“The world needs more consciousness” – an interview with Nick Duffell



Nick Duffell

How do we feel about globalisation? Are we thinking straight when it comes to climate change? Is there too much blame going on in our relationship with politicians?


For the last year, I’ve been working with psychotherapist and psychohistorian Nick Duffell on our new book ‘The SIMPOL Solution‘ to take a look at the state of global problems through a psychoanalytic lens.

To mark the launch of the book, forthcoming from Peter Owen in 2017, Alex Lyons interviewed Nick to get his perspective on everything from Trump and Theresa May, to the power and potential of psychology to get us out from under.

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Brexit’s Causes Are Global – So Are the Solutions

…both Leavers and Remainers, both Trump’s supporters and Sanders’s, both Right and Left across the world have much more in common than they suspect. The sad irony is that neither side realises that the deeper cause underpinning both their concerns is globalization. Whether it’s the Left’s concerns about multinationals not paying fair taxes and the lack of funding for public services, or the Right’s about immigration, poverty and feelings of cultural alienation, both are symptoms of unregulated globalization: destructive global competition.

More on my post-brexit reflections with Nick Duffell at the Huffington Post.

“Can We Get Our Governments to Solve Global Problems?” My interview for Conscious Bridge

Last month I was invited for a chat with Mark Gilbert for Conscious Bridge – a website “devoted to offering tools and resources that assist in creating a world that works for everyone.” In it we discussed everything from the story behind Simpol to the risks of corporate interests in global policymaking.

Why Conscious Bridge? Mark explains it best here, where he says:

It is my belief that we are at an evolutionary crossroads.  It appears that we live in a world where most people believe that life is about “survival”; where the norm is to live in fear, to accept the inevitability of war and poverty, to see themselves as some being existing separate and apart from everyone else with whom they are in competition.

However, I sense a growing number of us who are questioning and transcending that old paradigm.  I and many others know that we can create a world filled with love, peace, and abundance.  We are talking about releasing survival and claiming a life where we all thrive.


You can listen to our full conversation at the Conscious Bridge website.

Why I Don’t Care About Collective Action

Next month, our global leaders meet to sign the agreement they formed at the climate change conference in Paris last year. With their signatures they prove the power of collective action to solve global problems; justifying the countless hours of protest, petition, and playing party politics campaigners went through to pressure an agreement.

Or do they?

Is the Paris Agreement built to last? Or will it disintegrate, built on the foundations of a shoddy system of collective action that was never fit for purpose? Last November I spoke at Confer’s conference on the Psychology of Collective Action on Climate Change to share my deep misgivings about the methods of collective action we currently use, and to point the way to something different.

The talk, ‘Why I Don’t Care About Collective Action‘, is up on Youtube now.

Green vs. Competitive: The Stalemate Continues

In the closing moments of 2015 an ‘historic’ deal was brokered in Paris which not only set about limiting greenhouse gas emissions but also set about changing the fundamental ways in which we do business. Free market solutions are to play a pivotal role within the low carbon future sketched out in the Paris Agreement.

Twenty years after Michael Porter wrote about how being green can make businesses more competitive, we are now seeing the early adoption of these ideas. But despite this new “Green Capitalism”, the question still remains: can business adequately address climate change?

Displacing the now tarnished concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Green Capitalism goes further by welding together greenness and profit through efficiency and innovation. Harnessing this opportunity, pioneering firms are progressing beyond the static mindset of green compliance towards on-going sustainability dynamism, continuously re-assessing business conditions and the opportunities they offer. That includes seeing tighter regulations not as a threat but as an opportunity. As Porter explains:

“Static thinking causes companies to fight environmental standards that actually could enhance their competitiveness. Most distillers of coal tar in the United States, for example, opposed 1991 regulations requiring substantial reductions in benzene emissions. At the time, the only solution was to cover the tar storage tanks with costly gas blankets. But the regulation spurred Aristech Chemical Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to develop a way to remove benzene from tar in the first processing step, thereby eliminating the need for gas blankets. Instead of suffering a cost increase, Aristech saved itself $3.3 million”

In this new configuration sustainability – including tighter regulations – becomes profitable, and most of it is common sense. Pollution = inefficiency, so going green means less waste, less cost, and more profit and competitiveness. Businesses are adapting to this new economic landscape, re-framing climate action though a lens of risk and opportunity. Innovation like this is the beating heart of capitalism, but is even this enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change?

The best regulation, according to Porter, starts off with looser standards but with a clear message that tighter regulation will follow. Although not legally binding, the Paris Agreement follows this approach, specifying reasonable emission reduction targets supported by a mechanism to ramp up ambition every 5 years. This creates an immediate imperative for action to drive down emissions and get ahead of the field.

