Jackson, T., Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet

Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet, London, Earthscan, 2011

 Many of those who attempt to track global change can readily feel overwhelmed by the sheer and ever-increasing amount of information that’s available through multiple channels. So I’ve adopted a simple rule of thumb to help me decide what to cover. If I hear positive messages about a particular item from three or more sources I know I need to take a serious look. That’s what happened with this book.

Having read it once I backtracked through it to tease out what I felt were the key ideas. I then carried out a quick survey of works in my own library dealing with the growth issue. The first thing that stood out is that it’s by no means new. Back in 1967 – i.e. more than four decades ago – Ed Mishan had produced a book called The Costs of Economic Growth.[1] Then, in the early 1970s a steady upsurge of related works appeared. These include: Blueprint for Survival, Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful, Toward a Steady-State Economy and The No-Growth Society.[2] No doubt there were many others. This sample, however, makes it clear that a fundamental insight regarding the phenomenon of ‘growth’ had emerged by this time. Growth was no longer an unalloyed ‘good.’ It not only had a downside, it was also becoming increasingly dysfunctional, even dangerous. The writing was on the wall for any who cared to see it. Unfortunately the majority did not and still does not want to know.

The question, therefore, is this. Having had the limitations, costs and penalties of unbridled growth so clearly described by a variety of non-delusional and highly qualified people from various locations over a forty plus years period of time, why is growth still regarded as a pre-eminent value and goal of human productive activity? There is, I think, a single over-arching answer – because it suits the rich and powerful.[3] Or, to put it differently, because the ways of thinking and operating that became naturalised over recent times have created addictions on a planetary scale that human beings, rich and poor, have no intention of giving up. Moreover some of the most well funded and powerfully equipped formations in society are dedicated to ensuring that the prospects for giving up exactly these consumerist addictions remain forever out of reach.

The opposition of interests thus created is far from trivial. It runs like a deep-seated and expanding set of barely acknowledged fault lines throughout our society and culture. When the cracks reach the surface of awareness and the fog of everyday acceptance clears from our vision we become first-hand witnesses to symbolic and applied cultural warfare on a vast front. And, just as in actual warfare by open combat, we begin to realise that the future of humanity and its world is by no means assured. So when I returned to Jackson’s book for a second look I did so with the intention of assessing (a) how original it is (b) how well he describes this multi-level conflict and (c) how effectively he sets out possible solutions.

Originality

The first thing I noted was that to some considerable extent the book is a more a continuation and re-statement of ideas that have been around for some time than of great originality. For example looking back to Blueprint for Survival (1972) and its concerns about growth and human impacts we find statements such as:

The principle defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable. … Radical change is both necessary and inevitable because the present increases in human numbers and per capita consumption, by disrupting ecosystems and depleting resources, are undermining the very foundations of survival.[4]

And this:

By now it should be clear that the main problems of the environment do not arise from temporary and accidental malfunctions of existing economic and social systems. On the contrary they are the warning signs of a profound incompatibility between deeply rooted beliefs in continuous growth and the dawning recognition of the earth as a spaceship, limited in its resources and vulnerable to thoughtless mishandling. [5]

Similarly, there’s been a long line of informed commentary on what the author refers to here as ‘the iron cage of consumerism.’ From Vance Packard’s early work on advertising and waste to more recent critiques of ‘affluenza’ the drawbacks and growing costs of consumerism have been well explored. The notion of ‘flourishing within limits’ that Jackson refers to similarly echoes the progressively authoritative discourse initiated by the Meadows team beginning with The Limits to Growth (1972) and continuing in later volumes.

There was some more recent material on ‘ecological macro-economics’ and a great deal of good sense in various recommendations for much-needed social and economic innovations. Yet at the same time I wondered where were the ‘drivers’ for the many changes of value, thinking and practice that such an economics requires? Overall, therefore, while I fully support the author’s intentions, I could not see a great deal that was truly new had been presented.

How well is the conflict between the old and ‘new’ depicted?

It’s fair to say, I think, that the defects of the ‘old’ are much easier to describe than the emerging features of the ‘new.’ That’s because the latter are still unrealised and ill defined. Conflicts between rich and poor are highlighted and evidence cited to support the view that the current drastically unequal distribution of wealth penalises the whole society. Conflicts between present and future are also discussed although little is said about how future-discounting works or why. Rather, and somewhat puzzlingly to me, he stresses how what he calls ‘a whole set of commitment devices’ already exist that serve to ‘moderate the balance of choice away from the present and in favour of the future.’ Such devices are, in his view, being undermined by ‘the relentless pursuit of novelty’ within a consumerist ethos. Whereas I’d have thought that such devices fell far short of what’s needed anyway.

