Address to P4NE September 2023 gathering

I am speaking to you from beautiful and unceded Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country and offer my respect and acknowledgement to Elders past and present for their continued care of this land and sky, waterways and mountains.

This is one of the most challenging talks I have prepared in recent years.

Not only at the other end of my screen are many of my mates and many of my intellectual heroes, but I am speaking to an audience filled with people who know way more about economic system change than I do.

It is your work that I seek out to amplify, to connect, and to put in front of various audiences, including government.

So my imposter syndrome is through the roof.

It is also challenging because the older I get, the more I know I don’t know.

The more questions and queries I have.

More wariness I feel when meeting people who give the impression that they have the solution or the answer.

And it is challenging because I want to share with you some uncertainties about how we get to an economy where people and planet can thrive that have become more and more heavy for me in the last few years.

My hands are shaking because I want to open up to you by sharing some of the things that keep me up at night and for which I have no clear sense of the way forward… just a sense that what our movement has been doing thus far is not working to the extent and scale and pace we need it to.

I suspect many of you will have other uncertainties, but also ideas for how you might respond or build the next steps.

My invitation is to name your questions and uneasiness, and to weave your ideas into what I merely, and tentatively, sketch.

So here goes. My offering to you can be summarised by a reflection on our movement: the ‘field’ as P4NE describes it and the “we” when I use the word “we” in the coming minutes.

My reflection is that we are great at critique.

We are top notch at calling out what is wrong and pointing to the dynamics that have done so much damage to people and planet.

Our movement is also great at ideas and great at vision. Many folks have put the brush strokes on a beautiful picture of a better future and many more others are rolling up their sleeves and building it in practice in their communities, enterprises, and even in certain corridors of power.

But that blatantly hasn’t been enough.

Ecosystems are closer to irreversible breakdown sooner than most scientists modelled.

Openly fascist politicians are sitting in legislatures across Europe.

Many of the communities who recognise that they have been failed by the prevailing way of doing things are not turning to the ideas in our movement’s reports, our toolkits and laid out in our websites and speeches.  They are turning to the simplistic and insincere and racist prescriptions of populist politicians who offer simple scapegoats and uncluttered roadmaps to better days (for their ‘in-group’ at least).

It is not enough to be right in our diagnosis and satisfied by the necessity of our vision.

Yes, we might be able to say to our grandkids “we tried”.

But we also need to be able to say to them “we won…we did it…we did what needed to be done to make change happen”.

And that demands that we get serious – and unapologetically strategic – about our tactics.

And that will inherently come with tensions. There will be compromises to make. We will need to work with people with whom we may not agree with. We need to engage audiences to that contain groups with whom we profoundly disagree, and even dislike.

But these are the realities our movement needs to confront if we take a good hard look at our progress and contrast it to where we need to be.

We need to grapple with different tactics if this year’s Beyond Growth conference is to be a foothold to more, and not a high water mark we look back on with nostalgia and regret.

If the promising rhetoric from certain governments and the enacted policies we can all rattle off is to be translated into the coherent programme of transformations necessary to go beyond playing whack-a-mole and instead fundamentally change the machine that is our economy.

These tensions also play out at the personal level. Because this work is personal for all of us lucky enough to earn a crust working on economic system change. It is not just any old job that you can switch off to. It is part of our identities. It is where we meet people who become lifelong friends. It is work that flows from our worldview. It is about our future, and for those on the front lines, survival in the most immediate of senses.

So I want to go there, to the personal, first before digging into the tensions that getting tactical brings.


If you haven’t got the fears about next summer and the summer after, let alone the summer in a decade’s time, then I need your advice and tips.

But if, like me, you are finding it hard to look forward to pretty much anything without either guilt or without being overwhelmed by the juxtaposition of wee moments of enjoyment while our planet sizzles, then I offer my empathy.

In the face of that eco-anxiety, how do we balance the need to do more, to go further, push harder, with the real risk of burnout, but at the same time knowing that even contemplating how to avoid burn out is a luxury that communities on the front lines do not have? As someone recently said ‘the idea of self-care is tone deaf when some people can’t afford access to or even to dream of self-care’ (and that was Sarah Jessica Parker, from Sex and the City…)

Perhaps it means cutting ourselves and each other some slack given the dilemma of striving for systemic change, but being far from perfect ourselves (which means we are always at risk of someone’s critical gaze landing on our individual actions and inactions)?

