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Prosperity Without Growth

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Noela Hinkley
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On 5.18.09 an article appeared in the Guardian – a British national newspaper, entitled "The Age of Entitlement lies rotting.  Its polluted patrons can lead us no more".  Written by Madeleine Bunting  the article discussed an event at Carlton House Terrace (London) by the British government appointed Sustainable Development Commission.  A bold paper "PROSPERITY WITHOUT GROWTH" by SDC economist, Professor Tim Jackson was the subject of the discussion.  It asked if we could imagine a capitalism without economic growth.  "All governments see their primary task as growth in GDP."

Professor Jackson's paper consists of eleven chapters, preceded by a foreword and summary.  It is available in full at www.sd-commission.org.uk/public.  I have attempted a précis below:

This very radical proposition, I believe, will appeal to many people who sense that continual growth in any field is a bizarre, if not impossible, concept.  Professor Jackson refers to early economists such as John Stuart Mill and Keynes who foresaw a time in which growth would have to stop. In his foreword, the Professor states that the economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago.  "If it continues to grow at the same rate the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100".  He reminds us that "this ramping up of global economic activity.....is totally at odds with our scientific knowledge of the finite resource base and the fragile ecology on which we depend for survival."

The demerits of growth are not hard to find.  Top of the list is inequality.  "A fifth of the world's population earns just 2%  of global  income. Fairness (or the lack of it) is just one of several reasons to question the conventional formula for achieving prosperity."  The effect on the world's ecosystems, the rise in carbon emissions and the scarcity in key resources are all easy to recognise as results of the 'continual growth' economic model. Professor Jackson's paper "sets out a critical examination of the relationship between prosperity and growth.....Its aim is not just to analyse the dynamics of an emerging ecological crisis that is likely to dwarf the existing economic crisis. But also to put forward coherent proposals that will facilitate the transition to a sustainable economy." 

This he does, firstly, by redefining prosperity – "the simple equation of quantity with quality, of more with better, is false in general....Prosperity has vital social and psychological dimensions....an important component of prosperity is the ability to participate meaningfully in the life of society."

Secondly, he recognises the dilemma of growth and addresses the propositions and assumptions put forward to support economic growth as the 'default mechanism for preventing collapse'.  The evidence, he says  "leads to the uncomfortable and deep-seated dilemma: growth may be unsustainable but 'de-growth' appears to be unstable."  He faces this dilemma head on.  In discussing theories under the heading of 'The Myth of Decoupling' he concludes that "there is little attempt in existing scenarios to achieve an equitable distribution of incomes across nations....The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people."

Under the heading "The 'Iron Cage' of Consumerism" he discusses the profit motive, the continual production of novelty, and the symbolic role that material goods play in our lives.  "The restless desire of the consumer is the perfect complement for the restless innovation of the entrepreneur".  His conclusion – "the iron cage of consumerism is a system in which no one is free". In discussing policy responses he supports a 'green stimulus' as "an eminently sensible response to the economic crisis."  But ultimately "a different kind of macro-economic structure is essential for an ecologically-constrained world. There is no macro-economics for sustainability, and there is an urgent need for one." 

The Professor goes on (in Chapter 8), to explore the dimensions of this call in more detail.  The results from two specific attempts to develop a macro-economics of sustainability are presented.  Up for re-negotiation in a new sustainable macro-economy will be "the balance between consumption and investment, the split between the public and the private sector spending, the nature of productivity improvements, the conditions of profitability." 

"Sustainability will need enhanced investment in public infrastructure, sustainable technologies, and ecological maintenance and protection.  Above all a new macro-economics for sustainability must abandon the presumption of growth in material consumption as the basis for economic stability.  It will have to be ecologically and socially literate, ending the folly of separating economy from society and environment."

Social implications are discussed – "addressing the social logic of consumerism....is far from simple".  He argues that some mandate for change already exists...there are already those who have resisted the exhortation to 'go out shopping'.

The role of government is vital.  "Freeing the macro-economy from a structural requirement for growth will simultaneously free government to play its proper role in delivering social and ecological goals and protecting long-term interests. The narrow pursuit of growth represents a horrible distortion of the common good and of underlying human values.  It also undermines the legitimate role of government itself.  At the end of the day, the state is society's commitment device , par excellence, and the principal agent in protecting our shared prosperity.  A new vision of governance that embraces this role is urgently needed."                                                                                                         

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I am an Australian by birth - have lived in Britain since 1986 and now consider it my home. I follow news and current events, with a particular interest in alternative viewpoints.
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