ISBN 978-0-470-68436-8. “Co-opportunity – Join up for a sustainable, resilient, prosperous world” by John Grant published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd in 2010. This review is of the hardback copy (second hand) which was 337 pages long including Foreword by Jonathon Porritt, Introduction, five Parts of fifteen Chapters, Postscript, Acknowledgements, References and Index. John is a new author to us. His previous work was “The Green Marketing Manifesto”. We first picked this book up in a branch of Waterstones and were impressed by the contents as they feature Transition Towns quite a lot. Indeed Ron Hopkins gets into the blurb section on the rear cover. Rob describes this work as “a snapshot of the inspiring human creativity that is going into the start of the Great Transition”. The title of this book summarises it very well in fact: it is a catalogue of ideas that could lead to a sustainable and resilient world. Many of the ideas have come from the author himself and he has happy to admit that many of them didn’t get off the ground. Even the big ideas he is proud of remain relatively obscure. Grant waxes lyrical about his work on the “Tweehive” which he portrays as a massive success. Sadly we had never heard of it. Given our involvement in the area of post-carbon sustainability since 2005 this does point to a general problem with Grant’s narrative: he is very close to the problem.
Those too close to the issue sometimes forget to step back into the real world and be humbled by the obscurity of their work. This is hardly a criticism as I know we all do it. Never the less this book is a list of a thousand good ideas nobody has ever heard of. There are two exceptions to this: Transition Towns and Grameen micro-credit which run throughout Grant’s narrative. He returns to these two examples again and again. A handful of other ideas we had heard of before but most get only a brief mention. A common theme amongst the ideas is that so many of them are web based. It is almost as if Grant simply Googled the research for the book. He got 2000 hits on “sustainability and prosperity” and wrote up every entry. If we were to write a book it would probably look like this! Hence these are not criticisms. You’ll enjoy this book but you might not get the author’s point as he goes all around the houses. So let’s take a step back and look and the chapter headings to get our bearings. In Part 1 he asks why there isn’t a “Climate for change”. To this point Grant is a big fan of grassroots organising through the power of social networking ideas. In Porritt’s foreword I read that “John lives and breathes the world of Web 2.0. I have to be honest about this: I don’t”. Hear hear. We share Jonathon’s bewilderment and we say that as a prolific blogger and user of twitter. Maybe the only irritant here is the fact the John Grant doesn’t feel any responsibility to the reader to explain what he is talking about by “Web 2.0”. To our annoyance he even goes as far as adding the fatuous “2.0” label to several other terms through the book. Yeah yeah. It comes over as flippant as Hollywood labeling a Die Hard movie in the same fashion. Might as well call it “XL”. C’mon – you are being obscure. We don’t all live in your world even though we spend half our days staring at a Twitter screen.
Moving on through the chapter list we see that “Part 2” gets called “Relocating the dreams”. Silly name for a discussion about the social structures that could replace consumerism. That section is not as interesting as it sounds as it mainly centers upon the mobile phone company Nokia as an example. At the time of writing they were in the financial doldrums. “Part 3” is up next with “Co-operative responsibility” which covers “transparency” in corporate reporting, ie, a world where we are all accountable for our actions. Then we have our favourite section “Part 4: Economic Resilience”. Here Grant sells you the co-operative movement as the way of the future. Finally we have “Part 5: Abundance” where Grant talks up ye olde Craft Guilds as “abundant systems” as opposed to the market efficiencies of the Adam Smith system. On this latter point we would like to like what Grant is writing about but his case doesn’t seem very strong.
