In January of this year I wrote a blog post called The Return of the Age of Education, where I wondered if the kick one gets from acquiring stuff could be replaced by that from acquiring knowledge. Effectively, could personal growth replace economic growth? Can acquiring knowledge replace acquiring things? (For example, I was going to experiment with growing all my garden plants from seeds this year.)

I asked that question last week at our Balaton Group Meeting to University of Surrey Professor Tim Jackson, one of our speakers and a member of the UK Sustainable Development Commission which produced the recent, provocative report Prosperity Without Growth.

His answer changed the way I’m thinking about how learning can best contribute to sustainable development, and changing the social logic is a part of this.

Why do people buy things? (Probably there are many individual answers to this question.) Tim Jackson questioned greed as the primary driver. People may instead buy things to gain a place in the community. Tim drew on Adam Smith’s linen shirt example and spoke about the life without shame and the symbolic function of materials good and the importance of these commodities in our lives. So if buying is linked to participation and placement in the community (like keeping up with the Jones’) then individual learning may not be a good replacement, or at least not good enough.

So instead let’s look at community learning. Could this help people find their place (and minimize their need for stuff?) There are many examples of social “experiments” in intentional communities, local currencies, community agriculture schemes, which may better connect individual learning, through community learning, with sustainable development goals.

Of course it is not as simple as all that. In the current economic model, employment is a big driver, and it gives people the money to keep buying, which stimulates the economy, and signals to businesses to produce more stuff, that workers have to make, which keeps people employed. All this works until consumers stop buying (then comes the credit, for a while…) Replacing buying with something else has other consequences in the current system. One quote from this presentation stuck with me: Growth is unsustainable but degrowth is unstable. Tim gave some of the conclusions from their report Prosperity Without Growth, and if you’re interested in thinking about alternatives to the current macro-economic system, its worth a look.

1 reply
  1. Graham Rawlinson
    Graham Rawlinson says:

    I am following up on this and an earlier blog having been at the IAF conference in Oxford followed by a Be The Change event near Oxford.

    The 100 years change in 20 years is perhaps less useful as a compression than the last 20 years within the next 5 years. So, all and more change from 1989 to now will occur by 2014!

    Most asset value is in the hidden, the IP, the networks, and networks and free to use IP is growing faster than anything. So what kind of economy can withstand that?

    With this in mind it makes most sense to give most power to ways in which things are created for all for free. Where possessions are needed for now there should be a responsibility for using those possessions and a clear limitation on length of time they are owned. So what if:
    1. Our houses, land, businesses, passed over to 'the community' in ownership at 1% per year?, passed on on the death of the owner(s), but the community share is passed on to individuals at an equal rate for all, so we all start to develop our ownership of responsibility, time share with a difference?

    Would this lead to more design for local shared solutions, whether local growing, energy creation, manufacture of things we want?

    And for knowledge, maybe we need a micro-education exchange system, where we each share an offer to teach someone something, so the education system is there to assist in the open sharing not to control what should be learned?

    And we could have more subunits for micro-business education which by rules must not be charged for (do we really need that many 'Masters degrees in business studies?).

    This brings in the notion of sustainable solutions for soft systems, so we reduce costs of provision and therefore cost of access, to zero, which then increases growth of the assets of networks and knowledge.

    Thanks for the thoughts of others, very intriguing,

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