Dear Q&A friends,
Two bigger pieces this week. One focused on a re-evaluation of measuring progress, the other on possible ways to get there. If plans are part of your life, you may enjoy trying this pair of glasses. Have a great week!
The usual indicator to measure our wealth is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It's straightforward but also one-dimensional, in the sense that it's just a financial representation of wealth. Researchers have developed another benchmark called the 'Genuine Progress Indicator' or GPI that also includes qualitative components of well-being, such as social and environmental factors.
Comparing the development of global GDP and GPI per capita leads to interesting observations. While GDP per capita has shown a steady rise over the years, GPI peaked mid-1970s and has declined somewhat ever since:
The result resonates with my long-standing belief that our everlasting focus on GDP growth is not the way forward. I know, there is a risk of some confirmation bias here! Digging somewhat deeper, it becomes clear that the reason why GPI declines is mainly due to the depletion of earth's resources, pollution and climate change. Even though global poverty levels have been reduced and life expectancy has gone up, financial wealth has come at a far greater cost: the certainty of long-term survival.
All this came to my attention through Jeremy Lent, an author and speaker whose work "investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis and who explores pathways toward a life-affirming future". In his article 'Solving the climate crisis requires the end of capitalism' he sketches a pretty black-and-white picture that combatting climate change requires fundamental changes but that the big elephant in the room is often not addressed by policy makers:
"That elephant is called capitalism, and it is high time to face the fact that, as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system of our globalized world, the climate crisis won’t be resolved."
Without choosing sides, I do believe that present-day challenges merit taking a critical look at our current capitalist system and its drivers, essentially its overriding objective to maximize profits. Capitalism has brought us many good things and most proponents argue that it's a system that promotes (technological) innovations, which are urgently needed to solve the problems we face. However, research has also shown that quite frequently these innovations end up increasing pollution and depletion of resources. While GDP grows, GPI declines.
"This dynamic, known as the Jevons paradox, was first recognized back in the nineteenth century by economist William Stanley Jevons, who demonstrated how James Watts’ steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of coal-powered engines, paradoxically caused a dramatic increase in coal consumption even while it decreased the amount of coal required for any particular application."
The discussion is often obscured by the proposition that any alternative to capitalism is worse than capitalism itself. You may even be called a communist. Therefore, they argue, capitalism and (GDP) growth is the only way out of our problems and we should not consider another system. Of note: in all UN environmental and global warming analyses, there is not one scenario that takes into account a stable or declining GDP. Not one. They considered such scenarios 'implausable'. That's in itself strange too. It seems implausable to me that highly-educated social beings would just ignore one of simplest answers to growing pollution and use of resources: reduce the demand.
As we've argued before, the preferable future is probably a balance, a best of multiple worlds. I'd agree that changing a well-entrenched system will take decades, but that doesn't mean we should not try to clearly define and implement the boundaries of a new system based on "life-affirming values". Many new and promising economic models have already been proposed, such as Kate Raworth’s 'Doughnut economics' that we covered in our second newsletter. It is possible to reduce resource and energy consumption while reducing inequality and improving well-being.
Everyone plays a role in this crisis and has a place on the board. The pieces aren't necessarily black and white, but some are on opposite sides, some in the middle. I feel there are spaces to be filled on this board. Will you join me in trying to fill the gaps and find foundational principles that could create the conditions for long-term flourishing on a regenerated earth?
Cathedrals have always impressed me, as most of its initiators have not been able to witness their completion. Generations of builders worked on something that they saw progress only marginally over their lifetime, which I think is inspiring for a lot of challenges we have before us.
This morning, I attended an inspiration and brainstorm session, organised by my kids' school, aimed at creating improvement plans. As a speaker to inspire all of us, they asked Daan Quakernaat to kick-off the meeting, which he did using the Cathedral as an example of organic building. Daan got interested in Cathedrals while visiting the one in Reims which inspired him to plan visiting all other French cathedrals and become an expert in what medieval Cathedral-building can teach us.
Building a cathedral often started with a generic plan (how many towers, global size) that changed as time progressed. Competition with adjacent cities and self-esteem generally inspired the level of ambition, while this often led to drastic changes down the line. As an example, the Reims cathedral started out with a sketch of 7 huge towers, ending up with 2 half towers making the facade and 5 structures that can barely be called towers. All the same, the resulting cathedral is considered a masterpiece of gothic architecture. Daan's big take-away is how happy the builders were with results that did not match the original plans, but led to something impressive and beautiful anyway. He asked us to look at our accomplishments and check if we were not overlooking or undervaluing the builds so far.
Switching gears, ignoring sunk cost fallacy and just moving on, can also be seen at the Laon cathedral at its north 'rose window', where new techniques for increasing window size were introduced as the gothic building skills progressed. They just switched plans, leaving the old and the new plan visibly exposed.
As a side-note, he shared how all of the big carved stones, making up the structure without any cement, were 'signed' by their sculptors in places that were not visible to the eye. While also being in line with medieval artistry, these signs did perform a valuable feedback mechanism, as they were the precursors of the 'quality check id' you can find in many products. When walls collapsed, as they often did during building, they could identify the weak parts of the structure and impose disciplinary 'quality measures' to the sculptor responsible.
Illustrating another lesson to be learned from cathedral building, Daan shared imagery of the Notre Dame fire ravaging the wooden roof of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral. As much as this is qualified a 'disaster', it happened several times in the churches lifetime, as has happened to most cathedrals that have been in existence several hundreds of years. His moral here: 'cry, clean debris, collect money, rebuild'. A wonderful illustration of 'this too, shall pass'.
That's it for this week! If you got forwarded this newsletter and like what you read, get your own. Or get an impression of everything else we shared in our renewed, searchable archive.
As always, we would love to hear your thoughts and tips. Just reply to this e-mail to get in touch with us.
Have a great week!
Quinten & Alphons