Time for prosperity without growth

If there’s one book you read this winter make it Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth. We can have a stable climate and leave enough resources for future generations. Or we can continue with the fantasy of perpetual economic growth, with all the additional consumption that it entails – but we can’t have both.

That’s Jackson’s central message. In environmental and resource terms, endless economic growth is a slow but sure collective suicide pill. In economic terms it doesn’t work either. Jackson builds up the picture of how global economies were wound into financial freefall in September 2008. The 1980s and 1990s saw the paying down of a large amount of public debt only to be replaced by even greater private debt. Lending rules were deliberately eased in the US to squeeze out a bit more economic growth: contrary to what you might have gathered from other media sources, it was no regulatory bungle, at least in the US.

Economic growth relies on further economic growth; without further expansion the system collapses. This is all tied in to lending money out at interest. As more money must always be repaid than is lent out, an ever-expanding market is needed to service borrowings. Stop the music – continual growth – and economic depression hits the political dance floor.

US regulators knew that weakening the rules on borrowing would increase debt levels. This, in turn, would boost spending and more goods and services would be bought than in previous years – i.e. economic growth.

However, more economic growth isn’t making us any happier, a consistent finding across wealthier societies. It’s a bit like food: after a certain point, more is no longer better. Diminishing returns set in at income levels of around $15,000 a year per person.

If it isn’t making us healthier or happier, what is economic growth really doing? The main outcome of is the depletion of resources – water, land, fuels and minerals – and de-stabilising our climate. More importantly, by ignoring nature’s bounds, the way we organise ourselves is condemning future generations to poverty.

Jackson unpicks consumerism, the great lever for growth. It’s not so much what you have: it’s what you have relative to those around you. For so many people spending is wrapped up in status and vice versa. If it’s all about the accumulation of material goods, there’s never a point when enough is enough, so consumerism is a nothing short of a trap. Novelty seeking is the linchpin of consumerism. Thanks to new phones with extra functions, ever more clever cars, and countless other devices, the status-hungry human can buy endless new gadgetry to impress.

The resources laid waste in the mining, hauling, manufacturing and packaging of all these goods is a background affair, never impressed on the consumer, even if that is the greatest legacy.

One touted exit strategy is ‘decoupling’, which involves using less resources per unit of output. This is necessary, Jackson agrees, but it has never worked anywhere in practice. We do need it, but we need it to work on a scale never seen before. The amount of carbon released must be 130 times lower by 2050 than it is today per unit of output.

Sharing also has a huge part to play in the solution. More equal societies experience lower levels of stress, something Oliver James points out in his book, Affluenza. In fact, more equal societies record lower level of problems, and that includes lower levels of murder, mental illness, obesity, and infant mortality. Also, life expectancy, literacy, trust, social mobility and well-being are all higher in more equal societies.

The benefits of equality aren’t just confined to particular parts of society; the upsides are widely spread across the community. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have lead the way here and Jackson draws on their book, The Spirit Level, to conclude that a more equal society will be less anxious while less materialism will make us happier. (The Spirit Level contains the kind of in-depth research work that’ll make you think twice the next time someone says our tax system should just leave higher income earners alone.)

A key part of Jackson’s solution is a shift away from consumptive spending to be replaced by ecological investment. An example in Ireland’s case might be our blanket bogs, which are increasingly being cut away or compromised by non-native trees. Blanket bogs also have the capacity to arrest and retain large volumes of rainfall. Paying to keep blanket bogs on mountain sides is a much cheaper alternative than building massive concrete flood defences in towns. However, thinking about ecological investment in these terms is currently novel.

At a government level, we also need greater resource productivity, climate adaptation and green business. The seeds exist, according to Jackson, in “community energy projects, local farmers’ markets, slow food co-operatives, sports clubs, libraries, community health and fitness centres, local repair and maintenance centres, craft workshops, writing centres, local repair and maintenance services, craft workshops, writing centres, water sports, community music and drama, local training and skills”. In a year when libraries have never been busier, and more and more people are buying local and living greener, the move to prosperity without growth may already be under way.

Jackson’s work does suffer a frailty, however. Moving away from the growth-based economy seems virtually impossible without a ban, or some curtailment, on the borrowing of money at interest. That need to repay more than is borrowed is what mandates the growth imperative. Jackson doesn’t really get to grips with a restriction that would – in this part of the world today – be such a radical step.

