Invention, innovation and evolution

JamesLovelockJames Lovelock is a radical scientist and the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that Earth and its living, and non-living, inhabitants need to be viewed as a complex, holistic, self-regulating system. In his most recent book, A Rough Ride to the Future, he discusses such issues as his latest views on the evolution of humanity as part of Gaia, climate change, urbanisation, environmentalism and scientific progress.

Significantly, he is critical of the green movement and renewable energy, accepting the idea of climate change while arguing that many scientists’ models of it are flawed and potentially misleading.

He remains optimistic about the future of human life on Earth, while cautioning that we are unlikely to be able to stabilise the climate and prevent it changing. Continue reading

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‘For he that hath, to him shall be given’: the problem of regional inequality

DSC00234Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. This seems to be the trend in the UK’s regional inequalities, as pointed out last week by Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England. The division in growth rates and income levels between London and the South East, and the North, are particularly stark. Only in the former are income levels now above those before the Great Recession, which began more than eight years ago, while the latter has fallen further behind.

This regional divide is not a new phenomenon. It has been the result of decades of uneven economic development in the regions of the UK. The almost relentless decline in the share of manufacturing output and jobs for the UK as a whole, particularly since the 1980s, hit the North of England and parts of Wales hard. Private sector dynamism has tended to be concentrated in London and the South East, particularly in the service sector, which makes up the majority of GDP and employment.

Successive governments have responded in different ways to regional inequality. Continue reading

Ecological economics: human progress as part of nature

599px-The_Blue_Marble“The term ‘ecological economics’ should be a little redundant, as both words share the Greek root oikos (household) and together mean something like household-study household-law. It is telling that the two fields of ecology and mainstream economics have grown so far apart in the century and a half since they were named that they now represent completely different sets of principles.

The basic idea of ecological economics can be summarised by [Herman] Daly‘s argument with the World Bank economists: when you draw the box for the economy, you have to put it in a larger box called the environment. The human economy is a subset of the world system. Our inputs, in terms of natural resources, and outputs, including pollution, are like the metabolism of a kind of super-organism. We can analyse it using the same kinds of tools as we use to analyse other living systems, such as a cell, or a beehive, or a complete ecosystem.

Instead of being a closed system, like a machine, the economy is open to the environment. Attention therefore shifts from the inner mechanics of the economy to big-picture questions related to things like scale and timing and the flow of energy. Is the economy becoming to big relative to its environment? Is it consuming resources at too fast a rate? Is it adequately disposing of its own waste? Is it endangering the food chain on which it depends for its survival?”

David Orrell (2010), Economyths: How the science of complex systems is transforming economic thought

But remember, it’s all just models within models within models. They are all we have, so if we are to sustain human progress, we need to build better ones: better at explanation, and better at laying out the options for responding to change.

Divisions between the economy, society and the environment are a simplification, and a potentially dangerous one. Ecological economics offers useful ways of thinking about the state and direction of humankind as part of nature, rather than its master. So too does sustainable development. In my view we also need a political economy approach to the environment which studies how the costs and benefits of change lead to potential conflict and particular distributions of power in society. These processes require management by governments working with each other and with civil society. Such issues are surely the most urgent of our times.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: pipedreams or a call to action?

While I applaud the vision outlined by this short video, I am pessimistic about the widespread implementation of these goals. In the absence of crisis (and some might argue that parts of the environment are already in crisis), it is not clear to me whether the minds of politicians and civil society are sufficiently focussed on the tasks ahead. Can we achieve widespread development and continued growth while sustaining the environment that it all depends on?

Action on the goals requires international cooperation. Some of this has already occurred. Having committed to change, nation states need to knuckle down on the policy front, acting with a more distant vision than is usual in politics and confronting vested interests. The largest and most powerful economies must in the end lead the rest, setting an example, creating much of the change that is needed and helping the poorer and weaker countries to develop their own economies in what must be a considerably greener fashion than today’s richest nations managed.

Sustainable development: economy, society, environment

sustainable_development

An illustration of the concept of sustainable development

I have blogged far too little on sustainable development, a pattern which I hope to redress. This blog started out back in 2008, when I was beginning to turn my attention from the more traditional concerns of economics and development, towards incorporating environmental concerns. Not long afterwards I studied a masters-level module on SD with CeDEP, which runs excellent distance learning courses for postgraduates. This opened my eyes to new ways of looking at development and the environment, and how much can be learned from studying the two together.

Concerns about climate change, biodiversity loss, natural resource depletion and the health of the biosphere are ever-present. Sadly, the more immediate focus among politicians across the capitalist world has been restoring growth in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The issue of inequality within many of the richest nations has also been more to the fore, even if little has yet been done about it on the policy side. But in times of recession, the environment tends to take a back seat. Mainstream debates focus on growth at all costs. Continue reading

‘Decent work’ as a development goal

DSC00236aAre decent working conditions a luxury only achievable in rich economies? In other words, are their improvement part of economic and social development? Or could they underpin efficiency alongside social justice even in poor countries? In a paper published in the book Systems of Production (Burchell et al 2003), Gerry Rodgers considers these issues.

Rodgers answers the above by suggesting that improving working conditions are or should be part of the development process. Some basic rights should be achievable anywhere, but they should also be able to adjust upwards as an economy becomes richer, or when economic resources allow.

He defines decent work as the availability of employment, certain rights at work, a degree of security and workplace representation which promotes constructive dialogue between management and workers. Continue reading

Sustainable development and economic progress

Mombasa-KenyaBack in 2010, having not studied formally for over eight years, I took a risk and signed up for a postgraduate module in Understanding Sustainable Development, run by the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP). CeDEP runs distance learning courses through SOAS, where I took my MSc in Political Economy of Development in 2000-01.

Distance learning requires plenty of motivation. CeDEP did offer support through an online forum, but I was largely on my own. It was mostly a fascinating course, and broadened my outlook as to what constitutes ‘development’. Continue reading