Book Review: Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson

This book was part of the reading list that I’ve put together as part of my attempt to define the Not So Big Society.

Jackson attempts to reconcile a key area of disagreement between economists and environmentalists. Economists tend to view prosperity as inextricably linked to economic growth. Ecologists and environmentalists insist that simply isn’t sustainable – the planetary resources are finite, oil production will eventually peak, and potentially catastrophic climate change is waiting in the wings. Sooner or later economic growth will hit the buffers. I was curious to see if this book would have anything to say about how we’re going to look after the most vulnerable members of society in the trials to come.

Whether or not you agree with Jackson’s claim that we can build prosperity without economic growth, the bottom line is that we’re going to have to do without growth for the time being. Already voices are growing that we’re about to enter into something resembling Japan’s ‘Lost Decade’ of the 1990s. Certainly that seemed to be the conclusion of Robert Peston’s recent (and excellent) TV mini-series The Party’s Over: How the West Went Bust – a decade or so of stagnant economic growth.

That wouldn’t be the Downfall of Western Civilization, but it will affect the way we live our lives. We’re all going to have to get used to having less stuff – smartphones, iPads, the latest designer clothing, botox treatments, holidays in Thailand. To say we need to be more frugal and less consumerist is no longer the rhetoric of Greenpeace rallies. It’s simply the way it’s going to be.

Needless to say, it’s also going to present major challenges to our public services.

Some argue that the present crisis is only the first stage in a ‘Triple Crunch‘ After the credit crunch will come a resources crunch – peak oil is the most famous one, but there’s also claims of peak coal, peak copper, peak fish – there’s even a book out simply called Peak Everything. Then there’s the third crunch – climate change, which could be the most devastating of them all.

There are all kinds of varying predictions for when (say) oil production will peak; anything from decades in the future to it having already happened. I don’t really feel qualified to parse the different claims and counter-claims on that. As for climate change, that’s a pretty firm scientific consensus, denied only by a few lunatic fringe groups such as the US Republican Party. Either, it seems distinctly likely that the times have changed, the great consumerist festival is over, and things are going to be very different for us all.

So, what are Jackson’s solutions?

Jackson makes it clear that he doesn’t regard all economic growth as unhelpful or unnecessary. He affirms the right of developing nations to pursue growth to lift their citizens out of poverty. It’s only in the developed world where he feels we need to purse other paths to prosperity. Again, that’s pretty much the situation we’ve got – China, India and Brazil growing their economics, while the UK, the EU and the US stagnate.

He dismisses a couple of proposed ways that we can get back to “business as usual”. One is the idea that growing energy efficiencies will lead to a “decoupling” whereby we can pursue a low-carbon future but maintain previous levels of consumerism. He doesn’t regard this as technologically feasible. He’s a bit more kind towards the idea of a Green New Deal – an economic stimulus package aimed at promoting energy efficiency and renewable energies. He’s in favour of investment in those industries, but points out that using them to kick us back into growth simply returns us to the old unsustainable path.

He argues that simply having more and more stuff hasn’t necessarily caused us to lead happier, more fulfilling lives. At times it can lead to simply a pointless anomie interspersed with short-bursts of sensation-seeking. He can claim a certain degree of vindication in this opinion in a report last week from the Office of National Statistics, which showed that the economic recession hasn’t actually made British people less happy.

He also points out that the fetishisation of growth leads to some perverse logic. Community-based “social enterprises” – local farmers markets, craft workshops, yoga classes, food cooperatives – can do a lot to make people’s lives better, but they’re seen as economically inefficient, not least because they’re labour-intensive, which actually sounds like quite a handy attribute when unemployment is rising. The author writes,

We’re getting perilously close here to the lunacy at the heardt of the growth-obsessed, resource-intensive, consumer economy. Here is a sector which could provide meaningful work, offer people capabilities for flourishing, contribute positively to community and have a decent chance of being materially light. And yet it’s denigrated as worthless because it’s actually employing people.

The author is clearly in favour of these kinds of community enterprises, and sees them as important social bonds that will help us to make the best of limited resources. Which sounds pretty much like the Conservatives’ idea of the Big Society, if only they actually meant it.

Jackson also argues for spreading around the limited work available by a reduction in working hours, reducing the unemployment lines by encouraging part-time work and job-sharing, so that more people do a shorter working week. They’d earn less (though still more than the pittance of Jobseekers Allowance) but also have more leisure time. Unfortunately the government has recently been taking the opposite tack, trying to reform the European Working Time Directive so that employers can keep their existing staff shackled to their desk rather than take on extra staff.

He doesn’t talk as much about health and social care as much as I’d have liked. That said, he does point out that economic collapse doesn’t always lead to worse health. Life expectancies in Russia fell after the collapse of the Communist Bloc, but at the same time they rose in Cuba, despite the Cubans’ loss of their Soviet paymasters. The difference appears to be that Cuba managed to preserve its health service infrastructure while the Russians did not. There were also some unintended consequences – for example, the introduction of food rationing in Cuba led to healthier diets and a fall in obesity levels. I’d have liked to have seen this topic explored in more depth.

Ultimately this is as much a work of social and environmental policy as it is of economics. Indeed, the author sees these three areas as very much interlinked, and suggests that economics has suffered by not linking to social and environmental contexts. If nothing else, it offers a hopeful vision of how society can live well in difficult times, which given current events is a welcome message.

Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, by Tim Jackson. 2009. London: Earthscan

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4 Responses to “Book Review: Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson”

  1. Thanks for the review, it’s on my list of books to read when time permits. Tim Jackson also offers a great Ted talk at: http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_jackson_s_economic_reality_check.html

  2. Wow! You’re a nurse and you read books…

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