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6 Responses to Time for prosperity without growth

  1. Terence says:

    You can read more about the Spirit Level at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk

  2. thomasciaran says:

    I have always believed this logic from a young age, but big business and governments and dare I say it the Christian church colude conciously or not to enslave us to their will. Breaking the law (as imposed by the ruling classes) usually costs money as in fines or by sin as in church penanence. I suspect the green agenda is an attempt to create another way to get an individual’s earned resources back to those who really want us to work for nothing. If the powers that be really want to do good in society they would set targets to reduce output year on year and learn to live at an average industrial wage with no more than a nominal premium for expertise or inventions, e.g. royalties. They could keep safety and discard newness as in cars etc. If all the best brains in the world are getting paid in many multiples of ordinary workers and they fail then why pay them so much. Any country that pays one section to create jobs and over taxes the people actually doing the job is at least wrong if not corrupt

  3. lorcan says:

    Thanks for this post James. I haven’t read the book but I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    I agree with the solutions you describe: ecological investment, resource productivity, climate adaptation, green business, etc.

    At the risk of banality, though, there is still crushing poverty around the world. And even in relatively rich countries where absolute poverty is no longer seen as a problem, economic growth allows innovation and diversity.

    If anything, the current economic recession has made long-term decarbonisation more difficult, not less, for example by postponing investments in cleaner technology.

    We do need to curb unsustainable growth rates and avoid asset-price bubbles, place appropriate economic value on the environment and the interests of future generations (and broaden the way we measure progress accordingly), and make consumption less resource-intensive. And we are way off the pace in all these respects.

    It just seems like until we have decarbonised growth (not to mention staying within other environmental resource constraints), attacking economic growth itself, on environmental grounds at least, is missing the mark.

  4. Richard says:

    ” In fact, more equal societies record lower level of problems, and that includes lower levels of murder, mental illness, obesity, and infant mortality. Also, life expectancy, literacy, trust, social mobility and well-being are all higher in more equal societies.”
    I fully agree that increases in inequality result in a wide variety of social ills. The chain of causality is not one which makes reductions in inequality easy to achieve. I live in Denmark which is a society which has a) high degrees of socila trust, literacy, well-being and life-expectancy and b) very high taxation and much lower levels of inquality than one finds in Anglo-Saxon economies. The question is which came first. I rather think that something fundamental to the culture here made it possible for their society to generally agree to share their national resources. The society was receptive to the argument that paying higher taxes created a better public life (i.e. life outside the the front door). Irish politicians made efforts to emulate the Scandinavian welfare state in the 1970s but they failed because the public didn´t believe in the goals and weren´t willing to pay the price. They also had incompetent technocrats and politicians. The Danes see where their money goes: hospitals, good roads, clean surroundings and pretty good public services. The Irish didn´t see the same benefits. My point is that some serious cultural values need to change before the Irish can adopt the changes in governance and taxaction that lead to a sustainable more-equal society. It´s not so simple as to say that introducing a redistributive tax system can make the Irish magically more trusting, literate and happy than they are now if they themselves won´t stop being so willing to cheat, cut corners, slack and mislead themselves as a society. And we need to find a crop of polticians of all political stripes who can at least competently execute their stated policies.
    I don´t want to paint Denmark as an ideal society by the way. There come some costs along with the managerial/technocratic culture required to produce a smooth-running country.

  5. Andy says:


    Great post. Jackson’s book very convincingly demolished the notion that economic growth can ever be completely decoupled from finite resource depletion/environmental degradation. At best, there would be a relative decoupling (and even that has yet to be proven) leading to exactly the same outcome: collapse.

    “It just seems like until we have decarbonised growth (not to mention staying within other environmental resource constraints), attacking economic growth itself, on environmental grounds at least, is missing the mark.” (from Iorcan)

    Not the case. Missing the point is to believe that any form of economic growth – other than that which enables the world’s poor to attain a comfortable standard of living – has any further useful purpose. The more growth for growth’s sake among those who already have plenty, the further the planet’s resource carrying capacity is exceeded, and the further the humanity gets from continuing the project of civilisation.

  6. Pingback: Restructure debt, and phase out compound interest – that’s what our environmental and financial crises tell us | ThinkOrSwim (the Climatechange.ie Blog) – Douglass Carmichael's Reflections

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