This was originally a guest essay by David Fell for London Remade, as part of a debate on how to create a sustainable finance system for London. You can view the original post here: http://www.londonremade.com/what-should-the-new-mayor-be-doing-over-the-next-four-years-to-make-londons-economy-more-sustainable-the-6th-debate
Economic commentary is riddled with metaphor. A few years ago the talk was of ‘rising tides of prosperity’; these days we are battling through a seemingly endless ‘economic storm’.
Metaphors are dangerous things, of course: push one too far and you can be left seeming, or feeling, vaguely ridiculous. I spoke recently at an event organised by the London Sustainability Exchange to reflect on lessons learned from the wonderful Well London programme, and I decided that, rather than stick to the normal language of behaviour change theory and project management and policy development, I’d use an extended metaphor on the theme of cake. Making behaviour change work, I suggested, was about getting the right ingredients together, and in many respects was rather less like buying a cake and rather more like baking a cake. My audience stayed with me for most of the presentation, but there came a point when I suddenly thought – and exclaimed to my listeners – that maybe I’d taken the metaphor a little too far.
But metaphors can also be very instructive. When they work, they do so because they help us to understand the meaning of something. Indeed, there is a considerable school of thought in philosophy that suggests that ‘meaning’ is, essentially, metaphoric: the words we use to describe a thing are never, after all, the thing itself, whether that thing is a chair, a relationship or an economy. The way that we humans interpret the world, through language, is symbolic, and a metaphor is just a particular kind of symbol that helps us to understand what a thing is.
So with an economy, if we look at the kinds of metaphor that get used to explain it, we get an insight into what sort of thing we think it is. If an economy is like ‘a tide’ or like ‘a storm’, it reveals that we think an economy is like a natural phenomenon, a force of nature, a thing over which we have no control.
If you think about it, this is quite strange. An economy is, after all, just the outcome of lots of human beings interacting with one another – making things, buying things, selling things, inventing things, working on things. It doesn’t happen like the wind or the tide at all: it happens because we make it happen.
Interestingly, the history of economics as a discipline reveals that economists became anxious about this some while ago, perhaps as long as ago as the middle of the nineteenth century. In their efforts to elevate economics to the level of a science, economists began importing concepts from the worlds of physics and engineering. An economy, in this conceptualisation, consisted of innumerable component parts, all linked together as in some sort of machine, a machine that, when working well, or ‘efficiently’, was at some optimum state, an ‘equilibrium’.
With such a metaphor in mind, it became possible to think of the role of economic policy as being to ensure the smooth running of the machine; and the objective of that smooth running was to have as much ‘output’ from the machine with as little ‘input’ as possible. The metaphor reached its apotheosis in the form of the Phillips machine, built at the London School of Economics in the late 1940s, and still used as a teaching aid into the 1990s, which represented the economy as a system of ducts and levers that could be manipulated by teachers and students alike to mimic the effect of – for example – changes in tax rates or changes in interest rates.
It is incredibly important to understand the power and depth of this metaphor. Inherent to it is the idea of growth (more output), efficiency (less input for each unit of output) and the basis of economic policy (adjust the levers). The Phillips machine may no longer have the status it once did, but the metaphor itself continues to underpin the entirety of the economic orthodoxy. That means that the overwhelming majority of economists, trained in the citadels of Oxbridge and Harvard and a thousand other universities and now beavering away in the Treasuries and central banks and major corporations, with their econometric models and prescriptions of austerity, are deep down trying to fix a broken machine.
From another perspective, the power of this metaphor – this way of conceptualising what an economy is and how it functions, and thus how you can influence it – is known as a ‘paradigm’. Originally coined by the historian Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm is a set of interlocking and interdependent ideas that provide a framework upon which an entire edifice of further ideas and concepts are subsequently built. In the realm of science – upon which Kuhn had focused – this idea was truly radical. Rather than being a mechanism for progressing ever closer towards some sort of objective truth, ‘science’ was revealed as a human construct, subject from time to time to revolutions. At any given point in time, not only are there thousands of ideas built up from a few initial basic concepts – Newtonian physics, say – but there are also tens of thousands of individuals and institutions that have devoted their entire lives to the pursuit and embellishment of those ideas.
