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Professor Tim Jackson -
Prosperity without growth

"Instead of running, turning around and facing difficult stuff is incredibly liberating. It liberates you from dogma, from naivety, it liberates you from a sense that being status driven is the meaning of life."

When you’re living inside a system, it’s often very difficult to recognise the potential dogmas that permeate it. There are things that are open to questioning and criticism, but then there are those sacred cows that are so integral to the mythos of the prevailing wisdom that they are beyond the bounds of debate. In 2009, after writing a report for the UK Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), economist Tim Jackson found out first hand what happens when you dare to question one of those deeply entrenched beliefs.

The report was called ‘Prosperity without Growth?’, an exploration of the relationship between prosperity and sustainability, in which the question was asked, what does prosperity mean on a finite planet? A natural conclusion of that exploration was the need to look more closely at one of these systemic guiding principles, namely the idea that growth is always good. This observation was born of something that seem fairly self evident, on a finite planet there must be some limit to material expansion, right? However, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, at a time when the UK government’s sole focus was on how to kickstart that exact growth that Tim and his team dared to question, this was not a message that was particularly well received and the report was promptly buried.

As it turned out, ideas that the government had rejected as unhelpful, a growing audience of people were crying out for. After its publication the report began to be downloaded from the SDC website in large numbers and the concepts within began to spread.

In 2010 the report was turned into a book called ‘Prosperity without Growth’ with surprising global appeal, and from that time the ideas it espouses have gained a stronger and stronger foothold in the debate about what a healthy, sustainable, prosperous economy really looks like.

We met up with Tim at his office on the campus of the University of Surrey in Guildford where he works as Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) to chat about his work and his ideas in more detail.

Professor Tim Jackson

A lot of your work has been centred around raising a debate as to whether our current economic model is actually fit for purpose. Can you explain why you see a growth based economy as potentially problematic?

Well, we have this planet with a finite amount of resources on it, so the question of why growth might be problematic is almost self explanatory, except that it is not.

There is this wonderful quote from Kenneth Boulding which I sometimes use, ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist’. And it’s interesting because ordinary people do get this. We live in a society which has an economic model that’s based around the idea that we can all have more and more stuff and exploit more and more resources, not just increasingly but actually exponentially at about 2% each year.

From the shop - 'Limits to growth': Tim Jackson inspired print

This print is inspired by Tim Jackson's work around a low growth or no growth economy. 20% of all the profits made from the sale of this print will go to the Alzheimer’s Society at the request of Tim and his team, to help them continue their great work. Visit the shop

Given this, why is it that generally economists don’t think in these terms?

Well to be absolutely fair, there is another side to this, which says that a growth based economy has done us a lot of favours. It’s given us western medicine, extended longevity, more choice, technological innovations, mass communication and it’s made the world more equal, so it’s done amazing things. Previously the best things in life were really only accessible to the very, very rich and one of the things that happened through growth, at least in the 20th century, was that a lot of these things were suddenly available to more people. Most probably, people with our kinds of backgrounds would never have had the sort of choices we have in the society we live in today, so an economist will quite rightly point these things out. I personally think it’s important to acknowledge that. However, not all of these changes have been positive. We have also created lifestyle diseases, obesity at unbelievable levels, corrupt supply chains with slave labour at one end and tax evasion at the other. These things are disastrous and they’ve come about as a result of us being too fixated on keeping growth growing.

So the question is rather, is a growth model still the right model to be carrying on with. Given the obvious finite limitations how can you maintain infinite growth? It just doesn’t stack up.

It’s at low incomes where growth really works it’s magic so to speak. If you increase the average income from next to nothing to round about $10,000 you get this huge spike in things like life expectancy, participation in education and measured happiness, whilst less desirable factors such as infant mortality plummet. Past this point however, we tend to be in very different territory where the improvements to our quality of life, if they come at all, come very slowly and are sometimes undermined by things like enormous consumer debt.

An economist will tend to look at one side of this growth curve, where you get that initial increase to income and it makes a huge impact, everything gets better. An ecologist, however, will say hang on a minute, even at this level of consumption we are slapping up against the boundaries of finite resources, climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation and there just isn’t any room to go on with this model anymore.

So I suppose what I have tried to do is to ask questions about whether this model is fit for purpose, particularly in the richest countries. At first it’s like you’re asking an impossible question because all our economics is built around being able to grow and increase labour productivity, reduce costs and expand markets and come up with product innovation. So you are really asking a question to a group of people who don’t even want to recognise it as a legitimate one.

"...you realise you’re dealing with a semi religious cult with an ideology that is entirely positioned around economic growth."

What does a no growth or low growth economy look like? Is it vastly different to what we currently have?

Well that’s something we don’t know for sure but I think you have two possible answers.

One is an economy which is very much like the current one but continues to get worse. Low growth, high rates of inequality, people in very insecure work, austerity which has removed public funding from health, education and social care, a fractured political system. So that’s one picture and it’s the direction we are currently going, given the growth rate is actually slowing down and maybe heading for zero sometime in the next couple of decades.

So the question is what else could we do in a low growth economy. I suppose the analysis that I have been trying to develop, particularly in the last two or three decades, is really about questioning what a model of prosperity actually looks like. Is it really about having more and more stuff? that may work in terms of people’s appetites but does it actually, in the end, make them more dissatisfied. Is there another way of thinking about human satisfaction and fulfilment?

Consumerism is mostly about short term gratification and is dominated by production imperatives which insists that the stuff that you buy wears out in a year, just so that you can go on buying more stuff the next year. This is a recipe for social stagnation and division and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that actually, if you concentrate on longer lasting assets, the health of your citizens and the strength of their communities, on social capital and wellbeing then you get much better health outcomes.

