From Oil Age to Soil Age

The Design Museum in London opens at its new home this week with, as its centrepiece, an exhibition called Fear and Love curated by Justin McGuirk. I contributed the following text to the book.

Schumacher Debra Solomon Tree copy

(Above: Debra Solomon examines nature’s internet at Schumacher College in England)

Why we need a new story

In 1971 a geologist called Earl Cook evaluated the amount of energy ‘captured from the environment’ in different economic systems. Cook discovered then that a modern city dweller needed about 230,000 kilocalories per day to keep body and soul together. This compared starkly to a hunter-gatherer, 10,000 years earlier, who needed about 5,000 kcal per day to get by.

That gap, between simple and complex lives, has widened at an accelerating rate since Cook’s pioneering work. Once all the systems, networks and equipment of modern life are factored in – the cars, planes, factories, buildings, infrastructure, heating, cooling, lighting, food, water, hospitals, the internet of things, cloud computing – well, a New Yorker or Londoner today ‘needs’ about sixty times more energy and resources per person than a hunter-gatherer – Read More »

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On seeing with new eyes

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The last thing we need to see the world with new eyes is a virtual reality headset“. On a recent visit to Milan, I was interviewed for Domus by Stefania Garassini. The Italian version is online here; the English one is here.

(Domus intro) When you hear someone quote Marcel Proust – “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – there is a temptation to dismiss them as just another utopian, a dreamer who might have inspired ideas but cannot translate these into anything practical. Nothing could be further from the truth if the person in question is John Thackara, a philosopher, writer, event-organiser, thinker ranging across the boundaries between design and economics, and the author of numerous books – his most recent is How to Thrive in the Next Economy (Thames & Hudson). Read More »

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A roof, a skill, a market: The multiple dimensions of scale

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“Beware the scale trap”.  In a Letter To Philanthropists Parker Mitchell,  a former CEO of Engineers Without Borders in Canada, advised potential donors that “scale is important, but don’t rush it. Most good ideas take time – to iron out the details, to bring down the costs, to be tested in different environments”. Organic demand-driven scale will happen in time, but it takes patience to find the right elements of a solution.

These lessons are exemplified by The Nubian Vault Association (AVN). With a mission is to serve the one hundred million people living in the Sahel region of West Africa who are either homeless, or live precariously in short-life structures, AVN has spent 16-years, on the ground, developing a multi-dimensional approach that works.

AVN’s pioneering work will be presented this week at the finals of the Place By Design competition at SXSWeco.  Rather than a celebration of the past, it will share a  challenge with the whole social impact community: What’s the best way to grow faster – a lot faster – without wrecking a system that has worked well so far?
Read More »

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“Let’s talk about optimism”

Back in November, on the eve of the US book release launch for How to Thrive in the Next Economy, I sat  down with Core77’s Allan Chochinov to talk about the project.

AC: When did the book project first begin? Is it something that you’ve been working on for a while, or did it have a definite starting point?

JT: OMG, it must be five years.That’s when I did the first formal treatment, at least. I’ve re-written big chunks of it twice since then – and have added in new a stories along the way as I’ve  learned about them.

The whole thing stabilised during 2014 when I had a fixed deadline to meet – and it’s been in production for most of this year so I couldn’t  change it any more. I hope it’s a good sign that I’m still proud of the book a whole year after I stopped writing it!

AC: This is a very different book than In the Bubble—which was a tremendous work, but a pretty “thick” read:) Can you tell us about the transition from one to another from your point of view?

JT: I had five years of feedback to In The Bubble to learn from when I started this project  – and Read More »

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What keeps you awake at night?

I was asked, in an interview for Resilience, what it is that inspires my work, and what keeps me going.

