Tim Jackson is our latest Routledge Featured Author. Read our interview to discover more about his recent book, Prosperity without Growth 2e.
What can prosperity possibly mean in a world of environmental and social limits? This question has fascinated me, my whole working life. Can our economies really go on growing exponentially for ever? How is this even possible without trashing the planet? And how can we live within our means, while still ensuring that everyone has the chance for a decent life?
Prosperity without Growth is my attempt to answer these questions. It draws from a research journey that has led me through a fascinating terrain: philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics. All of these have contributed to my understanding. All of them have helped me identify solid foundations for ‘the economy of tomorrow’: an economy that works for everyone, rather than just for the privileged few; an economy fit for purpose in the 21st Century.
Of course, one book can’t answer every possible question about the future. My aim was to open out political space for a deeper conversation about the kind of society we want to live in. And the kind of economy to deliver it. It’s one of the most important conversations of our times.
Way back in 2004, I was appointed as Economics Commissioner to the UK Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), a government body reporting to the Prime Minister. I remember very clearly the day I sat down with Jonathon Porritt, then Chair of the Commission, in a café in Westminster, both of us rushing between other appointments. The aim was to set out some priorities for my time on the Commission. Jonathon’s support for my proposal was immediate and unwavering; our meeting lasted less than half an hour. But it was to set the course of my working life for more than a decade. Prosperity without Growth was the outcome.
In May 2008, I took some leave from my day job at the University of Surrey to recover from an operation – and to write. The evening after the op, I sat down in the hospital with a pile of material collated over almost two decades of research and I began to sketch the outline of a book. A nurse wandered in and asked me if I knew they had given me morphine following the op. You’ll look back on this, she said, and wonder what you were on. Others have sometimes wondered the same thing! Questioning growth is sometimes deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. It elicits an almost visceral fear in the minds of politicians. I wanted to show that things didn’t need to be so scary.
Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth. The global economy is almost 10 times the size it was in 1950. If it continues to grow at the same rate, it will be 200 times that size by the year 2100. It’s an extraordinary ramping up of global economic activity. And it’s totally at odds with our scientific knowledge of the fragile ecology on which we depend for survival. It’s already been accompanied by the degradation of 60% of the world’s ecosystems.
We tend to avoid the stark reality of these numbers. The default assumption is that – financial crises aside – economic growth will continue indefinitely. Not just for the poorest countries, where a better quality of life is essential, but even for the richest nations. The reasons for this collective blindness are easy enough to find. The modern economy is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. When growth falters, politicians panic. Firms go out of business; people lose their jobs; and a government that doesn’t respond quickly is likely to finds itself out of office.
This is the dilemma of growth. We can’t live with it; we can’t live without it. Growth may be unsustainable, but ‘de-growth’ looks untenable. At first, it looks like an impossibility theorem for a lasting prosperity. A closer examination suggests the theorem itself is wrong. Another world is possible.
Prosperity transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society. Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The economy of tomorrow must start from this understanding.
I wanted to explode the myth of the ‘insatiable consumer’ and replace it with a more considered, more compassionate view of what it means to be human. I wanted to deconstruct the narrative of a conflicted and powerless government and replace it with a vision of a dynamic and progressive State. I wanted to show that another kind of economy is not just possible, but already being developed all around us.
The 2nd edition of Prosperity without Growth articulates more precisely the dimensions of this new economy: the nature of enterprise, the quality of our working lives, the structure of investment and the role of the money supply. I’ve tried to show how these dimensions can be transformed in ways which protect employment, allow for social investment, reduce inequality and deliver both ecological and financial stability. In the process, I’ve come to believe that building the foundations for the economy of tomorrow is a precise, definable, pragmatic and meaningful task.
In the beginning, somewhat frosty! When the SDC published my report, back in 2009, it met with a deafening silence. Our government sponsors were decidedly put out. Perhaps visceral fear got the better of them. A year or so later, they did away with the SDC altogether!
But it turned out that Prosperity without Growth had a much longer life and a much wider audience. Within a few months of its publication, it was downloaded more times than any other publication in the history of the Commission. When a revised version of the report was published by Earthscan it became a surprise bestseller. By the time I sat down to write the second edition, a couple of years ago, the book had already been translated into 17 foreign languages around the world.
In the intervening years, of course, the world itself has moved on. Our economies have changed, perhaps irrevocably. Society seems more divided, more fragile somehow. And politics has definitely become more turbulent. But the importance of delivering a lasting and equitable prosperity is as urgent a task as ever. Prosperity without Growth is no longer a radical narrative whispered by a marginal fringe, but an essential vision for social progress in a post-crisis world. Fulfilling that vision is simply the most urgent task of our times.
Good question! I started my professional life as a playwright. By the time, I finished my PhD, I had already sold a couple of radio plays to the BBC. I moved to London hoping to make a living there, and spent a lot of time waiting on tables and serving in bars – as so many aspiring writers do. But in April 1986, Reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine melted down. I immediately offered my services to Greenpeace and found myself working on the economics of renewable energy. From there I haven’t looked back.
It seems the world had more need for me as an ecological economist than it did as a playwright. But I continued writing just the same. Over the years, it’s been a constant source of inspiration – and consolation – to me. The playwright hears many voices, inhabits many lives. Writing gave me the freedom to see the world differently and the courage to work for something better. Prosperity, properly understood, is about hope. Writing gives me hope.
What can prosperity possibly mean in a world of environmental and social limits? The publication of Prosperity without Growth was a landmark in the sustainability debate. Tim Jackson’s piercing challenge to conventional economics openly questioned the most highly prized goal of politicians and…
Paperback – 2016-12-05
Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, UK, and Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP). For seven years he was Economics Commissioner on the UK Sustainable Development Commission, where his work culminated in the first edition of this book. He was awarded the Hillary Laureate for exceptional international leadership in 2016. In addition to his scientific work, Tim is a prize-winning dramatist with numerous radio writing credits for the BBC.
CUSP website: http://www.cusp.ac.uk/
TED Talks: Tim Jackson: An Economic Reality Check
46th St. Gallen Symposium: Tim Jackson: The case for slower growth – but how?
Vienna University of Business and Economics Keynote Speech: Tim Jackson: Growth in Transition
RSA Radio: Can Economies Thrive without Growth?