Barking up the wrong tree


  • Social brain

It really isn’t fair. I don’t just mean West Bromwich Albion being trounced yesterday by arch enemies Wolverhampton Wanderers nor even my son’s team (which I ineptly manage) losing twice at the weekend. At least there was some joy in being the proud son as my mother received a civic award from Southwark.

But the real hammer blow came on Sunday when I opened my Observer to see I didn’t come anywhere near its list of the country’s 300 top public intellectuals.

‘But why is that unfair’ I hear you say, ‘on what possible basis could you be described as a public intellectual and expect to be in the same esteemed company as the other 300?’ ‘Well’ I might reply in a petulant tone, ‘how about the fact that Guardian columnist Madeline Bunting said last week of David Brooks’ book, ‘The Social Animal’ which is apparently causing quite a stir among the political class: "It's interesting how Brooks’ thesis is almost point by point similar to Matthew Taylor's Royal Society of Arts lecture last June’ (NB Brooks is here at the RSA on the 19th).     

‘Ah yes’, you might then say ’but that’s the point, David Brooks wrote a book while all you did was make a speech and write a pamphlet. You can’t be a public intellectual if you can’t write books’.  At which point I would give up and disappear into a miasma of self-pity and self-loathing.  

If only it was writing 400 word blogs or 1500 word articles that made the grade, then I might stand a chance, at least on the top 3,000 list.

Anyway, I’ve suffered for my failure to become a public intellectual, now it’s your turn. I have just drafted a short chapter for an American book on sustainability. I have built it round the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment strapline and, as it will only appear in America, I can share it with you and ask you to offer any comments before I send it off on Wednesday.

Thus in a week which seems destined to lower my fragile self-esteem even further, there will at least be one claim I can confidently make: ‘Hi mum, I know you are a civic leader, a local historian and have the freedom of Southwark but, guess what, I have written a really, really, really long blog’.

Sadly, this boast is about as impressive as an offer I once saw in Private Eye: ‘special limited edition readers’ offer – only £499.99, the world’s largest bonsai tree’…..

‘Mind the gap – a different take on sustainability

It has been said that the really significant divide in politics is not between the left and right but between optimists and pessimists. Here at the RSA I chair many events at which public intellectuals give their various prophesies. On issues of sustainability there certainly is a divide between those who think that technology and human ingenuity will solve tomorrow’s problems just as they did yesterday’s and concerned environmentalists whose conclusions tends to be some version of ‘we can’t go on like this’.

Perhaps it is just that I am a pragmatic middle of the road kind of person but I find neither account satisfactory. Of the optimists I want to ask ‘why should we assume this problem can be solved, perhaps it is different?’ or ‘haven’t you read your Jared Diamond, civilisations do collapse and precisely because they failed to address a crisis which appears in retrospect to have been staring them in the face?’ or ‘yes, we may solve our problems in the end but at what cost in human suffering and waste?’.

To the pessimists I want to ask ’why is it that we have been saying for so long that things like oil were going to run out but then there always seems to be more?’ or ‘how do you reconcile your humanism with such apparent pessimism of human beings to find solutions?’  and – although this I say sotto voce – ‘aren’t you concerned that you sound almost pleased at all the bad news you have to share?’.

This may be why I developed a more modest view of the future. I suggest that that the United Kingdom faces what I inelegantly call ‘a social aspiration gap’. The problem for this country is not that people generally have radically different ideas of the kind of future they would like for themselves and their society.  We want to live somewhere which is economically comfortable, which protects and expands freedom but also avoids gross inequality, with decent public services and a peaceful and tolerant public sphere and, yes, we do want to safeguard our environment and play our role in saving the planet. The problem is not that we disagree about our aspirations, it is we are unlikely to fulfil them if we don’t significantly change some of the ways we think and act; that is the social aspiration gap.

Let me offer some concrete examples:

Successful countries balance short term demands with long term investment. Leaders have to be able to make difficult decisions creating losers as well as winners. Arguably, right now enlightened autocracies like China are better able to do this than mature democracies. The democratic conversation needs to be more substantive, honest and two-way. 

The UK health service is facing its tightest budget settlement for many decades and in the longer term faces a growing burden in the form of chronic conditions affecting an ageing population. Yet one of the biggest drivers of demand for health care are our own lifestyles, drinking too much, eating too much, exercising too little, not managing long term conditions.  

For Britain to be a successful economy we need citizens who are well-educated, creative and risk taking. There are things Government can and should do to shape tomorrow’s citizens, but this is also involves a shift in our national culture so that we prize invention over mere accumulation and see learning as a life-long habit.    

The trade off point between economic growth and environmental sustainability can be much higher if we voluntarily take actions to reduce our carbon emissions and unnecessary waste. Closing the social aspiration gap is an important part of any strategy for environmental sustainability. 

