Sustainable Finance vs the Real World

(Above: I recently learned about a beautiful ecological design concept called Induced Meander. The word was coined by the ecologist Bill Zeedyk who, guided by the motto “let the river do the work”, transforms degraded wetlands and drylands into more resilient ecosystems. He spends time on and with the land pausing, at certain moments, to make small, delicate physical interventions such as a One Rock Dam, or Wicker-Weir).

These are curious times. Even as the world burns, sustainable finance and green capitalism are booming: Sustainability Reporting. Net Zero. Climate Finance. ESG. Green New Deal.

By some estimates, assets invested with environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria now top £35 trillion.

Why would investors put money into an asset class – sustainability – that so clearly doesn’t do what it says on the box?

I turned for an answer to the Sustainable Finance Group at Oxford University. It is part of a Global Research Alliance for Sustainable Finance and Investment, or GRASFI

GRASFI certainly sounds green – but then I learned a dispiriting thing.

The purpose of sustainable finance is not to make the actual world actually healthier.

Rather, as explained by @adribuller in her book, The Value of a Whale, “ESG is a means of betting on the likelihood of a green future, rather than actually help build it”.

The numbers ninjas at Oxford admit as much, themselves. Their flagship report is named Sustainable Finance and Transmission Mechanisms to the Real Economy

‘Real Economy’?

To the GRASFI-fed mind, the real world appears to be regarded as a sub-division of the financial one. They probably imagine a dingy office in the basement with a sign saying “Real Economy” on its door.

Yes, of course, green risk management is a lucrative business for consultants. But what about the rest of us – down here in the real world – who want to do something positive and practical for ecological flourishing?

Seventy five per cent of office workers, after all, want to participate in real-world activities that have a positive impact on their local environment.

The good news? Real-world activities to repair ecosystems, and strengthen communities, are growing all around us: projects to green the streets around offices; set up biocanteens with local farmers; plant micro-forests on depaved land; ‘daylight‘ lost rivers.

For confirmation, check out People Doing Stuff: Case Study Collections:
or take a quick look at Bottom-up biodiversity

There’s a lot happening – but which kind of real-world earth repair would best suit your place of work?

If you’d like to explore that question – and what steps you might take to make something happen – we still have two places at our next Meetup starting 30 August

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The (Design) Journey Back To Local

I did a 30 minute talk last October for Allan Chochinov’s Products of Design class at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City. Here is the video – and below are the main points, followed by a transcript.

You and I use more energy & resources in single month than our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime. And we’re doing so on a finite planet.

The science says we can thrive in future – but only if we meet our every day needs using five percent of the energy and material throughputs we’re using now.

That’s a Factor 20 reduction. That number sounds impossible, so scientists don’t talk about it much.

Their reticence is easy to understand. What is anyone supposed to do with that information?

Good news: examples of a five per cent future already exist: it’s how the world’s poor people already live.

More good news: 95 per cent of the world’s economic activity is already local.

Some advice, in that context, for designers in search of something practical to do: go and learn about poor-to-poor infrastructures that already exist – and use your design skills to enhance them.

Three takeaways:

1: Local provision is not a design or lifestyle choice – it’s where we’re headed anyway. That’s because local uses time, space and energy in radically less wasteful ways.

2: The vast majority of economic activity to meet daily needs is already local. Changing the word faster, to closer,is not as hard as it sounds.

3: Restoring our own health, and caring for place, is a single story.

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Back To The Land 2.0: Some JT Videos

These videos introduce the annual Back To The Land 2.0 summer school in Sweden that I run together with Konstfack (Cheryl Akner-Koler) and Annika Göran-Rodell. See also my 2022 Back To The Land 2.0 Reading List.

Nine ways to intervene in a food system
Thirty minute video from 2014 – but still relevant. Starts at 3m:
– Mapping Local Resources
– Connecting Growers & Citizens
– New Co-operatives
– Participation of Young People
– Re-Use of Buildings and Spaces
– Seeds and Seed Banking
– Herbs, Foraging
– Connected Garden
– Adapt Other Practice

Social Food Forum, Matera, Italy (3m, 2019
– 15 social food curators meet in Italy

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New Meetup Dates

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Sustainability You Can Touch

Ganges, 15 June 2022

Sustainability You Can Touch
Open School for Village Hosts
AI and sustainability: new talk
Back To The Land Reade

I was stupefied when I read this text in 2020: “CEO Anne Rigail announces that Air France will offset all carbon emissions from the 450 domestic flights it runs daily. It will do so by funding projects to plant trees, protect forests, transition to sustainable energy, or protect biodiversity” A few days later, EasyJet went even further. It declared that it would be the “first carbon-neutral airline company in the world.”

