We are already overshooting the earth’s carrying capacity by 30 per cent. For nine billion people to enjoy a western standard of living, the global economy will need to be 15 times larger by 2050.
It all boils down to one challenge: how do we prosper without any increase in our gross domestic product (GDP)? What might seem like a purely academic concern to the uninitiated—or borderline heresy to traditional economists—is the single most important question we ought to be asking, according to economist Tim Jackson in his new book, Prosperity Without Growth.
Avoiding runaway climate change means reducing the carbon intensity of every dollar 130 times, says Jackson.
This cannot be done without forgoing economic growth, he says – a difficult task, given that GDP growth has been the single most important policy goal for a century.
Thanks to his book’s critique of the “iron cage of consumerism,” many label Jackson’s work as anti-capitalistic. But, he argues, capitalism can exist without growth—just not capitalism as we know it.
CK: Why do you dismiss as “delusional” the Stern Report’s conclusion that spending three per cent of our GDP on abating climate change is sufficient?
JACKSON: The main inspiration for this book was this seductive idea that clean, clever, and efficient technologies are all we need. But real progress has been hampered by perverse incentives towards efficiency that encourage the development of new technologies, wasting more resources in the process.
CK: Do we just need to reconfigure our thinking?
JACKSON: That is the thrust of the argument. Environmental economics tried to account for the failings of the model with slight adjustments, such as carbon taxes. But what we really need is to change the internal dynamics of our current economic model, because it pushes us towards expansion or collapse—not stability.
CK: What critiques of your work bother you the most?
JACKSON: One is simply ignoring my idea. Another is claiming that profit-driven economics are in accord with the natural motivations of people who are inherently selfish. We have institutionalized this narrow vision of humanity into an economic system that calls on us to be myopic, individualistic novelty-seekers in order to drive material output.
CK: What is your reaction when people accuse you of being anti-progress?
JACKSON: I characterise my position as “trans-modern”: many of the ways that society was traditionally organized were valuable, such as locally-organized economies and strong communities. Those have been swept away by a vision of modernity that functions merely to fuel consumerism. We need to retrieve those ideas and use them as the building blocks for a new definition of shared prosperity.
I have derision for those who would throw traditions away to maintain a derelict system. That is a very destructive way to treat human history and how we understand progress.
CK: The book was written when the economic crisis was just kicking off. What do you have to say about recent events?
JACKSON: In the aftermath of the crashes in 2008 there were a number of attempts at reform that turned into false starts. That was very disappointing. The British elections did not feature any questioning of the model whatsoever in a country where the national debt grew at a million pounds every eleven minutes while the recession loomed in 2008.
It is understandable, looking at the horrible situation in Greece, that people are nervous to talk about changes to the model, but my point is that Greece is a casualty of the model.
CK: Do you have hope for the future?
JACKSON: Absolutely. I have faith in humanity’s inordinate ability to adapt to difficult circumstances. And I think it’s a responsibility to have hope. Hope is a psychological strategy for achievement.