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7 Sep 2009

An Open Letter to the Queen

Letter from London QueenI was honoured to be one of the signatories of a letter which was sent to the Queen last month, a response to the British Academy’s letter to her which sought to address her question as to why no-one had seen the economic meltdown coming.   Here is the text of the letter in full.

Open Letter to the Queen: 14th August 2009

Your Majesty,

We, the undersigned, noted with interest the letter to Your Majesty of 22nd July 2009 from the British Academy in which they respond to your question about how the current economic meltdown was missed. They talked of a “failure of the collective imagination of many bright people” and a “psychology of denial”.

The Academy wrote “It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris.” You will be aware of HRH The Prince of Wales’s speech on 9th July 2009 in which His Royal Highness focused on far more serious examples of wishful thinking and hubris. We are writing to you because we are concerned that the British Academy’s letter focuses on one particular aspect of current insecurity, namely financial, failing to address the wider context of more serious macro issues facing mankind. We are also writing to the Academy to invite them to debate these issues with us.

Symptoms of a much greater systemic failure

We live in tumultuous times. Many developed world citizens are losing their livelihoods. The effects on the world’s poorest will, as ever, be dreadful. However we are surprised that the Academy has not addressed anything outside the narrow remit their letter covered. Far greater insecurities threaten the world’s poorest due to our effects on the natural world.

The letter ignores the physical constraints which are central to this bubble and indeed most bubbles. It speaks of “the bigger picture” and of “individual risks being small” and “the system as a whole being vast”, yet, for us has a limited horizon.

Our premise is that our current economic malaise is symptomatic of a far more serious systemic failure to acknowledge what Archbishop Rowan Williams has identified in saying “It has been said that ‘the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment’. The earth itself is what ultimately controls economic activity because it is the source of the materials upon which economic activity works”.

Energy underlies everything – Scylla and Charybdis of peak oil and climate change. The underlying cause of the current economic meltdown is a multi-generational debt-binge inextricably linked to a concomitant multi-generational energy-binge. The Academy’s letter focuses on some “imbalances in the global economy”. However, the key to addressing our current situation is to recognise the far more serious imbalances between our insatiable hunger for energy, its finite nature and the environmental pollution in its use.

Energy is the lifeblood of any economy. Our exponential debt-based money system is in turn based on exponentially increasing energy supplies. It is therefore clear that the supply of that energy deserves our very highest attention. That this attention doesn’t appear in the Academy’s analysis is deeply worrying.

The impending peaking of production of oil and other hydrocarbons, along with the resulting peak in food production and everything on which oil relies, is now widely accepted. Leading UK companies including Arup, Scottish and Southern Energy, Solarcentury and Virgin have warned that a peak in cheap, easily available oil production is likely to hit by 2013, posing a grave risk to the economy. On 2nd August 2009, the International Energy Association’s Chief Economist, Dr Fatih Birol, warned of an oil crisis in 2010.

The letter refers to the “overheating economy” but gives no mention of the effect and cause of the overheating of planet Earth. Climate change is now recognised by the world’s scientists, political and business leaders as the most serious threat to mankind and is described by Sir Nicholas Stern as “the greatest market failure of our times”. On an almost daily basis we get increasingly urgent signals that unstoppable, runaway climate chaos is almost upon us.

Members of The Prince of Wales’s UK Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change, including AXA, Shell, Tesco, Unilever and Vodafone, have now repeatedly asked politicians for more urgent action on climate change.

Growth versus prosperity

The Academy’s letter mentions unprecedented global economic growth – yet it fails to mention the rapidly escalating environmental destruction caused by this insatiable growth. It also mentions the poor of the developing world who have been brought out of poverty to ‘prosperity’; but not the far greater numbers condemned to an increasingly inequitable world and the ravages of peak-food and climate change.

Not just for ourselves, but also for the poor and disenfranchised, we in the rich world must now seek to redefine ‘prosperity’ and shift away from blind growth to an economic development fit for our damaged world. The distinction between quantitative ‘growth’ and qualitative ‘development’ is key.

A reverse gear for atmospheric carbon is needed and energy use must be radically reduced and redirected where it is most needed – into investments in a radical transition to a zero-carbon economy and the alleviation of poverty. However, the current Marshall-plan, to pump yet more economic growth, with a green veneer, risks plunging us headlong back into climate chaos.

As Professor Tim Jackson, author of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report ‘Prosperity Without Growth?’ says: “Faced with the current recession, it is understandable that many leaders at the G20 Summit will be anxious to restore business as usual. But governments really need to take a long, hard look at the effects of our single-minded devotion to growth – effects which include the recession itself….. The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods”.

