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Sustainable Futures: An Agenda for Action by Raphael Kaplinsky

Sustainable Futures: An Agenda for Action

Raphael Kaplinsky




My friend, Raphie Kaplinsky, has written an entertaining, ambitious and challenging book. It draws on many threads from his long career. And you don’t have to agree with every detail of the argument to endorse the urgency and admire the range. The book is especially valuable in situating current green new deal debates in the context of long wave cycles driven by technical change.

Raphie describes the book as ‘a plea for agency and activism’. Over nine chapters, he makes an argument, which can be summarised as follows:

First, many if not most features of a society and culture can be traced back to the characteristics of the technology and production system dominant at any one time. Raphie calls this the ‘techno-economic paradigm’ (TEP). We are currently living in the era of the Mass Production (MP) paradigm.

Second, the MP TEP in its heyday was associated with a sense of common social and political purpose and with liberal democratic political systems. However, it has been in decline since the mid-1970s, with consequences that can be seen in both economies and societies. In economies: the spread of neo-liberal policies, financial crises, precarity of employment, growing inequality, and the growing power of a ‘plutocracy’. In societies: the pernicious consequences of social media, declining civic participation, and populism. Overarching: accelerating environmental crises.

Third, the ICTInformation and Communication Technologies revolution heralds the arrival of a new TEP, with the potential to deliver a new, more localized, more equal, more resilient, and more sustainable society. However, a benign outcome is not assured, and the TEP needs ‘directionality’ to succeed. There are five priorities: regulate and change behaviour in the financial sector; redistribute wealth and incomes and reduce the power of giant corporations; implement a smart green new deal; strengthen global and local governance; and promote global development.

Fourth, delivering change is a political project, with power at its heart. There is no one route map, and both the private sector and Governments are needed, alongside civil society, building coalitions for incremental and cumulative change. The first priority, though, is to confront and overcome the power of the plutocracy. This means: redistributing income and wealth; breaking control of social and traditional media; curbing lobbying power; and breaking control over markets, esp by the big media companies.

Sub-structures and super-structures

The idea of technology shaping society is attractive – and hints at the Marxist model of sub-structure and super-structure.

A favourite example is the idea that the invention of the stirrup led to the establishment of feudalism in Europe (since it meant that heavy cavalry became possible, and knights needed the resources to pay for armour and such-like). I see that idea belongs to Lynn Townsend White and is now described as ‘The Great Stirrup Controversy’.

But how far can the thesis be pushed? Raphie argues, as indeed would Marx, that not everything can be ascribed to the synergy between economic structures and political relations. Indeed, Raphie says that ‘there is a danger of trying to explain too many things through the lens of TEPs.’ On the other hand, my notes on the book are full of phrases that make the opposite point: about ‘organic links between economy and society which are characteristic of techno-economic paradigms’; noting that ‘the pattern of economic growth also determines the nature and structure of institutions and the norms and values that determine the ways in which work is performed and products are consumed’; and arguing that the economic, social and political ‘co-evolved and were part and parcel of the same system’.

In all this, Raphie is a disciple of Christopher Freeman and especially Carlotta Perez, whose work on different TEPs (water-power, steam-power, steel, and so on) reveals cycles of innovation, growth, crisis, decay and renewal.

Fine, but the lack of policy space or agency is notable. Hayek and Thatcher as ‘inevitable’ adjuncts of the MP TEP? OPEC and the oil crisis of 1973? Collateralised Debt Obligations and the Global Financial Crisis? Mark Zuckerberg and fake news? 

The question really boils down to this. Is there a more benign, one might say social democratic, version of MP available in this current phase, one with less pernicious effects on inequality and social cohesion? And, if so, how might it be delivered and sustained? Raphie is an advocate for FDR in this book, but does not mention Teddy Roosevelt, who took on the monopolies in the early twentieth century. Nor does he mention the Third Way of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, or Gordon Brown. And what about the social market in Europe? Or, less democratic, but notably social, China? It might be useful to mine these experiences to stock the policy toolbox. 

