course, you’re going to fade away from even that fairly woolly text. So let’s see where we end up, but it’s not looking brilliant at this point in time.
Manda: So fundamentally, we haven’t got what we needed to get. Our government either didn’t commit to it enough or didn’t put enough heft behind it. I heard that Boris Johnson tried to get both David Cameron and William Hague to lead this, and Alok Sharma was definitely quite a long way down the list because they both said no. So we didn’t have the commitment. We had a prime minister who was racing around upsetting major powers with his bathtub toys ahead of it. But it had seemed to me that other governments might come to it with more seriousness and with more of an intention of getting things done, and they might be able to do it in spite of the absolutely pathetic input from the UK. And it looks like that hasn’t happened. So in your opinion, are we now heading for irreversible climate breakdown, do you think? Or is there any way you can see us pulling back from the brink and turning the bus were all in away from the edge of the cliff?
James: Well, I mean, the short answer to that is no, that to a significant extent, we’re already beyond the point where things aren’t going to get worse. I mean, the tragedy here is that even if by some miracle, we don’t just get a COP, which is absolutely robust about how it’s going to reduce carbon in greenhouse gas emissions in general, and everybody is going to commit to it for a long period of time and somehow this actually happens. Even with that, the commitment is still, as we said, to seeing a fairly substantial rise in average temperatures, and that means a significant change in how the planet’s biosphere functions over the rest of our lives. And that’s with a positive agreement that people guarantee to stick to. And by the way, I think there’s a serious risk in all this, of course, which is that the point at which governments start to urge everyone to try and do more… let’s say this is happening. So governments, those in authority are saying everybody needs to do more to deal with climate change is also going to be the point at which the costs of climate change start to become really apparent to everyone. Which sets up an argument that “why are we doing all this if actually everything is just getting worse and worse?” And it wouldn’t be entirely correct to think like this, but you can well see how a load of people will start to think like this.
James: So I think part of what we have to also build into how we talk about these issues, is something that’s starting to appear at COP and is becoming more prominent in the movement, is how do you deal with the costs that are already being inflicted by climate change and that will be inflicted and get worse in the future? So how do you have a kind of socially just adaptation? How do you compensate those countries and societies that are going to be very, very badly affected by it. Bangladesh, let’s say. I mean, any relatively low lying country, particularly in the global south, is going to suffer a great deal because of this. How do you compensate for them, if possible, for the damage that’s now already going to happen? That we aren’t in any position to be able to do anything about it because this is a process that’s now going to play itself out for decades and centuries into the future. That’s kind of the timescale we’re looking at. And it’s infuriating, absolutely infuriating to see this. That we have known about climate change in some form for a very long period of time. Sort of formulations of this come from the mid-19th century, in the 1860s or thereabouts. It becomes a serious and accepted scientific fact really in the 70s into the 80s. Quite strikingly there are politicians, including actually Margaret Thatcher, one of the first to sort of raise this as an issue in the late 80s, early nineteen nineties. So we’ve known about this for a long period of time.
James: The period in which would have been ideal to actually take action, because everybody can know about this and everybody can see it’s a problem. And actually, you have a space of time in world history where the economies, at the least major economies were all growing, things were all pointing roughly in the right direction, would have been the 2000’s. And instead, what we did was go off and have a war on terror and invade Iraq. I mean, the sheer waste of that and the horror of all that is one part of it. But it’s also this massive opportunity cost of doing this complete nonsense, when we could have put all of that effort into doing something about climate change instead. It’s a spectacular miss for humanity, that this period at the end of the Cold War was not used to immediately start work seriously on climate change, on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and instead, if anything, over the 2000s, the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions accelerates. And we have this extraordinary waste and devastation of the war on terror, which 20 years on, has produced precisely nothing whatsoever, exactly back to to square one on any count and worse, from that. So we’ve wasted so much time already. We’re now in a period where things are just going to get worse for most people, probably at an increasing rate for some period of time. Dealing with the consequences of that, raising the issue of how do you redistribute the costs of things getting worse for people at an accelerating rate has to also fit in alongside how do we also stop greenhouse gas emissions?
