Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet

Tim Jackson was a senior sustainability adviser to the last Government and this is arguably one of the most important books of the last decade. The basic message will come as little surprise to many in progressive movements, faith-based or not, but it is here spelled out in a detailed and comprehensive manner. It is basically that the earth cannot survive the current pace and type of growth in living standards, Western societies need rapidly to move to ‘no growth’ economies, but Jackson argues such is possible while still enjoying life. This will then allow for some appropriate growth in the economies of the south – though even that needs very careful planning.

We are reminded of some startling facts. The percentage of people in the UK ‘describing themselves as ‘very happy’ has declined from 52% in 1957 to 36% today, even though real incomes have more than doubled’. We want to live well (or be happy) but we are going to be constrained by the finite ecological resources and the growth of the world’s population. Jackson believes it is possible for humans to flourish, find higher levels of well-being and still reduce our material impact on the environment.

Jackson goes on to explore the arguments for growth, is it necessary for flourishing, for proper health and education services, for maintaining social stability? He notes the recession which was just beginning when the book was finished in late 2008, and observes that the dynamics of capitalism cannot create a steady state, the economy is pushed towards either expansion or collapse. He argues that, although some believe that production processes can be designed to ‘decouple’ growth from ecological destruction, he does not believe deep emission cuts can be achieved ‘without confronting the structures of market economies’.

The book goes on to describe the ‘iron cage of consumerism’ and how people’s expectations are an enormous challenge to discovering a ‘truly sustainable form of prosperity’. The ‘Green New Deal’ might offer us away forward but even the greenest programmes still seem to focus on a return to consumerist growth, He does however believe ‘green bonds’ can point us in the right direction, along with ‘reassessing the long-term sustainability of the tax-base in advanced economies’. Ultimately however the heart of the book is to seek an ‘ecologically-literate macro-economics’. This may well mean less work, sharing out the work much more equally, investing in labour-intensive energy-saving and renewable energy initiatives. We need three types of investments, those which enhance resource efficiency, substitute conventional technologies with clean or low-carbon technologies, and enhance ecosystems such as afforestation and climate adaptation.

As with the ‘Transition’ movement, resilience is a key term, undergirding economic systems so they can withstand external shocks (eg rapidly increasing oil prices) and avoiding internal contradictions (people always wanting more for less). The concepts of productivity and profitability will need revisiting. We need to learn to ‘flourish within limits’. The changes required will struggle within a ’democratic society’ especially when Governments themselves have ‘systematically promoted materialistic individualism and encouraged pursuit of consumer novelty’. ‘Political change comes from leadership and popular mobilisation. And you need both of them’, said Ed Miliband in December 2008.

The delusional strategy that technology will save us has reached its limits. ‘Unlimited access to material goods’ has stood in for our hopes of freedom and even immortality, how can faith communities help reorient such hopes? Does it all mean the end of capitalism? It must, as we have known it. The new economy will need us to ‘revisit and reframe the concepts of productivity, profitability, asset ownership and control over the distribution of surpluses’. Ultimately it is all about being human in a world of decreasing resources per head. There is hope, and faith communities could play a major role, but will need to focus their attention sharply, both theologically and in use of resources, if we are to lay our part in the fundamental changes in human society towards which Jackson points.

David Haslam

Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet

Tim Jackson

Earthscan : 2009