Prosperity without Growth. Is it possible?

Prosperity without Growth

Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson. Is it possible to create a prosperous society in which there is no economic growth? Tim Jackson thinks it is, but he didn't convince me.

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.

This quotation is from Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson, a book which focuses on the conflict between economic success and ecological sustainability. The book asks the fundamental question:

  • Is it possible to have a prosperous society which is not continually growing?

Jackson asserts that prosperity is indeed possible without growth, but only if we re-consider what we mean by prosperity.

  • Growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), argues Jackson, is not a good indicator of anything that really corresponds to prosperity in people’s lives. GDP growth is linked with increased consumption of all kinds of objects and services, and while that may act as a proxy for prosperity in the developing world, this is no longer true in the developed world. Jackson asks whether a society in which people have ‘too much’ is meaningfully more prosperous than one in which everyone has ‘enough’?
  • Prosperity, he argues, is multi-dimensional: it involves community: access to education, chances to be with our family and the security that comes an ecologically sustainable lifestyle. It involves people ‘flourishing’. He argues that ‘consumerism’ is actually at the root of what makes people miserable.  If we could just find a way to incorporate indicators of genuine prosperity (as is done in Bhutan) and optimise these, then the absence of conventional economic GDP growth would not be catastrophic.

I have never fully understood why ‘growth’ plays such a central role in our capitalist system. I understand that year-on-year people will tend to improve processes and produce more with the same resources. And I understand that over the last two hundred years, astonishing technological changes have driven new ways of doing things, and symbiotic social changes have created new lifestyles that allow (or possibly compel?) us to both produce more and to consume more. So growth has been a feature of the economy we have all grown up in. But is it essential?

So I profoundly sympathise with Jackson‘s key points, but I am appalled by his vision of a zero-growth prosperous society. It reminds me of many of the worst regimes on Earth.

  • Jackson identifies ‘novelty’ as a fundamental problem. A problem? In my lifetime the world has been utterly changed by ‘novelty’, most notably that arising from computing technology. Would a Jacksonian society have stopped with the 386 processor and said: “that’s enough” or “Who could need more that 640k memory?”. Is he in favour of body scanners or are they too novel. How about X-rays? Maybe tractors are too modern because they cause unemployment on farms and employment is a way of ‘flourishing’? What about new alloys?  Or modern telecommunications? Or transport? Or vaccines? At some point a Jacksonian society would try to stop the clock, and the rest of the world would move on. It reminds me of Cuba.
  • Jacksonian society would have full employment and economic activities would be focussed on the sustainable provision of food and energy. It is a world in which ‘The humble broom would be preferred to the diabolical ‘leaf blower’ . This sounds very much like a planned self-sufficient economy in which individual ‘flourishing’ would substitute for material wealth. It reminds me of China during the cultural revolution.
  • Jackson’s vision fails to account for the chaos of human life and our aspiration to do the best we can for ourselves and our family. In the real world there will be dissenting views, and people will be able to leave Jackson-Land for other parts of the world. Peeping across the border, the bright lights and fast cars of unsustainable Jeremy Clarkson-Land would probably look pretty attractive.

I applaud Jackson for trying to be clear about how different his hypothetical world would be, but ultimately it just doesn’t seem like a world in which individual people would choose to live. Do I have an alternative vision? No.

Ultimately, the problem is one of sharing finite resources, and here the technology that Jackson so objects to, has given us previously unimaginable opportunities for novel ways of working and living. And for the first time in history given humanity a shared and truly global perspective.

Given the UK’s previously privileged position, it seems inevitable – whether we like it or not – that we will have to consume less than we have previously. This will feel strange and even just beginning to do it will present severe social challenges. These first steps will be really hard, but some of the principles Jackson expounds could highlight the fact that we have more choices than we might otherwise have imagined.

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9 Responses to “Prosperity without Growth. Is it possible?”

  1. Steve Lawless Says:

    Capitalism cannot work without economic growth. Ironically some of the greatest periods of growth have been under high levels of government intervention and protectionism, e.g. China Capitialism is not only not working it is destroying us. During the second world war we had strong government economic planning which served its purpose well. That is what we need to return to but with sustainability and equity being the purpose.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    But Steve: >Why< can't capitalism (or similar) work without growth? Without some pressing external threat, it is difficult to envisage the unity of purpose that a war evokes. But this unity of purpose would be necessary to make a planned economy and society acceptable to people.

  3. Dave Says:

    re Capitalism and growth: you could start with “The Communist Manifesto”?

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      THanks: I tried to read that when I was a teenager but gave up. I think I have it on a shelf somewhere!

  4. Vanessa Says:

    Another great subject! I haven’t read the book yet, but I have pondered why growth is essential for (modern day) capitalism. The short answer is: because our (modern) economy is largely built on interest-bearing debt. A longer and more cynical answer is because economic growth is the only way that the wealthy can preserve their wealth. The best explanation I’ve seen comes from author Charles Eisenstein (he recently published the book ‘Sacred Economics’). Quote from his latest blog article:

    ‘Economic growth is sacrosanct for a reason: without it, our money system disintegrates. Because money is created as interest-bearing debt, without growth, debt tends to rise faster than the ability to service it. For a time, borrowers can be lent even more money with which to service their debts while they wait for the return of growth; but if growth doesn’t return, they will go bankrupt. As this process proceeds, debt-to-income ratios rise, wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, and a Marxian crisis of capital looms: a vicious circle of falling wages or employment, shrinking demand, falling profits, more layoffs, and so on. In times of high growth, a portion of that growth can go to enrich the owners of capital, and everyone else can get richer, too. But when growth slows, there isn’t enough wealth left for “everyone else” after the interest has been paid.”

    I’ll leave it there for now, but your points about novelty provide welcome food for thought, too.

    Best wishes,
    Vanessa

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Sorry for the delay in replying. I too have wondered if it can be that simple. If we consider the UK for the last couple of years as an example of society without growth. Well there is actually plenty of money around – much social injustice – but if this were it – the wealthiest our country would ever become, surely we could work our way around to coping. Couldn’t we?

  5. Vanessa Says:

    Seems my attempt at creating a link didn’t work – oops. The Eisenstein piece is at: http://www.realitysandwich.com/un_summit_coal_pile_ballroom – fyi.

  6. Recognising the future when we see it « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] he outlined seems exciting, at least as realistic, and much more desirable than that foreseen by Tim Jackson in his vision of a sustainable […]

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