James: I mean, if you’re talking about the Green New Deal, I think one of the… We can come back to that. There’s this issue in the movement where there’s a rhetoric around we only have however long. You can pick a number. It’s looking like five years, ten years; it’s seven years now or it’s 11 years or the end of the decade. There’s some fixed time where we have to get everything sorted out by, or everything is going to turn bad. And I think there’s two problems with that. One is that it doesn’t necessarily actually mobilise anyone to do anything. Because you can just go, “what are we going to do, then? We haven’t got much time and nothing’s working”. And two, it’s also not right. Things are already bad. We’re not staring into the abyss, we’re already kind of heading downwards and that’s going to get worse. And there isn’t any point saying, “Oh, there’s some point where it’s just going to be so terribly bad” if it’s just going to get worse and worse anyway. Presumably there’ll be some point in the future where it is absolutely appalling. But we’re going to get there in a series of steps. It’s not going to be like everything is OK and then suddenly it crashes.
Manda: So where do we go from here? Because it’s not looking great. I think we could argue that there are some quite extreme tipping points, quite likely the GOES paper, which was looking at ocean PH. If we drop below 7.9, when the buffering of the oceans is overwhelmed by the CO2 and the carbonic acid, then things don’t look great. And it only takes one season of global catastrophe and no growing season anywhere around the globe for us to be in serious trouble. So, we know that. I can’t believe that even the stale male, pale old white guys gathered together in their suits in Glasgow didn’t know that. And yet we are where we are. We’re not moving in the right direction. What can we actually do, James to make a difference?
James: The starting point for this is not… Because actually the science is sort of relatively clear. I mean, the modelling of how the climate functions is certainly a lot better than economic modelling as a rule, right? We have some pretty good ideas about how this stuff works and some reasonably high degrees of confidence about what’s taking place. So that part of it is quite clear; that what we need to do is not dump so much stuff into the atmosphere. Just reduce climate change, then reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s it. There’s uncertainties around what the impacts start to look like but broadly speaking, the mechanism is very, very well defined. And on a global level, if you do this, then things look less bad. The political challenge is how do you make that happen? And that is like the immense problem that we start to run up against. I think at the very highest level, the starting point of this has to be how do you get the buy in from global society to make that happen? There is no sort of world dictator who can just order this. You have to have a process by which it is agreed this will happen. COP is a rather flawed, sort of rudimentary version of what that might look like. It’s an attempt to get an agreement amongst countries on how this happens. To get the buy in necessary to make that happen, you have to build in also this point about social justice and about global social justice. That as things stand, the people who are going to suffer the least in climate change, we would forecast, are the people who’ve done the most, contribute towards it.
James: So it’s basically the global north taken as a whole. In particular, wealthy people within the global north, are going to be the most insulated from the impact. The people who suffer the most will be the global south. Taken as a whole and in particular, the poorest people in the global south, they will be right on the receiving end of sea levels rising, crops failing, plagues of locusts, increasing numbers of outbreaks of disease and all the other sort of list of things that are likely and already happening. So you have to build in some form of redistribution and some allowance for economic development in the South, and you have to allow that to happen at the same time as you’re clamping down on emissions across the globe. If you can get to some mechanism somehow or other, that looks like this. So in other words, instead of just saying right, we’ve had two hundred years, if you’re in Britain, of industrial development; this has basically dumped an immense amount of stuff into the atmosphere that’s now sort of slowly eating away, actually quite rapidly eating away at the biosphere that we all inhabit. Very sorry, everyone. No more greenhouse gas emissions. And I’m sorry if you’re poor now, but you just stay like that and that’s your lot.
James: You have to have some mechanism of redistribution. And this is also where you run into, and I think it’s a terrible, terrible name for what people like to talk about, but it’s what you run into which is around degrowth. Or at the very least, how you get to a kind of steady state society or something like it. Steady state economy in the developed world, whilst at the same time allowing growth to happen, continue to happen, ideally on a low carbon path. Because we kind of have enough ideas of what that might look like now in the developing world. And you have to make something like this happen or else you’re not going to get the kind of global agreement that you need on how you might restrain greenhouse gas emissions. The social justice question is critical to making any of this work. And if you don’t address that, you can come up with any agreement you want amongst the rich countries, it isn’t going to make the blindness bit of difference to anybody in the rest of the world who will not reasonably turn around and say, “That’s all fine for you. We’re still poor and we suffer the consequences of climate change. So we’re going to have to try and develop and try and get out of this, and we’ll take the easiest and quickest way to do that”, which is in fact, what’s happening.