If you get the system right you don’t have to be constantly chasing increased productivity, increased output, more consumption, a greater and greater growth rate. That’s really what our work is about, getting the architecture of that system right.

So is it all about more equitable distribution really?

A lot of it is about distribution. the main difference between these two types of economy is that the first one believes that you can get growth back by pumping productivity with financial over lending basically. The second options is an economy where you reject that idea and you say our priority as a society is to look after the least well off and to create the environment in which community and social outcomes matter.

The ‘Prosperity without growth?’ report was published in 2009, have you noticed a shift in people’s receptiveness to these arguments since that time?

Yes absolutely, when the report first came out you couldn’t even ask the question. We were commissioned by the government to write the report, and we decided we were going to talk about growth on a finite planet in a workshop of government officials. A Treasury official stood up at the back and said something like ‘now I see what sustainability is all about! It’s all about going back to live in caves isn’t it? That’s what you want us to do in the sustainable development commission.’ I have no clue where that idea came from but that is the kind of visceral reaction you would get to even just asking the question about sustainable growth.

Now these ideas are out there a lot more. I don’t teach my classes in quite the same way as I did before because I no longer have to bring my students to that point of realisation. They are already coming into the classroom with a sense of awareness that the current model doesn’t quite work anymore and that growth is up for debate. Sometimes they hold an even more extreme perspective than my own.

The degrowth movement for example has become much more popular in the last years since that report, in part due to stagnation and the growing realisation that a growth based model, as we know it, might be failing in its own terms anyway. That has really focused people’s minds, so now you can have more of a conversation.

As far as your journey as an economist is concerned, did you arrive at this realisation or have these ideas always been in the back of your mind?

What was always in the back of my mind was a different sense of social progress, one that was almost more philosophical than material in its nature if you like. I believe that human beings have the potential to do amazing things, but that potential is not being maximised in a very materialistic, consumer driven society. A lot of what consumerism is doing is dampening down our best instincts and our deepest quests.

The richness of the human psyche is not found in its ability to sit in front of a television and consume junk food, while ordering Amazon goods online. We are a much richer mix between our relationship to each other, our sense of challenge and our existence as finite beings on a finite planet. It’s not just in developing a physical prowess that we find achievement. but also a mental and philosophical prowess, a poetical prowess. It’s about developing a rich cultural life with the potentiality of human beings at the front, rather than pushed behind this facade of material appetites.

I think I have always had that feeling. I didn’t always put it down to this question of growth but when I began my professional work, which was largely stimulated by concerns about the environment, I very quickly came to this question of making things work in economic terms first of all.

I did a lot work on renewable energy and the very first questions you have to ask are, how much will it cost and will it compete with these other options? So you have to know about the economics of it in that sense. But soon after that you start seeing that all the reasons that were put in place for not investing in things, that might be cleaner in environmental terms and better socially, were all about the potential damage to economic growth.

My first approach to it, when I was working for environmental lobbies, right at the beginning was to say, ‘no guys, sorry you are wrong on this’. Then you realise you’re dealing with a semi religious cult with an ideology that is entirely positioned around economic growth. There are some sound reasons for those beliefs, but there are some that are just either stupid in a broad sense or else are duplicitous and what they are covering up is a specific attempt, by a minority, to control and to keep control of the resources that are there.

"I don’t teach my classes in quite the same way as I did before because I no longer have to bring my students to that point of realisation. They are already coming into the classroom with a sense of awareness that the current model doesn’t quite work anymore and that growth is up for debate."

What does success look like to you?

In personal terms what do I think about my success? Well I am an academic so I tend to think about my success in terms of ideas, ideas that make sense and ideas that make sense of what it means to be human. Ultimately I think the question of what is success is a very philosophical one. It’s like what are we doing here, and what is it that we are supposed to be trying to achieve?

One of the most interesting responses that I had to ‘Prosperity without Growth’, was from this guy who was the manager of a hospice. Through his doors, every day, came people with incurable diseases who needed a place to die. He said to me ‘what you are describing here is exactly what my patients experience as they go through that process’. You walk out of a world in which image is everything, status matters, consumer goods are your consolation for a meaningless working life. Yet, there is a point where you discover, actually life is finite it’s not just the planet that’s finite, life is like that. What is my meaning? What has all that been about? It’s one of those questions that we’re almost encouraged not to ask. We push our old people away into homes, we exalt the cult of youth and status and celebrity and we try to pursue that as far and as fast as we can. One of the reasons we do that is because we have been encouraged to. That is what keeps this economic model going, but it is utterly meaningless in that deeper sense.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Instead of running, turning around and facing difficult stuff is incredibly liberating. It liberates you from dogma, from naivety, it liberates you from a sense that being status driven is the meaning of life. Being able to face darkness every now and then, not all the time, not wallowing in it, not forgetting to celebrate the wonder, but actually being willing to look at it, is very important.

For example, what if there is an existential threat that runs right to the heart of our security as human beings? We have two possible responses, one is to hide from it for as long as possible and the other is to turn around and face it.

What advice would you give to your 21 year old self?

Question it all, don’t live inside an entrenched ideology. Find something that is speaking to the depths of what it means to be human, and also, be kind to people along the way.

"I believe that human beings have the potential to do amazing things, but that potential is not being maximised in a very materialistic, consumer driven society. A lot of what consumerism is doing is dampening down our best instincts and our deepest quests."

Professor Tim Jackson

Centre for the Understanding
of Sustainable Prosperity
University of Surrey (D3)
Guildford, GU2 7XH

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From the shop - 'Limits to growth': Tim Jackson inspired print

This print is inspired by Tim Jackson's work around a low growth or no growth economy. 20% of all the profits made from the sale of this print will go to the Alzheimer’s Society at the request of Tim and his team, to help them continue their great work.

Visit the shop

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