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How To Thrive In The Next Economy – John Thackara

by Venky

(Image Credit: nwhgroup.co.uk)

Chase it down and read it” is American activist, writer and policy strategist, David Bollier’s verdict on John Thackara’ s uniquely introspective work, “How To Thrive In The Next Economy”. In a world characterised by rampant globalization, nature is not just held to ransom, but is being systematically and systemically devoured in the name of progress. Just when it seems that we as a collective strain of humanity have reached a dangerous point of no return, there has reared a timely head, a redemptive motley crew of hope. It is the resurgent voices of such optimism that British design expert John Thackara attempts to amplify in his striking work.

From scientists and marginal land holding farmers treating soil as a living system, to bio-regionalists intent on ‘de-paving’ cities and ushering in permaculture pathways and gardens, Thackara acquaints us with a group of inveterate innovators who in their own inimitable manner, add to incrementally enhancing the environmental health.

The author compartmentalizes the book into a few basic themes: food, clothing, housing, water, transportation, healthcare, knowledge and grounding. The pernicious impact of modern day consumption on each of these themes are highlighted. However, the crux of the book is how an intrepid band of ordinary individuals and entrepreneurs attempt to not just mitigate the adverse effects of modern day consumption, but also strive to restore nature back to its unsullied form.

In the state of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India, farmers pool together invaluable knowledge and information on ground water levels with a view to achieving sustainability in farming practices. This practice known as Participatory Groundwater Management is a perfect antidote to the tragedy of the commons. As is the wonderfully distinct and ancient “subak” system of irrigation engaged in by the Balinese population in Indonesia. Originating in the ninth century, the subak system is an irrigation technique under which self-governing associations of farmers share the use of irrigation water for their rice fields. Water from volcanic lakes is diverted through rivers and channels to end up in the rice terraces. This methodology has received accreditation from multilateral bodies such as UNESCO.

The most beautiful aspect of the book lies in its elucidation of how under privileged and deprived people of the world lead lives as exemplars and beacons of light by choosing the dictum “in poverty lies plenty”. Instead of lamenting and ruing their unfortunate circumstances, these individuals rise above adversity and teach their more privileged and wealth accumulating counterparts that happiness is after all a state of mind. Thus in earthquake torn Haiti, the author learns that true happiness lies in neighbours asking each other whether they had their cup of coffee and going out of their way to ensure mutual prosperity and economic upliftment. The owner of a small guest house in Kerala, despite battling poverty is aghast at the mention of admitting his aged mother in a day care. In Venezuela, “doctor-teachers” train peasants to be health workers with a goal of empowering local people to provide 90 percent of their own health care. A sprawling ecology of 40 million traders, shop keepers, hawkers, and vendors form the ‘unorganised retail sector’ in India. This teeming, throbbing, pulsating ecosystem thrives in a beehive of bazaars, mandis and haats.

Yet another stirring example of the sum of the parts contributing in excess of the whole is the concept of The Food Commons in Fresno, California. The Food Commons endeavours to reinvent the various linkages commencing from a regional farm to distribution avenues/networks to grocery stores and finally, restaurants. The Food Commons Model has three integral components:

  • The Food Commons Trust, a non-profit entity that acquires and stewards critical foodshed assets;
  • The Food Commons Financing Arm, a community-owned financial institution that provides capital and financial services to foodshed enterprises; and
  • The Food Commons Hub, a locally-owned, cooperatively integrated business enterprise that builds and manages foodshed-based physical infrastructure and facilitates the complex logistics of aggregation and distribution.

Similar examples abound and grace the book offering a plethora of points to ponder. From bikers in Denmark to pavement electronic equipment service personnel in Delhi, to kiosk traders in Lagos, Thackara’ s book is a fount of encouragement and positivity. Claims made and ideas proposed are all backed by empirical evidence and are not, by any stretch of imagination, baseless fantasies conceptualised in ivory towers. For example when the Dutch architect Frits van Dongen, argues in what seems to be a mind boggling vein for not constructing a single additional building than what the earth already has, he does so with some cold, hard rationale to back his contention. “We have half a million square metres of office and industrial space, and 30,000 homes standing empty.” Mind you this proclamation was made in 2013.

Thackara ends his book in a very poignant manner by reasserting a need for relooking and reevaluating the phrase “the savage mind”. Every ancient culture and civilisation spanning various religions and geographies has believed in inculcating an intimate, revered and symbiotic relationship with the land and the ecosystem surrounding it. Unfortunately the sprawl of modern urbanization has dismantled such a pristine and precocious relationship by encroaching, sullying, and decimating land and chopping and burning down trees. This deracination of ecological values and inherited culture needs to be not just reversed but resurrected and rejuvenated.

Thackara for example, bemoaning the obsession towards High Speed Trains, writes, “High Speed Trains perpetuates patterns of land use, transport intensity and the separation of functions in space and time that render the whole way we live unsupportable.” 

We have reached that inflection point in our evolution where the future of the Big lies squarely in the hands of the Small. It is the unrelenting accumulation of small and incremental changes that will ultimately unleash a paradigm alteration in thought, deed and word. Maggie Black, once frighteningly said “millions of people are expelled to the margins of fruitful existence in the name of someone else’s progress.

It is these inhabitants at the margins who hold the key to the world’s future!

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