Manda: Okay, so this is all within the existing economic model. And I think we need to break out of that, but let’s leave that aside for a moment as well. We know that governments can make money. The magic money forest does exist. And so they could, for instance, cancel all of the debt. We could have a debt jubilee. There are a lot of people working towards that. That would make a huge difference to the nations of the global south. Or the nations of the global north could print some of the money that they’re currently pouring into. Let’s pick an industry out of the hat and say fossil fuels, and pour that instead into the global south and get a far better return in terms of climate and ecosystem action. And they’re not doing that because their ideology doesn’t let them. So let’s cheer ourselves up for a moment take a flight of fancy. Imagine that in 2017. The hard right of the Labour Party had not been working tooth and nail to make sure there wasn’t a Labour government elected and we’d had the 2028 extra votes or whatever it was we needed to get Corbyn over the line. Let’s pretend there wasn’t a military coup within six months, which I think would be quite likely, and that the hard right of the party wouldn’t immediately have sabotaged it from the inside on the orders of whoever gives them orders. If Corbyn had been in, John McDonnell had been chancellor, you had been advising and they were running COP. And they cared, and they had already had a few years of being a beacon of how progressive economics might look. What could have been done, do you think, to get things moving onto the right road? Does that make sense as a question?
James: It does make sense. I mean, the challenge you’re up against is that I don’t think this is going to happen as a sort of top down process. I mean, this is the basic criticism that Aditya Chakrabortty writing in the Guardian today (We’re talking on Thursday the 11th) made of the Green New Deal, which is this is a sort of a top-down elite led process where you say, “OK, the sign says, we’ve got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. We will get the government to instead of you working in whatever massively polluting industry it is. You know, coal mining… there’s not too many people working in coal mining in Britain… But coal mining or whatever it might be. We will switch you magically over to doing something that is low carbon instead, and that’s just what we’re going to going to impose on you. And the difficulty with that is that again, it’s back to what I think is one of the key insights. We were chatting before we started about David Graeber and his work, most recently with David Wengrow. Yeah, Bullshit Jobs is one part of it, but also his most recent book with David Wengrow on the sort of entire history of civilisation, really and how people organise themselves for the last fifty thousand years, ten thousand years, whatever the time period they eventually go for. And the insight there, is that people can do things in lots and lots of different ways and organise themselves in lots of different ways.
James: And they can find solutions to problems on the ground, even quite big solutions without necessarily having someone to tell them what to do. David Graeber’s an anarchist, right. Fundamental to his worldview is something like this. It strikes me that this applies with a particular force to things like climate change. That, on the one hand, is like it’s a massive technical issue, therefore, we have a massive, technically focussed state which is going to resolve all of this, sort going to turn up and impose this solution on all of us, and that will work. But without that kind of ability from below to say, OK, it’s not just the government turning up and magically switching over our energy system to renewables, which needs to happen. It’s also the fact that we have to live different lives. That, for instance, all of us or most of us trooping off to work on a daily commute is just burning loads and loads of fuel. There’s a great deal of us who don’t need to do that, as we discovered out of Covid. This has a real impact on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we’re producing. It’s a change in how we’re living. It’s not necessarily something it’s easy to impose or desirable to impose from government.
James: I mean, we kind of had to last year. But it turns out people want to do this. It’s not desirable necessarily to do that. This is something that people want to feel a by in for doing. But it does make a difference to how much greenhouse gas you’re emitting. Similar thing if you just work less. You know, very good studies from Autonomy, the think tank, which is a move to a four day week, produces on their modelling (and you have to assume it’s correct because it’s fairly clear what happens if you have lots of people going to work) it produces an immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not just government turning up and saying, here is our technical, technological technology focussed solution to climate change, and we have to do some of this. You have to decarbonise energy systems, but to get the whole distance you want to get, you’re going to have to do something that happens from below. These changes to how people live their lives, different ways of organising people. So it’s always going to be hard if we imagine this sort of fantasy Corbyn government that’s still in power by this point and is running COP; it was always going to be hard to say, OK, here’s the big instructions from high, everyone’s going to carry them through.
