Optimism and hope were the watchwords as the RSA hosted our annual Fellows Festival.
Escaping the June heat, Fellows and guests crowded into the Great Room, the Durham Street Auditorium (DSA) and across RSA House for a day of inspirational talks and discussions. The theme for this year’s Fellows Festival was ‘What could go right?’
Prominent speakers from academia, business, civil society, government, arts and culture joined Chief Executive Andy Haldane and host Julia George on stage to celebrate the most optimistic and imaginative new thinking for the future of people, place and planet.
Twenty-one-year-old Mya-Rose Craig, one of the RSA’s youngest Fellows, opened the day. Craig is an author, environmentalist and activist who sometimes goes by the name ‘Birdgirl’.
“In a world where things can feel dire sometimes, having hope is incredibly radical, so I really stick with that,” she said.
What gave Craig hope, she suggested, was the passion of people, particularly young people, dedicating themselves to make the planet a better place. “We have this younger generation who are working towards something better. When I look to the future, that is what makes me feel hopeful.”
Having hope is incredibly radical, so I really stick with that.
The power of optimism was also emphasised in a speech from Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer. She highlighted the potential of the creative industries, which already account for one in 14 jobs in the UK, to boost growth and employment further.
It is hoped that an injection of £77m of new funding, announced recently by the government, could lead to a £50bn expansion in the creative industries and support a million more jobs by 2030.
“Working with industry, it is in our gift as a government to create the conditions where our creative industries thrive for generations to come. Conditions where careers in the arts are not just accessible to a privileged few but are a mainstay of local economies all across the country,” she said.
Frazer added that ‘levelling up’ was central to the government’s investment plans. “What we are also doing is funding creative clusters to stimulate that local growth, provide opportunities for creative education and to train people in creative careers.”
When it comes to the intersection of the economy, creativity and the environment, there are no bigger figures than Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University, the author in 2021 of an independent review for the Treasury into the economics of biodiversity.
The review recommended that countries should move away from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of economic wellbeing. Dasgupta told the festival audience that it was “deadly wrong” to use GDP to assess the medium- or long-term progress of an economy because it does not consider the depreciation of assets, especially natural ones.
Dasgupta prefers a measurement of ‘inclusive wealth’ that counts nature-based ecosystems as capital assets, noting some progress had been made here. “Our statistical office, like many other countries – Chile, China, Japan, Australia – is now adopting satellite accounts of the state of the natural environment or natural capital.”
However, Dasgupta also described the annual $5-7tn of global subsidy for the various businesses that use natural resources as a “mandate for assaulting nature”. He was particularly concerned about attitudes to the oceans. Dasgupta’s proposal for an international body to monitor use of the oceans and introduce taxation had not been taken forward. “I have had many conversations – the world doesn’t have an appetite,” he said.
Food standards campaigner Henry Dimbleby, who described Dasgupta as the “cleverest man I have ever hugged”, said he agreed that an alternative to GDP was needed. He suggested that subsidies to intensive agriculture, fishing and energy companies mean that we are “paying people to destroy nature”.
Dimbleby added: “The good news is that you can stop paying people and give [nature] a value. I am actually much more optimistic on our ability to bring nature back from the horrifically low levels that it is at than I am on the health side.”
Concerns about our impact on the world around us persist. But conversations at the festival in between the sessions in the Great Room and the DSA showed that optimism was just as infectious.
As Mya-Rose Craig noted: “When you meet so many people who care so deeply and are trying so hard, you can’t help but think to yourself ‘how could we not succeed?’”