Rethinking what we want to value as a society – a Q&A with Dr. Lewis Akenji

Dr. Lewis Akenji is Managing Director of the Hot or Cool Institute and a member of the Earth4All Transformational Economics Commission.

What do you work on within the Earth4All Transformational Economics Commission?  

The Earth4All Transformational Economics Commission is unique because we don’t just look at the idea of transformation, we look at turnarounds. A good number of aspects in society are on the wrong trajectory and Earth4All’s five key turnarounds target convergence issues which, if addressed, would trigger a whole-system change. The Earth4All initiative takes a transdisciplinary approach: a combination of Earth system science, encapsulated by the planetary boundaries, and of the political economy of the sustainability transition. It also combines ideas from the Global North and the Global South, from regions or communities that are typically an afterthought in such processes.  

The Commission’s work also questions the values upon which our growth-economy paradigm is based; it goes to the foundation of what we consider important to us as a society, and what success should look like if we achieved the objectives of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. If we don’t base our development on the right values, then elements such as trust, wellbeing, or meaningful engagement in communities could become sacrificed in the process of transitioning. By focusing mainly on technological interventions and economic growth, we could perversely arrive at a point where the planet is environmentally sustainable but with psychologically or socially broken and vastly unequal peoples, which wouldn’t be sustainable.

If we rethink the values underpinning development, what are they?  

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Environment Programme and The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth report. Despite the knowledge we have amassed on the problem and potential solutions we now readily have, in these five decades we have continued in the wrong direction. We now find ourselves at the most critical point yet, having caused what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) refers to as irreversible changes in the climate system. 

It is important to understand the failure of policy here; policy makers have continued down the route of wishful thinking – that if we just put out enough information then people and businesses will make the right decisions. But people do not make decisions in a vacuum; choices are made within a socio-technical context that predetermines what options are available. And so as long as governments fail to set the right conditions for a turnaround, it is difficult to change course.   

What should an economic system contribute to society? 

A healthy economy would recognise the extremes of poverty and wealth, recognise that continuous extraction and profiteering services a rich few rather than the wider population, and recognise that wellbeing cannot be shifted to an appendix of endless economic growth. As a precondition, it would recognise that the economy needs to work within the limits of Earth’s capacity, and act in service to the broader society.  

We must reduce consumption among overconsuming populations in order to create a fair consumption space for under-consuming populations to meet their material needs for wellbeing and dignity.  

To move away from this problem, how can an economic system help reshape production and consumption patterns?   

It is essential to understand that people don’t get up in the morning saying ‘Oh, I’m going to wreck the environment today’. People consume to meet their biological needs, social expectations, and to satisfy desires. But people also consume the way they predominantly do because they are railroaded to do so by prevailing infrastructure and social norms. Once you build airports instead of trains, it forces people to travel by plane rather than by train. As long as the hallmarks of success in our world remain attached to environmentally and socially harmful economic indicators, people will make decisions that perpetuate unsustainable lifestyles. These consumerist and unsustainable tendencies are embedded in the design of our policies, which uphold the boundless economic growth argument.    

So where do we start?  

We start with redefining our values. What underlying values do we want for a future sustainable civilisation?

Our financial system is rotten. It creates the wrong incentives and directs attention towards polluting and harmful activities, creates money and thrives on debt, and refuses to account for the natural assets upon which we depend. Sustainability financing is not just a matter of raising capital to finance the sustainable development goals; it must also be about changing the financial system itself. 

Some groups in society also need to come a bit more into focus as we chart our way to the future. Indigenous populations’ knowledge of community resource management, collective responsibility, and more harmonious ways with nature could give us some ideas of how to organise ourselves going forward. The youth are another such group. The levels of eco-anxiety and depression experienced by youth as well as the lack of trust in institutions, demand that we don’t only talk about 2050 but that we also talk about the now. We can’t afford to wait. Unless we deal with this youth anxiety crisis immediately, it is going to mainstream with time as the current youth become adults. So it is important that involving youth in the decisions about their future becomes part of the solution landscape.  

In this collective future and the transformation process, what do we have to lose and what do we have to gain?   

When we talk about sustainable living, we are challenging hundreds of years of institutionalised and practised understanding of what is a good life. For decades, our society constructed that you have succeeded if you own a big car, if you fly to distant lands on holidays, if you have a big house, etc.  Suddenly, we are telling people to reverse course -not only because the planet cannot support this version of consumerism as the good life for everyone, but also because we’ve seen very clearly that these ‘success criteria’ are causing distress and are negatively impacting our wellbeing. Reversing this momentum is hard, but we must realise that we cannot continue going forward with the current direction. Although we are talking about changing consumption patterns and lifestyles, a radical change at such scale cannot be left to individuals alone. Governments, businesses and institutions – custodians of our norms and culture – must play leading roles in order to see any meaningful and timely results.  

There are two things that combine well in engineering the transition: choice editing and social innovation. 

Choice editing is about removing the harmful consumption options in society. What needs to leave? Fossil fuel cars, excessive meat consumption, any individual consumption that burns up the environmental budget of tens of millions of people. Some sectors, such as energy and agriculture are priority areas for which we need to immediately remove harmful market options.  All the perverse incentives from basic areas of everyday living – housing, food, health – driving speculation would need to go.  

To avoid it being all about losing or reductions, choice editing should be combined with innovation. Social innovation doesn’t mean green products, or green technology – we need to stop looking at the market as the only solution and find ways of supporting our wellbeing without taking out our credit cards or fidgeting with electronic toys. In this case, a care-centred economy is a useful example of a lens, as are community-based initiatives.   

As governments and businesses are not responding as fast as the climate emergency demands, while doing our bit as citizens we all need to become strong sustainability advocates. The real power of citizens could be harnessed in showing that the masses still hold the decision for the overall direction of where our society should go. Citizens, if collectively organised, could still command authority for what future we want. But we must avoid individualism and consumer scapegoatism. 

Lewis Akenji was previously Executive Director of SEED and is a former Director for Sustainable Consumption and Production at the think-tank IGES (Institute for Global Environmental Strategies). His interests are in the intersection between societal living and environmental sustainability.

More resources to explore the issue:

Lewis Akenji et al. (2021). 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All. Hot or Cool Institute, Berlin.

Tim Jackson (2021). Post Growth: Life After Capitalism.

Peter Newell, Freddie Daley and Michelle Twena (2021). Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis. The report of the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change.

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance. Wellbeing Economy Policy Design Guide: How to design economic policies that put the wellbeing of people and the planet first.

UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2020. Chapter 6: Bridging the gap – the role of equitable low-carbon lifestyles. UNEP

Mark Swilling et al. (2018). The Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Urbanization. Report by the International Resource Panel.

This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of Earth4All or its supporting organisations.

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This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of Earth4All or its supporting organisations. 

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