Next Book: ‘Out of the Wreckage: ‘A new politics for an age of crisis’ by George Monbiot

Our next meeting will be on 17th January 2019 to discuss George Monbiot’s latest book ‘Out of the Wreckage: A new politics for an age of crisis‘.

Monbiot doesn’t really need an introduction: he is one of Britain’s leading environmental and political activists; has written eleven books – including ‘Feral’, which helped to popularise the rewilding movement in Britain; writes a regular column for The Guardian; and in 2016, released an album with musician Ewan McLennan ‘Breaking the Spell of Loneliness’. Even if you think you know about Monbiot, it is still worth reading his bio at: https://www.monbiot.com/about/.

We picked this book partly because Monbiot is giving a talk at Newcastle University on 22nd November. It is free, but there are no seat reservations, so turn up early if you are interested.

As the title suggests, ‘Out of the Wreckage: A new politics for an age of crisis‘ is primarily about politics, rather than sustainability, but the environmental movement won’t succeed without engaging with politics, just as it won’t succeed without transforming economics – the subject of our last book, Doughnut Economics. Having read Monbiot in the past, I am sure that there will be plenty to discuss.

Meet at the Tyneside Cinema Coffee Rooms on 17th January 2019. Gather from 7pm, to start the discussion promptly at 7.30pm. Light meals and drinks are available.

The meeting is free, but please let me know if you can make it so that I can plan numbers for the venue.

marek@green-thinkers.org

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Living within the Dough

‘Green Thinkers book club discusses Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth’ 

Seven of us met on Thursday night to discuss Doughnut Economics. It was a balmy October evening in Newcastle, and we sat outside for most of the discussion, imagining that we lived in Barcelona-on-Tyne, rather than the North East of England.

Unusually for our group, there was almost unanimous agreement. In this case, that Doughnut Economics is a great book and one that we enjoyed reading. First thoughts included: ‘positive and constructive’, ‘it made me stop and think for the first time in five years’, and ‘a powerful tool we can use’.

The doughnut model itself provides a single, powerful visual image that pulls together many of the discussions we have had at Green Thinkers over the last five years: combining the social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. James Dixon, who heads up the sustainability department at Newcastle Hospitals, said that he could immediately incorporate the doughnut image into the hospitals’ sustainability engagement plans as it would resonate with medics and managers alike.  

Ruth Hayward, who works with community groups in the North East, inspiring them to be more sustainable, said that she could use the model in her facilitation sessions. She imagined presenting a large illustrated visual image of the doughnut with drawings of people: in the middle people are trapped in poverty (for example homeless in the UK or those who have to walk miles for water in developing nations), but inside the ring, they thrive, living sustainably. She said that she would also include images of the environment: illustrating a degraded environment around the outside, and a biodiverse environment in the ring – linked to the activities of people. Whether or not she would have an equivalent picture of people on the outside of the ring, engaging in overconsumption she wasn’t so sure, as images such as flying, which those who over-consume do on a regular basis, could be seen as criticising those who fly infrequently. 

I asked the group which of the other images presented in the book stood out?

Gareth Kane, a sustainability consultant and author of several books on the subject, was drawn to the butterfly model of the circular economy developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that is presented in Chapter 6, ‘Create to Regenerate’. We discussed how Braungart and McDonough first urged designers not to mix biological and technical nutrients together, in what they termed ‘Frankenstein products’, in their book, ‘Cradle to Cradle’.

The Environmental Kuznets Curve also appears in Chapter 6. One of the benefits of the book for the group, none of whom had studied economics, was that it provided an introduction into a topic that influences every part of our lives and work. Some of us were surprised to discover that mainstream economic theory proposes that a country must become increasingly polluted until it can afford to clean up. If I was a farmer in the developing world and was presented with a choice of polluted air, water and soil, offered by Kuznets, or an economy that is ‘regenerative by design’, I know which one I would go for. The power of Doughnut Economics is that these development options are framed side-by-side as visual images.

Richard Clarke, an environmental consultant at legislation specialist CEDREC, talked about the graphs in Chapter 7 that compare the false-hope of many economists – never-ending exponential growth ­- with an S-curve that represents growth-agnosticism. If you put the first graph in front of an economist, and ask them what happens next, will they really draw a line that shoots up off the page?

