Redefining Sustainability and a Fresh Perspective on Economic Value

The Myth of the Perfect System

[I’m not going to talk much about the economy so if you came here looking for answers, prepare to be disappointed.]

I’ve been invited to a lecture tomorrow on building a sustainable economy post-covid-19, and it got me thinking about what that means, or at least what it means to me.

I have no idea yet what it will mean to the speaker.

It’s flagged as stimulating a debate about what we value, with the emphasis on stimulating a debate, and I love that, although my experience is that most of us are more keen to rush to designing a new, and better, system and arguing the rights and wrongs of our model versus the current model (or someone else’s model) than we are to being genuinely open and curious.

No Matter What?

Our attachment to ideas is understandable, and maybe even part of the process to dream up what might be possible, but, it looks to me as it the folly comes when we believe that the answer is in the blueprint rather than the brain of the architect, and that the ‘model’ is thing that will save us and, therefore the thing we must engineer and build no matter what.

The truth about ‘the economy’, as with the truth about humans, is that there is a limitless capacity for innovation and adaptability that is always there, whether we see it or not.

Yes, sometimes there are juggernauts that are harder to turn. Often there is a lag, especially when it comes to the economy, and a need for some kind of safety net in the interim. But the decision, and commitment to adapt can be taken even when we our new model isn’t even on the drawing board, let alone ready to roll off the production line.

Physical Limitations Being True

It looks true to me that there is a limit to the physical nature of the earth, just as there is a limit to the physical nature of being human, we don’t breathe well above a certain altitude, and we can’t (yet) fly unaided.

If we accept that toilet paper is a diminishing resource, it’s surprising, or not, to see how adaptable we can be. The value is in the adaptability, not the amount of toilet roll in our understairs cupboard.

One thing I’ve enjoyed about the supermarket trip these past weeks is that when things on my list are missing, I’ve been able to flex my creative capacity in the kitchen, buy unfamiliar, or ignored ingredients and see what delicious (or not so delicious!) things I can come up with.

It’s as much fun to be constrained as it is to be abundantly supplied.

Why, then, do we see this physical limit as something to be ‘managed’ rather than something to accept and work with? And what should we be looking at instead?

It’s the Capacity, Stupid

The real value in the economy is not made up of its physical features (even though we think it is and we hoard gold and toilet paper as if that hoarding will somehow make us whole).

The power to have new ideas, new thinking, to be constantly adaptable, to respond, to imagine something and then act on it, is what makes humans infinitely resilient and resourceful. It’s constantly renewable, and the creativity and passion that bubble out of this power source will power whatever we point them at.

It’s more precious and beautiful, I would argue, than the creation that comes from it, and I wish we valued it more than we seem to.

Of course, it’s natural to look at the finished version of a painting, or a tasty dish from our favourite restaurant, and sigh in rapture at the beauty, rather than appreciate the artistic nature that is in all of us. It’s natural to look to the form rather than the formless, but it’s only because the formless is so powerful that we have anything of beauty to appreciate at all.

If we can see this, then we don’t have to be so tied to the nature of what we paint, but that we can paint, and therefore we can always put down the brush and turn a new page.

If we make a working assumption that everything physical is finite, and we also hold a working assumption of infinite ingenuity, then, it seems to me, we would balance differently what we cultivate in our society and economy.

In Relation to the Economic Debate…

In terms of the sustainable economy debate, it looks to me that, when we recognise the infinite adaptability of ourselves and the living systems around us, we don’t have to be so tied to ‘getting it right (or wrong)’.

Challenges may still feel weighty when we bring the working assumption of an inevitable ending to the physical form, but they’re less likely to seem ‘impossible’ or ‘intractable’ when we know we have the resourcefulness to face whatever comes our way.

When we’re debating what it is that makes an economy sustainable, we forget that the value lies in the creative capacity that underpins everything we do, not in the systems that govern us, the type of car we drive, or that we drive cars at all. Cars, like everything else of course, are an invention that formed from an idea in someone’s head; they’re not an basic need, or even a good, or a bad thing, they just are.

If we value where creativity comes from, then we will be nurturing an infinitely renewable source, rather than the form in which that value shapes itself.

…and Toilet Roll

We don’t know how we will solve tomorrow’s problems. I mean this both literally, I have no idea what this lecture will bring up for me tomorrow, and metaphorically-who knew toilet paper would be the thing we all wanted to hoard…?

It follows, therefore, that it might be difficult to predict the next great shortage, or the next unintended consequence that will be uncovered.

Not being able to predict, however, isn’t the same as not being able to prepare for the fact of a challenge. Just because I don’t know what will face me, doesn’t mean I should abdicate from action.

I don’t know how things are going to play out. Full stop.

And, because I also know that I, and those around me, are infinitely more capable than most of us think we are, then I also don’t need to worry about how things will play out, and that means I’m unlikely to panic-buy my metaphorical toilet roll (and literal toilet roll as well, by the way.) I can maintain a healthy stock cupboard of bare necessities, but the foundation of what, and how much I stock will be very different if I am doing it for the time I think it will take me to adapt, physically and mentally, rather than for some unspecified ‘forever’, during which time I cling to keeping my life ‘the same’.

On the flip side, if I know it to be true that I will adapt more easily than I might imagine, even when I don’t know exactly how, then it’s much easier for me to immediately stop, or change, my behaviour when I become aware of an unintended negative impact of something I, or others, are doing.

In terms of a sustainable economy, it looks to me that taking the perspective of infinite ingenuity means that we would be much less likely, as a society, to want to exploit and hoard the limited physical resources we have around us.

We will never be able to see everything that might confront us down the line. (plus, how boring would that be?? I’m not a chess player and I know great chess players can see how things will play out almost before the game begins, but surely they also retain a tiny window of belief in their ability to be surprised, otherwise what’s the point??)

An Infinitely Renewable Source of Value

What I witness around me (and, me too, we’re all in this boat together), is that we humans have a tendency to carry on regardless with something even when we know, deep inside, it’s a bad idea.

I also wonder, if we operated with more faith in our capacity to come up with new ideas in the future, and less need to have all of those ideas on the table right now, then we might, just might, feel less need to defend a failing system, or to fail to make a shift, or dig our heels in for the one alternative we’ve invested personal time and energy in visualising, whatever that is for each of us.

Freedom is Key Here

In my personal world, I am always trying to create the conditions that give me the most freedom of mind because I know that I will be able to see something new, even if I don’t see it now.

If I apply this to an economic system, then I would want to create the conditions that allow the best possible ideas to arise in any moment, and that includes being able to completely let go of anything I have or think.

Now, I’m not saying that’s easy. (or at least that’s what I think.) I, too, like my Waitrose own-brand three-ply, but I also know that my resistance to change is a fiction created from an illusory attachment.

Our capacity for ideas, and our ability to hold those ideas as impersonal, is what drives sustainability, it’s what drives the economy, post-covid or at any time, it’s what drives a business or any other human venture. It’s the foundation of resilience, and it’s what we mean when we talk about great leadership.

As a society, I believe that, by understanding how economic value arises from first principles, and by shifting what we value, then we can continue to appreciate what we have, while also having more respect for the space in which we can create whatever we want and whatever is best for the collective whole.

And the humility to know that we’re as likely to f**k that up as we are to ‘get it right’.

We always have a blank page and we can make a turn anytime we like; we don’t need to stick to our guns just because we bought them.

With love,


Originally published at on May 6, 2020.

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