James: I thought the voices of sort of indigenous people, of people who are otherwise very much excluded from these sorts of processes led by and dominated by the richer countries. It was critically important to have during the process because it’s exactly getting that sense of what people do on the ground, the knowledge they have, the ideas they have about how their lives could be different if you start to help give them the tools and the opportunities to make that happen. Which is probably the best any government can do in these circumstances. That is what’s really going to make a difference here, much more so. In other words, the shift in how society operates has to be far bigger than just big government will turn up and decarbonise your energy system. Far bigger than that. And if the shift has to be far bigger, it can’t just come from government telling you what to do. It has to be something people win themselves. So the sense of agency, I think, is also important here. That you have to give people the sense and the capacity that they can do something themselves, that your relatively small changes, even if it is something like just working one day a week less or commuting two days a week less, starts to make a determinate impact to how society operates.
James: This isn’t a sort of consumer focus, like if we just buy the right toilet paper or whatever, everything looks OK. There’s a point of social organisation here and winning the argument and making that happen through different routes. Through the kind of community organisations, local authorities that people have, in this example of what you have in Britain. That that’s part of what needs to build up here. So it’s not just us as the government if we imagine this sort of fantasy Jeremy Corbyn government turn up and say, OK, everyone agree to this. I would like to think that that would be a government that going into the process would set a high ambition, like the French government to its credit did in Paris in twenty fifteen, set a high ambition for the main text of COP, but also said This is a process is going to be driven from below. That we want those voices of the otherwise marginalised and excluded; of the people most affected by this. We want them brought in and amplified in the process because that is how we start to get the ideas and knowledge about how society as a whole changes. Not just big governments can sort all this out. All of us have to do something, and it has to therefore be a process driven by mobilisation from below.
Manda: It sounds wonderful and I completely agree. We absolutely need this mobilisation from below. What I struggle with is how do we get it? I have, as I’ve said, often on the podcast, very vivid memories of tramping around the West Midlands in December 2019 at the last election meeting scores, thousands of people, who from every metric I thought would have been really hard core Labour voters. And if I was able to have a conversation about the NHS on the website, then we knew those people were already voting labour and everybody else was focussed on Brexit. A feature which in the 2010 election when I was tramping around various areas, nobody cared about. They weren’t calling it Brexit and leaving the EU was something like 16th on people’s list of priorities. And yes, jobs and the NHS were up at the top of the list and they still voted Tory. Go figure. But by now, it seems that mobilisation is politically possible. It is possible to take an entire nation and mobilise them to what a political party wants. It’s just not happening around the environment. So how do we help it to happen?
James: It’s a very good question. I think there’s two parts to the answer. First one, I think, is the sort of hash version of environmentalism is tedious for everyone and unconvincing for large numbers of people. It fundamentally doesn’t work. If you take Britain, as a country where average wages have stagnated or fallen for most people, actually for most people over the last decade or so. They’re picking up a bit over the last 18 months, for various reasons we don’t need to go into right now, but all of them basically connected to the pandemic. Maybe partly Brexit in some sectors. That this is a country where things have got worse for most people. So turning around saying things have to get worse, even worse than that, I think, is exactly the wrong way to go on this. I think the route through that one is to start to turn into the logic of what a low growth version of capitalism looks like. Because we’re getting that anyway. To all intents and purposes, if you look at this, the official forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility in Britain from what the Federal Reserve is saying about the US economy, from what China is saying. Low growth in China is still sort of spectacularly high by the standards of the UK. But even what China is saying over the next few years, all these forecasts together and the official kind of voices in this are saying, look, we’re going to get into a low growth world. If we are in a low growth world, the logic of you being made any better off becomes really quite crude, which is that for you to be better off somebody else has to be worse off.
