Optimistic or achievable? The authors of Permacrisis explain the thoughts behind their theoriesEMMA HARROW WITH PERMISION FOR VARSITY

It feels like we have lived through multiple ‘once-in-a-generation crises’ in the past few years: Covid, an outbreak of wars, dramatic economic downturns – there’s a word for it all: Permacrisis. It all seems a bit doom and gloom. However, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Queens’ College President and economic advisor Mohamed A. El-Erian, Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence, and former Executive Officer to the Mayor of Los Angeles Reid Lidow have hope that the ‘permacrisis’ need not be so permanent. Permacrisis is their guide to getting out of this crisis; I sat down with Michael Spence and Reid Lidow to discuss their ideas and see if our generation is really as screwed as we might think we are.

We met in Queens’ empty dining hall, a location very familiar to Lidow, who completed an MPhil here in 2014. It dawned on me that sitting before me were recipients of the two most prestigious international scholarships the United Kingdom had to offer: Spence studied at Magdalen College in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship in 1968, and Lidow spent his time at Queen’s as a Gates Scholar. There is, as the names crammed on the cover page suggest, a rather complicated authorship to Permacrisis. Spence explains, “[e]ach in our own way, we had a background that enabled us to see into it”. Brown and Lidow take on the political aspects, while Spence and El-Erian tackle the economy. When it comes to politics, Spence notes that “I view myself as, not even an amateur, just incompetent”.

“Is my generation simply going to lead poorer lives than our parents?”

The proposal they all came up with was a new growth model that emphasises inclusivity and environmental sustainability through global cooperation. They attribute the worrying trend towards nationalism many countries are currently experiencing to globalisation, which has left many people behind. Spence uses middle America as an example; by his estimation, these poorer regions of the US have been left behind, breeding resentment towards the “coastal elites” who have benefited from globalisation and are now seen by many middle Americans as too international and supposedly un-American. His solution: inclusive growth. Throughout Permacrisis, growth, growth, growth is the name of their game.

This brought us to the burning question: is my generation simply going to lead poorer lives than our parents? Rather depressingly, Spence says yes, unless we turn things around. In a sentence JFK would have been proud of, Spence tells me that the question my generation must ask is, “What do I do for myself, and what does my generation do to change the world?” He goes on to note that collectively, “I think your generation will have to be, one hopes, part of the process of trying to change the trajectory”—perhaps easier said than done.

However, Lidow – a Millennial – shows what the younger generations, and especially Cambridge students, can achieve. “There are a tremendous amount of advantages that a Cambridge student has that so many other individuals don’t have,” he explains. Spence agrees, challenging us, who have the privilege of being highly educated, to dig deep into these issues and innovate our way out of the ‘permacrisis’. One innovation Spence keeps returning to is A.I. He believes that if it is used to augment work, not automate it, it could be the key to decades of accelerated growth. However, the emphasis is on properly managing it – something that private companies aren’t usually happy to accept.

“They seem to propose economic solutions to fundamentally cultural issues”

Crucially, they suggest that innovation must also come outside of higher education. Talking about the importance of the “Toolbelt generation”, Lidow notes that we will only ever need more electricians, plumbers, engineers, and contractors. Dispelling the stigma around these jobs will be vital to the next wave of growth. “For those who really do embrace college, that should not close off the pathway to those professions.”

However, the next pressing question on my mind is, “Is it really just the economy, stupid?” Would simply generating new and inclusive growth really undo all the marching progress that nationalism has made? The answer is a resounding yes, unsurprising coming from a Nobel prize-winning economist. I can’t help but remain sceptical. Would the war in Ukraine really not have occurred if globalisation had produced a more equal distribution of wealth? They seem to propose economic solutions to fundamentally cultural issues. It might help in some places, like Middle America, but in many places, the crises go much deeper.


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Lidow informs me that this latest edition contains a new foreword written six months after the original publication. Here, they address the string of recent global crises. Their position has not wavered: “[t]he thesis has only become stronger.” Even after everything, they still believe that increased global cooperation and putting trust back into international monetary organisations can turn things around.

I would accuse the book and its writers of being far too optimistic, however, it seems that was the point. Spence explains, “[t]he hope in writing the book was to dispel a kind of negative fatalism.” Later that day, I attended the Gates Cambridge lecture to hear them speak again, now alongside Muhamed A. El-Erian. Once again, Spence notes that the aim of the book is “to orient people, not solve the issues, just help people make fewer mistakes.” Perhaps in this world, that’s all we can really ask for.