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Just published: my review of Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity without Growth’

My review of ‘Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a finite planet‘ by Tim Jackson has just been published in the latest issue of Alternatives Journal. Here it is below…

Prosperity Without Growth: Economics
for a Finite Planet, Tim Jackson, London,
UK: Earthscan, 2009, 264 pages.
Reviewed by Mark Brooks


Former Alberta environment minister
Lorne Taylor was reported to have
remarked to David Suzuki that without
a strong, growing economy, Canadians
simply could not afford to protect the
environment.

Most economists today continue to
promote the idea that the wealthier the
economy, the more money we will have
to reduce pollution, invest in green technologies
and protect wilderness areas. So
why on Earth would we want to dispense
with the pursuit of economic growth,
particularly when the global economy is
so vulnerable?

For Tim Jackson, the answer is simple:
the relationship between growth and
prosperity has fundamentally broken
down. His most recent book, Prosperity
without Growth, grew out of a report he
wrote in 2009 for the UK’s Sustainable
Development Commission, the government’s
independent watchdog on
sustainable development. Based on three
years of research, the report looked into
the connections and conflicts between
sustainability, growth and well-being.

As Jackson rightly notes, realizing the
legitimate desire for all of humanity to
lead full and prosperous lives – given the
planet’s finite resource base – may well be
the most profound dilemma of our times.
What can prosperity possibly look like,
he asks, in a world with a global population
expected to reach nine billion by
mid-century? The traditional economic
response has been to associate prosperity
with income and to call upon continued
growth to deliver it.

But prosperity, Jackson argues, is not
the same as material wealth. The former
resides in our ability to “flourish as
human beings, in the quality of our lives,
the strength of our relationships, participation
in our communities and the health
and happiness of our families” – none
of which are automatically delivered by
continued growth.

Although Jackson believes there is no
case to abandon the growth imperative in
all countries, it has thus far failed to eliminate
poverty, reduce income disparities or
make citizens of developed countries any
more satisfied with their lives. The growth
model may be undermining happiness
and causing a “social recession,” he says.
Even if growth were socially desirable,
the author makes the case that it would
be ecologically impossible to provide the
material comforts found in developed
countries to the entire global population.

This is not the first time the growth
objective has been questioned. What sets
Jackson’s critique apart is that it shows
how the modern economy is structurally
reliant on growth for its stability. When
growth falters, businesses struggle, people
lose their jobs, recession looms. This leads
to what he calls the growth paradox. “To
risk growth is to risk economic and social
collapse,” he writes. “To pursue it relentlessly
is to endanger the ecosystems on
which we depend for long-term survival.”

The case Jackson makes is a remarkably
cogent one, yet it would be more
convincing if he fully addressed how
economists typically respond to antigrowth
critiques. Jackson exposes the
myth that we can dramatically reduce
material consumption while continuing
to grow the economy. However, some
economists view resource limits as irrelevant,
and believe that technological
innovation, ingenuity and behavioural
changes can make the prosperity of
tomorrow desirable, unlike the prosperity
of today. It makes no sense, they say,
to extrapolate current consumption rates
into the future because there is no reason
to believe that the future will look anything
like the past.

There are a few other minor nuisances, such
as when Jackson includes several graphics
that are either poorly explained or
contribute little that is of value. He also
makes some careless factual errors. He
states, for example, that the concentration
of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is
currently 435 parts per million, whereas
the actual level is closer to 390.

Despite these oversights, Prosperity
without Growth succeeds in explaining
how continued growth cannot be
sustained and how we might attain
prosperity without it. The solution, says
Jackson, is not to try to make growth sustainable
but to make de-growth stable.
“Anything else invites either economic
or ecological collapse,” he writes. The
last few chapters consider opportunities
for achieving lasting prosperity that
redresses the “iron cage of consumerism”
and imposing meaningful resource limits
on economic activity.

Jackson is no wild-eyed revolutionary,
and he recognizes that his message
may border on the blasphemous for
many economists. But when a government
commission in one of the world’s
most advanced economies publishes a
report calling for an end to growth, perhaps
the time has come for economists
to take note.

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