Globalisation and the atrophy of the MP TEP

Raphie’s case for the atrophy of the MP TEP rests heavily on slow growth, stagnating productivity and the decline of manufacturing in OECDOrganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development economies. The Rest of the World is pretty well excluded. Free trade and globalization are seen as responses to a crisis of maturity in a failing MP TEP; and although the benefits to the developing world are acknowledged, they are not central.

Another way of putting this is that trade liberalization, and globalization generally, supported by the institutions of global governance, like the WTO, enabled widespread MP and rapid growth in some developing countries, especially in Asia; and as a result, major reductions in poverty. Thus, deindustrialization in OECDOrganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries had social and political consequences – but perhaps this should be seen more as an adjustment problem for developed countries than a crisis of global MP.

In fact, the continuation of MP, albeit in different geographical locations, is central to the narrative of environmental catastrophe that plays a big part in Raphie’s story. Why else would emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, or pollution to become endemic? A global perspective helps to explain this as an issue of relations between rich and poor countries. To quote Jason Hickel, in a debate about degrowth:  

‘the excesses of rich countries are maintained by a large net appropriation of resources from the Global South. This means that the ecological impact of consumption in the core is in large part offshored to the periphery. . . The figures are staggering: 10.1 billion metric tons of embodied raw materials, 800 million hectares of embodied land, energy equivalent to 3.7 billion barrels of oil, and 379 billion hours of embodied human labour—per year. Rich countries leverage their economic and geopolitical power to appropriate vast quantities of resources and labour from the Global South to service consumerism and elite accumulation . . .’

Bottom line: MP may be hiding in full view on the other side of the world. And the real problem, maybe, is not the atrophy of MP, but the success of globalization.

ICT as the new Techno-Economic Paradigm

Raphie has two chapters on the disruption and transformative power of ICTInformation and Communication Technologies as the new heartland technology. This is well-trodden territory: my Kindle is stuffed full of mostly alarmist books about technological unemployment and the consequent need for Universal Basic Income! Raphie’s distinctive and welcome contribution is to acknowledge  ‘weeds in the garden’, like cybercrime or automated warfare, but to focus on the positives. The challenge will be to make sure the weeds are suppressed, so that the blooms can flourish.

ICTs, Raphie argues, encompassing big data and AI, have the capacity to revive productivity growth, and to create healthier, more sustainable societies, by reducing scale, and by bringing residence, production and consumption closer together. ICTs can also provide the peer-to-peer communication that enhances civil society. The key is ‘directionality’, or what others might call ‘policy’.

There are three case studies to support the argument: mobile telephony and telephone banking; small-scale distributed renewable power generation; and precision farming. In all these cases, ICTInformation and Communication Technologies technology offers an alternative to large-scale, Fordist technologies currently in use: large banks, large dams, and large tractors. Raphie concludes that

‘Significantly, each of the case studies shows the interconnections between environmental, economic and social sustainability – they represent graphic examples of paradigmatic change’.

It is worth noting that none of these cases focuses on manufacturing, which has had many post-Fordist characteristics for a long time, in the sense of diversifying product lines, increasing choice, and automating production. Raphie was onto that, along with Robin Murray, and I learned a lot from both of them, when we were all at IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex twenty five years ago.

But take just one example from Raphie’s list, precision farming, This is about using ICTInformation and Communication Technologies to modify fertilizer and pesticide applications according to specific field conditions, and about new advances in robotization to avoid the use of heavy machinery. Vertical farms producing salad leaves indoors and under artificial light also feature. Some of this is not new: tractors have had GPS to help target field conditions for a generation. But some is indeed new, particularly the robotization and vertical farms.

Raphie’s view is that precision farming will have a beneficial impact on sustainability, which could well be true. He also thinks ‘it is possible, that, by facilitating the competitiveness of small farmers, it will also contribute positively to social cohesion’.

