Review of Tim Jackson's Prosperity without Growth
With perhaps the exception of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009), Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth (Jackson, 2009a) has, in my view, been the single most successful and influential social science book to come out of the UK in recent years. It has and continues to be, by whatever standard one uses – academic/scholarly; media impact and coverage (including internal/social media platforms); policy debate; political debate including civil society activism – a phenomenal success. While of course the credit should go to Professor Jackson, given that scholarly work is rarely (if ever) an individual endeavour), it is entirely appropriate that the RESOLVE group and the (now sadly defunct) Sustainable Development Commission, the two main institutional incubators within which the report and subsequent book were developed, together with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in funding RESOLVE ought to share and be acknowledged as so sharing the book’s phenomenal success. While some of the success (like so many things in life) can be put down to timing – both the Sustainable Development Commission report upon which the book is based (Jackson, 2009b), and the book itself were published in the early stages of the current global economic crisis to which this book offers a compelling analysis of and proposes innovative solutions to - it is ultimately the methodological rigour, the integration of scientific, political and economic analyses of the ecological crisis, and the synthesising of a wide range of bodies of knowledge which together produce a compelling evidence-based and highly original piece of work which accounts for the book’s stellar success in terms of reaching audiences way beyond the academic and policy communities.
Some of the issues the book focuses on, such as presenting a robust case for developing alternative indicators of social progress to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), also chimed with other academic/political developments such as the report on the same subject co-authored by Nobel prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen (together with Jean-Paul Fotoussi), commissioned and championed by the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy (Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi, 2009); the growing interest in public, media and political circles in the UK in ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ (Layard, 2011; Office for National Statistics, 2011); and finally the emergence and rapid spread of the Transition movement (Hopkins, 2008) throughout the UK (and elsewhere), which shared much of Jackson’s analysis and also provided a ‘realworld’ example of some of the necessary social and cultural innovation (Scott-Cato and Hillier, 2010) and new experiments in less unsustainable and high flourishing ways of living . The publisher, Earthscan (since taken over by Routledge/Taylor and Francis), has also to be congratulated for promoting the book and the author so assiduously, the provision of a dedicated blog, video links etc on the book’s (then) Earthscan website. A yardstick of the book’s widespread success and reach is that when one enters Prosperity without Growth into the Google search engine it returns over 2 million hits. Professor Jackson himself has appeared in countless media and public events (alongside the usual academic fora of workshops, symposia and conferences). Notable, in terms of the impact and influence, is just one of his public presentations, namely his July 2010 TED lecture which has had half a million views (TED, 2010). In many respects, Prosperity without Growth, judged purely in terms of public impact (now an important element of the Research Excellence Framework of course), stands as a textbook/classical example of a piece of social science scholarly work of how to do it, and one from which other social scientists and their work could learn much. It is impossible in the time and space I have available to me to do justice to the richness and innovation the book contains, nor its compelling synthesising of different arguments, evidence-bases and disciplines in its call for a different type of economic thinking as the grounding for any transition to a sustainable economy. The book is a well-grounded, robust, challenging, and above all provocative and methodologically solid critique of the dominant neo-classical economic model in general and the centrality of orthodox, undifferentiated economic growth to this model, and associated public policy related to it, in particular. Below I limit myself to some of the highlights of the book in my judgement and mostly focused on those areas of overlap between my own research interests and Prosperity without Growth.
