I sometimes get slightly grumpy reactions when I mention system change. Some people simply do not see the problem or hope that any issues will resolve themselves. Many others do want change but are overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges that lie ahead.
‘Simply’ kicking our 200-year-old addiction to fossil resources is one example. Or at least seriously reducing our use of raw materials, to avoid further devastation of our ecosystems. That does indeed imply a massive overhaul of our economy. Not just a new extension or a new kitchen, but a full renovation, from the foundations up to the roof - insulating the walls, replacing windows, heating systems, floors, the lot. A huge undertaking, that requires superplans and superheroes.
At least, that is the impression that you tend to get. And that impression is reinforced by the methods that we use for trying to devise such plans and for calculating their financial implications: their structural impact on economic growth and employment over several decades, calculated to two decimal places. The impact on purchasing power calculated to the nearest euro. Based on this exercise, many options prove impossible or too costly. But such calculations only provide fake certainty. Many impacts of large changes cannot be predicted.
For instance, I once tried to simulate the financial crisis by means of a macro model. This proved quite impossible. The shocks were too great, and the model did not produce an outcome. The same thing happened during last year’s Covid shock: most economists were way off the mark. And that is perfectly logical, because models are based on historical economic relationships. If factors develop unlike ever before, the statistical relationships that are used for making predictions cannot handle this.
An economy is a dynamic system. People have the extraordinary capacity to (be able to) adapt much more easily to new situations than previously assumed. And that is a good thing, because that makes us all superpeople: more dynamic, more flexible, and more inventive than the economic models. We superpeople need urgency and direction.
What we don’t need is a superplan with a detailed analysis of its financial consequences. That discourages and distracts from what we should be focusing on: the superambition that will motivate us to just start taking small steps in the right direction. Because don’t forget: superheroes are just people who wear colourful underwear over their clothes and simply muddle along in a comic or film.
So, start wearing your underpants on the outside and get on with it!
This is a translation of Hans Stegeman's column in , published September 14th, 2021.
Read Hans’ previous column ‘Ecological debt restructuring’.