This is much more difficult. It is not immediately obvious that robotization has no economies of scale; rather, the reverse is true, given the large capital investment required, and the skill-intensive nature of the technology. Indeed, large operators have been the first to use new technologies like drones and robot pickers - and this may pose risks to small-scale operators.

A better case can be made for the benefits to small farmers of upstream and downstream applications of ICT. Raphie does not discuss these, but there are many examples in the developing world of ICTInformation and Communication Technologies being used to facilitate input purchases and produce marketing. See, for example, the work of Aarti Krishnan et al on disruptive technologies in agricultural value chains in East Africa.

Policy for a more sustainable future

Chapter 8 of Raphie’s book summarises his vision of a more sustainable future, but mainly focuses on what is to be done.

The vision can be read off from the previous chapters: a circular economy, locally embedded, better networked, and socially inclusive. An end to take-make-use-waste . . . smaller scale . . . shorter supply chains . . . shared or rented services . . . better health . . . more accountable governance . . .

On how to get there, there are five key steps: Regulate and change behaviour in the financial sector; Redistribute wealth and incomes and reduce the power of giant corporations; Implement a smart green new deal; Strengthen global and local governance; and Promote global development.

Quite a lot rests on what Raphie means by a ‘smart green new deal’. I have written elsewhere that the term ‘green new deal’ is used in many different ways, using FDR’s stardust to legitimize different policy agendas. As an example of different approaches, compare the green new deal approach of the progressive Democratic caucus in the US with that of the Labour Party in the UK.  It is hard to imagine nationalization featuring in the former as it does in the latter.

Raphie has three main policy recommendations under the heading of a smart green new deal: to encourage changes in behaviour; to build the infrastructure required to change behaviour; and to foster new and more appropriate innovation paths. The first involves changing norms and values, but also driving change through pricing (for example of carbon) and regulation (for example, fuel emission standards). The second involves decarbonizing energy, energy saving, and low carbon transport. The third involves large-scale mission-oriented innovation programmes, supported by both the public and private sectors.

This is all good stuff. There is no social pillar, but otherwise Raphie is at one with the advocates for a New Economy, who have a similar agenda. See also the report of the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission, and the recent books by Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown.

The issue here, however, and for all the authorities cited in the previous paragraph, is that the ask is systemic. Raphie is not advocating isolated communities organized in a new way, as in the socialist utopian communities of Robert Owen. Instead, he wants an overhaul of global society as a whole. That is quite a project.

In fact, very few green new deal proposals deal satisfactorily with the global dimension. It is not enough simply to promise more aid or technical assistance. Action taken in developed countries has a large potential impact on countries which rely on exports to or imports from such countries. Consider what would happen to textile producers in Bangladesh or Cambodia if consumption of fast fashion suddenly declined in rich countries. Or what the impact might be of border carbon adjustments, as currently planned by the EU. The model of ‘climate compatible development’ we promoted in CDKN focused very much on these external considerations. It is also why I have been calling for more work on a specifically Global Green New Deal.

Making change happen

The last chapter deals with the politics and mechanics of change. The plutocracy hovers over proceedings, and is assumed to be opposed to change. Power, Raphie argues, is at the centre. So, change cannot be achieved ‘without confronting and overcoming the power of (the) fettering vested interests’.  Overcoming the power of the plutocracy has to be the first step, achieved by redistributing income and wealth, breaking the control of the plutocracy over social and traditional media, curbing lobbying power, and breaking the market dominance of companies like Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft and so on. That is another big project – especially given the global character of the plutocracy, encompassing Chinese and many other giants as well as those in the US. I am all in favour of attempting to shift the Overton Window, but there is certainly a question about what can be achieved in a short time-frame.

In practical terms, Raphie eschews a big bang in favour of incremental, cumulative change, relying for delivery on a partnership between the state, the private sector and civil society. There is no single best way forward. But coalitions for change feature prominently, assembled topic by topic. And the benefits of new technology or environmental action will often drive change – witness, for example, the impact of the falling price of renewables on investment in legacy infrastructure, like coal. That’s all very good, and gives us a lot to work with

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