Limits to economic growth with Tim Jackson

Cover of Prosperity without growthSometimes it seems like the two most irreconcilable disciplines are economics and ecology. The latter is arguably more scientific, but despite this, since the Second World War economic concerns have taken precedence at the forefront of politicians’ minds and those of the populations they govern.

It is becoming apparent that economic growth (generally considered by many to be a very good thing), has probably been one of the primary drivers of environmental degradation due to the resource-intensive processes which fuel modern economies – whether such economies are:

  • liberal -capitalist systems of exchange (like New Zealand),
  • somewhat socialist – like the Nordic/Scandinavian models,
  • or State-driven like those of China and, arguably, Russia.

There are other factors contributing to environmental problems (such as population growth for example), but there seems to be more and more evidence emerging which demonstrates theenvironmental problems caused by consumerism, and this extends beyond wicked corporations polluting on a large scale etc. On an individual level, we don’t just consume the wrong things, we consume too many of the wrong things because most items and consumables don’t dissolve into the earth, they are also made, moved and packed through resource intensive processes. Many such things are not necessities, yet we lust after various items, and the widespread acquisition/consumption of them throughout the world via imports and exports is a large part of the sum of economic growth!

This is why Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, is so timely, because it provides a well thought out critique of one of the primary measures of economic success – Economic Growth. Yes there is other information to consider with regard to economic well-being, as there are a variety of variables which economists, investors and bankers look at as economic indicators, but economic growth is something we are told is very important and a critical measure of a political regime’s success. Add to this the wooing of voters through financial hand-outs and cheap services, and sometimes it seems like the voting hordes overlook environmental issues so long as we have our health care and our iPhone.

Cynical much? O.K, yes, but are we being mislead with the idea that things are better than they actually are? Mr Jackson helps uncover where we are really at. Take for example certain buzz words and terms which are bandied around by economists, marketing people and the media (who are arguably marketing people). One such term is “efficiency” – “we need to be more efficient”, “we are more efficient” and “we are becoming increasingly more efficient”. All of which is true, efficiency is important, but we mustn’t be fooled by our own hype. One of the interesting things Mr Jackson points out in his book is that efficiency isn’t necessarily a good thing, because in the last decade or more we have done things “more efficiently”, BUT we have also done more of them!

When manufacturers can do more with less, and faster (i.e efficiently), they often pump more items out at a cheaper price. Then, mesmerized by our own consumerism, citizens buy more and use more than we need because things are so cheap, and, instead of making something last we throw it away and buy a new thing. Add to this planned obsolescence (the deliberate act of building a product with a short lifespan), and we are maintaining the same pre-existing level of environmental degradation prior to our economies becoming “more efficient”. So, we’re told that our economies are “more efficient”, which in a way is true, but is that always such a good thing?

The good thing is Tim Jackson is an ecological economist and Professor of Sustainable Development with a background in maths. So he brings a rational argument to the table. What I’ve ranted on about here is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what his book covers. We still need economists to help run and analyse economies, but while we talk about economic and fiscal sustainability, we need to consider environmental sustainability and our individual actions too.

Have a look at Tim Jackson’s Book Prosperity Without Growth, but also, David Suzuki’s work From Naked Ape To Super Species is the perfect companion to Mr Jackson’s work as it considers the same issues through the lens of biology and genetics.

Tim Jackson TED talk