By what possible logic, I thought then, can it be ‘carbon neutral’ to propel 450 objects into the air, and across Europe, when each of those objects weighs 1,265,000 pounds? (That’s the weight of one fully laden A380). And how on earth, for that matter, could someone smart enough to run an airline come to embrace such logic?

It turns out that a not-so-small army of consultants provides the world’s CEOs with the words and numbers to support their reality-lite assertions.

‘Sustainability Reporting’ , for example, is an eye-watering $34 billion industry in its own right. Here’s a list of the top 25. Most of these names are new – to me, at least – and none that I can see is a design firm.

But ‘sustainability reporting’ is just the tip of a green finance iceberg. ‘Green’ investments are the fastest-growing segment of the global financial-services industry

Since 2019,  Bloomberg reports, investment firms have captured trillions of dollars from investors with the promise that “the stocks and bonds of big companies can yield tidy returns while also helping to save the planet”.

This boom fuelled by marketing that’s full of dire warnings about the climate crisis from scientists and campaigners.

So it ’s not that nobody was listening, dear climate movement. It’s just that some of the people who did pay attention saw an

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From Control, to Kinship: Ecological Restoration in a More Than Human World

The following is a transcript of my keynote talk on 29 May at Quantum(Quantum(Quantum()))): Artificial Imagination – the 2022 aai International Conference on art(ai) hosted by Tongji University in Shanghai.

The video is here.

Six months ago, in a talk titled Beyond Calculation, about AI and Sustainability, I asked whether artificial intelligence could be enough, on its own, to drive the ecological transition we so desperately need.

My key point then: a just transition will happen when we see nature differently, relate to nature differently, and understand the purpose of development differently.

That’s a big challenge. Transformation on that scale can seem un-imaginable from the perspective of today.

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Ideas for the City That Cares: Ezio Manzini’s new book, Livable Proximity

Below is my review of LIVABLE PROXIMITY: Ideas for the City that Cares, by Ezio Manzini (with a contribution by Ivana Pais). This review appears in the June 2022 edition of She Ji

A city that cares brings new meaning and vitality to a world exhausted by a focus on concrete, and consumption. In these inspirational pages, the word local is brought back to life by the pre-eminent social designer of our time. Ezio Manzini reveals a design practice which enhances the social, spatial, and relational qualities of the places where we live.

The publication of Livable Proximity could not be more timely. Its arrival comes at a moment when globalisation may have peaked. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, said in March 2022 that “globalization is over”.

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Tonantsintlalli – a multidimensional Mother Earth

Can indigenous knowledges help us inhabit our own places in a more adaptive and responsive ways? Can connection with these kinds of lived experience help us redefine development, and progress in our own situations? The text below is my introduction to Tonantsintlalli – a multidimensional Mother Earth presented by Desiree Hernandez Ibinarriaga & David Marcelino Cayetano @blakdotgallery Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia

“The destruction will stop when we see nature differently, relate differently, understand our purpose here differently”.

Those words – from the Spanish priest and philosopher Raimon Pannikar – surely ring true. But how would such a transformation happen? Most of us feel trapped in world that is mesmerised by all things digital, and framed by a form of scientific knowledge based solely on rationality.

Tonantsintlalli is about a different everyday vitality – Mother Earth – experienced in different ways. These ways ways of knowing, and being, are infused with the values of care, cooperation, and connectedness. Indigenous peoples, in this world, live in harmony with their territory. Empathy with each other, and with all the species that live there, is taken for granted.

These ways of inhabiting the world are literally vital. Although indigenous lands account for less than 22 percent of the world’s land area, their traditional territories are home to approximately 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity – its life.

Also remarkable: whilst ‘systems thinking’ is a novelty for most of us in the industrialised world, sensitivity to ecological systems seems quite natural for those attuned Tonantsintlalli.

Can indigenous knowledges help us inhabit our own places in a more adaptive and responsive ways? Can connection with these kinds of lived experience help us redefine development, and progress in our own situations?

Appreciation for the value of traditional ecological knowledge is certainly growing. For one thing, the gap between the two world views has been narrowing. Since the 1980s, especially, scientific discoveries have undermined the idea that man is separate from nature.

From the study of sub-microscopic viruses, yeasts, ants, mosses, lichen, slime moulds and micorriza – to trees, rivers and climate systems – a profoundly startling picture has emerged. Our planet is a web of interdependent ecosystems. On a molecular, atomic and viral level, no organism is truly autonomous – and that includes us.

