Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet

Here are the last few pages from the book “Prosperity without growth: Economics for a Finite Planet”, by Tim Jackson. This was published by Earthscan, originally in 2009 and revised in 2011.

These pages provide a good summary. Please add your thoughts and comments below.

Page 202…

It’s about time …
The analysis, in this book makes much of the potentially disruptive power of relentless consumer novelty. We’ve seen how the production and consumption of novelty drives the growth economy Novelty both reinforces and is reinforced by the social logic of consumerism.

We’ve also seen how this dynamic has been deliberately reinforced by government, because of its role as a driver of growth. The fetishization of novelty is on a par with the fetishization of productivity. Indeed the two things are closely related.

Rejecting this obsession with novelty carries a risk: that novelty itself is demonized, while tradition or conservation – the opposite dimension in the Schwartz values scale (Figure 10.1) – is lionized for its own sake instead. It should be clear that this would be a serious mistake, for exactly the same reasons that it is a mistake to lionize novelty at the expense of tradition.

The tension between these two things exists for a reason.

Innovation confers advantages in evolutionary adaptation – allowing us to respond flexibly to ‘changing environment. This ability is more critical now than ever. But tradition and conservation also serve our long-term interests. In evolutionary terms they allowed us to plan for security by establishing a meaningful sense of connection – both to the past and to the future.

The point is not to reject novelty and embrace tradition. Rather it is to seek a proper balance between these vital dimensions of what it means to be human. A balance that has been lost in our lives, in our institutions and in our economy.

The same point can be made about the concerns over hyper- individualism. To reassert the crucial importance of shared endeavour is not to demonize individual needs or personal dreams. The point is to redress the balance between the self and society – in a way that re-establishes the importance of public goods in working for the benefit of us all.

It’s telling that our obsession with novelty bears such a key responsibility for undermining sustainability, Because the fundamental point about sustainability is that it’s about time. Relentless novelty undermines our sense of a common endeavour embedded over time. And the social institutions that might correct for this have themselves been undermined by growth.

In short, the cultural drift that reinforces individualism at the expense of society, and supports innovation at the expense of tradition, is a distortion of what it means to be human.

This drift serves and is served by the pursuit of growth. But those who hope that growth will lead to a materialistic Utopia are destined for disappointment. We simply don’t have the ecological capacity to fulfil this dream. 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.

So our only real choice is to work for change. To transform the structures and institutions that shape the social world. To articulate a more credible vision for a lasting prosperity.

The dimensions of this task are both personal and societal, The potential for personal – or community-based – action is clear.

Change can be expressed through the way we live, the things we buy, how we travel, where we invest our money, how we spend our leisure time. It can be achieved through our work. It can be influenced by the way we vote and the democratic pressure we exercise on our leaders. It can be expressed through grass-roots activism and community engagement. The pursuit of an individual frugality, a voluntary simplicity, is considerable.

At the same time, the constraints on this possibility as a wide- scale mechanism for social change are abundantly clear. Structural change is essential at the societal level. This book has highlighted three specific dimensions of that task. In the first place, we have to establish ecological bounds on human activity. Secondly, there is an urgent need to fix the illiterate economics of relentless growth. Finally, we must transform the damaging social logic of consumerism.

We’ve seen how a faulty economics drives and is driven by a distorted social logic. But we’ve also seen that a different economics is achievable. A better and fairer social logic lies within our grasp. Neither ecological limits nor human nature constrain the possibilities here: only our capacity to believe in and work for change.

By Tim Jackson

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