Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Your new book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy, explores practical innovations in sustainability across the world. What stories would you pick out as the most instructive for the scale of change we need to see?
John Thackara: The sheer variety of projects and initiatives out there is, for me, the main story. No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty oak tree. We need to think more like a forest than a single tree! If you look at healthy forests, they are extremely diverse—and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world. Many people say we need to focus on solutions that scale, but to me that’s globalisation-thinking wearing a green coat. Every social and ecological context is unique, and the answers we seek will be based on an infinity of local needs.
JGF: What examples of inspiring stories can you give?
JT: The story of soil has been an epiphany for me. Soil is the largest living system on the planet; without it, we wouldn’t exist. But I only learned this a few years ago. At first I read a whole pile of articles and books, but it all came to life when I then went on a soil creation course in the Cevennes, the mountainous area in France where I live. Our teacher was a French agro-ecologist Robert Morez who has worked as an agricultural advisor in Africa for forty years. He showed us how to make a growing mound with a bunch of ingredients: bone meal, dried blood, crushed oyster shells, wood fire ash, onto a growing mound of wood, twigs, leaves, straw. Each layer is seasoned, as if with salt and pepper, by this powdery mix of minerals and biological activators. Robert told us we were learning “how to construct a bio-intensive planting mound”—but in my mind, I was making soil, rather than depleting it, for first time in my life.
JGF: There was a figure recently stating that we have around 100 harvests left.
JT: Yes, that figure was for British soil at the current rate of soil depletion. Other reports suggest that we are losing 3.5 tonnes of soil for every person on the planet every year. The numbers are either hard to grasp or just dispiriting, but either way, it’s enormous. But what I learned up the mountain is that we can restore soil because people in different regions of the world have been doing precisely that for a long time. On its own, soil formation is an extremely slow process— sometimes taking thousands of years—but a growing band of visionaries have discovered that the process can be speeded up dramatically if the right approach is followed.
JGF: Farming organisations, such as La Via Campesina, describe this approach as agroecology.
JT: Yes, they do. It’s an ugly word, I know, but it describes the practical wisdom of people who’ve been stewarding the land for generations. It’s not my job to tell La Via Campesina what language to use—the word make sense to their 300,000 members—but I think one of the things that we writers can do is come up with better words!
JGF: This leads into my next question: Early on in the book you remind readers to be careful of the words we choose to make sense of these new times. Noting, “one man’s energy descent, is another woman’s energy transition.” Words that I find unhelpful, and come to mind, are phrases such as ‘degrowth’. What language do you find alienating in the language around the new economy?
JT: I’m totally not a fan of ‘degrowth’. I’ve learned through experience that calling for people to give things up, voluntarily or otherwise, doesn’t work. Most people simply turn off when confronted by lists of prohibitions. I try, instead, to talk about kinds of growth we do need: land getting healthier, water getting fresher, air cleaner to breathe, communities more resilient. These kinds of growth add up to new kind of value.
JGF: You also write about healing the metabolic rift, a term that Karl Marx used to describe the loss of interdependency between social and ecological systems and the reason for recurring crises.
JT: The metabolic rift is another of the ugly green buzzwords that seem to plague us—but learning about the concept was another lightbulb-going-off-in-my-head moment. I’d spent half my life trying to figure out why even decent people who love animals and children persist in organising the world in such an obviously damaging way. An answer that makes sense is that we don’t experience the result of the damage that we do as visceral, embodied feedback. We don’t feel the pain felt by the earth because it happens somewhere else—out of sight and therefore out of mind.
JGF: Could you explain more about what the metabolic rift is?
JT: It’s not that our brains lack processing capacity—more, that they’re preoccupied by the wrong inputs. A combination of paved surfaces and pervasive media has shielded us from direct experience. Material progress itself has distracted us from the health of the natural living systems upon which we still depend—and, indeed, are a part. If you put it to someone—as I have done—that, without soil, humanity will quickly starve, they usually agree, nod sagely—and wait for me to change the subject. Few of the city-dwelling people I know ever touch, feel, taste or smell the stuff—healthy or otherwise. Our children are not taught about it at school. It’s the same with climate change, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation; or dying seas: Out of sight, out of mind. Why would we care?
The ways we understand the world are shaped by the political and economic system. As Jason Moore explains in his book Capitalism in the Web Of Life, the metabolic rift is not a regrettable side-effect of the modern economy; it’s written into its DNA. Our present economy has to grow in order to survive, and ceaseless growth entails ever-larger inputs of external resources and energy. Our problems started when we first travelled across the world to take other people’s minerals and resources—and that was 500 years ago. This is where the richness of the so called developed nations originates. The Spanish plundered wood from the Baltic region to build the ships in which they sailed off to the West Indies to bring back spices, and so on. A hundred million kilos of silver from Latin America provided much of the capital for Europe’s industrial revolution. Our bad behaviour dates back a long way!
JGF: Your book suggests that organising the world around bioregions is one way to close the metabolic rift?
JT: The notion of a bioregion appeals to me for a specific reason: Telling city people to take better care of nature has been one of my many failures as a writer. Intellectually, city folk buy the argument that growth should mean soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient. But in the absence of positive feedback from some distant place called Nature, people just don’t connect with my exhortations. I realised that a more compelling story, and a shared purpose, were needed. So I started asking people two questions: “Does your city know where its lunch is coming from? And is that place healthy—or not?”
With the prospect of missing lunch as motivation, I’m finding that the idea of a bioregion is an appealing way for city people to reconnect with living systems, and each other, through the unique places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibresheds, and food systems—not just in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’. The idea is culturally dynamic, too—far more than abstract words like sustainability, or resilience, or transition. A bioregion is about unique geographic, climatic, hydrological and ecological qualities. These can be the basis for meaning and identity, and people get that.
But beyond the idea in general, what most turns people on—especially designers and artists—is the sheer variety of work to be done in bringing a bioregion to life. Maps of a bioregion’s ecological assets are needed: its geology and topography; its soils and watersheds; its agriculture and biodiversity. The collaborative monitoring of living systems, the interactions among them, and the carrying capacity of the land, needs to be designed—together with feedback channels. Spaces and places that support collaboration need to be identified and, where needed, adapted—from maker spaces to churches, from town halls, to libraries. New collaboration and peer-to-peer platforms are needed to help people to share resources of all kinds—from land, to time and knowledge. New economic and business models need to be adapted and deployed, such as peer production, commons economics, and open value accounting. Novel forms of governance and discussion must also be designed that enable collaboration among diverse groups of people and enterprises. Every bioregion will need its own identity, too—what the bioregion looks like, and feels like, to its citizens and visitors.
JGF: Those subjects are pretty broad-ranging. Are you suggesting that designers and artists are best-placed to take care of them all?
JT: None of these actions mean designers or artists are acting alone. Developing the agenda for a bioregion involves a wide range of skills and capabilities: The geographer’s knowledge of mapping; the conservation biologist’s expertise in biodiversity and habitats; the ecologist’s literacy in ecosystems; the economist’s ability to measure flows and leakage of money and resources. But in creating objects of shared value—such as an atlas, a website, a plan, a building, a landscape, or a meeting—I do think the design process can be a powerful way to foster collaboration among diverse disciplines and constituencies, yes. I’d also say that the service designer can bring something special to the creation of platforms that enables actors to share and collaborate. And—as you’ve shown so wonderfully in STIR magazine already—artists have a unique capacity to represent real-world phenomena in ways that change our perceptions.