ISBN 978-1-84407-894-3. “Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet” by Tim Jackson was published by Earthscan in 2009. The review hardback copy boasted 255 pages including no less than four forewords (with contributions by Bill McKibben and Herman E. Daly), appendices, notes and references. Tim’s work is an extension to his work as Economics Commissioner for the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). Specifically he draws upon the “Redefining Prosperity” study (2003). Go see www.sd-commission.org.uk/pages/redefining-prosperity.html. With so much academic work on the topic you would have thought Tim’s opus may have offered a more definitive roadmap to a steady state economy. In this it does not really deliver. Rather Tim talks around the topic and largely delivers a thesis encapsulating the problem rather than much of a solution. Indeed the field of monetary reform seems to be far more advanced in terms of solutions – maybe because it has been around as long as there has been Banks. Despite the enormous debt (pun not intended) the modern form of no-growth economists owe to the field of monetary reform there is only one brief mention of the money supply and banking reform in Tim’s book.
Given the modern role of the City of London in being the powerhouse of the British economy we should have looked forward to a more advanced thesis on the changes required to turn this monolith into a real tool for building prosperity rather than simply sucking money out of the real economy. Instead Jackson turns his attention to macro-economics and the social issues concerning the desire for growth. He correctly summarises one of the reasons why growth is so essential to a capitalist economy but makes little or no mention of the role of interest payments. Without growth the capitalist system will collapse. Jackson also makes no mention of population and steers a remarkably conservative and safe path around what must be one of the most dynamite topics of our times. He turns the entire exercise into a dry economics text-book. This is not going to popularise the topic in the manner of a 20th century pamphleteer. Instead Jackson’s argument has three legs: we need to establish ecological bounds upon human activity. Second, we need to re-invent macro-economics. Third we need to fix the “damaging social logic” of consumerism. If not, writes the author, “by the end of the century, our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the destruction of habitats, the decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migrations and almost inevitably war.”
Jackson is at his best when deconstructing the myth that economic growth can somehow cure ecological ills: “In a world of 9 billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 time lower in 2050 than it is today. By the end of the century, economic activity will need to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere not adding to it.” He explains that, although there has been some relative decoupling the possibility of absolute decoupling continues to elude us. He goes on “…we are desperate to believe in miracles. Technology will save us. Capitalism is good at technology. So let’s just keep the show on the road and hope for the best. This delusional strategy has reached its limits. Simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will stabilise the climate and solve the problem of resource scarcity are almost literally bankrupt.” As for the dilemma of our society he writes “We’ve carved up our sense of shared endeavour – sometimes (think of cars) quite literally – so that we can sell off the pieces at market price just to keep our economies growing. In the process, we leave ourselves bereft of common meaning and purpose.” All stirring stuff but we are sure he is preaching to the converted. There is little here we don’t know already. So when it comes down to the crunch of exactly HOW to reach steady-state prosperity Jackson blinks and leaves us with “…delivering these goals is a huge challenge. Ultimately, that task lies beyond the scope of any single book.” Oh dear. Instead he suggests “a ‘robust public discourse’. Opening out that discourse has been one of the key aims of this book.” So it is all talks about talks. A delivery of clever waffle.
He rarely challenges the consensus other than to deliver this pithy observation: “Those inclined to question the consensus wisdom were swiftly denounced as cynical revolutionaries or modern day luddites. ‘We do not agree with the anti-capitalists who see the economic crisis as a chance to impose their utopia, whether of a socialist or eco-fundamentalist kind’, roared the Independent on Sunday late in 2008. ‘Most of us in this country enjoy long and fulfilling lives thanks to liberal capitalism: we have no desire to live in a yurt under a workers’ soviet.'” In this case “their utopia” spells continued human existence. Until we can answer this kind of blinkered conservatism then Jackson is just blowing in the wind. There is still hope as an EU Commission seeks to redefine the measurement of GDP but this is but a token. Much like monetary reform before it, there is much to be gained in real prosperity in a steady-state economy. However there are a vast array of forces pitched against such a necessary move. A small number of very wealthy and powerful people are not going to let there be any constraints upon them. It is in their nature to drive their resource base into the buffers rather than see any change in the status quo. Hence something dramatic will need to happen. Jackson isn’t talking about drama. We need to be.