The letter talks of a “general feel-good factor”, but doesn’t address the fact that, in the developed world, general wellbeing long ago ceased to be linked with GDP growth. In July, The Prince of Wales called for an end to the “consumerist society where growth is an end in itself.” His Royal Highness also said that “progress has come at a price” and that it “depends on how you define both ‘growth’ and prosperity’…in our modern situation these ‘ends’ have become dangerously confused with the ‘means’, to the point where, now, wealth, innovation and growth have become the final goals.”

The debate is changing

Sir Jonathon Porritt says in his recent report Living Within our Means : “In their bones, world leaders know that if the global economy keeps growing at around 5% per annum (as it has done over the last couple of decades), then its game over for human civilisation as we know it.” Adair Turner, past head of the CBI and now Chair of the FSA and Climate Change Committee, says in Do Good Live Have to Cost the Earth that we need to “dethrone growth’.

Despite the sclerotic nature of our politics, a notable few political figures are beginning to engage with the ‘progress beyond growth’ debate. These include President Horst Köhler, President Barroso, EU Environment Commissioner Dimas, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria, David Cameron, the Swedish centre-right and President Sarkozy’s Stiglitz Commission.

Beyond rhetoric there has been little deeper debate in politics about these issues. As the Sustainable Development Commission puts it, “We see [today] a society and a Government whose primary objective is still the achievement of economic growth as conventionally understood and measured, with as much social justice and environmental protection as can be reconciled with that central goal. We envisage a society whose primary goal should be the wellbeing of society itself and of the planetary resources and environment that sustains us all, with economic objectives shaped to support that central goal rather than the other way around.”

Yes we can

Things can change. Harvard Professor John Quelch’s 2008 study Too Much Stuff says: “The mass consumption of the 1990s is fast fading in the rearview mirror.”

Our current form of corporate-consumer-capitalism has been shown to be what many of us knew it was: a fundamentally flawed system which badly needs updating. Jeremy Paxman has asked if we are seeing the “end of capitalism”. Martin Wolf of the FT has said that “the dream of global free market capitalism is dead”. Bank of England Chair Sir Mervyn King has agreed saying Wolf’s comment “strikes a chord.”

Thomas Freidman said recently in the New York Times “Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more’.”

Thankfully there is a vibrant debate in civil society on these issues. Groups like Transition Towns, described by Jeremy Leggett as ‘scalable microcosms of hope’, and digital democracy,,, and are giving individual citizens and collectives a new voice and real power in politics of change.

An invitation

It would appear from the British Academy’s letter that they are not aware of the rapidly growing and vibrant debate around these issues. We agree with them about the need for “authorities with the power to act” and for appropriate levels of regulation fit for the task in hand. Their prescription is to consider how they “might develop a new, shared horizon-scanning capability”. We will invite the Academy to join with us in a public dialogue about these issues and ask them to consider how this ‘new capability’ can make its primary horizon the the issues we raise in this letter.

We will of course report findings of such debate to Your Majesty.

Yours faithfully

Phillip Blond, CEO, ResPublica; Alain de Botton, Philosopher; Tom Burke CBE, co-founder E3G; Professor Herman Daly, Maryland University; Geraint Talfan Davies, Chairman, Institute of Welsh Affairs; Professor Lord Anthony Giddens; Stephen Hale, CEO Green Alliance; Andy Hobsbawm, Chair, Founder; Rob Hopkins, Founder of Transition Towns; Prof Tim Jackson, SDC; Tony Juniper, Author and ex Executive Director, Friends of the Earth; Professor Melissa Lane, Princeton University; Neal Lawson, Chair, Compass; Jeremy Leggett, Chair, Solar Century; Peter Lipman, Chair, Transition Network; Jules Peck, Partner, Abundancy Partners; Robert Phillips, Co-author, Citizen Renaissance; Sir Jonathon Porritt OBE, ex Chair, SDC; Mike Robinson, CEO, Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Chair, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland; John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace; Anthony Seldon, Master, Wellington College; Matthew Taylor, CEO, the RSA; Professor Peter Victor; York University, Canada.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by GreenFeed. GreenFeed said: #Transition An Open Letter to the Queen: I was honoured to be one of the signatories of a letter whic.. […]

andrew ramponi
7 Sep 2:21pm

See this post from March 09 “I Blame the Queen” by Ann Pettifor (New Economics Foundation) for an interesting titbit on the part played by the Queens former economic advisor and banking crisis in Iceland.

[…] Read the original here:  An Open Letter to the Queen » Transition Culture […]

7 Sep 6:34pm

This is a great letter, and I hope it gets read. I do have one comment, though: I see that, with one exception, the letter is signed by men, and the specialists or experts or politicians or executives quoted are men, and I agree that the leaders of our corporate-capitalist system are majority men.

But the effects of poverty and global warming and the resulting conflicts are felt disproportionately, overwhelmingly, by women throughout the world. You are writing to a woman. Isn’t it time for the word ‘mankind’ to disappear from our vocabulary, or to be used in the context where it belongs?