Apart from the substantive issues the book raises about the transition to a more sustainable, resource and energy efficient economy, that it is explicitly interdisciplinary in methodological scope is to be warmly welcomed, and is one of the many highlights of the book for me. The book integrates, inter alia, philosophical, psychological and sociological analyses of what constitutes the ‘good life’ and ‘human flourishing’ (pp.143-156), interrogates neo-classical economics using ecological economics and ecological science (pp.103-142), examines the political institutional and governance structures and associated notions of citizenship required for the transition to a sustainable economy (171-186), as well as providing some practical policy proposals (for implementing the bold vision of what Jackson terms ‘a lasting prosperity’ (pp.187-204). An important and foundational aspect of Jackson’s work as a whole over the past 2 decades or so, and as condensed and summarized in Prosperity without Growth, is the rather basic, but so important point that, ‘modern economies are driven towards economic growth . . . in a growth-based economy, growth is functional for stability. The capitalist model has no easy route to a steady-state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse’ (2009: 64; emphasis added). It is like a bicycle, it either goes forward or it falls over. Lacking negative feedback mechanisms it is functionally and structurally unable to cope with or adapt to living within environmental and resource limits. Linking this to the current global economic crisis (‘the age of irresponsibility’), Jackson notes, ‘the “age of irresponsibility” is not about casual oversight or individual greed. The economic crisis is not a consequence of isolated malpractice in selected parts of the banking sector. If there has been irresponsibility, it has been much more systemic, sanctioned from the top, and with one clear aim in mind: the continuation and protection of economic growth’ (Jackson, 2009a: 26; emphasis added). Jackson begins his analysis by rightly in my view, highlighting the mythic, quasi-transcendental, naturalised ‘truth’ of the dominant economic mindset. As he puts it, ‘Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth’ (Jackson, 2009: 5). Evidence of both its mythic and hegemonic status is that to question ‘economic growth’ is to question the most fundamental, ‘conventional’, and therefore ‘commonsensical’ and ‘natural’ features of the dominant neo-classical economic and neo-liberal world view. As Jackson points out, ‘questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries’ (Jackson, 2009: 14).
Alongside ‘economic growth’, there is a related (and equally dangerous myth), namely that of the techo-optimist fantasy of ‘decoupling’ economic growth, consumption and output from resource, energy and pollution constraints. As he bluntly notes, ‘assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilize the climate and protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional’ (2009: 7). And in so boldly questioning economic growth to describing Jackson’s book as innovative and methodologically robust etc., in so explicitly going against the economic, social science, public policy and cultural mainstream and dominant narrative/worldview, we can add courageous. And in so doing Jackson’s book represents all that is good in publicly-funded university-based research initiatives such as RESOLVE (as well as publicly-funded ‘critical friends’ of government such as the Sustainable Development Commission) as exemplars of academic freedom and the necessity for heterodox perspectives to sustain innovation, learning and creative approaches to the huge ecological and economic challenges currently facing us. Jackson’s book in short challenges the ‘group think’ around neo-classical economics and neoliberal economic policies that are the root causes of our current global economic recession. Jackson, like others since, has revealed the conventional economic orthodoxy as an ‘emperor without clothes’ (Barry, 2012: 117-148). Jackson’s book demolishes the fiction of the self-evidence ‘truths’ of conventional economics, including the ‘efficient market hypothesis’, ‘dynamic stochastic general equilibrium’, ‘trickle down economics’ and ‘privatisation’, and above all the fiction of ‘the market’ as a self-regulating mechanism equipped with a built-in, immanent ability to correct itself. Jackson’s examination of the cultural and mythic features of the orthodox economic model throws up troubling questions about the neo-liberal policy of giving ‘the market’ what ‘it’ wants, such as deregulation, reducing social protections, scaling back the welfare state, encouraging debt-based consumption and so on, as the only way to ensure prosperity qua orthodox economic growth for all. Although not put like this, Jackson’s book, conclusively in my view, demonstrates that orthodox, undifferentiated economic growth is the one true policy of neo-liberalism.
