I’ve just finished reading Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson (2009) for the second time. I got it from my university library and I haven’t been able to bring myself to relinquish it – I’ve renewed this little volume three times now. It’s one of the best factual books I’ve ever read, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in sustainability, the environment, economics or well-being.
This book is concerned with the concept of flourishing, within limits. Or a lasting prosperity, to put it another way. Jackson says that our current method of delivering prosperity (consumerism-driven economic growth) is failing miserably. It’s failing the thousands of species that are being driven to extinction, it’s failing our children and grandchildren who will be left a world with scarce resources and an unstable climate, it’s failing the billions of people who live in terrible poverty right now, and it’s even failing to make those in the rich countries much happier. In fact, in the UK and US, subjective well being (happiness) and subjective life satisfaction (according to self report measures) has flatlined or even dropped since the 1950s.
Jackson explains how dealing with climate change alone requires a new kind of economy. One that isn’t driven forward by burning ever more carbon and extracting and trashing ever more resources, for a start. But with the other environmental, social and even financial (this book was written in the 2008 credit crunch) issues that surround us, change is vital. But, he says, there’s a catch. The dilemma of growth means that although continual growth is wildly unsustainable, stalling growth risks economic collapse. Growth based economies have only two states. Growth or recession. Recession isn’t a good option, as it means mass bankruptcy, unemployment, eviction, public sector debt and then austerity and public service cuts to pay for it. It means hardship, that’s for sure. And without government intervention it spirals out of control. My post ‘Getting Past the Dilemma of Growth‘ is my contribution to this dialogue.
The dominant and commonsensical response to the dilemma of growth is that we can decouple growth from environmental impact. So called ”green growth”.
Jackson doesn’t outright say this is impossible, but through arithmetic he illustrates just how implausible it is – or how hard it would be. He distinguishes between relative and absolute decoupling. Relative decoupling is when the energy or resource or carbon intensity of each unit of economic output (a dollar in his example) is reduced through technical efficiency. This is happening in the UK, if you don’t count the import of consumer goods (which for some reason isn’t counted). However, the gains in efficiency are in general swallowed up by the increase in consumption. Absolute decoupling is when the gains in efficiency outstrip – and continue to outstrip – the growth in consumption. With a rising population this gets harder as years pass. With rising affluence it’s even harder. When relative decoupling is happening, the overall impact of the economy on the environment is bad, because even as resource or carbon intensity falls, consumption is growing fast. With absolute decoupling, the overall impact on the environment would be neutral. It’s clear that what we need for ‘green growth’ is absolute decoupling. But Jackson invites us to do the maths, and it doesn’t look good.
Take climate change as an example, . The IPCC say by 2050 our global emissions need to be 50% to 85% lower than 1990 levels. If we continue with our current cuts and growth, they’ll be 80% higher by 2050! Clearly we can’t have that. But meeting the IPCC’s targets while still delivering normal growth would require the global economy in 2050 to be 130 x less carbon intensive/more efficient than it is now. By 2100 the economy will have to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere rather than putting it in. Are we anywhere near on track for that? Well not really. The global carbon intensity was declining slowly until 2000 but since has actually started to rise again. We’re going in the wrong direction. There’s no signs of absolute decoupling and in many places even relative decoupling just isn’t happening.
And this is just the carbon situation. Take into account other issues such as resource scarcity, land degradation, the actual effects of climate change, population growth and the increased consumption of emergent economies – and absolute decoupling, or green growth, looks even more unfeasible.
If it’s possible at all, then it’ll be extremely difficult. If there was a way to deliver prosperity without economic growth, then wouldn’t that be a much better idea?
Jackson doesn’t have all the answers, but he does sketch out some key ideas for what he vaguely calls ‘the new economy’ but which is to all intents and purposes a steady state economy. Work time reduction, ecological investment, low resource but high labour services, partial public ownership of assets, equality measures… I won’t summarise them all here, partly because I want you to go and read the book, but partly because these are the things I tend to write about anyway. See my post-growth category if you’re interested.
For me, the thing I like most about this book is it’s measured and reasonable tone. It’s not a screaming call to arms. It’s not a hysterical plea. It’s a well researched and cogent argument. He plays devils advocate in order to cover both sides of a debate. He gets to the point with logic and facts, not emotional language. And yet his writing is still very readable. It’s true that some of the economic phrases are a headache, but he writes in short sentences and explains most things in simple terms, with the help of illustrative graphs.
This is a book that anyone remotely interested in the non-too-distant future of our society should read. For those interested in sustainability or alternative economics like me, it’s a vital read.
Growth, you’ve been very useful but your time is over.
Here’s to the new economy.