The patriarchal, sexist, violent gender dynamics at play everywhere in the world are a fundamental cause of most flawed systems you identify, and their consequences. It’s very nice and brave to name the systems, but if we really want change, we’d have to be even braver and name things as they truly are. Otherwise any change will just be more of the same.

8 Sep 7:26am

Manuela. Actually there is one woman in the list, but as you say that is absolutely not enough. I wasn’t responsible for inviting the signatories, just asked to comment on drafts and to put my name to it. I’ll ask the author to comment.
Best wishes

8 Sep 11:16am

Well done this open letter to the Queen. Any response ? PL

robina creaser
9 Sep 7:04am

hi and well done in the ongoing Transition biz, and for pursuing the British Acadamy`s letter to HRH.

Could I ask that you produce a more popularly accessible form of your letter ? At the risk of being snippy, it is very academic in tone and complex in structure – and did someone swallow a dictionary ? Sorry but I also think it is grovelly with regards to HRH, surely you can be polite without sounding as if you are on your knees, and happy to be there. LOL you Brits sheesh

I will certainly paste some of it about the place, but something tilted at a high school rather than a post-grad level would make the important content accessible to so many more people 🙂
cheers robina

Mike Grenville
9 Sep 12:25pm

Only one woman in the signatories but isn’t rather ironic that it was written to a woman!

[…] To summarise this in relation to economics, one might argue that the conventional debate in economics is between the Individualist neoclassicists and the Hierarchical Keynesians. The one puts trust in market-like transactions, the other in government intervention and regulation. Between them they fail to understand the contours of their own field and sytematically ignore the alternative rationalities of Fatalism on the one hand and Egalitarianism on the other. They fail because they steadfastly believe the particular environments in which they seem to work, and to which they may indeed be well suited, is the only possible environment.  They fail because they believe the only possible rationality is their own (Krugman provides a great example of this when he comments on the views of John Cochrane: ‘Personally, I think this is crazy’). The fatalist strand in economics is illustrated by the arguments of Nassim Taleb, who claims that the key failure in market rationality is to underestimate the caprice of the market. That leaves the Egalitarian strand of economics which, since it reeks of socialism, has tended to be sidelined over at least the past twenty years. But despite its smell, it offers a potentially useful way forward: since market failure on a massive scale is a big problem, one possible category of solutions might not be those which seek to reinstate the market (Individualist), to manage it (Hierarchy), or to become resigned to it (Fatalism), but those which seek to reduce the marketisation of life, to reduce the sheer significance of markets on our everyday lives. To the extent that markets are a) failing and b) unmanagable, the Egalitarian bias would say, let’s just try something else. […]

15 Sep 5:23pm


The effects of capitalism are actually felt more by men. Life expectancy is now universally shorter for men, whose work and culture is more brutalised and constrained by capitalism than woman’s. After a hundred years out of the last 130 of female monarchist crown wearers in Britain perhaps we need a king!

robina creaser
17 Sep 4:08am

@eartheart jeez mate, `the effects of capitalism are actually felt more by men` says who ? I think a brief glance at maternal mortality rates and low wages would debunk that sorry idea.

Men have a lower life expectation because of their biology; more boys are born, but they have a higher death rate from birth onwards.
Women have 2 X chromosones, men only have 1; the X chromosone contains lots of information, the Y chromosone contains only the instruction to be male. Thus women have protection from the many X-linked diseases, men do not.

There are other biological factors, but essentially women are hardier and that is essential for the survival of offspring and thus the species.

re the monarchy, I think they are all a waste of space, but the primate in us likes the institution 🙂
On average in the UK, male monarchs have been a pitiful and useless crew, with 1 or 2 notable exceptions; the women have been far superior.

But don`t you let reality get in the way of your misogynistic whining.

17 Sep 4:24am

@ eartheart,

if this is how you feel and you’re not just being deliberately provocative, then there’s probably little i can say to change your mind. but i am deliberately optimistic, and still issue to you two invitations:

one, try a simple google of ‘why do men die younger’ and see what are the common threads in the majority of hits that come up – the front page will be enough

two, i agree with you that capitalism creates a brutalized and constrained culture and that men also suffer under it – it is harder i think for men to become the best they can be under a system that encourages them towards the opposite. i do invite you to consider, though, who are the main actors who enforce and perpetuate this system. the gender imbalance in the letter above could be a good starting point for that reflection, for example.

jules peck
28 Sep 10:04am

Hi all

Yes I fully agree there should be more women signatories and I am not sure how it came about that we had only one.

In terms of response the Queen has welcomed the initiative and the British Academy have agreed we need a public debate on the issues we raised. Hopefully we will therefore have such a debate – or maybe more than one – in the near future. I will keep Rob posted about this.