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Sweet harmony or raucous cacophony? A Blog by Charlie Woods

The music generated by our economic, political and social systems sounds increasingly discordant. Can we collaborate better to live more harmoniously with each other and the planet on which we rely?


The economic growth we have seen over the last three hundred years or so and the associated improvements in living standards for many has been founded on the huge increase in human productivity achieved in large part by combining human ingenuity with the power of energy sources laid down over millions of years. There is a growing body of evidence (drawn together in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th report) that this has significant side effects on the planet.


There is also increasing evidence that the system of patrimonial capitalism that has underpinned this economic growth in most advanced industrial countries tends to produce significant inequality in the distribution of wealth and income (see ‘Capital – in the 21st Century’ by Thomas Piketty). On the face of it these concentrations of capital and associated power appears to place the interests (or at least the positions they adopt) of the relatively few large holders of significant wealth at odds with those of the many.


In theory democratic systems of government (which as argued by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in ‘Why Nations Fail’, have been instrumental in helping sustain economic development by making it more inclusive) should allow the interests of the majority to take precedence. But in practice those who have accumulated wealth can often exert significant influence over the framing of any debate and over the decision makers in pursuit of in their interests.


This state of affairs does not appear to be sustainable. As tension grows and frustrations rise things will begin to snap.There are already signs of people beginning to turn against each other and blame and demonise others, particularly those who are from outwith their group. Populist causes which offer apparently easy solutions are winning increasing support – not for the first time.


But are the interests of the many and the few so different over the longer term? To what extent is equality and environmental sustainability not only fairer for current and future generations, but essential to avoiding unmanageable tension and achieving longer term economic and political sustainability. This was the argument being advanced by Richard Branson at the recent Scottish Business Awards as he described the work of the B Team ( to bring together people, planet and profit.


Our challenge as a species is to develop political and economic systems which allow the interests of all to be better aligned. Ideally this needs to be done on a global scale because one or two places where free riders could prosper would significantly undermine the system. It also has to be achieved in a way which doesn’t cause so much disruption that the transitional costs are greater that the problems we are trying to solve. While it might appear revolutionary, can we achieve it without a revolution?


What hope is there? While the efforts to make progress on a global level seem to become increasingly mired in disputes over short term positions, there are examples, highlighted by Andrew Simms in ‘Cancel the Apocalypse’, of new models being developed all over the world on a smaller scale, which appear to produce more sustainable results – the Mondragon co-operative in Spain, Germany’s more locally based banking system, neighbourhood decision making in Brazil, and Buthan’s system of assessing national progress to name a few. Can these sort of ideas be developed and evaluated more widely and much faster before we are engulfed by a global tragedy of the commons entirely of our own making?


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