Jackson’s work on developing a macro-economics of sustainability, has informed my own work in my efforts to develop an account of ‘green political economy’ focused on similar themes to Jackson’s book, recently published as The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability (Barry, 2012). Like others scholars in which could be viewed as the small (but growing) ‘green economics’ school in the UK and beyond, such as Scott-Cato (2008, 2011), Boyle and Simms (2011), I, along with these other scholars, have extensively used Jackson’s book to articulate what can be called (depending on taste) a ‘post-growth’/degrowth/non-growth political agenda and the creation of new forms of economic and policy thinking and imagination in which the focus of the economy shifts from orthodox, undifferentiated ‘economic growth’ (as conventionally measured by GDP/GNP increases year on year) to (in my case) ‘economic security’. Jackson’s work, here linking also to that of Wilkinson and Pickett’s work on equality, has helped re-establish the evidence-base for a long (and long-forgotten) green/sustainability argument for a ‘steady state economy’, thus placing him in a line of heterodox and pioneering thinkers from John Stuart Mill in the 19th to Herman Daly in the late 20th century. Thus, Jackson’s book revisits some older thinking and arguments critical of the idea of endless economic growth as a permanent feature of the economy, as opposed to be a phase of socio-economic development (Barry, 2012: 178-79; Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009), synthetises them while ‘updating’ them by bringing them into contact with the most recent ecological scientific thinking (on resource and pollution limits and constraints), ecological economics and the psychological and cultural dimensions and components of human well-being in the 21st century.
Of particular note is Jackson’s insistence on the importance of what may be called building in ‘redundancy’ or ‘slack’ into the relationship or metabolism between the human economy and its ecological basis. While developed in more detail by other authors, Jackson’s book recognises the significance of creating resilience in both the economy and human communities. A good example of what this in-built ‘slack’ might entail is Jackson’s discussion of the macroeconomics of investment within a sustainable economy. He points out that ‘Investments in ecosystem maintenance contribute to aggregate demand, but make no direct contribution to aggregate supply—at least under the assumptions of a conventional production function. They may be vital in protecting ecosystem integrity. And this, in its turn, is vital for sustaining production at all over the long term. But in the short-term, they appear to ‘soak up’ income without increasing economic output’ (Jackson, 2009a: 140; emphasis added). As he puts it later in the book in reference to such investments, ‘In conventional terms they are likely to be “less productive”’ (ibid. 176), yet can contribute considerably to quality of life, as well as obviously protecting the basic ecological systems for human and non-human life. It is this ‘soaking up’ that we might also term the necessary in-built redundancy required for any economy moving from being unsustainable to being less so, to fulfill the demands of adaptive management and become more resilient (Rockström et al, 2009; Barry, 2012: 78-116). What Jackson’s analysis points to is the need to reverse an all too common reality within capitalist economies, namely ‘jobless growth’ and to rather focus on providing policies which can deliver a ‘work-rich’ (which is not to be confused with formally paid employment) post-growth economic strategy. This is of course a challenging and provocative proposal, but one that has the weight of evidence and argument to back it up. While much of the book is taken up with familiar arguments and the evidence for ecological, resource, energy and pollution (especially CO2) ‘limits;’ or ‘thresholds’ for continual economic growth and consumption of material goods and services, Jackson’s book also highlights an often under analysed dimension of modern consumerism, namely its connection to personal debt. So, alongside the problems of consumerism, we also have the problems of debt-based consumerism. Being in debt and the encouragement of debt, should be a cause for concern. Debt brings with it the danger of domination and lack of self-mastery, i.e. getting into debt entails being at the will of another—the person, organization, or institution to whom the debt is owed and this can and does restrict one’s freedom (Barry, 2012: 256-7).
A related problem in Jackson’s book (though perhaps implicit rather than explicit) is the lack of self-mastery and disregard for limits and restraint that a debt-based consumerism creates, and how an ethos of reckless license attendant upon such unearned credit, can and does lead to over-consumption. Debt is problematic since in short, it shackles, enslaves, constrains, and disciplines, narrowing the sphere of agency available to the debtor—whether that be an individual consumer or a highly indebted nation (Mellor, 2010). Debt, especially in economically difficult times (when people cannot pay back the debt), is a form of risk-taking and therefore creates and exacerbates vulnerability. The dangers of debt-based consumption is aptly captured by Jackson, who argues that, ‘People are encouraged into debt by a complex mix of factors, including their own desire for social status and the incentives put in place to boost high-street sales. . . . The important point here is that when this strategy becomes unstable it places large sections of the population at risk of lasting financial hardship. Inevitably, that risk falls mainly on those who are most vulnerable already....Far from delivering prosperity, the culture of “borrow and spend” ends up detracting from it’ (Jackson, 2009: 26). Jackson’s work provides some optimism of the potential of more participatory community-based approaches to changing patterns of over-consumption, and also to the promotion of alternative accounts of human flourishing. In a previous work, Jackson suggested that: ‘The role of community in mediating and moderating individual behaviours is also clear. There are some strong suggestions that participatory community-based processes could offer effective avenues for exploring pro-environmental and pro-social behavioural change. What is missing from this evidence base, at present, is unequivocal proof that community-based initiatives can achieve the level of behavioural change necessary to meet environmental and social objectives’ (Jackson, 2005: 133; emphasis added).