We went on to discuss the ‘green growth’ debate raised in Chapter 7. Some of us were more optimistic than others that the world can decouple pollution from growth fast enough to avoid environmental collapse. Gareth Kane, a self-declared optimist, gave the example of Interface, a flooring company he has advised. The late CEO, Ray Anderson, set a target to transform his energy intensive and polluting organisation, into one that has zero emissions and makes new carpet tiles from old. Today they have largely achieved that target, and now have a goal to restore the natural environment  ­rather than just doing less harm.

I said that while I fully recognise that there are shining examples of sustainability in the corporate world, for every award-winner, there is a multitude of lesser-known organisations who will mercilessly exploit people and the environment to undercut them. To me, organisations position themselves in different market niches, in the same way that organisms evolve to occupy every ecological niche. We need governments to set clear boundaries, defining the rules of the game.

Mary Argyraki, who teaches sustainability at Sunderland University, was drawn to the illustration of the embedded economy in Chapter 2 that depicts the realms of household, market, state and commons as having equal value in meeting people’s needs. She said that just as households are central to one’s life, we need to think daily how we manage our households and apply similar principles to commons and markets. For example, if we had to dump excess food in our garden, rather than the council removing it, we would think twice about how much we cooked and threw away.

Mark Ridsdill Smith, who runs Vertical Veg, an organisation dedicated to helping people to grow food in small urban spaces, said that his organisation is operating in the ‘commons’ sphere and that he is amazed by what people will do for nothing. Examples of this can be seen in Newcastle’s parks, where bands of volunteers assist the cash-strapped council in creating and maintaining beautiful flower beds and borders. Such ‘common’ contributors contribute much.

I agreed that the way these four realms are portrayed in Chapter 2 cuts through the false-choices between left and right in politics. For example, why do we have to choose between a privatised railway and one wholly controlled by the state? Why not have the best of both worlds, and set up an entrepreneurial social business to run the railways. Such an approach would be advocated by Muhammad Yunus, who wrote the previous book we discussed, ‘A World of Three Zeros’.

The contrasting illustrations of ‘rational economic man’ and a crowd of diverse people, as illustrated in Chapter 3 resonate with me. I said that I hate the way the media and politicians label people as consumers. I would much rather think of myself as a citizen or just a human. I will never forget the day in October 2008, immediately after the financial crash, when Boris Johnson opened Westfield shopping centre in London; he told the assembled crowds and reporters to ‘spend, spend, spend’, to lift the capital’s troubled economy out of recession. Perhaps Johnson views Londoners as hamsters that must run faster and faster to keep the proverbial economic wheel spinning: exacerbating both pollution and the debt crisis. Raworth points out in Chapter 3 that the words and images society uses to describe itself matter. She quotes Robert Frank who said, ‘our beliefs about human nature help shape human nature itself’.

The last chapter of Doughnut Economics is entitled ‘We are all economists now’, and Raworth quotes Gandhi: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. For all of us gathered, sustainability is at least part of our job, so to some extent, we feel part of this change. However, the visual images Raworth presents in the book will help us to get the sustainability message across whether we are teaching, consulting or developing an organisational strategy. Also, we should evaluate our own lifestyles, and whether we are living within the dough, or eating too much cake.

By Marek Bidwell

October 2018

‘Doughnut Economics’ by Kate Raworth – 11th Oct 2018

Our next book has made quite a splash in the sustainability world since its launch last DE Coveryear: Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth who describes herself as a ‘renegade economist’. It was reviewed by George Monbiot in the Guardian with the headline “Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the doughnut”.

Whether you like to eat doughnuts or not, please join us to discuss this book at the welcoming Tyneside Coffee Rooms on 11th October 2018.

Gather from 7pm to start the discussion at 7.30pm. Light meals and drinks are available.