Perhaps it means that we need to all emphasise the interconnections and overlapping nature of oppressions, but be OK with each of us foregrounding them to different degrees in order to go deeper there, so that as each is tackled by respective parts of our movement, we might have faith that our collective efforts will cover the bases?

How do we explain to each other and to academics who write in their papers about the need to ‘hold governments to account’ and to compel governments to stand up to the task, that actually doing so – as opposed to merely writing those words in journal articles – requires an enormous deployment of time, emotional energy, let alone mobilising and agitating and coalition building?

And, finally, how can we not just talk about being OK with failure, but support each other – and funders who focus on tangible impact – to really be OK with it? Because failure is what leads to humility and learnings and is essential for experimentation beyond the current way of doing things?


So speaking of experimentation beyond the current way of doing things, I want to turn to the conversations about tactics I think our movement….our field…“we”…need to have.

In doing so I want to offer a few observations about the state of play. They are what has appeared in front of the wee window I have in on our movement – you will each have different windows and will see different things.

But what comes into my view is that:

  1. Indigenous scholar Tyson Yunkaporta has written that:
    ‘Considering the catastrophes we are experiencing may take decades or even centuries to play out…[and] recover after that, it may be advisable for us to get ahead of the game and begin creating cultures and societies of transition’.1
    I see what he is getting at. But I also see some in our movement taking it a wee bit too far – basically looking so far over the horizon that they are walking away from the suffering so many experience today and tomorrow, and the disruption and fragility of the transition. It begs many questions about when to effectively give up on managed change and begin to start managing the aftermath of forced change?
  2. On the other hand, is the gravitational pull towards the urgent, acute task of amelioration: a humane response to an inhumane system. But helping people survive and cope with the fall out of the current system risks staying put in this system, just patching it up and helping people be more resilient to the shocks it throws at them. We also need to raise our gaze to system change.
  3. This presents a resourcing challenge in that funds for food parcels are relatively easy to obtain and to explain. Getting resource for what really needs to be done: collaboration, relationships, campaigns, and advocacy (and at the scale needed) is much harder, and results in competition between movement players rather than collaboration and partnership.
  4. Another resourcing related observation I have noted is that funders – and ourselves as actors in the new economy movement – often seek quick wins. But quick wins risk distracting from the bigger change goal and even risk reinforcing the current system by placation.
  5. In the same vein, colleagues and sceptics ask for examples of delivery in full form (“which countries have done this?”; “what impact has this had?”), but neat examples are hard to find given the extent of countervailing forces and inconsistent implementation that seems to be the name of the game in this stage of the – let us hope – interregnum.
  6. There are also limits to the adages our movement holds dear like “We make the road by walking” (Freire) or “you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (Buckminster Fuller). If no one knows of the path it’ll soon become overgrown and disappear – so campaigns and education and promotion is needed. And the existing is really, really powerful and needs more than magnet projects sitting outside it to make it obsolete: it needs proactive dismantling, from the outside and from the inside.
  7. In this messy space a process of what seems akin to gentrification is increasingly apparent. Communities and civil society have done the hard yards in getting many-an issue onto the table. They’ve taken risks and been dismissed as naïve. Because an issue matters to people and to planet, they have shed sweat and tears to bring it to prominence. But once they have, in swoop the for-profits, including the big consultancies. They purport to offer a contribution, but risk bringing the same mindsets, metrics, tools, and techniques that brought on the problems in the first place. It’s particularly live an issue in regen agriculture at the moment, but such gentrification is rife in many area.
  8. Finance is another example of this tension. We need financial capital to bolster the sort of activities that align to a new economy. And there are potentially game-changing conversations happening in the ESG world: recognising imbalances of power, embracing stewardship, and even flagging the need to go beyond financial returns. There’s also discussion around what if mitigation has failed? On hearing this question posted by an ESG investor I thought it would open up a conversation about why approaches to bring about transformational change hadn’t been effective, and perhaps even the investment world’s complicity in reinforcing the status quo? But instead the conversation sunk to where ESG investors could still ‘do well by doing good’ in the face of environmental breakdown: examples given were steering their financial capital to pest control and flood defence companies, because as the world becomes uninhabitable, that’s the sort of activity that will rake in the cash.
  9. Last of my somewhat random observations is that in nature diversity is healthy. You only need to walk through a pine tree plantation where all the trees are the same to know that a monoculture means no birds and no insects. More of the same doesn’t make for a thriving community.