For me the first 200 pages of the book pass through the system without anything notable happening. As we say, apart from some techno-gibberish and the Google hit write-up, there is not a lot of writing to excite the sense. It only starts to become interesting when Grant turns away from his list-mania and starts writing about economics. In the Chapter “Why the economy works against sustainability” he tackles the ogre of economic growth. He quotes Tim Jackson “Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth.” Around pages 200/201 we get a beautifully simple outline of how an economic system using an Interest Rate-based Banking system needs endless economic growth. By page 211 Grant is quoting Pavan Sukhdev – the founder of TEEB (The Economic Evaluation of Biodiversity). “Sukhdev is at pains to point out that he is a capitalist – he works for Deutsche Bank, not an NGO. He just thinks that GDP-based economics is (and I quote) ‘stupid’.” Moving onto a later chapter called “Between Abundance & Productivity” we learn that “a forest produces 1000 times more energy than a wheat field. A wheat field is productive in a narrow sense because wheat is a marketable commodity and can be harvested in large quantities using (high energy) machinery. That’s the financial logic but it involves turning the country-side into a factory, complete with oil-based agrichemicals. It is ultimately a flawed model…” Writing as a son of farming folk this single realisation is certainly one that sits me at this keyboard writing this review after reading this book. Almost everything I learnt was wrong and will never sustain us. On page 258 this: “Nature is seldom ‘lean and mean’ – it is abundant. That’s because only abundance is resilient. Los Angeles has two days’ supply of food and the rest arrives across the desert on trucks. If there were an energy crisis, there is no fallback.” All of our modern economic efficiencies will count for nothing. Time to rethink the system. At this point (page 259) Grant lays into the orthodoxy of Adam Smith: “The large intensive farms are modeled on factories. And these are descended conceptually from Adam Smith’s pin factory, with each operator confined to a simple action. The whole system is run purely to optimise money out vs. money in. And yet even in these terms what Smith didn’t spot is that it can fail because it destroys value too. It is an economic anorexia. Under the force of its own logic, it makes pins into an almost worthless commodity. That’s the scourge of farming too….”
But at this point Grant’s ideas start to diverge from the path you might think. He turns to the Hardin essay of 1968 that introduces the “tragedy of the commons” designed as a critique of Adam Smith. Self interest leads only to overshoot. However, rather than embracing this Grant actually claims Hardin was wrong. This is because the tragedy of the commons can lead to “landlordism” where free goods become owned and controlled by a minority. Grant goes onto claim that (page 273) “The real history of commons shows that for over 500 years they suffered no notable tragedies of over-use.” If true where does this leave climate change? At this point the reader will be confused. I was. For Grant the real tragedy only started after enclosure of the commons. Tragedies that were “products of the free market being let loose, without community self-management.” So there you have it – Grant concludes that our world would be better managed if ownership was pushed down to our communities. His solution? The re-introduction of the old Craft Guilds that the industrial system smashed.
We have to say that this quaint view of history doesn’t quite gel with earlier chapters which praised Mobile Phone giant Nokia. Maybe every town and village should have its own Mobile Phone craft guild? It invokes visions of dark workshop teeming with artisans and soldering irons. Do we really want to return to that? It certainly isn’t the consumer society of today but will it yield the millions of wind turbines and solar panels our over-populated world needs? Grant is advocating very short supply lines as in “direct to the consumer” models applauded on page 243. Yes, we need Capitalism 2.0 but an appeal for the return of the social structures of the middle ages hardly seems likely to cut a lot of ice. Regardless – most of what Grant writes about makes a lot of sense. Later in the writing on “Abundant Systems” Grant tears through the Adam Smith model of market capitalism before making a quick left turn into a long section advocating local currencies. Suddenly he is back on track with the Transition Movement again. Then, by page 298 he is praising the “abundant systems design” of a bee colony. The irony escapes him maybe that a bee colony may well have been the perfect model of the sort of Capitalism advocated by Adam Smith. Confused? You will be. It goes from confusing to the down-right wrong. On page 312 he claims that “photosynthesis is pretty much the most efficient solar power system imaginable”. Debatable. Maybe only in his “abundant systems” way of thinking but in terms of strict conversion of sunlight into another energy source (ie, starch or electricity) the photovoltaics is now over 20% whereas a tree languishes at only 5%. The beauty of a tree is that – well – they grow on tress don’t they?
At the point of the postscript the reader will have been through a bit of a journey. No doubt most will be a bit confused. What to conclude? Well, in the postscript Grant may well have realised that he has lost a few people so decides to jot down a few bullet points on his vision for co-operative world building. Co-operative networks for the common good will have the following features in common: group ethics, a shared task, distributed, no chain of command, local interactions, democracy, multi-cellular structures, empowerment, equal partnerships, forum-based, designed-in abundance, collective design, open source, continuous improvement, specialism in labour, reject toxic thinking, a moral crusade, decent, the common good for humanity, peaceful, disarming, non-critical, relaxing, decelerating, about getting off the bus, durable, cautious, observant, devolved ownership and fair. For many this is a manifesto for anarchism simply because it is so very different from the sort of top-down capitalist system we live in today. The “a” word never really creeps into Grants work at any point although clearly that is what he appears to be pointing at even if he is afraid to admit it. This is not quite a good enough conclusion even if it correctly identifies the end-game. The failing really is in the lack of route-map. It is a common failing in works such as these as they don’t go quite far enough in terms of mapping A to Z. We get a pretty picture only of “Z” not how we get there. At least with the Transition movement we have a free market place of ideas. An experiment. That is the way.