A review of Sustainable Economics by Keith Skene and Alan Murray

Review of Sustainable Economics: Context, challenges and opportunities for the 21st-century practitioner (Keith Skene and Alan Murray)

By Ian Roderick, Director, The Schumacher Institute

My initial thoughts about another book on sustainable economics was just that: here comes one more dry text on why our current economics is failing and here is a list of ‘shoulds’ that will magically transform the world. But this work by Keith Skene and Alan Murray is far from that.  The first thing to say is that it is not dry, it is an easy read with a flowing, narrative style full of anecdote and grounded by examples. Skene and Murray give a comprehensive picture of sustainability by describing many different perspectives, recognising that there is no one truth in this field.

The book provides the reader with a framework to think for themselves about the complexities of the future, the challenges ahead, and why people can hold such different views. This framework for thinking contains just about everything you will ever need to know about sustainability, development and economics. Although the audience is seen as primarily business the coverage of the history of the sustainability ideas is excellent and is recommended for novices and experts alike.

Sustainable Economics comprises ten sections:

Human economic activity: an environmental impact assessment

This starts us off by looking at the nature of the modern world and what we mean by sustainability, recognising the pluralism in thinking about the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

The three horsemen of the modern apocalypse: climate, pollution and habitat

We quickly move on to consider the considerable threats to our existence as a species on the planet, focussing on the most pressing issues of climate change, environmental pollutions and the stresses on living due to resource constraints, all are immediate problems and of such scale that they are global problems – no one can escape. The discussion of ‘peak’ resources is informative and illuminating, for example by raising issues around indigenous rights as well as the challenge to new technologies

Water, energy and the green paradox

The theme are now taken up in a close examination of two fundamental resources that are at the heart of sustainability thinking, water and energy are defining areas of dislocation and potential conflict. This chapter exposes some of the controversies in economics and highlights the unintended consequences and the natural tendencies for people to take advantage of changes in ways that are counterproductive.

Business and biology: can we learn from nature?

This is an interesting and fundamental chapter that takes us deep into ecology and the way that the biosphere works. It considers how we have used models and metaphors from these fields as tools to shape human activity and business practice. It discusses how these ideas are still evolving fast.

Current schools of sustainable thinking: origins, strengths and weaknesses

In quite a switch of thinking the authors now take us into the world of business and how different models of sustainability are used for different purposes. It is good to see the inclusion of green chemistry as part of this mix and the discussion on the difference between weak and strong sustainability The map of the different schools of thought, entitled ‘The shrubbery of sustainable thinking’, is an excellent way to visualise the whole field.

The circular economy

Following on nicely from these perspective of sustainability in business the authors take us to the concept of a circular rather than a linear economy by using the lessons of nature and adhering to the principles of minimisation of energy and resource use. This is presented as the latest addition to sustainability thinking coming from the Far East.

Design to redesign

If the circular economy is the way forward then designing for sustainability is a major element needed. The problems encountered ar described as ‘wicked’ due to the inherent uncertainty and complexity. This chapter explore the history of how we have coped with this wickedness

Generic barriers to change

This is an important part of the book, looking at how change happens and what are the barriers and constraints, whether they are psychological or legislation or vested interests, the barriers are legion. The whole of what we might call sustainable economics is about theories of change and trying to understand the consequences and reactions. This chapter is worth the whole book.

Transition to a sustainable economy

As we reach the end of the story of what sustainable economics means we shift to the process of transition. We are not going wake up one morning to discover that the problems have been solved by top down diktat or by a magic mass behaviour change. This chapter examines how economic transitions happen and the required mix of policy changes with participation of governments, business and public. Sustainable economics will emerge from transition, from changing the rules of the game.

Appropriate indicators of a sustainability transition

Finally, as to be expected in an economics textbook we have a chapter on measurement. The emphasis, however, is on appropriate measures of progress and the challenges that transitions throw up – how objective can you be, can you reduce quality changes to numbers?

The stated aim of the book is to “present a clear picture of current thinking on sustainability… it explores the strengths and weaknesses of the many and diverse schools of thought … disentangles the complex, often convoluted debates relating to sustainability … and prepares for the challenges of the future”. It does an excellent job of meeting this aim in a readable way and will leave you thinking and in a sense uncertain – one of the really great features is that each chapter ends with a set of questions for debate, discussion and further thought – this uncertainty, and coping with that, is what sustainable economics will mean. I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a clear and expansive view of this complex but vital field.