But, what does this all mean for our tactics?

The good folks at the Great Transition Initiative have recently hosted a discussion on the state of the global movement. It was great, but I couldn’t help notice the many -isms and jargon words which, to me, doesn’t bode well for how the movement might build its reach beyond -ism-y confines where people talk about fractals and…interregnums.

So, I want to finish with the two things, that, to me, matter most.


If we are serious about being effective, we need to be serious about the need to expand the choir beyond the movement itself.

I am talking about building enough public momentum for champions inside parliaments and in enterprises and in a huge number of communities of place to be able to stare down the push back. This is about building a broad enough base so any resistance – of which there is plenty today – stays in the margins where it can easily be dismissed as nonconsequential. Anat Shenker-Osorio notes2 that the task is to show how out of step with the majority such resisters are. And George Lakoff advises distinguishing ‘between ordinary conservatives and nasty ideologues…Don’t expect to convert staunch conservatives’.3

While ignoring the really-nasties, the groundswell I am talking about does need to go far beyond our active movement. It needs to reach people in ‘flyover towns’ in the US and in Brexit-voting villages in England and farmers in France and fishing villages in Italy: people frustrated with how their lives are turning out and what their futures look like.

But making this happen will bring tensions in terms of our approach (purist v pragmatic) and in terms of our messages and framing and our blame.

As Climate Outreach recently reported4, young adults see blaming, guilting and shaming as counterproductive and divisive when we don’t have time for that. I agree.

I am also sympathetic to the warning from Smart CSOs that ‘an us-versus-them approach…sends us down a spiral of polarisation and tribalism’ and this makes it impossible to broaden the movement.5

Instead we need to be compassionate to those we need to convert and help people adjust, even to grieve for the future they thought they were facing. We need to work alongside and for these communities to show how new economy ideas can help build a better life for them and for their grandchildren.

The social justice credentials of our movement are strong: the vast majority of changes we are pointing to are about better paid and more dignified work, secure livelihoods, more affordable and better quality homes, more accessible transport, basic services that are responsive and readily available.

But clearly we haven’t made the case sufficiently, let alone won their trust and enthusiasm. And into that terrain has swung the vested interests, those who don’t care about collective services nor the livelihoods and dignified work of those currently doing it really tough, and those who are happy to divide and stoke anger and fear. And they are good at that.

So our movement needs to take time to listen and reach out to what most matters to people – because, when people are able to reflect on this, they identify remarkably similar priorities. By harnessing that – by beginning from what makes us innately human – we can connect on first principles. Easier said than done and hard to do at scale, I know. But I just can’t see another way. The other options have been tried and just don’t seem to stack up.

Teams: soccer not 4×50 freestyle

My WEAll colleagues used to laugh at my tendency to roll out a sporting analogy to try to explain an economic or political concept.

Here in Australia the country has seen the unifying potential of our women’s soccer team, the Matildas, who, led by their star captain, an openly gay lass whose Dad is from India, made it to the semis in the recent World Cup, cheered on by pretty much all the country – the blokes in the pubs, the people who’d never watched soccer before, the folks who are new to Australia, let alone to its sports teams.

So a soccer analogy seems apt for our movement. And here it is: because the revolution our movement needs to bring about needs to happen in people’s head, their heart, and their hands,
we need a soccer team of players. Not a relay team of swimmers who just do the same 50m freestyle in turn. But a team comprising strikers and defenders. Midfielders and goalies.

It is about changing perspectives, changing policies, and changing practices. So we need people who show what is possible in practice by pioneering the new ways and those who can work with policy makers to change the rules of the game. We need artists and story tellers to inspire and excite. We need scholars to build the evidence base and activists to disrupt and challenge and agitate.

Because no one can cover all bases we need to back each other in what each of us brings to the party, not bicker over one tactic being better than the other. We need to recognise that each of our contributions is only effective because of the others. Plurality based on shared principles means our movement can be more than the sum of our parts.


I want to leave you with the words of EF Schumacher in his book A Guide for the Perplexed:

“can we rely on it that a ‘turning around’ will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but whatever answer is given it will mislead. The answer ‘Yes’ would lead to complacency; the answer ‘No’ to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work”.