Striving for a Sustainable Economy: An Interview with David Powell - Public Goods

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Striving for a Sustainable Economy: An Interview with David Powell

The Public Goods Blog is about health, sustainability and people making an impact. That’s why we seek out and interview amazing people who can share incredible stories or valuable insights. Their wisdom might be the inspiration you need to live a healthier, more sustainable life.

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For centuries people believed the economy had only one purpose: making as much money as possible. Even once we realized our industries were harming the planet, generating wealth was still the priority.

Today activists and experts such as David Powell are trying to show that the economy can — and should — put sustainability first. Powell is the Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation, and he is one of several hosts of Sustainababble, a comedic podcast about various environmental topics (imagine an audio version of “Last Week Tonight” that covers sustainability).

We stumbled upon Sustainababble, listened to a few episodes and decided to ask Powell more about the issues, as well as his background. Here’s what he had to say:

Public Goods: What made you interested in dedicating your career to sustainability?

David Powell: That nagging sense that I want to get up every day and do something that feels like it’s made some kind of difference. It’s a very difficult job sometimes. As climate warnings get ever more strident, it’s hard not to want to go and chuck it all in and go and work for a bank and have fun while it all lasts. But I guess we all have to do what we can do, because what’s the alternative?

And I think — perhaps I watched too much Star Trek as a kid — that ultimately at the end of the day, we’re capable of settling down into a civilisation that is at peace, has a genuine ecological consciousness, and has in a sense “evolved” to be a species that’s able to cope with the vast implications of the power we have.

PG: How has your work at the New Economics Foundation impacted the environment and field of sustainability?

DP: You’re never quite sure. That’s the thing about advocating for change. It’s not like building a bridge. There are vanishingly few moments in entire careers in this sphere where you can point to a definite concrete thing that happened and say: I helped do that.

Mostly you are part of pushing things in the right direction; at NEF we research and advocate for economics that respect the limits of the planet and cherishes human wellbeing. Increasingly policy makers and politicians are recognising the limits of GDP (gross domestic product) as a way to understand anything meaningful about whether human economic activity is actually doing very much of use. I’d like to think I’ve had a role in that.

But mostly, I think we should all read Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark”: you never know quite what impact you’ve had, or who has seen your light shining in the darkness, but you can definitely be sure that if you never light it, no one at all will see it.

PG: Are there any sustainability-related projects you are particularly proud of, perhaps one you think had a significant impact?

DP: Most excitingly I worked for a few months on public communications for the start of the Big Ask Climate change campaign in the UK. That ended up with the world’s first legally binding Climate Change Act. The UK’s got to cut emissions by 80% by 2050 by law. That’s pretty cool. I’d like to think my cinema advert and flappy postcards about dead polar bears helped a bit.

PG: What advice do you have for consumers who are trying to reduce their negative impact on the environment?

DP: The sheer complexity of what trying to do the right thing means as a consumer can be awfully intimidating. So really there are just three things:

First, whatever it is you decide to stop buying, make sure you take the time to let the company in question know why. Say you stop buying Soap A and instead buy Soap B because you think it’s better for the environment. Tweet or email the manufacturers of Soap A and tell them you wanted a more sustainable product. Boycotts are relatively useless if the company doesn’t know why they’re being boycotted, and they won’t change if they don’t see that not doing so loses them customers.

Secondly, focus on those things that have ripple effects far beyond your consumption: where you bank, for example, is a much bigger thing to get right than what kind of bread you eat. Money magnifies through the financial system over and over again and can be used for good or bad things.

Thirdly, don’t overthink it. Try to do the right thing, or what feels right for you, and don’t wrap yourself in knots. Stuff is way complicated, and there’s a minefield of bewitching ecobabble out there that’ll attempt to hoodwink you into thinking bad things are good or good things are bad. And most things are neither one thing or the other anyway.

PG: What does “sustainability” mean to you?

DP: I kinda hate it as a word in the way it’s used to be honest — as a prefix to business practices or whole economic approaches. It’s a word that almost loses meaning through overuse, or careless usage, or deliberate manipulation of what’s really going on.

What it really means is something firmly physical and blunt: the opposite of something that is sustainable is something that is unsustainable. A sustainable business is one that consumers won’t boycott, that environmental laws won’t curtail, that investors will see a long-term market for, and which has a positive part to play in the kind of decent society we’re all striving for.

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