Ethos Meets: John Thackara

John Thackara is an advisor and public speaker who advocates for sustainability and the importance of community. His most recent book How to Thrive in the Next Economy is a globally-acclaimed examination of the current state of our world, and what a sustainable future could really mean. Lucy Chesters caught up with him to talk freight, furniture and the future...

Ethos Meets: John Thackara

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What led you to the work you’re doing today?

I studied philosophy at university, but in my first job I was trained by proper hardcore journalists to find real-world stories if I wanted to get people interested, rather than deal with abstract ideas that I might have picked up in my philosophy education. I then went from journalism, to book publishing, to the business of organising exhibitions and conferences.

That is what I’ve been doing for over 30 years now, looking for people who are doing the new things that I think are interesting and a cause for optimism.

Can you tell us about your book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy – what does a successful next economy look like?

The book brings together the most interesting and positive stories I’d discovered. It’s a collection of real world projects and activities that are examples of what a sustainable world is going to be like. Everything from reconnecting with the soil, to caring for older people. Each chapter is a combination of reports from the projects themselves, and then some of the questions that arise: ‘How can these activities be done better?’ ‘What is the big picture that motivates them?’ and, ‘Where next?’

My work confirms that the next economy already exists, it’s just scattered about below the radar, not often covered in the media – stuff that you’re talking about in Ethos. If you look around your own environment, you will find people doing amazing things. Connect with them as a first step if you want to discover what the future could be.

What innovations in the book give you the most optimism?

It’s a series of pointers – like reconnecting with the soil, or growing food in ways that don’t damage the land, or moving about in much lighter and more collaborative ways. There’s no particular one where I think, ‘Yeah, this is the future, this is why I’m optimistic.’ It’s the sheer variety of things that are happening.

I’m currently reading your book, I thought the section that you talk about the furniture company was interesting…

The IKEA story, yes. That is a big dilemma that I’ve been wrestling with. If you commit to do less harm in a company which is growing like crazy, then you will end up doing more harm; it’s that simple. You have to look at the economy, the commitment to growth, the financial system, the media, the creative industries – all the forces that compel consumption and growth are stronger now than making individually positive changes. I don’t lecture IKEA about being bad, I say, ‘Look, what are we going to do about the fundamental contradiction between doing less harm, and a company that is doubling in size every five years?’

It’s a dilemma. You could be a very good person, but if you’re in a system which is programmed to behave badly, then no amount of individual moral positive behaviour will be enough. But I try to say that without making people feeling guilty or depressed. That’s why every time I talk, for example, to IKEA, I say, ‘What about rethinking growth, so that the growth you aspire to is not in terms of money, but in terms of the health of the world’s living systems?’ It’s not growth in general that’s bad, it’s just the growing of a business that consumes wood to make furniture, to put it simply.

There’s a lot of talk of living more sustainably at the moment. What are the main activities that you’ve noticed?

There’s a great deal of variety in the ways people grow food, look after children, find somewhere to live, or move around. I don’t search for universal solutions. Having said that, there are shared frameworks around all this activity, such as sharing in peer-to-peer platforms; the notion of the commons as an ethical but also a practical way to make sure that we look after things in the collective good, and not just to meet our own individual needs.

It’s not about commanding people to be virtuous, it’s about giving people the encouragement to look around for collaborative ways to meet their daily life needs. The answers will be different from place to place, but they’ll all have some cooperation with other people involved.

How easy will it be to shift people’s mindsets from over-consumption, to a better approach to living?

I long ago stopped trying to change people’s minds by telling them to behave differently. I fundamentally think that the way we behave is shaped by the world, the society, the culture, and the systems that we live in, and that we will all behave differently when the circumstances change. So, rather than changing behaviour, I ask, ‘Under what circumstances would you be more inclined to buy local food from farmers that you know?’

I look for people who are setting up new distribution platforms, websites, or apps that connect people with food growers, and say, ‘That’s fantastic, as a result of this very practical service being designed and implemented, lots more people can buy directly from their farmers.’ When the app is designed so that you can only physically get the food by meeting the farmer, you create that social and personal connection that then enriches your relationships with your food on a continuous basis.

How do you think those connection will be made?

In a curious way I think we need to make a small number of connections and nurture them. Starting where you live or work, are there one or two projects you can find that you could connect with and contribute something practical to, rather than worrying that you don’t have millions of people in your network.

There is a danger that one says, ‘I need to have a bigger network for my project to be useful’. I don’t think that. I’m meeting more and more people who suffer from what they call ‘networking fatigue’; project leaders who are doing fantastic things – it’s very hard and intense work and they don’t always get a great deal of value in meeting hundreds of other interested people.

You talk about the paradox of green energy systems which use a great amount of fossil fuels to produce, for example wind turbines; how do you see the future of this industry evolving?

Focusing too much on alternative ways to produce energy to run a world that is otherwise unchanged, is never going to work. We have a society which consumes a gigantic amount of energy per person, for everything from bottling milk to sending packages from Amazon to your home in 30 minutes; things that we simply didn’t have two generations ago. There’s a tendency to describe these as the “needs” of modern society, and to frame the debate around how to meet these needs using different forms of production – wind turbines, solar panels, or whatever.

That approach takes us up a blind alley. We will never be able to create the same amount of energy to run a thermo-industrial society that we have now, using alternative forms of energy. The average American uses as much energy in one month as their grandparents used in their entire lifetime. That is not sustainable, whatever kind of production you have. We must look for ways of meeting our needs that use radically less energy but then work on alternative ways to produce the energy that isn’t damaging and ecocidal.

My favourite example is transportation. A gigantic chunk of the world’s energy use goes on cars, planes, high-speed networks. But if you look at the 80% of the people in the world who go around on foot, bicycle, or in clapped-out old coaches between cities, they use roughly 20 times less energy per kilometre than we do with our fancy modern versions. So, we do not need to invent some sort of new form of propulsion, we just need to look at existing forms of mobility that use radically less energy, and make them much better.

Moving freight around, for example, is a large part of a city’s energy footprint. Germany is planning on the basis that you can move 80% of goods around a city using bicycles, foot, or electric-assisted bicycles. But, you must be committed to that, and you must make that your objective. It’s not about being super clever, it’s thinking holistically about the energy intensity of our way of life, and looking for smarter ways to do more with less.

I’m beginning to see lots of examples of where people have a perfectly good life using ten or 20 times less energy – moving around is one of them, growing food is another example. So, I’m no longer so shy about using radical numbers.


Image credits: Uroš Abram

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