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Articles etc./A Partial View of the Future

Review of The Weightless World: Strategies for Managing the Digital Economy by Diane Coyle (Capstone, Oxford, 1999, 253pp, pbk, £9.99). Foresight (Vol 1, No 4 - August 1999).

Diane Coyle is economics editor of The Independent. The Weightless World is warmly commended by fellow media commentators, by economics professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the London School of Economics, and by the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.

Its chapters discuss: where have all the jobs gone? weightless work; nourishing the grassroots; fear of flexibility; the end of welfare; the ageing of nations; globalism and globaloney; visible and invisible cities; and weightless government.

It provides a thoughtful and well-written mainstream perspective on the future of "industrialised" economies. But it also illustrates the pressing need for more radical thinking, even in progressive mainstream circles.

It recognises that we face "a mammoth problem of transition and distribution. The world is a riskier place. People in the industrialised world are ill-equipped to deal with their loss of security and are governed by profoundly undemocratic economic institutions. Individuals must have a greater stake in shaping their own future if they are to be equipped to cope with new economic uncertainties.

"This requires a redrafting of the economic policy map. Just as the political importance of the nation state has declined, so has its economic influence. Policies need to be shaped internationally and locally as well as nationally".

Stressing the tendency for institutional structures to lag behind changes in technology and the ways people actually live and work, Coyle proposes a redesign of government to provide "a stable framework in which people can take on the responsibility for their own judgements and decisions".

This will involve restructuring taxes and welfare benefits to give people more flexibility to organise their own working lives, as well as more responsibility for meeting their own needs for pensions and care. It should foster the further growth of the 'social economy' - 'third sector' activities which, while being viable economically, aim to provide needed services rather than to make profits.

It should encourage the regeneration of local economies by Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), microcredit and other new local finance initiatives.

This is all very good. But unfortunately Coyle's focus on 'weightlessness' distorts the perspective. Miniaturisation, the continuing shift from manufacturing to services (including self-services), and the rapidly growing role of information, knowledge and creativity, are certainly among the factors shaping the future. But they do not necessarily reflect progress, and they are not the whole story.

Even if the world's financial markets are "the ultimate embodiment of weightlessness", their economic effect may be cancerous. And in many respects weight, not weightlessness, is what matters most. Heavier lorries than ever now thunder along our roads.

More tons of CO2 than ever are emitted into the atmosphere. London's consumption of fresh water has risen to over a billion tons a year. At today's rate of growth the 27 million tons of rubbish now produced by Britain's households will rise to over 50 million by 2025. And so on. Even personal obesity is now a more serious problem in industrialised countries than ever before.

Related to that distortion is the perception that "the countryside is a parasite on urban wealth", that "cities have always subsidised the surrounding economy", and that in the weightless world "our cities are poised for a huge surge in economic growth".

A less urbanised perspective would disclose that ever since cities came into existence they have drained their rural hinterlands of wealth and resources, and today more so than ever. The 'ecological footprint' of London - the land area needed to produce the resources it uses and absorb the wastes it creates - now almost equals the whole of Britain's productive land area.

When cities are made to pay more of the costs, including transport and pollution costs, which they impose on the rest of the world, their financial - as well as their ecological - inability to sustain themselves by their own efforts will become clearer.

The underlying weakness of the book is its failure to recognise the urgent need for a worldwide shift to patterns of economic activity which will preserve the capacity of natural ecosystems to support them.

Coyle accepts that "the promise of the weightless world is vulnerable to ecological catastrophe" and that somehow international agreement on environmental standards must be achieved. But she also takes the view that "concern for the environment is a luxury" and endorses criticism of people who "refuse to see that abundance, not scarcity, drives the future".

She seriously underestimates the urgency and difficulty of getting the world's richer and poorer peoples to agree on how the earth's resources are to be shared.


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