Before I go on I need to address an often tacit but powerful objection to this very idea that we – the people –can choose to change the way we are.

Over the last few decades, thinkers on the sociological left and economic right have shared a common prejudice: public ideas don’t really matter.  On the left the ideas are seen as merely an epiphenomenon of deeper social forces, on the right culture is marginalised in a theory which sees the efficient society as one comprised by individual preferences revealed in market transactions.  Of course, ideas are more powerful if they intersect with social forces, of course they are more likely to succeed if they coincide with our personal predispositions, but this isn’t the end of the story.

Let me offer two examples of significant social trends which are inexplicable without recognising the way ideas can change the world. The first is the transformation in attitudes to homosexuality. It is hard to explain this in terms of shifts either in individual preferences – why would so many more people suddenly become gay or why would so many people now be tolerant when their parents were viscerally prejudiced – or in underlying social forces – capitalism seems just as able to thrive in homophobic as in liberated societies. Instead, an important part of the shift comes from the way the gay community and its supporters responded to the threat of AIDS; rather than retreating into the shadows the response was one of mobilisation, pride and self-help.

A different example is the growth of Fair Trade. Did we suddenly grow a social conscience? Did capitalism need a new market in ethical goods? Or was it that crusading leadership, business skills and social organisation found a way to tap in to human altruism so that an idea which had for many years been largely confined to stalls outside churches moved to the aisles of every major supermarket?

One reason ideas matter for society is that human beings and human behaviour is complex.  Over recent decades a variety of disciplines ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary psychology to behavioural economics have undermined the reductionist view of human beings as mere agents of impersonal forces or of society as being nothing more than the aggregation of possessive individualism.

We know that most of our actions are instinctive and automatic, not the consequence of rational and conscious calculation. Indeed we know that often conscious thought is a confirmation of an automatic impulse rather than what drives our behaviour. We know also that we are profoundly social beings. Role playing experiments show how much our personality and our judgements can change if we are placed in different contexts with different prompts and norms. Long term social network analysis shows our behaviours and attitudes can be affected by changes among those in our circles of networks even at three degrees of separation.

We know also that we are many ways idiosyncratic. As advertisers know, our perceptions and assessment of value are heavily influenced by framing. We find it hard to bring the long term into the present and to do the things we ought to. Directly contradicting conventional economic theory it appears that monetary incentives actually inhibit our performance in complex tasks.  And we are misguided; in many circumstances human beings are not very good at assessing their own abilities, at predicting their future, knowing what will make them happy and even accurately recalling what made them happy in the past. On the positive side we also know that most human beings seem to have an innate capacity for empathy and sense of fairness.

Reflecting both our 18th century origins and our modern mission, the RSA’s new strapline is ‘21st century enlightenment’. This idea combines our analysis of the social aspiration gap with new thinking about human nature and motivation and adds a philosophical dimension.

The original Western enlightenment was a complex and contested process but at its heart lay three revolutionary ideas: autonomy (the idea of human freedom), universalism (the idea of that all human beings are deserving of dignity and rights) and humanism (the idea that society should be organised not according to the rules of kings or bishops but to maximise human fulfilment).

The ‘21st century enlightenment’ approach suggests we need to re-examine and refresh the way we think about these ideas. On autonomy, we need to replace the idea that freedom is delivered through possessive individualism and instead promote the idea (one long propagated by the world’s religions) that genuine autonomy comes through deeper self-awareness and self-discipline. In relation to universalism we need to be slightly less focussed on the content of universalism – which rights, entailments, capabilities – and more on the foundations of universalism; what is it that fosters solidarity and the capacity for empathy we need in a shrinking world. And in relation to humanism we need to see past the compelling modern logics of markets, bureaucracy and science and technology to provide the spaces for a deeper more ethical and humanistic debate about the kind of future we want to build in our neighbourhoods, countries and world.

I began with pessimism and optimism. Over recent decades a powerful trend in many Western nations has been the steady rise in social pessimism: while people tend to be unrealistically optimistic about their own and their family’s prospects, they tend to be too pessimistic about the ability of society to change and advance. For example, not only did few people in the UK or US predict the decline in crime and certain other social pathologies which have taken place over the last decade, but many still refuse to believe it.

Social pessimism is an enemy of progressive thought. To believe we can create a sustainable future, and not just rely on technology to come to our rescue, requires us to believe we can choose to change. Just as the first Western enlightenment was ushered in by scientific breakthroughs which challenged religious doctrine, so new thinking about human nature can help challenge deterministic or individualistic accounts of human nature. This is not only the necessary context for sustainability, it can help redefine the very meaning of the term.

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