“Fair enough,” one might say. But how long is all this going to take? The problem is that Porter’s approach is necessarily gradualist. Governments, he says, should; “Develop regulations in sync with other countries or slightly ahead of them. It is important to minimize possible competitive disadvantages relative to foreign companies that are not yet subject to the same standard.”

The hope, of course, is that the Paris Agreement will cause all nations to move together, so avoiding any competitive disadvantages. But the non-binding nature of the Agreement almost certainly means that governments will remain extremely cautious. Fearing for the competitiveness of their industries, they’ll effectively be restricted to only incremental regulatory moves. The problem, then, is that the potentially disastrous effects of climate change, moving at a much faster pace, will still likely outstrip them. And it’s here that Green Capitalism runs aground. The dilemma between going green and staying competitive has not gone away because of the factor of time – time we do not have.

How, then, could governments introduce tough regulations that meet the fast pace of climate change, without harming business competitiveness?

Achieving this inevitably means governments must go well beyond incremental regulation – and that will mean that business can only innovate itself out of some of the costs. But the key to making the remaining costs acceptable is for governments to ensure a level playing field for all businesses globally: an unprecedented level of international cooperation is required.

Helping governments impose higher costs on business may, for business, sound like a pathological form of self-harming! But if those costs are borne by all businesses globally and so do no harm to any business’s competitiveness, do they really matter? Especially if it means a sustainable planet for business to thrive in the long-term?

Creating this global level playing field need not be far-fetched if governments take a different approach to international climate negotiations. Rather than cooperation being arrived at under duress, a way needs to be found to make cooperation in every nation’s self-interest. Do that, and nations will also have an interest in making any agreement legally binding too. But how?

Instead of the present single-issue approach which deals with carbon emissions alone, governments could take a multi-issue approach which would permit trade-offs to be made. If, for example, a global Currency Transactions (‘Tobin’) Tax were included alongside a carbon emissions agreement, the vast proceeds from the tax could be used to compensate nations that might lose out on the climate part of the agreement. All nations would win and businesses in those nations could in turn be compensated. In that way, immediate and drastic action to reduce emissions could be achieved, the agreement would be binding, and no nation or business would suffer a competitive disadvantage. Yes, business costs would be marginally higher, but no one would suffer a competitive disadvantage since all businesses globally would be on the same level playing field.

Enhanced global cooperation of this kind would be far from easy. What seems clear, however, is that the present single-issue approach fails to deliver sufficiently rapid action on climate change – the Paris Agreement, although a diplomatic break-through, still puts the planet on track for over 3 degrees C of warming.

Certainly, Green Capitalism is a step in the right direction, but without substantive multi-issue international cooperation it’s likely to be too little too late. Too much faith is being put in the free market. Businesses should call upon governments to move swiftly towards win-win multi-issue international negotiations. It’s time for business to demand that governments design international climate negotiations for success rather than failure.


This article was co-authored with David Saddington and originally appeared on the Huffington Post

My First and Last Meeting with Ulrich Beck

Last year I met Ulrich Beck for the first and last time. An eminent German sociologist, his sudden passing this year has been felt and written about by many. As speakers gather today at the LSE to discuss his work and influence, I’ve been thinking about the crucial lessons his ideas might offer for our collective future.

Sitting across from Beck at a cafe in the London School for Economics one chilly February afternoon, I’d come prepared to contemplate similarities and differences, inevitabilities and evolutions. Corresponding before our meeting we had noted resemblances between our work – our shared appreciation for the interconnected nature of the modern world, and our mutual scepticism of the thinking that keep us from understanding it.

As a sociologist, Beck positioned himself in contrast to the ‘methodologically nationalist’ tendencies of the social sciences. By this he meant the presumption of the nation-state as the prism through which to view social and political life. In a globalised world where ecological, economic and terrorist threats transcend national borders, Beck saw that a discipline taking the nation-state as its frame of reference was bound to be flawed. For him, a world transformed by globalisation instead requires it’s observers to occupy a globalised, ‘cosmopolitan’ vision in order to understand it.

As a campaigner for solutions to global problems I have spent the past decade challenging the similarly severe limitations of ‘nation-centric’ thinking, witnessed at all levels of political and social life. This nation-centrism remains strong even among those who campaign for global change. From wealth inequality to climate change, many campaigners mobilise protest on the belief that global problems can be solved if only there is adequate “political will”. But this perspective fails to understand the global economic context that today severely constrains national policymaking. In a world where the race for economic competitiveness is paramount, leaders remain reluctant to make decisions on social or environmental policy which might make their national economy uncompetitive.

