Pursuing economic growth on a finite planet – you’ve heard it before – is unsustainable and likely to produce more hangovers and headaches than most of us can stomach. But what are the alternatives? Anyone attempting to answer this question will likely end up with a copy of British economist Tim Jackson‘s recent book titled Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet.
Published late 2009 by Earthscan (now Routledge), the book “seeks viable responses to the biggest dilemma of our times: reconciling our aspirations for the good life with the constraints of a finite planet.” Prosperity Without Growth proves to be a surprisingly readable journey into the sometimes bizarre world of economics. Not only does it a good job summarizing some of the basics of economics lingo, it also walks the talk outlining potential alternatives to the hopelessly unsustainable economic track that we’re all on.
The Myth of Eternal Growth in Economics
But first things first. What’s the problem with the status quo economic system? Sir Jonathon Porritt, one of the brightest stars and advocates in the sustainable development universe, put it as follows in an article in The Independent a while ago: “Millions of environmental campaigners seriously believe that we can mitigate climate change, slow the loss of threatened species and habitats, manage chronic water and resource shortages, and put an end to over-fishing and continuing soil erosion, whilst sticking with pretty much the same kind of economic growth that brought these natural systems to the edge of collapse in the first place. In all honesty, they’re mad.”
Which brings us directly to Tim Jackson and his book. The latter could be summarized as follows (make sure you read the book yourself though if you really want to understand the connections between prosperity and economic growth):
Tim Jackson’s book in a nutshell:
“Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question we must. The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist. No subsystem of a finite system can grow indefinitely, in physical terms. Economists have to be able to answer the question of how a continually growing economic system can fit within a finite ecological system.”
“The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the 1 billion people who still attempt to live on half the price of a cup of coffee each day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems on which we depend for survival. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods.”
The economic crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to invest in change. To sweep away the short-term thinking that has plagued society for decades.”
“To protect economic growth we have been prepared to countenance – and have even courted – unwieldy financial and ecological liabilities, believing that these are necessary to deliver security and keep us from collapse. But this was never sustainable in the long-term. The financial crisis has shown us that it isn’t even sustainable in the short-term.”
“The dilemma of growth can be stated in terms of two propositions: 1. Growth is unsustainable – at least in its current form. Burgeoning resource consumption and rising environmental costs are compounding profound disparities in social well-being. 2. ‘De-growth’ is unstable – at least under present conditions. Declining consumer demand leads to rising unemployment, falling competitiveness and a spiral of recession. Failure to address this dilemma is the single biggest threat to sustainability that we face.”
“Resource efficiency, renewable energy and reductions in material throughput all have a vital role to play in ensuring the sustainability of economic activity. But it is entirely fanciful to suppose that ‘deep’ emission and resource cuts can be achieved without confronting the structure of market economies.”
“The dilemma of growth has us caught between the desire to maintain economic stability and the need to remain within ecological limits. This dilemma arises because stability seems to require growth, but environmental impacts ‘scale with’ economic output: the more the economy grows, the greater the environmental impact – all other things being equal.”
“Above all, there is an urgent need to develop a sustainable macro-economy that is no longer predicated on relentless consumption growth. The clearest message from the financial crisis of 2008 is that our current model of economic success is fundamentally flawed. For the advanced economies of the western world, prosperity without growth is no longer a utopian dream. It is a financial and ecological necessity.”
“The starting point for all of this lies in a vision of prosperity as the ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet.”
“At the end of the day prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society.”
“Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the condition under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times.”
And if you haven’t had enough already, watch Tim summarizing the book in this short video or check out his recent TED appearance in which he delivers “a piercing challenge to established economic principles, explaining how we might stop feeding the crises and start investing in our future”.
For more info, reviews and purchasing options, visit Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet on Amazon. Picture credit: anathea, creative commons
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