Transforming the Devonian Economy

I was very excited to see the telescope in the charity shop window. It was exactly what I’d been keeping my eye out for, ever since the comet became visible during one of our recent lockdown summers. I’m as eager to commune with the nature over our heads as with the nature that surrounds us.

I don’t consider myself a consumer. I might have simply borrowed one from The Share Shed, the mobile ‘library of things’ based in Totnes, but they don’t have one to lend. Buying used is the next best thing and something I’ve done for years to reduce my own ecological footprint. So I bought it and am now just waiting for the next clear night …

In a way, my little story contains many elements of what a transformed economy might look like here in Devon – more connection with nature, less consumption, more sharing, or at least buying pre-owned things to keep them from going to landfill. One can imagine being more ‘circular’ and being more aware of impacts, both personal and systemic. Less consumption implies less production, reduced material throughput, less energy consumed, less CO2 emitted, and so on, rippling out through the wider economic system. 

While the very little saved by my personal choice in this case is minute, it’s necessary. In the aggregate, it might even be significant. But this implies that the ‘consumer’, or ‘re-consumer’, in this case, has agency and the power to leverage economic change simply by changing their buying habits. Consumption is two thirds of UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP), so one might imagine that consumers have enormous transformative potential. This logic may be sound, but the rate of change in consumer behaviour is slow and messy, especially while producers, investors, and politicians are promoting growth in consumption, profitability and overall economic activity. 

The economic system we have now – powered by fossil fuels, fed by resource extraction, concentrating profits and wealth, accelerating inequality, leaving communities and places behind – is largely responsible for the crises we face. While some suggest that ‘green growth’ is possible, that is, we might ‘decouple’ growth in GDP from negative impacts such as biosphere damage and green house gas emissions, this argument has been largely refuted by the data. In their recent reports, International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body of the world’s leading scientists informing the international process attempting to deal with the climate crisis, suggest that the system must be utterly transformed if we’re to avoid the worst consequences of global heating. 

Transforming the global economic system is a huge and complex project – obviously. It is THE project of this century. One can just about grasp the challenges and complexities of transforming our regional economic system – also daunting. The scale and scope of change required here is significant, but a holistic approach to reconfiguring our regional economy could create new abundance and higher quality of life. 

Let’s imagine that future. 

Let’s begin with justice and fairness. In Devon, we have high levels of poverty, many areas of high deprivation, a lack of decent and affordable housing. Some groups may bear the brunt of institutional biases that keep them from realising their full potential in life, let alone as employees, entrepreneurs, or citizens. A just and fair system would be, well, fair. It would focus on meeting everyone’s needs. It would be inclusive, allowing everyone to participate in a fair share of the work and the profits. One would imagine more employee-owned enterprises, cooperatives, and so on – and no more exploitative employment contracts. Many leading economists now call for a ‘just transition’ to ensure that the costs of change are borne fairly, as well.

Another quality we might imagine is ecological wisdom. This goes beyond mere ‘ecological friendliness’ and reducing CO2 emissions. Our existence depends on the biosphere, the diversity of life and the food web. We must meet our needs while investing in ecological restoration, regeneration, rewilding, protection, etc. Imagine farm fields abundant with life from the soil up, thanks to regenerative agricultural practices – the Apricot Centre in Dartington is at the leading edge of this movement. Imagine rivers and seas free of plastic and chemicals and full of life, too. 

Since we’re reimagining our systems and institutions, we can ensure they’re conducive to life at all scales. Biomimicry might inform shifts in design and engineering practices. Doughnut Economics and bioregionalism might inform policy frameworks that understand the relationship between the economy and the wider natural world within which it is embedded. There’s already a group of citizens working on the Devon Doughnut.

We would also imagine that the system works so that our communities are healthy and thriving. If our economic system is reoriented toward meeting our needs, what are our needs? Imagine everyone having access to fresh, nutritious food and warm, affordable, secure housing. Economist, Manfred Max-Neef, developed a model comprising nine fundamental human needs, which also include the need for identity, understanding, participation, affection, creation, idleness and freedom. Along the same lines, the Inner Development Goals also show that human needs are complex. These models give us a way of understanding how we might reconfigure our economic relationships to increase wellbeing at work and in our communities.