The meeting is free but please let me know if you can make it so that I can plan numbers for the venue.

marek@green-thinkers.org

Next Green Thinkers: ‘Pandora’s Seed’ by Spencer Wells – 5th July

I find myself increasingly fascinated by history: the ups and downs of civilisations that considered themselves to be immortal; the telltale traces that ancient humans left behind as they explored Britain, from cave paintings at Creswell Crags to middens of hazelnut husks on Colonsay; and the rapid growth in human population over the last 1000 years. For roughly 199,000 years we numbered less than 300 million, yet in the last 1000 years (or 0.5% of our time on the earth) we have added an extra 7.3 billion. Can an exploration how we got to here, inform us about the direction humanity takes in the 21st Century?

Our next book “Pandora’s Seed” by Spencer Wells, may help us to answer this question by examining the seismic shift humans made from hunter-gathering to farming, beginning about 10,000 years ago. What effect did this change in lifestyle have on us as a species and what effect did it have on the planet that sustains us?

We will meet to discuss this book on 5th July 2018 at ‘The Tyneside Coffee Rooms’ on the second floor of the Tyneside Cinema. Gather from 7pm to start the discussion at 7.30pm. Light meals and drinks are available.

The meeting is free but please let me know if you can make it so that I can plan numbers for the venue.

 

Next Bookclub: ‘A World of Three Zeroes’ by Yunus – 22nd March 2018

Following the collapse of Carillion, our next book ‘A World of Three Zeroes’ by Muhammad Yunus is prescient. Nobel Prize-winning Yunus pioneered the lending of microcredit in Bangladesh through a bank with the aim of improving social capital. Since then he has successfully extended the social business model into areas as diverse as farming, health-care and green-energy. 

In the book, he makes the case for governments to outsource to social businesses in preference to profit-driven business. Do you think that this could work in the UK?

Yunus also argues that entrepreneurial-driven social businesses are better able to reduce poverty, create employment and solve environmental problems than either governments or profit-driven businesses alone. An interesting proposition for capitalists and socialists alike. Do you agree?

Our next meeting will be on 22nd March 2018 at 6.30pm, at a new venue for us, ‘The Tyneside Coffee Rooms’ on the second floor of the Tyneside Cinema. Light meals and drinks are available, handy if you need to come straight from work.

The meeting is free but please let me know if you can make it so that I can plan numbers for the venue.

Feel free to pass this message on to friends who might be interested.

Marek Bidwell

marek@green-thinkers.org

“Unfair Trade” by Conor Woodman on 1st June 2017

Our next book will be a new topic for Green Thinkers, delving into the world of social responsibility and global supply chains. Investigative journalist ‘Conor Woodman’ gets under the skin of ethical business in an attempt to find out if the claims stack up.

When: 1st June 2017 (7-9pm)

Where: Town Wall Pub (Library Room, Pink Lane, Newcastle upon Tyne)

Booking: Free event, but spaces limited – email: marek@green-thinkers.org to book a place

“Don’t Even Think About It” – Questions

Our next meeting is this Thursday (2nd March) to discuss “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change” by George Marshall. In order to whet your appetite, or in case you can’t make it to the meeting, these are a few of the questions we will discuss:

  1. What do climate change skeptics and climate change campaigners have in common?
  2. Daniel Kahneman (respected psychologist and the author of our last book) said that he is “thoroughly pessimistic about climate change” – discuss
  3. Have you ever struck up a conversation with a stranger about climate change? What was the result?
  4. Do you think that labelling Carbon Dioxide as a pollutant is helpful in aiding people’s understanding of the impact of the gas?
  5. Have you watched Leonadaro DiCaprio’s films ‘The 11th Hour’ or ‘Before the Flood’? Do you think that apocalyptic imagery is helpful in getting the message of climate change across to the average person?
  6. Do you think that Marshall is right to dismiss the optimism of groups like ‘Sustainia‘ so readily?
  7. International agreements on climate change would be more effective if they focused on the extraction of fossil fuels rather than GHG emissions (the subject of ‘The Burning Question’ by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark) – discuss
  8. Were you surprised that Marshall reports that people with children are on average less concerned about climate change than people without children?
  9. Have you ever read a book about climate change on an aeroplane?! – Why is there such a large gap between what we know about the subject and what we do?
  10. Do you agree that the climate change movement could learn useful lessons on communication and conviction from religious groups?