James: So if you want to convince people that they can be better off and that you can do this in a world in which growth is falling away anyway. Actually, we’re going to have to try and change how growth and development happens, and this is going to involve fairly significant changes in what we measure in society and think is good. You know, turn away from GDP, but also more fundamentally the forms of energy systems we use, the kind of activities we take part in. If you’re going to convince people that this could be good and desirable, you’re also going to have a conversation with them, quite a hard conversation with them, basically about redistribution and fundamentally about class. There are a small number of people right at the top of society. The Financial Times, I mean, of all places, a very good newspaper, had a very good graph earlier in the week, just showing the distribution of greenhouse gas emissions by income for a range of different countries. All the way from the US, So you have the top 10 percent of the US, all the way down to sort of Bangladesh and Pakistan and a few other places, at the bottom. Showing the top 10 percent to the bottom 10 percent. And it is strikingly clear that in all of these countries, it is the richest 10 percent and upwards of the richest countries who by some distance are producing the lion’s share of emissions.
James: And people talk about China’s churning out loads. And if you look even the top 10 percent in China, nothing like as productive of greenhouse gas emissions as in the top 10 percent in the US. So that means there’s a question about redistribution. Not just between countries but within countries. And the question about redistribution within countries, that is a question about saying, Well, actually, these people have wealth. It is unfairly distributed. That should be fairly distributed and in the process of distributing that wealth fairly we will also reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
James: One part of it. The other part of it, I think, is increasingly this and I think it’s kind of happening anyway. That increasingly we live in a sort of immaterial economy to, not enough of an extent and you don’t only get carried away with this, but a great deal of what we spend our time doing is not consumption in the old sort of nineteen fifties mass consumption setting, where you are literally just buying something to consume. It is things like relating to each other in various different forms online. I mean, we’re using this, we’re doing this entire interview online. It’s produced for a podcast which you can download. You don’t necessarily have to pay for these sort of things. A lot of these things are happening where the material content of what we’re doing and how the economy operates is potentially nothing like as heavy as it used to be and yet people are still living quite rich lives as a result of this. And you can extend that principle into saying, Well, look, do people value more free time? Yes, they do.
James: You can ask people about this over and over again. You find people saying if it doesn’t mean a loss in my earnings, then of course, I’ll take a day less in work, wicked that’s more free time. That’s something that we know straight away will produce less greenhouse gas emissions. So there’s another part of that redistribution, which is a redistribution of time, the redistribution of if you like, immaterial goods of various sorts, whether it’s online spaces, is one reason why I think free broadband for everybody is a really good idea. Whether it’s, you know, having more parks, having more public spaces, turning some of the roads we have into pedestrian spaces as lots of large cities in the world are now doing, I think. There are some spectacular examples of this. This is part of that redistributive process where you’re saying to people, this isn’t about you personally having to put on a hair shirt. It may not even about you having to get rid of your BMW, by the way. I mean, frankly, one BMW driven by one person in the West Midlands, is not going to make as much difference as the vast, truly vast, consumption of a few multimillionaires and billionaires right at the top of society. It’s not even on the same scale. But it is about saying you could live a potentially better and richer life with a fairer distribution of resources and much more in the way of desirable public goods of various sorts that we can all kind of collectively provide.
