John Thackara’s Intimate Tour of the Emerging New Economy

In the burgeoning genre of books focused on building a new and benign world order – a challenge variously known as the “new economy,” “Great Transition,” and the “Great Turning” among other terms) – John Thackara’s new book stands out.  How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today is low-key and sensible, practically minded and solidly researched.  Written in an amiable, personal voice, the book is persuasive and inspirational.  I can only say:  Chase it down and read it! 

It’s a shame that so many brave books that imagine a post-capitalist world surrender to grandiose theorizing and moral exhortation.  It’s an occupational hazard in a field that is understandably wants to identify the metaphysical and historical roots of our pathological modern times.  But critique is one thing; the creative construction of a new world is another.

That’s why I found Thackara’s book so refreshing.  This British design expert, a resident of southwest France, wants to see what the design and operation of an ecologically sustainable future really looks like, close-up.  He is also thoughtful enough to provide some depth perspective, following his own motto, “To do things differently, we need to see things differently.”

How to Thrive in the Next Economy seeks to answer the question, “Is there no escape from an economy that devours nature in the name of endless growth?”  The short answer is Yes!  There is an escape.  As Thackara shows us, there are scores of brilliant working examples around the world that demonstrate how to meet our needs in more responsible, fair and enlivening ways.

He takes us by the hand to survey a wide variety of exemplary models-in-progress.  We are introduced to scientists and farmers who are discovering how to heal the soil by treating it as a living system.  We meet urbanists who are re-thinking the hydrology of cities, moving away from high-entropy engineered solutions like reservoirs and sewers, to smaller, localized solutions like wetlands, rain gardens, ponds and worm colonies.  Other bioregionalists are attempting to de-pave cities and bring permaculture, gardens, “pollinator pathways” and informal food systems into cities.

We also learn about a number of brave experiments in “social farming” – attempts to treat food and as a commons through ingenious new social systems, production value-chains and organizational designs.

The Food Commons in Fresno, California, is one bold attempt to re-imagine how a region links farms to distribution to grocery stores and restaurants.  The idea is to devise a whole-system approach that makes food more than an economic commodity.  It needs to be an integrated social system that aligns the interests of farm communities, local people, the land, watersheds, and biodiversity in one interconnected network.

The key in this particular case was the establishment of a Food Commons Trust that acts as an owner and steward of land, physical infrastructure and other commonly held assets, to be used for the benefit of everyone.  That way, profit can be used to benefit everyone (better working conditions, fewer pesticides, less expensive food for low-income people), instead of all that surplus value being appropriated by the shareholders of profit-driven companies. 

There is even a chapter on commoning in the book, with a special emphasis on social money, the Latin American ethic of buen vivir, and "wild law."

The “green thread” in this and other stories, explains Thackara, is “the efforts of people in diverse contexts to reconnect to their food – where it is grown, by whom, and under what conditions.  These practical, local and human-scaled activities are the seedlings of an alternative to an industrial food system that, as an extractive industry, is as cruel to people as it is to animals, and the land.”

Thackara’s tone throughout is that of a genial host: “Come, let me show you another inspiring initiative that could remake our economy and society.”  He does not over-sell the examples, however, but candidly acknowledges problems and complications.  With a light touch, he notes the thematic similarities among projects, suggesting their affinities.   

I appreciated the intelligence and depth that Thackara brings to his examples.  He notes, for example, that the real problem with high-speed trains (HST) is that they don’t really save us time, while also creating lots of other problems:  “The problem – as with the interstate highway systems that came before – is that it [HST] perpetuates patterns of land use, transport intensity and the separation of functions in space and time that render the whole way we live unsupportable.”  HST leads to sprawling suburbs and a “space-time geography” that is alienating and costly in its holistic dimensions.

I do wish Thackara had spent more time speculating on how we might propagate the emergent new models.  We sorely need to accelerate the proliferation of small, local experiments into larger global movements.  We need to better understand how our search for economic and political change is invisibly linked to inner self-transformations that are still unfolding.  This is really the key – how to nourish aliveness.  At a time when everything is fair game for monetized extraction –  not just land and water, but language, culture, knowledge and even consciousness and lifeforms – we desperately need to develop new socio-economic organisms that can regenerate life on its own terms.  Life needs to be honored as our first priority, not as a secondary benefit of commodity-exchange.

But there is no question Thackara understands how a transformation will ultimately come.  He writes:  “Change is more likely to happen when people reconnect – with each other, and with the biosphere – in rich, real-world contexts of the kind I have written about in this book.  This will strike some readers as being naïve and unrealistic [because they presume that governments and policy must drive any change, as Thackara notes earlier].  But given what we know about the ways complex systems – including belief systems – change, my confidence in the power of the Small to shape the Big remains undimmed.”