Rebels with a cause: Meet the eco-economists at war with growth

Meet the Eco-economists who say that slowing down growth and curtailing consumerism is the key to real prosperity.

It’s a terrifying paradox that sees world leaders seemingly impassioned about sustainability and environmental concerns at global summits but then return home to prescribe spend-thrift, debt-supported, grow-or-bust economic policies.  Yes, true, there’s nearly always a hint (if not an after-thought) nowadays of the “green economy” in their growth bundles and incentives, although many would argue that solar panels won’t get us out of our environmental quagmire. What got us into this petrol-and-carbon induced mess are precisely the policies leaders continue to push for – incessant and boundless economic growth.

But the idea that infinite economic growth on a planet with finite space, resources and environmental carrying-capacity is an ill-fated prescription is gaining traction among economists that have done the math. These eco-economists, renegades in their field, are suggesting the once unspeakable:  that with billions more people slated to join the ranks of the world’s population in the next few decades, our addiction to consumption, and in fact our entire philosophy of what constitutes wealth, must radically change, and fast.

Let’s meet a couple of these rebels, shall we?

Jackson: “The biggest dilemma of our times: reconciling our aspirations for the good life with the constraints of a finite planet.”

Tim Jackson, economics commissioner on the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission and Professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, is one such thinker who’s applying the reality of 9 billion people on a planet to economic theory. In his book, Prosperity without Growth, Jackson argues we need to give up our insane obsession with GDP and labour productivity, nor delude ourselves that a planet with first world, material living standards for everyone is even remotely possible.

What would that world look like exactly? According to Jackson, it would contain an economy that is a staggering six times the size of the current world economy and, in a business-as-usual scenario, send the carbon in our atmosphere to stratospheric levels while our natural resources shrink to oblivion.

And what about ambition and success, inexorably tied to material possessions in western society? Jackson doesn’t pretend we can be as materially rich as we have become, and says that part of the solution will be tempering consumerism and ending “unsustainable status competition.”

Taking his cues from well developed voluntary simplicity and downshifting movements, he hints that the key to sustainability will be “human flourishing with limits”:

“A limited form of flourishing through material success has kept our economies going for half a century or more. But it is completely unsustainable in ecological and social terms and is now undermining the conditions for a shared prosperity. This materialistic vision of prosperity has to be dismantled,” Jackson writes.

But isn’t having all this stuff what makes us happy? No, as Jackson readily points out. He’s one of the few willing to show us what many in the first world are seemingly too afraid to admit: that happiness, education, health and life expectancy are no longer coupled with GDP growth and per capita income. Many countries exist, he explains, where people have far less material wealth (i.e. far less stuff), but they are as healthy, educated and happy than those with much more.  So owning lots of stuff might be the key to growth, but it’s not the key to our well-being.

Jackson on a sustainable economy: “It would be foolish to think it will be easy to achieve.”

So how do we get to this world which doesn’t depend so much on material ownership and therefore depleting the last of our eco-assets? With “decoupling” our economy from natural resources a utopian pipe dream, according to Jackson, the way forward isn’t necessarily an end of capitalism, he says, but a new role for government as we move to a green, low-growth scenario.

Jackson’s prescription includes a move from private to public investment in less productive (ie, less profitable) eco-assets like natural resources, renewable energy, public transport, forestry and environmental technology to help us de-carbonize, as well as a call to build more community resources like libraries, green spaces and social centres to encourage social inclusion and participation (i.e. more life satisfaction with less consumption).

And in sharp contrast to what most politicians are proposing, yes, he advocates higher taxes, lower debts and more savings to pay for it all.

And where will we work in this new low-growth society?  Jackson argues in favour of a shift away from sectors which favour high-productivity at the cost of employment, and back to labour intensive sectors (de-materialized service sectors, for example) which actually provide people with meaningful work.

Another eco-economist who also believes that sharing jobs will be key in a not-too-distant sustainable future is Canadian Peter Victor, an economist by training, professor of environmental studies at York University in Toronto, and regular speaker at a growing line-up of “degrowth” conferences, including this September (2012) in Venice, Italy.

Peter Victor: “It all looks pretty bleak”

Victor fully accepts that the challenge before us is enormous and without precedent:

“We now know that climate change is moving faster than experts had thought likely in the past. I am also disturbed by the increasing loss of species. Peak oil already hit the US a while ago. If you look at these phenomena one after another and you understand that economic growth as we have known it means increasing energy and material throughput, it all looks pretty bleak,” he says in an interview he did in 2010 with the Capital Institute.

And as for our obsession with growth, this economist will be the last to sing its praises:

“Developed countries have had tremendous economic growth yet the record in terms of other objectives has not been that great. In the past three or four decades poverty has not declined in Canada, incomes and wealth have become more unequal, we have not had full employment, and our greenhouse gas emissions have risen. We need to change the focus of the debate.”

Victor’s own degrowth work includes a model for a zero-growth economy in Canada, which he says when carefully managed, could bring about higher employment, less poverty, lower government debt and a slashing of carbon emissions.  But sharing jobs and reducing the working week is key to success he says.

“We work many more hours than Europeans over a year, yet a reduction in average hours worked is a way of reconciling a slower rate of growth with an increasing level of employment.”

Like others arguing for a shift from continual, consumption-based growth to zero or minimal growth with low resource inputs, Victor doesn’t think it will be a simple task.

“All will be affected by a societal shift toward low or no growth,” he says.

Despite lamenting the lack of leadership in government, Victor says that at some point policy changes at the highest levels will be necessary, including limits on energy, land and water use, as well as a reduced working week and policies to encourage social justice.

“I think 50 or 100 years from now when people look back at what happened, whatever the system is they will be living in it will look very different from what we have today. Whether it is a further evolution of something called capitalism or if the capitalist era will be over I can’t predict. But we are clearly in a process of significant change and I think it will continue.”


One comment on “Rebels with a cause: Meet the eco-economists at war with growth

  1. Solar NJ
    August 27, 2012

    Its just a shame that solar panels are the only thing that can save us from fossil fuels right now in a sense, and its all riding on how ridiculous this great depression is going in this country that floats on the dollar bill.

    -Sharone Tal

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