1. Who/what has been your greatest inspiration? And why?

A:  Rocks. And stones. I’ve always loved stones and rocky places – but it was only when I moved to south west France (where I live now) that I realised just how many other people are as inspired by rocks as I am – and have been for a long time. Some of the stone megaliths around here date back to well before the Druids. This connection with stones and stoniness is not whimsical at all; people around here volunteer to rebuild stone terraces – there are thousands of miles of them all over the Cevennes, dating back centuries. It’s incredibly hard – but meaningful – work. There’s a connectedness when stones are involved that goes beyond words.

2. Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?

A: That it’s mainly about connection between people and places – and not much about concepts or plans. It’s taken me a long time to learn respect for Read More »

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Manifesto For Utopias Are Over: Cities Are Living Systems

I was asked to write a provocation for DAMN magazine in Italy.

1         Change and innovation are no longer about finely crafted ‘visions’ of some future place and time. Positive change happens when people reconnect – with each other, and with the biosphere – in rich, real-world, contexts. Rather than ask about utopias, I challenge city leaders to answer two questions: “Do you know where your next lunch will come from?” and, “Do you know if that place is healthy or not?”

This approach expands the design focus beyond hard infrastructure towards a whole-system concern with the health of places that keep the city fed and watered. Within this frame of the city as a living system, the health of farm communities, their land, watersheds and biodiversity, become integral aspects of the city’s future prosperity, too. This focus acknowledges that we live among watersheds, food sheds, fibersheds and food systems – not just in cities, towns or “the countryside”.

2         The presence of good bread is a reliable indicator that a city’s food system is healthy. Good bread denotes microbial vitality. In dozens of major cities, real bread pioneers are creating shorter grain chains by connecting together a multitude of local actors in ways that reduce the distance Read More »

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The 72 most cheering things I learned on my book tour

SEPTEMBER 2016 Newsletter

Since my book How To Thrive In the Next Economy was published – a year ago this week – I’ve had conversations about it at forty talks and workshops. With thanks to my diverse but always generous hosts, this email is to share the 72 most interesting and cheering things that I learned along the way. …

VALUE

1    My talks proposed a simple theory of value: the health of living systems, including human ones, is paramount. Money and GDP are secondary indicators of progress, at best. Nobody disagreed. So that’s that sorted.

2    For the theologian Ina Praetorius, what’s emerging is a care-centered economy.

3    Dougald Hine says we’re in a shift from a transactional to a relational economy.

4    The Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si – with a target readership of 1.2 billion people – includes a whole chapter on ‘integral ecology’. Fritjof Capra celebrated Read More »

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Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It

Five years ago I obtained an extraordinary 736 page book called Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future and How To Survive It. Written over a thirty year period by the English ecologist David Fleming, the book had been published in a limited edition after the author’s untimely death. Now, thanks to an heroic, expert and loving effort by editor Shaun Chamberlin and publisher Chelsea Green, Lean Logic has now been published in a slightly (628 pages) shorter form.
The text below is my original review.

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The publisher describes it as a “community of essays”. In my words it’s half encyclopedia, half commonplace book, half a secular bible, half survival guide, half … yes, that’s a lot of halves, but I hope you get the picture. I have never encountered a book that is so hard to characacterise yet so hard, despite its weight, to Read More »

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Biennials and system change

I was invited to give a keynote in Milan to the general assembly of the International Biennials Association. My talk was called Life’s Work: Biennials and Regeneration. Here below is a summary:

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The sad-looking structure above was the Dutch Pavilion not long after the Hannover World Expo ended in 2000.

Having helped to write the brief, I know first-hand that the Expo team hoped for a different outcome. The very essence of the Dutch pavilion was supposed to be sustainability, innovation, and long-term progress.

So what went wrong? Why do so many expos, festivals and biennials promise to change the world for the better – only to end up as trash?

A short answer: Many big-ticket events are thinly disguised real-estate plays in a world that is over-built. Pavilions, stadia and museums are too often conceived as ‘antenna buildings’ whose task is to attract attention to hitherto cheap land – and raise its price.

Looking forward, biennials have a more transformative role to play as Read More »

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