In Prosperity without Growth (Jackson, 2009a), he has clearly found this evidence, since in it he identifies a leading role for the social economy with local and community-based enterprises as important loci for sustainable consumption and therefore an important basis for the transition to a less unsustainable economy. This suggests a ‘happy marriage’ between less unsustainable economic activity and the social economy. The emergence of grassroots initiatives such as the Transition movement do offer excellent case studies for testing this point, namely whether such community-based innovations do lead to sufficient behavioural change to move those communities away from unsustainability even as they increase human well-being (Hillier and Cato, 2010). It is significant to note that many aspects of the Transition movement ethos (Hopkins, , echoing long- standing green principles and ideas, namely, relocalization, rebuilding com- munity, grassroots practical action, ‘reskilling’ people, and so on, converge with the list Jackson provides above. However, it is clear that a central element of the creation of a new account of economics for sustainability—and one that to date does not figure greatly in Jackson’s analysis—is the pressing need to avoid confusing formally paid employment and work. This is as important as not confusing quality of life or human flourishing with economic growth, or ‘the economy’ with ‘capitalism’. Concluding comments Tim Jackson’s book has done much to publicize long articulated green economic ideas (especially in relation to questioning conventional ‘economic growth’), at a time when such ideas are needed more than ever in our public debate about and responses to the current global economic recession. Jackson’s work and the associated research output of the RESOLVE group has done much to provide the intellectual and economic and policy roadmap and evidence base needed to move high consumption and carbon and resource intensive societies beyond the structural imperative of more is better, economic growth. While still a minority position in terms of political or public support, Jackson’s book represents a important intervention and hopefully turning or tipping point in shifting these societies towards making the achievement of a low carbon, resource efficient, less unequal and high human flourishing economy and society their imperative for the coming decades. In persuasively suggesting the need for greater methodologically-grounded interdisciplinary working between natural and social science, and in the process helping to provide answers to the question of what would an economy look like designed with knowledge and appreciate of the basic biophysical laws and realities of life on earth (to overcome what Jackson rightly terms of the ‘ecological illiteracy’ of conventional economics (Jackson, 2009a: 123)), Prosperity without Growth sets out both a research and political/policy agenda that others (including myself) will follow.
The book can be described as ‘path breaking’ or perhaps ‘path rediscovering’ in the sense of reviving older debates about ‘limits to growth’, what constitutes human flourishing, the role of values and ethics in public life, including ‘economics’ etc. which had become maginalised or conveniently forgotten. In the context of the worrying and continuing failure to reach ‘a safe operating space for humanity’ (Rockström et al, 2009), whether judged in terms of reducing carbon emissions and associated global warming to a 2 degree increase or the preservation of biodiversity globally, as well as the mounting evidence of the lack of correlation between endless consumption and growth and human flourishing beyond a threshold, if humanity (and the minority rich societies in particular) does manage to navigate towards a less ecocidal and unsustainable development trajectory, it will be due in no small measure to Jackson’s book.
Barry, J. (2012), The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate Changed, Carbon Constrained World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boyle, D. and A. Simms (2009) The New Economics: A Bigger Picture. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Jackson, T. (2009a) Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. London: Earthscan.
Jackson, T. (2009b), Prosperity without Growth: The Transition to a Sustainable Economy. London: Sustainable Development Commission.
Layard, R. (2011), Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. 2nd edition. London: Penguin.
Office for National Statistics (2011), Initial investigation into Subjective Wellbeing from the Opinions Survey. [Online] Available