Manda: So we’re looking at changing the narrative, I think, and possibly I think that because changing the narrative has been my thing since I was at Schumacher, if not before. But looking at it these days with the benefit of exploring it quite deeply, it seems to me we have two problems, possibly three. And we could split them into the problem of the legacy media versus social media, or into a generational problem. Well, I think the two are possibly linked. So we have particularly older generations who read newspapers which are owned by the billionaires you’ve just been talking about, who have an absolute vested interest in maintaining the power that money gives them. And they get that money by maintaining business as usual. And we know that if the 2017 general election in the UK had been decided by age and that only people under 40 had been allowed to vote, Corbyn would have had the biggest Labour majority ever seen. We also know that if only people over 50 had been allowed to vote, the Tories would basically have 100 percent of the seats. So we have a generational divide that might be led by a legacy media divide, by the by the tabloids, by sky, by, by even the BBC now, which tend to be consumed by the older generations. But we similarly have a trust issue with social media because it is now impossible to know whether the stuff that’s coming through social media has any foundation in anything approaching an actual reality that we could go and test. People can put out their happy conspiracy fantasies and they will look as plausible as anything that 20-30 pre social media years ago would have seemed to be real. And we could talk a lot about framing. Let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Let’s have a look at how do we fix the issues of the legacy media versus the truthiness of social media and within that, where are we in the generational divide? So basically, I want you to fix all of society’s current social and cultural ills. Over to you…
James: I’ll take your second question first, I suppose. I mean, this is a perennial problem for anyone trying to do any sort of organisation on the left or thinking about trying to change things. Which is that the media is there and it’s big. And for a while, there was a sort of excitement about oh now we have social media and therefore we have Twitter. And if you have Twitter, you can go off and launch revolutions or whatever it was in early 2011. Ten years later, this is now we have Twitter. It’s an absolutely hell site and everybody hates it and it’s ruining the world. This is how social media has shifted in that decade or so. Partly because it’s been subject to and it was always subject to the same kind of processes of monopolisation of a very few providers having an enormous amount of power over what these platforms that we use to communicate with each other have. So there’s a sort of one bit of that is, I think it is still and it will remain and probably will become increasingly important, to set up alternative platforms of various sorts. It really matters a great deal, even if it is not as huge as what the collective sort of assembled, very well resourced mainstream media and conventional media has. It still matters that you have other voices out there saying their thing, and there is a space that you create and you fight for that. It also matters on top of that, that we fight for a space inside the conventional media as far as possible.
James: I don’t hold to this view that you should hold your nose and never, ever go anywhere near various newspapers and all the rest. I think you have to find an audience. You have to address, we have to address people in terms you understand. And if there’s any space at all where you can do that, you must take it and you should take it, would be my broad view in this. The final bit is actually there is a fundamental weakening of how these various different ways of communicating to each other and how we all talk to each other; they are weakening in ways that doesn’t just turn into ‘Twitter is is horrible’ all the time. The sources of authority in society that once existed, like we have newspapers 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, probably the peak circulation is around about 50 60 years ago. That millions of people buy regularly and read regularly and read in a particular form regularly. And this is a fairly direct, centralised way of organising how people, in effect, how people think about the world and what shapes their ideas. That’s weakened substantially, and it doesn’t mean that it’s gone. I mean, you have different forms of hierarchies that emerge instead. But because it has weakened, there are spaces and opportunities to try and make that happen. That’s one part of it. The other part of it is, ultimately it’s just direct material experiences that’s going to drive a large part of this, is that you can read whatever you want in the newspaper or wherever you get the news from. If it doesn’t match your experience of reality, you will do something different and you will think differently about it.
James: It’s like there are hard limits on what any newspaper anywhere can tell you that you’ll just automatically believe. It may be patronising, really, to assume that people just read stuff and immediately believe this. There’s all sorts of interesting studies about how people consume social media and why so-called fake news works and misinformation works and this sort of thing. But it’s still pat to assume that people just see stuff and automatically it’s like, you know, photocopying to their minds, and that’s that. If material reality looks different to what people are telling you, if your direct experience, your reality is different to what people are telling you, then you will want to do something about it.
James: And you mentioned the generational thing. I mean, that is a large part of the drive with this sort of generational divide in politics; which is that material reality for an entire generation of people basically sort of my age and younger, really, most of them doesn’t actually look that great. Because we have low growth economy and wealth has been accumulated by other people, and that’s it. And you can tell people how great it’s all going to be in the future and how things are fair and you can do nothing about it. But people are going to protest, people are going to want to do something about it. It infringes very directly on who they are as people, and that is something that always provokes and always throughout human history has provoked these sorts of reactions.
Manda: Which means that we need political change and every conversation I have on this podcast. Over at least the last six months, we got to the point where we understand that the current political system is broken. And we desperately need something new, and you must have thought about this. So. What will you do to fix our broken politics such that we have a system that would actually deliver what we need in time and on time?
