Just before lockdown, I was given an old lathe. I bought a beginners’ book on wood-turning and my home desk is now covered in offset bowls, wonky goblets and a harvest of misshapen fruit.
I’m enjoying my first steps with a new skill and in taking them, I think I’ve learnt something important about our exit from lock-down and our actions on climate change.
I’m not trying to make money from turning, or I’d be focusing on speed and looking for access to ever larger markets. But I don’t think I’d enjoy that as much. I’ve swapped commuting for wood-turning and feel better for it. In our research group, we’ve been looking at the way we shape our lives, comparing our use of time with our use of energy. During lockdown we’ve been forced to give up our social activities, including many of the things we most enjoy, most of which require very little energy. As a result, emissions have fallen remarkably little, despite the extreme changes we’ve experienced. But we’ve also found that people aged 45-65 have the most emissions intensive lifestyles, while facing the greatest time pressure. Not surprisingly, elderly people use less energy but experience the most isolation. There’s an opportunity here: while we’re short of jobs, we can plan to re-balance our use of time amongst each other and across our life-spans. Shorter working hours for more years would reduce loneliness for the elderly, reduce the pension problem, would increase the enjoyment of our middle years, and might give us an easy win in reducing our emissions. And we could do more turning before retiring.
It’s only a matter of days from owning a lathe to discovering the addictive turning-porn of equipment catalogues. I could make better bowls faster with different equipment, and if this was my income, I’d be planning investments to maximise my productivity at minimum cost. But I’d also be taking out insurance and aiming to protect my income against threats outside my control. In retrospect we didn’t have enough insurance against a pandemic. We focused our planning on the technological hope of a “vaccine in a day”. But when this virus arrived, the technology wasn’t ready, and as our broader policy goal has been to pursue “efficiency” by minimising costs, we had no other options available, so entered lock-down. We didn’t get this right. Preparing a wider portfolio of options to cope with a pandemic would have been a sound investment, not a wasteful marginal cost. Our preparations for climate mitigation are making the same error: focusing narrowly on socially-invisible novel technologies that are unlikely to be ready soon enough at sufficient scale misses the opportunity to activate a whole portfolio of participatory mitigation. Like my imagined turning business, our security relates not to minimising annual costs, but to the net present value of our planning. Preparing track-and-trace software, and surplus health-care capacity, like mitigating climate change by all means available, is a value-increasing investment in our security not an unwanted cost.
After a dozen apples and pears, my wooden fruit are improving, although the croquet ball challenge still seems insurmountable. Like sport, music, art, writing, community work and civic service, the joy of discovering wood-turning is not to be perfect, but to make progress. For the first time, during the lock-down we’ve experienced the loss of what can’t be bought – time spent with each other, but many of us have discovered new ways to use our time. Expanding my skills, increasing my opportunities for expression and facing the jeopardy of the last cut with the spindle gouge, increases my sense of myself – my self-actualisation, as Maslow had it. Years of academic research and popular writing have shown that, beyond a threshold, income growth doesn’t lead to growing satisfaction, and it’s obvious why: not only can money not buy you love, it can’t replace the satisfaction of achieving something by your own endeavour. Alfred Marshall knew this – he listed economics as addressing one of only four forms of welfare, but we’ve forgotten that starting point. Ask an athlete, a priest or a retiree about their goals, and if they mention income growth, it will be only as a component of some further-reaching targets. Most of us would prefer more social time to more expensive socialising, yet income growth has remained a dogged addiction for politicians. We haven’t yet embraced satisfaction growth, but it’s real.
For a decade or longer, policy proposals have been tested primarily against the criteria of “jobs, bills, growth”. They have been given priority in the belief they are the means to an end. But they’re not the only means, and they don’t enable all ends. During 2020 it’s almost certain that all three metrics will decline, so instead we can ask our politicians to focus on the ends themselves: the shape of our lives in time, our long-term security in the face of uncertainty, growth in our capacities.