Conflicts within people and between them and their social contexts are briefly discussed and could certainly benefit from further elucidation. It’s to his credit that the author digs a bit deeper than many to explore some aspects of the ‘social logic’ that drives consumerism. In one place he writes that ‘stuff is not just stuff’ and refers to the reality of ‘cathexis’ which he defines as ‘a process of attachment that leads us to think of / feel material possessions as part of an extended self.’ He also comments on how this system is driven, in part, by anxiety. From here he argues for what he calls ‘opportunities for change’ in society. That is, ‘changes in values, lifestyles, social structures’ etc.

Overall, I felt that he touched on some vital areas of concern but had also missed a number of opportunities to go a little deeper. For example, he could have brought several themes together by showing defective assumptions within Western Industrial worldview serve to perpetuate the very dysfunctions he describes.

Exploration of solutions

Toward the end of the book the author sets out what might be called ‘proto-solutions,’ or solutions in embryo, that obviously require a great deal of elaboration and further work. Broadly speaking his major concerns seem to be those of developing the ‘ecological macro-economics’ mentioned above, re-localisation and related issues of governance. A number of valuable suggestions are set out in each case. But, overall, I felt that something was missing.

There are, for example, a number of tantalising references to ‘social innovations’ – a theme that could have been greatly expanded – and also to values, both of which are driven by interior changes within people. He refers to what he calls ‘alternative hedonism’ or ‘sources of satisfaction that lie outside the conventional market.’ There follows a statement that I think really gets to the nub of what this book is about. He writes, ‘people with higher intrinsic values are both happier and have higher levels of environmental responsibility than those with materialistic values.’ And that’s basically it. The implications of such a statement are not worked out or developed in any meaningful way. Indeed, the pivotal role played by such interior factors is under-described and largely overlooked. For example, in relation to interior human existence, the whole panorama of human psychic development through various levels, lines, stages and so on is overlooked. Then again, in relation to social innovations, the powerfully shaping influences of worldviews and processes of legitimation / de-legitimation are not mentioned.

Conclusion

Prosperity Without Growth is a book that has received wide praise and my impression is that it’s been widely read. It is certainly a brave attempt to address what the author acknowledges often looks like an ‘impossibility theorum’ i.e. the need to restrain a growth-addicted economic system away from increasingly fragile forms of ‘wealth’ toward sustainability and human flourishing. What I most liked about it is the clarity and directness of the writing and the way that the author openly acknowledges the difficulty of this many-sided task. The value of the book is at least two-fold. First, it provides a competent and up-to-date restatement of what we’ve known for some time but in a way that draws on a variety of contemporary thinking and related evidence. Second, it once again poses a challenge to the current upholders of the status quo and challenges many of the assumptions upon which it is still founded. Given how comprehensively the forerunners of this book have been ignored there is always a need for new players to enter the fray and remind the rich and powerful that their (and our) tenancy of this world is more fragile and conditional than most are ready to hear.

In summary, this is a fine literate work that will be of most value to people who already see the point of supporting widespread social and economic change but for whom the issues discussed here are relatively new. By the same token it will be of lesser interest to those who already know that the most potent sources of innovation and cultural change lie within the often-overlooked human and social interiors.[6]

 

References

[1] Mishan, E. The Costs of Economic Growth, London, Pelican, 1969.

[2] Daly, H. (et al, eds) Toward a Steady State Economy, 1973; Goldsmith, E. (et al) Blueprint for Survival, New York, Signet Books, 1974; Meadows, D. (et al) The Limits to Growth, New York, Universe Books, 1972; Schmacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful, London, Abacus, 1974; Olson, M. (et al, eds) The No-Growth Society, London, Woburn Press, 1975;

[3] A point made clearly and well by Kemph, H. How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth, Chelsea Green, USA, 2008.

[4] Goldsmith, 1974, pp 3.

[5] Ibid p. 15-16.

[6] Slaughter, R. The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Brisbane, Foresight International, 2010, explores this theme in some depth.