Sounding the bell for sustainability

Tim Jackson's picture

Last night in the august surroundings of the Merchant Taylors Hall on Threadneedle Street, a little bit of history was made and unmade. At the top of the evening, we were summoned to the dinner table by the resounding toll of the old ship’s bell. A little bit of tradition re-instated by newly-elected CIMA President, George Glass

As a first timer myself to the CIMA Presidential dinner, the subtleties of that might have been a bit lost on me. But as we sat together at the top table, George explained to me how my own presence was also something of a departure from tradition. It was the first time in the history of the Institute that the after-dinner speech was to focus on the still somewhat contentious subject of sustainability. And just in case you weren’t there, I was the person giving it.

I don’t think I gulped exactly. But as I gazed out across three hundred or so assembled diners enjoying their main course, I think I might have trembled slightly.  Not only that, George assured me enthusiastically, but this was the first time that the speech itself would be followed by questions from the floor. I had been told that was happening, hadn’t I?  Erm.. no, George, not exactly.  But what the heck... how frightening can management accountants really be?

The truth is, trepidation or no, I enjoyed the interaction enormously. By far the best thing about having published a ‘ground-breaking and controversial’ book about  the economics of a finite planet, is the extraordinary journey it has taken me on. The conversations it has engaged me in. The sheer appetite people seem to have for just this question: how on earth can we reconcile a continually expanding economy with the ecological limits of a finite planet?   

Not long ago, as I explained in my talk, this whole subject was something of a taboo. It wasn’t that you couldn’t talk about growth. We talked about it endlessly. What you weren’t supposed to do was question it. ‘Growth is good’ has been the silent ubiquitous mantra for progress right across the developed and developing worlds for the last sixty years. And this in spite of the fact that Robert F Kennedy had already remarked over 40 years ago that the GDP ‘measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile’.

Yet like so many of the people I have spoken to over the last year – business leaders, environmentalists, faith groups, poverty action campaigners, investment bankers, policy-makers, politicians, artists and ordinary lay people worried about the state of society – the management accountants assembled for the annual Presidential dinner seemed inspired by the conversation. Some of them, it’s true, were still sceptical about the premises. Is climate change really happening?  What can individuals actually do anyway? But there was also a real willingness to engage. Tell us what management accountants can do right now to change things, asked the last outgoing CIMA President, Aubrey Joachim.

I hope I answered his question. I hope I answered all the questions.  Even the one about West Ham’s hopes of staying up this season.  (Slim at best.) But as George Glass rang the old bell one last time at the close of a thoroughly stimulating evening, I was reminded that one of the main functions of a ship’s bell is to sound out the ship’s position when visibility at sea is poor. And perhaps that’s not such a bad metaphor for what management accountants can do right now, as well: providing the clearest possible advice, in sometimes foggy surroundings, to guide companies (and nations) towards sustainability.


Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity without Growth – economics for a finite planet (Earthscan 2009).

Fascinating questions

I'm very much looking forward to listening to the recording as well as reading the book.  It might be a generalisation but most management accountants I meet are very practical people who are really keen to understand how they can engage effectively with what is one of the most (if not the most) pressing issues of our generation.

But what do you reckon about Blackpool's chances of staying up?

Best wishes

Gillian Lees