We might also think of this as a convivial society where people are consuming less and experiencing more, both individually and in in a variety of collective ways. More sharing of resource heavy goods like electric cars and telescopes. More care and education – perhaps through social enterprise, as well as through state services. More participation in community life, too, through groups, hubs, festivals, and so on. Where production is happening it is through non-polluting processes and fulfilling livelihoods. This is what Degrowth thinkers and Transitioners emphasise – that dramatically reducing our carbon and ecological impacts can allow us to co-create any number of versions of the ‘good life’.

One final essential quality of our transformed bioregional economic system to mention is resilience. There will be more shocks – drought and heatwaves, damaging winter storms, swept away rail lines, global financial crashes. The recent pandemic will have taught us many lessons in this regard. By emphasising diversity, redundancy, and modularity our system will be able to bounce back, to adapt, and hopefully to continue to thrive. 

Our transformed and resilient economy will be ‘re-localised’ as we re-invest in local producers of all kinds, re-weave local economic ecosystems, and keep more of the financial wealth we generate in Devon, circulating in Devon. This is already beginning to happen in places like Totnes where local residents put on an annual ‘local entrepreneur forum’. In Torbay, the council are pursuing their Community Wealth Building agenda which seeks to use the economic power of the council and other large institutions to help drive this process of change. There is also an initiative to create the first regional bank serving the needs of local people and enterprises – the South West Mutual Bank.

These four qualities – just and fair, ecologically wise, socially thriving, resilient – are interrelated, each contributes to the other. They provide a basic starting point for beginning to think about and work toward the kind of future we deserve and might co-create together. Take a moment to really imagine what life could be like. Did you see farms full of produce, bicycle paths lined with fruit trees, pedestrianised town centres full of art, music, cafes and independent little shops, libraries of things, clean and green manufacturers, bird song? It isn’t hard to imagine. What’s difficult is imagining how we get there in the next few decades.

Among the many circles of people working for economic change, discussions about the future often quote science fiction writer, William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” It has become a cliché, but it’s a useful way to recognise that the models and relationships that will comprise our future system likely already exist in exemplar projects here in Devon or elsewhere. They’re ‘beacon’ projects, such as the ones I’ve mentioned above, that attract attention and inspire others to emulate in their own places.

If we think of possible pathways to a ‘net zero’ future, a very practical place to start is by supporting the beacon projects that exist, creating the conditions for new ones to emerge, and helping these models spread. 

As citizens and consumers – or re-consumers or non-consumers – we can buy from them, invest in them, volunteer with them. As enterprise leaders we can co-create mutually beneficial collaborations. As entrepreneurs we can start similar projects or innovate new regenerative models. As network weavers we can bring together elements of entrepreneurial ecosystems to enable transformative, regenerative entrepreneurs to start up and thrive. As educators we can empower our young people with the knowledge and knowhow they’ll need in the coming decades. As councillors and council officers we can work with these networks to provide enabling resources, helpful policy, buildings and meeting spaces. As artists and storytellers we can anticipate the future with our work, bringing to life our ideas and intentions.

Systems change theorist, Donella Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report 50 years ago, identified 12 key places to intervene in a system in order to change it. The three most powerful things we can do are to change the goals of the system, change the mindset out of which the system emerges, and develop the power to transcend paradigms. In other words, we have to decide to change, be willing to let go of pre-conceived ideas and assumptions about what is possible, and use our imaginations and dare to dream. 

My telescope is for observing the heavens where the light that I see may have taken years to reach our earth. It’s like a time machine, seeing the moon as it was a second and a half ago or Andromeda, the nearest galaxy to our Milky Way, as it was 2.5 years ago. If I could use it to look into the future, I am certain I would see lots of regenerative farms, solar panels and wind turbines, a thriving eco-tourism industry, electric buses and bicycles everywhere. And I’d see happy people working together in all sorts of ways that are mutually respectful and worthwhile. There are problems, of course – we’re human beings. But life is better, healthier, connected. Perhaps you see it, too?

This article was originally published in the The Net Zero Visions Book.

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