Championing a holistic approach to our world crises, Dr Nafeez Ahmed is a systems theorist at RethinkX, Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, and Advisor for the Global Citizens Assembly.
Now a leading member of the Club of Rome’s 21st century Transformational Economics Commission and a contributor to the Earth4All project, he told us about his hope that understanding how all our global problems are profoundly interconnected might help us avoid catastrophe, and overcome roadblocks to transformation.
Q. The interdisciplinary study of systems aims to identify and harness the tipping points linked to the world’s most complex challenges – such as climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality, and so on. Can you tell us more about the theory and how it might be useful for sidestepping the crises we are going through?
A. Systems theory and systems thinking are simply ways of seeing how things in the world are interconnected. What really makes it powerful is it transcends a lot of the big disciplinary and theoretical divides and debates in academia and science. It’s possible to hold different ideological views and political views but to use systems theory as a way of grappling across those different visions and trying to make sense of things.
Systems analysis tells us it’s not possible to look at the economy in isolation, for example. I think there was a historic sense that the economy just operates within itself. Now even mainstream economists have come to realise this is a very flawed way of seeing things.
What we need to see now is how the economy is embedded in environmental systems and energy systems. And how complex all these interconnections with the earth systems are. And it’s only when we recognise and accept that, that we will to be able to get through this.
Q. So you think that economic thinking should actually contribute to the world, in a more systems-aware way, to support transformation?
A. Absolutely. One of the biggest problems with the prevailing economic paradigm is it operates in a silo and it sees everything in a silo. So it doesn’t have a framework for understanding the negative externalities, for example, which in itself is an interesting framing of the huge costs and damage of our current way of doing things.
So there are a lot of different things that we’re now thinking about. And because of the existential crisis of climate change and beyond that we’re experiencing, we’ve come to this kind of stark realisation that the current order has run its course, and we must transition to something else now.
Q. So is mainstream economic thinking now defunct?
A. I think a lot of what existed is not completely defunct, but what we’ve found is that it operates only within a certain framework. So, for example, one of the reasons most economists didn’t see the 2008 financial crash coming when it did, was because the predictive value of those theories is too small.
Most mainstream economists didn’t understand the dynamics of that crisis. And perhaps even to this day still don’t. But we now have the data that shows that it was a very complex crisis, a result of this convergence of factors.
I think we’re now beginning to develop frameworks to think critically about these things. There is a whole field called post-growth economics, and new theories of ecological economics as well as biophysical economics. They don’t all agree, but they offer much more empirically-grounded frameworks that fit real-world data.
What’s interesting about these emerging economic sciences is that some say we can still use the term growth and the idea of growth usefully, though others disagree. But I think the consensus that’s emerged within all those divisions is that the current form of growth isn’t working, and cannot work.
We now have this variety of economic approaches trying to explore other options. One of the most interesting and exciting areas is the idea that prosperity is possible, but it needs to be redefined before we can move forward.
Q. Are there any short-term economic measures in the meantime, to avoid the negative tipping points that we are threatened with?
A. This is the big question of our times, and it’s a difficult one to answer. But the work we do at the Club of Rome’s Transformational Economics Commission points to a combination of things.
On the one hand, there is a recognition that the existing fossil-fuel-based industrial age system is declining and collapsing, with diminishing returns. One way or another it’s disappearing. The question is, what is going to take its place? How do we get there with as little crisis as possible, protecting as many people as possible, while optimising that whole process?
Solar wind and batteries technologies have improved exponentially, and their costs have gone down exponentially. The same goes for electric vehicles, other transport, and it’s starting in the food sector, with precision fermentation and cellular agriculture.
A lot of things are happening across the globe, so the key to looking ahead is recognising that we are on the cusp of a huge systemic transformation of our entire civilisation, driven by these fundamental disruptions in the foundational sectors of production. If we can ride the wave of these technologies, we can re-organise our societies in a way that will allow us to meet our material needs in ways which don’t harm the Earth and which contribute to a degree of prosperity.
Q. So, you are saying that with such revolutionary changes we also need a revolution in economics? Introducing universal basic income (UBI) for example?
A. Yes we do need a revolution in economics, but UBI is only one of those options that needs to be on the table and actively discussed and explored – but it is not the revolution.
The UBI idea is still looking at the solution in a way that assumes that the existing system is going to endure. We may want to have UBI, but if we do, let’s be aware that many of these transformations are going to create a new possibility space for decentralised ownership of many of the technologies of production in a way that wasn’t possible before.
If people in communities and households and businesses are going to be able to become owners of energy production, food production, perhaps even transport, then it becomes a case of: Do we need UBI or do we instead need a restructuring of how we look at production processes?
Q. What do you think is the role of the Club of Rome and Earth4all in bringing this change about?
A. Part of the challenge is that we have failed to communicate, to the wider public especially, through the media and policy recommendations, what is at stake. We have not done a good enough job.
What we lack in our policymaking world is our ability to engage in systems. What we have now is policymakers working with the old system, the old way of thinking, and they’re applying the same kind of tools that they used in the past to try and solve these complex problems. But it won’t work.
My hope is that a forum such as the Club of Rome can act as a catalyst to help disseminate these ideas. And the science here is crucial. We must maintain a rigorous approach; we must have the modelling and the experts from different disciplines. But what we are really concerned about is how do we communicate this as widely as possible?
Q. It’s been 50 years since the landmark report to The Club of Rome The Limits to Growth was published, what would be your vision for the next 50 years?
A. The limits to growth concept is definitely an idea whose time has finally come , but it’s important to recognise that we are looking at limits of the existing system, and must plan for the next system. The exponential technologies unfolding today will provide unprecedented opportunities to create new forms of prosperity that do not breach planetary boundaries. Decarbonisation is not a painful necessity, but a tremendous economic opportunity – as well as, of course, being necessary for continued survival of both human species, and all species.
I think the next 50 years are going to be a period of heightened uncertainty because of the old system going through a process of diminishing returns and a vicious cycle of collapse.
In the next 20 years already, we will see that unfolding, even as the new system emerges in this period. Now, we won’t be able to stop all of those consequences, so we have to think about mitigating and adapting to those consequences as much as we can.
But there’s also going to be these massive new opportunities opening up due to technology disruptions in energy, transport and food which will bring with them the need for completely rethinking our mindsets, values and societal organising systems. We must stop with sticking plasters that are designed to keep that old system going. We must stop finding ways to keep that old system going. Instead, we must make a concerted, fundamental acceptance that this is where we’re moving to. We’re moving into this fundamentally new civilisation, which is going to have very different dynamics.
There are lots of opportunities in what’s coming, but it’s about recognising those opportunities as opportunities and seeing how we can, not just mitigate the risks, but actually transform these risks into something that’s desirable.
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