Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Prosperity Without Growth – Foundation for the Economy of Tomorrow

Prosperity Without Growth cover thumbnail

Jackson, T. (2016). Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.

Prosperity Without Growth book cover

This is the second edition of a book first published in 2009 which was itself a reworked version of a report published earlier that year for the UK Sustainable Development Commission (still available here). In the prologue to the second edition, Jackson describes how the report was published just days before G20 leaders arrived in London to ‘kick-start the economy’ after the financial crisis. His number 10 insider, who had previously been sanguine about the imminent publication, phoned him with the news that “Number 10 has gone ballistic”!

Number 10 has gone ballistic!

Number 10 insider

What a fantastic recommendation for this book! Sadly it is missing from the long and impressive list of recommendations actually printed in the book’s preamble. One of those recommendations from Herman Daly – a founding figure of ecological economics – said of this second edition: “It is hard to improve a classic, but Jackson has done it”.

Jackson’s style is both deeply thoughtful and engaging; his arguments balanced, measured and thoroughly researched. While reading the book I often found I’d been led deep into unexpected territory, but rarely did I struggle to relate the subject under discussion to the overarching narrative of the book. It’s that kind of territory that sets the book apart from some of the other ecological economics literature that I have read to date. For example chapters six and seven of the book – ‘the iron cage of consumerism’ and ‘flourishing within limits’ – include a wonderful analysis of consumerism in relation to human nature; providing unexpected insights and, at the same time, busting myths perpetuated by neoclassical economics’ vision of ‘rational economic man’.

Jackson shows how material goods have always been important to human beings as part of a social language through which we communicate, and how consumer capitalism exploits this to perpetuate anxieties that drive us to consume more and more and more. He describes an ‘evolutionary map of the human heart’ where two perpendicular axes are tensioned by opposite forces: one of them by altruism and selfishness and the other by novelty and tradition. We have all four of those tensors because each is adaptively advantageous under different conditions, but consumer capitalism ‘privileges and systematically encourages’ novelty seeking and selfishness over tradition (conservation) and altruism. The powerful and pervasive economic paradigm under which we operate is not only driving us to consume beyond safe planetary limits, but also systematically denying us opportunities to fully express our propensity (indeed our need) for tradition and altruism. Under the yolk of consumer capitalism we are not fully realising our humanity.

Other highlights in the book include Jackson’s analysis of the propensity for further growth in advanced economies – there is probably little to be had even if we all agreed we wanted it – and his demolition of the ‘myth of decoupling’, i.e. the prospects for green growth or sustainable growth. For the most part, Jackson tends to avoid the term ‘degrowth’, perhaps not finding the ‘missile’ quality of the word a useful tool for promoting his carefully constructed arguments in favour of a post growth economics. He does use it to describe the ‘dilemma of growth’ which is that, on the one hand, constant growth is unsustainable and, on the other hand, degrowth, under present conditions, is unstable. But really the entire thrust of the book is to lay out a pathway to achieving the structural conditions under which degrowth would be stable.

Macroeconomics is the name of the game in this book – there is not so much exploration of the kind of bottom-up approaches to change which are often discussed in the more overtly ‘degrowth’ literature like The Future is Degrowth. Towards the end of the book Jackson lays out the foundations of a possible future macroeconomic system that would enable us to live within the ecological limits of the earth and realise our full human potential to lead fulfilling and happy lives. As he acknowledges, it will take much more than a single book to properly explore the potential of a new macroeconomics system. Furthermore a macroeconomics system of the kind he envisions will depend on democratic participation in its design and evolution. Nevertheless we need to start somewhere and soon. So Jackson marks out four critical areas where we could start. Below is a very brief summary:

  • The nature of enterprise. We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about production from goods to services. All goods provide some sort of service, but if we focus on the service rather than the goods, we can do things better. (This is quite different from what is meant in current discourse by ‘service-based economy’ which is about exporting manufacturing overseas.)
  • The quality of work. Fulfilling and meaningful work is fundamental to our sense of wellbeing. It can comprise a mixture of paid employment and the work we do within our communities/families (the latter completely overlooked by the current focus on GDP growth). Full employment with shorter hours is a key approach.
  • The structure of investment. Investment is currently driven by the motive of maximising financial return (profits) as quickly as possible. We need to change the nature of investment to give primacy to public goods.
  • The role of money. The provision of money should be viewed as a social good. The primary method of money supply used in the current economy – debt-based creation by commercial banks – does not prioritise social good and, as we know to our cost, is inherently unstable. We need to explore other models of money supply, including sovereign money (where government has control over the money supply) to leverage its power for the public good.

I started this review with a recommendation from Herman Daly and I will end with another (also reproduced in the book’s preamble), from Caroline Lucas – a key figure in the UK Green movement and current chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth: “Tim Jackson has brought his groundbreaking book bang up to date and substantially deepened its arguments. This extensively revised edition sets out more clearly than ever the dimensions of a new and different economics – working for people, planet and prosperity. There isn’t a better exposition out there of why and how we need to move beyond growth“. I’d find it hard to argue with any of that.