James: Well, very directly on the British political system, the most obvious one. This has become a pressing argument, and it’s been a mistake on the left to think that kind of constitutional questions, questions about how you organise your democracy are secondary. Actually, these things are alive, because they affect how people live their lives and the capacities that they have in a very direct way. And people sense that. I mean, the most obvious one right now is rinsing out corruption and it is corruption, whatever Boris Johnson says from the British Parliament. So that means, you know, a ban on MP’s taking second jobs. Various people say things about, Oh, it’s OK if you’re a public servant. I mean, I prefer to be a bit crude about it. Just say ban the lot. No exceptions. It means getting rid of the House of Lords. Either you get rid of it entirely, which I think was always Tony Benn solution. You have a single house of parliament or you replace it with some elected, elected second chamber. Fine. I don’t really care. As long as you don’t have a situation where you have the prime minister deciding who is appointed to it, because as the investigation The Times showed very clearly over the weekend, the bigger donation you make to the Conservative Party, the more likely it is that you get to be a lord. And it’s not just like some fancy title, you get to sit on committees and in parliament and help write legislation.
James: So this has a direct impact on how this country is run. It is a form of very obvious corruption and it has to be got rid of. I think we also need reform to how voting takes place to the House of Commons that we have this ludicrous mediaeval system of elections, which means that someone like Geoffrey Cox is sitting on a twenty five thousand vote majority in Somerset and all that sort of direction, and he’s almost unmoveable regardless what he does at that point. I mean, maybe there’ll be some political upsets and you can get rid of it, but the guy’s just sitting there almost laughing at us in the statements he’s put out about the fact he’s earning literally millions from advising tax havens and various other, not particularly desirable people and organisations around the world. And he’s sitting on the twenty five thousand seat majority, vote majority, which means that people who vote not for the conservatives in the seat basically have no say whatsoever on how their votes wasted. It has no impact whatsoever on what government you get because it’s a massive Tory majority. We need a fundamental reform of the voting system. We have to have electoral reform. It is not fair and I say this is, and I have a strong preference for Labour winning the election, but you have to say it is not fair that you have people voting for smaller parties who are not getting represented properly.
James: It is not fair to have a Tory MP or any MP sitting on a very, very large majority with no realistic say for the people in his constituency and no realistic chance of getting rid of them because of the electoral system. And millions, literally, of wasted votes because of how the electoral system works. It is a direct route to corruption. It means you have MPs who can sit on a safe seat and do whatever they want, and that’s basically what Geoffrey Cox is doing right at this point in time. You know, if he was a marginal, he would not be off going to the British Virgin Islands, voting remotely from there and assisting its government in an investigation into corruption, which I believe was actually launched by the British government here. It’s an extraordinary situation, so we have to shake the whole thing up. We have to shake it really quite dramatically. It’s very, very positive I thought at conference, labour conference this year, that there was a solid vote, nearly won for electoral reform. It’s very, very positive that Unite the second largest union in the country. One point two million members or thereabouts, is now taking a position in favour of electoral reform. I think we can win the Labour Party to this in short order, and we will do it next year and we can start to really actually break open a corrupt, useless, certainly not fit for purpose, anti-democratic, not just undemocratic, anti-democratic political system on that basis.
Manda: Do you think then that we could get some kind of progressive coalition that would actually work with the deal being we all help each other to get in and then we have proportional representation? And then if you want to have dozens of little splinter parties, it doesn’t matter because people can actually vote for something and feel that their vote is counting. I’m not seeing that happen on the ground or in any of the national narrative. I mean, obviously there are people Clive Lewis, Caroline Lucas who really want this to happen in the UK, but it doesn’t seem to be happening at the level where decisions are made within the bigger parties. Do you think it’s likely?
James: I think that’s a question that becomes sharper once you get to much closer to the election. So either just after the election where you’re left with no choice potentially but have to try and set up some anti Tory alliance or just before it, where I think what you will see increasingly is Labour members doing something like this from below. And it already kind of happens on the ground, that, you know, the Labour campaign against Caroline Lucas is not exactly forthright in practise, for instance, right? People will kind of vote with their feet and work out where they want to apply their efforts. And that, I think, will happen increasingly and will probably start happening in a slightly more formalised way at the next election. Because there’s a realisation that in practise this, a majority of people don’t vote for the Conservative Party, they win a thumping great majority in parliament. There’s a realisation that something has to change to get out of this and that in electoral terms, there is little point everybody slogging their guts out against each other and letting the Tories through the middle. And I strongly suspect that on the ground in constituency Labour parties in particular, they will start to see moves towards more or less formal versions of kind of electoral pacts and that sort of thing, whatever the leadership does. Maybe they’ll try and clamp down on it. Maybe they won’t. But if they’ve got any sense, they’ll not try and clamp down on any moves in that direction in practise. I think it’s something that will occur, whatever, whatever they want to happen. This is not a leadership that’s necessarily got the command and the what would be the words… The authority with a large part of the membership at this point in time.