It is profoundly shocking to those individuals and institutions when a new basic principle arrives (in the way, for example, that quantum physics undermined Newtonian physics a century ago): and it is normal, Kuhn showed, for the new ideas to be resisted with considerable vigour, and often for a considerable period of time, before they are accepted and become the new ‘paradigm’.
Is this what is now happening in economics?
Look around and we see remarkably few mainstream voices offering workable solutions for the current ‘crisis’. We see virtually no politicians suggesting when, or how, it will ‘get better’, much less what it will be like when ‘better’ arrives. Somehow, the best they can claim is that, eventually, they’ll be able to fix the machine.
So let’s try something out, and consider a completely different metaphor. Rather than trying to adjust a machine so that it more efficiently produces more and more goods and services, how about something more organic? How about imagining that an economy is more like an eco-system than a machine? In fact, let’s go further, and imagine a particular, bounded eco-system: a large garden, or a park, say.
In many ways such a metaphor meets similar criteria to the metaphor of a machine: lots of component parts (for flowers, trees, insects, read people, businesses and money) interacting with one another, lots of inputs (sunshine, nutrients and so on) and lots of outputs (new plants and trees etc). Push the metaphor a little further, and some even more interesting things start to emerge. For example – would we want the garden endlessly to get bigger? We want the things in it to grow for sure, but that doesn’t mean the garden as a whole has to keep increasing in size!
If we were responsible for looking after the garden, would we treat it like a machine, mechanically adjusting and tweaking and amending? Or would we nurture it and let it grow and evolve in its own way, carefully husbanding it to meet some aesthetic or practical need? (It may depend on whether we want to grow flowers or vegetables, for example.) Does a garden get ‘broken’ and, once broken, can you ‘fix’ it?
Perhaps, instead, we should be looking at the current crisis and say not that this is ‘broken’ but, rather, that it is very, very sick. We need to nurture it back to health. This is not the sort of thing was can simply ‘fix’ by installing a new gadget (“a Eurobond”) or by oiling the thing some more (“quantitative easing”).
No. It’s not going to be easy, but we need to take a much longer term perspective. Some of the key plants in the garden we’ve had for the past few decades – the banks, for example – have become completely overgrown and are choking everything else. We need not only to chop them back (hard enough, given their size and resilience); we need also to find, and nurture, the plants we’d rather have in their place.
If, at this point, you’re thinking he’s pushed the metaphor too far – well, maybe. So let’s just briefly, and in closing, swivel to the rather more austere but still rather mysterious world of systems thinking. Here we find the notion of ‘leverage points’ (not the same as ‘levers’), those parts of a system which, though potentially quite small, nevertheless have the potential – by virtue of their connections throughout the system, or by virtue of the symbolic value that they have – to radically transform how a system works. Leverage points are the Holy Grail of systems thinking. If you can find them and activate them they operate not as levers in the machine metaphor, but as new types of plant in the organic metaphor.
If London is to become a genuinely sustainable city over the next few decades, it will need to find and foster these plants. In particular, it will need to find and allow the new types of enterprise that include energy efficiency and social justice and the idea of well-being rather than growth as simply given, not as ‘corporate responsibility’ add-ons. We should be looking at organisations like Project Dirt and DoNation and 6Heads and dozens of others not as quirky expressions of concern by sweet but peripheral young people, but as the very seeds of the future.
That’s what I’d like to see the Mayor doing. A pipedream, in the current circumstances, but it needs to be said. Forget the Olympics and the tall buildings and the ridiculous airports. Instead, put all the effort into creating the circumstances – the bedding, the mulch, the nutrients – that will enable every eco-preneur and every start up and every small business in London to have sustainability in its very DNA. Use planning, use incentives, use competitions and grants and all the tools at the Mayor’s disposal to allow the new species to grow. Let’s look not for ‘green shoots’, but really green shoots.
It won’t be quick – have you tried to rescue a ruined garden? – but it’s the only sustainable way forward. Carry on like this, and – well, it’s pretty stormy out there, and no-one seems to know how to make it calm down.