The importance of this new perspective is profound. If our minds are shaped by our physical environments – and are not just a bunch of synapses clicking away inside our box-like skulls – then the division between the thinking self, and the natural world, begins to dissolve.

Having worked hard, throughout the modern era, to lift ourselves ‘above’ nature, we are now being told by modern science that man and nature are one, after all.

This is something that indigenous peoples have known all along.

But some words of caution are needed here. Contact with Tonantsintlalli teaches us that indigeneity is a practice, not a thing. This practice is situated, place-specific, and relational. It is shaped by multiple timescales – not all of them linear ones. It exists among an ecology of actors – human, and non-human – and the places we inhabit.

Indigenous knowledges, it follows – culture, language, history, and ways of life – are diverse. They are not recipes, as if for a cake. They cannot be extracted, printed on method cards, and applied to people, or places, somewhere else.

Given those qualities, what kind of relationship with indigenous knowledge should we aspire to – especially people like this writer who are who white, male and privileged?

Our first responsibility, I believe, is to deepen our connections with our own places.

The ‘work that reconnects’, of the kind taught by Joanna Macy, develops understanding that we are part of a living world, not its external observer. The addition of ecology and systems literacy can enhance the capacity for attention, attunement, and care, that we now lack.

The work of reconnection is not incompatible with scientific enquiry. On the contrary: scientific and indignenous knowledge can complement each other and expand a shared menu of potential insights.

Whether it’s eDNA analysis used to diagnose the condition of damaged soils, or Artificial Intelligence that translates of indigenous languages, new technologies can be positively transformative, too. And in his new book Gaia Alchemy, the English scientist and ecologist Stephan Harding describes the reintegration of rationality and intuition, science and soul as a living process right now.

One way to be fair, and respectful, in our relationship with other knowledges is to change the words learning from to learning with. With a commitment to collective learning, we can combine knowledge systems of South and North, learn from a of a multiplicity of approaches, and, in Arturo Escobar’s words, “inhabit a world where many worlds fit – a pluriverse”.

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Microbes and Social Equity. Tools for Changemakers. Meetups & Offsites

March 2022 Newsletter CONTENTS
Microbes and Social Equity
Tools for Changemakers
Multi-Species Cities
Design for Planet
School for Village Hosts
Offsites for Teams

Ninety nine percent of life is invisible – so how do we design for that? To begin that conversation, I talked with Dr. Suzanne Ishaq – a microbiome researcher and founder of the Microbes and Social Equity working group.

Mutualaid. Local money. Collaborative care. Alternative futures are being created around the world – but not, for the most part, in plain sight. I talked with David Bollier about his new book which brings dozens of social projects like these to the fore.

Please consider subscribing.

Design for Multi-Species Cities (PROJECT REPORT)
What would it mean to practice design in the knowledge that the well-being of humans, and non-humans, is inter-connected? A recent design workshop in Milan explored just this question: practical ways to make cities hospitable for all of life, not just human life. Students chose from three aspects of green infrastructure: a) Soil Care, Composting, Fermentation; b) Trees, Microparks, Edible Forest; c) Microbiome Inspired Green Infrastructure (MIGI)

DESIGN FOR PLANET: people, soils, animals, plants (TEXT)
In what practical ways can design engage with places as living systems? Ways that are regenerative, and not its opposite? @designcouncil asked its eight Design For Planet Fellows, of which I am one, to share “an inspiring design”. I chose a project at Luma Arles, called Regenerative Empathy, about the design of new relationships between people, soils, animals, and plants in the Camargue bioregion in southern France.

Who needs a ‘Village Host’? Well, in Italy alone, 5,500 small villages (those with 5,000 or fewer inhabitants) have been declining; in Spain, 3,500; in Serbia, 4,700 – to name just three of the countries involved in this new project. Many new activities and livelihoods are emerging – post-Covid tourism, agro-ecology, land-based learning – but such projects do not organise themselves. Read more about about this pan-European Erasmus+ project (which I’m advising) here:

Summer masters course on sustainable food systems and biodiversity. 20 June to 28 August.
The registration deadline has passed, but you can join a waiting list.

I’m hosting three Meetups this summer at our home in southern France. If you are a designer, architect, project curator, postgrad student, researcher, or writer – and could use some help focusing your thesis, project, or book -– this year’s dates are:

 24 May – 31 May
 14 June – 21 June
 7 July – 14 July

• We’ve prolonged the Early Bird reduction for May:
150€ off (offer ends 1 April)

You can apply by sending an email to, describing your project and/or why you’d like to participate.
For further information look at

Offsites for Teams
If you want to bring a small team for an independent offsite – maybe for fewer days – please get in touch. I can be available for sessions during your stay if you wish – but you determine the programme.

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