Rethinking prosperity: it’s time to breakout of the box

If you want to understand why we are not making faster progress towards creating a more equitable society that operates within ecological limits, then it’s worth understanding the importance of the void.


One of the core fears around our industrialised society, which we are largely refusing to face up to, is the belief that there is no credible alternative to the current global economic system, which is now undermining our prosperity and may even threaten our civilisation.

The current economic system has created great wealth and brought hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty, but in its search for continuous growth, it is increasingly becoming a destructive force that is stimulating climate change, resource scarcity, growing inequality and biodiversity loss on an epic scale.

As the well-known fund manager Jeremy Grantham has stated: “People simply do not get the point that you can’t have sustainable growth forever. You can have sustainability forever, or growth for a few years. Capitalism does millions of things better than the alternatives. However, it is totally ill-equipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately, they are the issues that are absolutely central to our long-term well-being and even survival.”

The collective failure to re-imagine another pathway results in focusing our intellectual power on trying to prop up the existing system, even though this is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound.

The collective failure to re-imagine another pathway results in focusing our intellectual power on trying to prop up the existing system, even though this is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound. This is the sort of thinking that led the president Bush to urge Americans to “go shopping more” to help dig the country out of recession – doing more of the thing that helped trigger the crisis in the first place.

In fact, our very addiction to consumerism, like all other addictions, is designed to avoid having to look into the abyss of our own lives. But if we are to restore some sense of balance to the world, it is vital we move away from the actions of the famous quote: “spending money you don’t have for things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.”

With all this in mind, Guardian Sustainable Business is launching a new section called Rethinking Prosperity.

The purpose is to showcase the vibrant community of academics, thought leaders and practitioners around the world who are exploring systems change. These range from new initiatives such John Fullerton’s regenerative capitalism to organisations that have been diligently working on these issues for decades, such as the New Economics Foundation. While our gaze is to the future, we also recognise the need to keep critiquing the current system and looking for key intervention points which can be leveraged for change.

We’ve specifically avoided using the words “economy” or “capitalism” in the section title because we want to take a broad approach to the idea of prosperity and recognise that economic notions of prosperity can compete or interact negatively with broader societal objectives such as health and happiness. Besides engaging experts from the worlds of business and finance, we will also see what we can learn from the arts as well as looking at psychological and spiritual approaches to overcoming the issues we face.

We want to ensure we do not just focus on the industrialised north, but also see what lessons we can learn from the south, and we want to bring to the fore voices of young economists and activists who rarely have a voice in the mainstream media.

New narratives are particularly needed in the business world.

New narratives are particularly needed in the business world. When we launched Guardian Sustainable Business more than four years ago, we wanted to demonstrate how business could return to being a force for positive change in the world. While modest progress has been made, companies remain constricted by the straitjacket of profits maximisation and short-termism and are therefore forced to only tinker around the edges of change.

Even the more enlightened companies are locked into a model of ever-increasing growth. Peter Bakker, the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, declared that if all the sustainability initiatives of every company in the world were combined, they would not stack up to a row of beans when compared to the scale of challenges we face.

While Rethinking Prosperity will look at theories of change, it will also focus on taking action. It would be foolish to underestimate the scale of the challenge and the likely turbulence of any transition to a new system. But it is vital we stay positive and look for realistic alternatives. Is economic growth necessary for, or at odds with, human prosperity, and when we strip everything away, what does human flourishing truly look like on a finite planet?

This article was originally published on the Guardian website
Jo Confino is an executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. He also advises Guardian News & Media and Guardian Media Group on their sustainability strategies.