This is not to downplay the importance of protest, but to highlight how nation-centric thinking can limit the scope and understanding of global problems and what to do about them. As it stands, the global justice movement lacks the world-centric understanding crucial to addressing the real problem at hand. Recognising this requires moving beyond a nation-centric understanding to seeing the global nature of the competitiveness constraints that political leaders are subject to – and must be released from. Failure to see this is to remain an unwitting prisoner of an inadequate nation-centric worldview: still subject to the same severe limitations as Beck’s “methodologically nationalist” sociologists.

With political leaders nation-centrism goes deeper. A nation, after all, exists primarily to perpetuate itself: the protection of the national interest is paramount. Here, nation-centrism presents itself in the belief that the pursuit of national competitiveness can only be a good thing. “Become more competitive, and you’ll become richer.” For decades this has been the neoliberal mantra used to justify on-going cuts in public services, tax cuts for the rich and for corporations, rising inequality, etc.

Far from being the ‘road to riches’, the pursuit of economic competitiveness is a temporary and ultimately self-defeating strategy for all nations – but it requires a world-centric perspective to see that. The nation-centric mind sees cuts in corporation tax, for example, as a way of attracting inward investment, and thus as a good thing. But the world-centric mind sees the broader and more damaging implications: as one nation cuts its corporate taxes, other nations have no choice but to follow. Far from being the ‘road to riches’, then, the pursuit of international competitiveness is a race that all nations must ultimately lose. The only gainers, of course, are the transnational corporations, tax avoiders and global investors.

Like Beck’s sociologists, political leaders and activists still remain subject to a way of thinking that is inadequate to the challenges of a globalised world. The actions that follow from nation-centric or methodologically nationalist perspectives carry the limitations of their perspective forward. Whether misdirected protests or self-harming national economic policy, both national leaders and those who campaign against them are undermined when their perspective isn’t global in scope. The legacy of Beck’s thinking is that only with a global/cosmopolitan perspective can genuine methodologies for global cooperation be decided.

Despite similarities in our understanding, Beck and I found much to differ on when it came to organising around an emergent global worldview. Beck insisted he saw promise in the European Union as a regional model for a more cosmopolitan world. I myself remain unconvinced. Europe is undoubtedly a wonderful example of transnational governmental cooperation. But its failure to decisively manage the Euro crisis is evidence of too-limited scope. The EU, as a group of nation-states, is still far less than global; too small to withstand the forces of global markets – a disturbing reality likely to resurface as Greece seeks to renegotiate its bail-out agreement. Euro-centrism, in other words, fares little better than nation-centrism in a world that is already global. To reflect that, we need to organise a form of governance that matches the global context we already inhabit; a form of governance that really does include everyone. This need not mean a world state, but a system in which all nations coordinate their policies to ensure global coverage.

For me, that progression to a more ‘cosmopolitan’ global governance is inevitable. From small tribes to large nation states, human history is testament to a story of increasing scales of governance. Whenever we reach a mismatch between the way the world works and the way we organise ourselves, we are forced to work out a new way to govern. And each level is always larger than the last. Beck, however, told me he was sceptical; he was reticent to prescribe a sense of ‘progress’ to the history of human development, even less likely to conclude that a system of global governance would definitely happen, even if it was needed.

Yet there are scholars in the field of International Relations who are making a convincing case for the inevitability of binding global governance. Had we the chance to continue our discussion, I might have discussed with Beck the work of Alexander Wendt, the political scientist who offers a teleological account of human development from anarchy to world governance. For him, the disequilibrium experienced in a globalised world will prove intolerable until a form of binding global governance is achieved.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. As our meeting drew to a close I pondered Beck’s position. As a thinker, he put himself in opposition to the dominant nation-centric paradigm in order to bring about a deeper world-centric understanding. Yet, for him, this thinking against the grain had not been without cost – he had marked himself as a lone figure; an outlier impatiently waiting for his peers to see what was, for him as for me, self-evident.

Yet Beck is not the only one to have thought, and fought, for a more global world-view. Over the years I’ve encountered a number of remarkable individuals working within their disciplines to change the way we think about the world. Whether they be other cosmopolitan sociologists like Garrett Wallace Brown, mathematicians and behavioural scientists like Martin Nowak and David Rand, economists and scholars like Scott Barrett, or influencers and writers like Ken Wilber, Simon Anholt or John Stewart.

Each of these individuals is developing new perspectives for working globally and cooperatively. If there are any lessons to be taken from Beck’s work, it will be the challenge to recognise and forge connections between these great campaigners for global cooperation, to bring their work, and Beck’s, into our conversations and plans for a better future. How we govern ourselves in an increasingly globalised world starts with them. But it will also rely on us. For only when we citizens move from a limiting nation-centric worldview and start to support campaigns that express the world-centric worldview that Beck and others espoused, will our leaders eventually follow.

A tribute to Ulrich Beck, ‘What Future For World Society’ takes place at the London School for Economics on Tuesday 24 February.