How can local and national economies continue to grow in the years ahead without wrecking our planet?
A good part of the known answer is in low-carbon energy sources, and renewable energy sources will need to grow substantially. Another good part of the answer is in reducing demand for energy, especially by eliminating waste heat. And thirdly, we will need to switch over from manufacturing container loads of “stuff” to give more emphasis to services.
But which services?
The current preferred mix in the service sectors favours the expensive, costly areas of the economy such as finance and legal work. But while they are great for GVA (gross value added) figures, do they really add much to the sum total of human happiness and wellbeing? Of course, some aspects are essential, such as our child protection courts, or having loan bonds for public infrastructure. But we know there is a lot of expensive froth in the mix.
There is the apocryphal story of a married couple who, on their wedding anniversary each year as presents give each other cheques for a million pounds. A little bit of nonsense which cancels itself out. But in some economic models the GVA needles would fly off the scales.
So maybe the successful and sustainable economies of the future will be based on similar examples of low-carbon, low-resource exchange, albeit more sensible. The music singer who performs live outdoors to a small, paying crowd. The food grown locally and sold at a Saturday market. The evening class learning to speak Italian. Currently these forms of service work are seen as somewhat low in GVA, not quite the dizzying heights of international finance.
But maybe future local economies will be valued for having the best range of low-impact services. That in a sustainable city you can learn forty languages; and where you can choose between seven types of fresh celery; and as you stroll across town you can find every genre of music.
In summary, measuring the sustainable qualities of the value added as well as the quantity.
And to close, for the future I wonder if we will start to think that – by educating a good number or even most people in the arts – this shift will cause a lower carbon impact than by having as many people as now studying the sciences? Yes, medics and other scientists will always be essential, and I speak as a taught scientist myself, but the balance and privileges may alter in the years ahead.