Account of discussion on ‘Prosperity without Growth’ by Tim Jackson (6th June 2013)

Our discussion last week on ‘Prosperity without Growth’ by Tim Jackson was both expansive and at times involved, yet it felt a bit like trying to catch a wet frog blindfolded. To some extent this metaphor extends to what many thought of the book, it clearly sets out how the present economic system is unsustainable, unless growth can be completely decoupled from carbon emissions, gives a vision of what a more sustainable economy might look like, but is less specific on how to move from one to the other. This is not a criticism of the author because there are no quick fix solutions to solving the most pressing problems humans face.

A number of Green-Thinkers thought that the book was a useful summing up of theories such as zero-growth, decoupling, gross national happiness, and different modes of capitalism. Others struggled with some of the economic theorising but found it a valuable contribution to their environmental knowledge.

We debated the central premise of the book that it is necessary to reduce the carbon intensity of every dollar spent globally from 768g CO2 to 6-40g of CO2 by 2050, and Jackson sees this as highly unlikely if not impossible. Therefore the only alternative (if depopulation is ruled out) is to redesign an economy that functions properly with zero growth (without creating mass unemployment). It was pointed that personalities who have raised the spectre of any form of population control in the past have been ridiculed or sidelined by the establishment, and also that the Gardener’s World presenter Monty Don is launching a series on Radio 4 in June called ‘Shared Planet’ that will be discussing population. Secondly we recovered some ground from our previous meeting where we discussed Mark Lynas’ theory that innovation and technology can achieve the decoupling required within the timescale. There is certainly no shortage of innovation in this area (eg: the circular economy, energy efficiency, dematerialisation, moving from products to services, even geo-engineering …) however the question is not really are these efforts worthy, but will they be enough?

This is where the discussion sidestepped the polarised technology versus zero-growth debate and the view was expressed that both technology and economic models that value ecosystems properly, and move away from exploiting people and the planet, are urgently needed. We discussed that kind of event or tipping point that would be required to create such as change in thinking globally. There was a debate about the level of intervention required by governments and how much can be left up to industry with various views expressed. One opinion was that more forward thinking business are calling out for governments to set a stronger sustainability framework in which to operate, thus creating a level playing field, and avoiding the tragedy of the commons scenario. Another view was that ethical capitalism is an oxymoron because some business would buy and sell their grannies if it makes money.

Jackson examines the Keynesian-like public spending programme of governments around the world in response to the 2008 economic crisis and how some governments supported high carbon industries and banks, while other such as South Korea pledged 80% to a green stimulus package creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs. There was a widely held agreement with Jackson that a wider-range of ‘work’ needs to be valued in a green-economy and some of this may be more labour intensive in order to be less polluting or ecologically damaging. This view was especially relevant to a farmer present who explained that preserving soil quality and structure requires more sensitive, labour intensive farming techniques, and presently we are losing an alarming amount of top soil which is essentially robbing future generations.

We had many other interesting conversations about our personal consumption habits, responsible capitalism, government green-mechanisms such as FITs in the UK and recycling in Belgium, and home ownership but I can’t do them all justice here. Please feel free to add your comments below, or if this whets you appetite please join us for future discussions.

I was left pondering what a future socio-economic-political system would look like that was both innovative and hi-tech yet held highly valued people and the planet – for some reason Star-Trek came to mind!

For me the mark of a good Green-Thinkers book is one that generates discussion and moves my thinking on and ‘Prosperity without Growth’ scored highly on both counts. This book was published in 2009 and I look forward to reading more Tim Jackson in the future especially on implementation mechanisms.

By Marek Bidwell

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