Manda: So we’re very nearly running out of time. We have a traditional question that we ask at the end of the podcast, which is if you were to give advice to the people listening of something that they could do now; they could stop listening to the podcast, go out and do something constructive that would help them to feel that they were being part of the change. And actually, they were being part of the change, not just feeling it, actually doing it. What would you recommend or what advice would you give to people who are politically aware, totally engaged. I want to know what it is that they can do that will have the most impact.
James: You get asked these questions, and it depends so much on where you are and what you can do. I mean, there is an environmental movement that’s grown up absolutely across the entire country that people can throw themselves into being involved with right now. I mean, whether that’s Extinction Rebellion or the various other alliance of people around COP. There’s a whole, separate conversation about what Extinction Rebellion are up to and the sort of sets of criticisms and conversations that can be had around that. This is appearing absolutely everywhere and can involve, for instance, insisting on your local authority, starting to work towards net zero and doing so rapidly and putting measures in place. To make that happen, you can start to make small things take place. It can involve on a bigger scale, and it’s not necessarily easy to do this, but even involve things like people starting to buy out their own community generation in various forms. Again, this is happening on a small scale. You can start to see these things taking place. You can even get back to this point about redistribution, and there hasn’t been an opportunity like this in this country for decades.
James: It can also mean things like we’re starting to see happening, which is people organising either individually or collectively to insist on getting a pay rise when there is a very, very tight labour market. And you can join a union and you can start to apply meaningful pressure to your boss to hand over decent notes of pay. I mean, that is something that should be encouraged by absolutely everyone, absolutely everywhere, right now. If you’re not in a union, join one. And if you’re at work, you need to start organising with other people you work with in whatever form that takes. Because this is absolutely the point where you can start to apply pressure to employers to hand over more money, because for the first time in decades, the labour market has moved; in some parts not right way across the board, but in enough of the labour market, it has moved in favour of workers in a way we haven’t seen for a good long period of time.
Manda: Ok, so we can go out and join a union. Campaign for much higher wages, because everybody should be earning more or less the same and the people at the top should not be earning 350000 times the people at the bottom. And then we can persuade our bosses to let us have a four day week and to do whatever it takes to take our businesses and shift them onto a regenerative model instead of whatever extractive model they are very likely operating on at the moment. That sounds pretty good. So, James, thank you very much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast and really good to have the insight of somebody so close to the reins of power for so long. Very nearly there. One day we’re going to get a Left-Wing government that can actually do what needs to be done if we still have government functioning at all. So thank you.
James: No problem. Thank you.
Manda: And that is it for this week. Thank you to James for being articulate as ever, for understanding the ways that things are seen from the inside of the political fence and for proposing ideas that are workable. We all need to join a union. We need to stop commuting to work. We need, as we always hear on this podcast, to begin building communities of trust, communities of place and communities of purpose spread more widely across the globe so that we can begin to build the movements that become absolutely unstoppable. George Monbiot has a recent article out that I will put in the show notes saying all we need is 25 percent. And actually in most countries in the global north, there’s at least 23 percent of people who really are committed to a progressive change. We need to bring all of those on board and then all we need to do is gain two percent more. And if we can get 25 percent, then we can begin to see the kind of societal tipping points that we need. So as people of the podcast, that’s our role this week: go out and find the 23 percent, find the extra two percent, glue them together and create totally unstoppable social momentum. That’s easy! Then come home and have some tea. All right, people, we will be back next week with another conversation. And in the meantime, astonishing thanks to Caro for rescuing the technological chaos and for the music at the head and foot. Thanks to Faith Tillery for the website and the tech. And thanks to you for listening. As ever, and if you know of anybody else who really wants to be part of the solution, please do send them this link. And otherwise that is it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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