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Prosperity without Growth

November 9, 2011

Jackson 2009: Tim Jackson’s book, “Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet” [Jackson 2009], is an updated version of Sustainable Development Commission report of same title March 2009. The SDC is now defunct thanks to the Tories. A positive review of the book reads as follows:

“An economy predicated on the perpetual expansion of debt-driven materialistic consumption is unsustainable ecologically, problematic socially, and unstable economically” writes Jackson, before explaining three reasons why the growth model of economics is impossible to sustain. Firstly, it assumes that material wealth is an adequate measure of prosperity, when it is actually pretty obvious that a life worth living is much more complicated than that.”Our technologies, our economy and our social aspirations are all mis-aligned with any meaningful definition of prosperity”

Secondly, growth is unevenly distributed, and so is doomed to fail at providing a basic standard of living for everyone. Globally, the richest fifth of the world takes home 74% of the income, while the poorest fifth gets just 2%. And thirdly,”we simply don’t have the ecological capacity” says Jackson. “By the end of the century, our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the destruction of habitats, the decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migrations and almost inevitably war.”

By way of solutions, Jackson prescribes a “new ecologically literate macro-economics” and “shifting the social logic of consumerism”, and this is where Prosperity Without Growth comes into its own. It’s easy to lament the unsustainable nature of growth economics. It’s slightly harder to re-imagine it on the other side. Hardest of all is to detail the transition, how you get from growth to a steady state without breaking the economy. That’s the missing piece, and Tim Jackson has boldly stepped into the breach with a book that is clear, balanced and free of political bias. This isn’t a blueprint for such a transition, but it does show that it is possible. For that, Prosperity Without Growth has got to be one of the most important books of the year.

Obviously this is a book that will draw strong reactions, and many will dismiss it as environmentalist or socialist nonsense without ever reading it. I’d suggest that’s not good enough. If growth is unsustainable, then we need to move beyond it whether we like it or not. “The clearest message from the financial crisis of 2008 is that our current model of economic success is fundamentally flawed” Jackson writes in his conclusion. “For the advanced economies of the western world, prosperity without growth is not a utopian dream. It is a financial and ecological necessity.”

Less positive reviews acknowledge Jackson’s explanation of the issues but are less convinced by the solutions.

A key point in the book is the debunking of the myth of decoupling – the argument that economic growth is compatible with living within natural resource limits, if we can use natural resources more efficiently.

The book ends with a list of twelve steps to a sustainable economy.

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