Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet - Tim Jackson “And I am a weapon of massive consumption / And it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function,” “The Fear,” Lily Allen

NB: I have taken advantage of the “spoiler” tag to append notes and asides that don’t directly bear on this review. The reader may open them or not as he or she pleases.

Coming as it does on the heels of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame: Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, reading Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth does little to encourage optimism about the future. The short-term future, at any rate. We have gone far beyond this planet’s carrying capacity, and the current economic model – capitalist and growth fixated – only exacerbates the problem. Even if tomorrow morning everyone were to wake up and wholeheartedly embrace the zero-growth, sustainable economy discussed in these works, many areas of the world would still face ecological collapse, and it will be centuries if not millennia before a full recovery. And even then.... Even then we would still be impoverished to the extent that many natural resources are exhausted and irrecoverable outside of the passing of a geological age. Jackson provides a sobering example of the magnitude and intractability of the problem early in the book. One measure of our impact on the environment is the Ehrlich equation: I (impact) = P (population) x A (affluence) x T (technological intensity). Affluence here is roughly measured as GDP/capita in $, and technological intensity is measured as carbon-use intensity per $. In 1990, T equaled 860gCO2/$ and the equation produced a figure of 21.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions generated that year. Since then efficiencies have brought T down to 760gCO2/$ but P and A have grown faster than technical progress and carbon emissions stood at 30.0 billion tons in 2007. The number of people using products and the amount of resources used in making them have overwhelmed whatever gains we’ve made in carbon-use efficiency.

The numbers are staggering. Just to meet a carbon dioxide level of 450 ppm, the IPCC’s target for 2050 (which is probably too high considering what a current level of c.380 ppm is doing to the climate), the world has to reduce carbon use 130-fold, and that’s keeping population and affluence steady. Hardly a likely scenario. For God’s sake, I live in a country where a “serious” presidential candidate doesn’t believe in climate change, sex ed or evolution, and even the incumbent continues to kow-tow to the most carbon-use-intensive industries; e.g., it’s almost a certainty that Obama will OK the Alberta tar-sands oil pipeline.

Though Jackson spends the first few chapters of the book laying out the scope of the problem he shies away from the obvious conclusion – it’s unrealistic to expect 9 billion people to alter their lifestyles, expectations and assumptions to the extent necessary to maintain a reasonably affluent lifestyle for everyone. It’s unrealistic to even believe that’s possible. Jackson is a bureaucrat and his solutions – such as they are – are bureaucratic ones: We need to impose the policies that will resolve our dilemmas and keep and spread the lifestyle to which the developed world has become accustomed to everyone. But his own words belie that Panglossian conclusion: “By the end of the century, our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the destruction of habitats, the decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migrations and almost inevitably war.” (p. 203) The trajectory of recent history argues that we’ve already entered a period of endemic wars to control ever dwindling natural wealth.

What optimism I can generate looks to the long-term survival of humanity. Between 70,000 and 80,000 years ago, our species was reduced to a few thousand individuals struggling to outlast the catastrophic climate changes brought about by super-volcano eruptions that threw tremendous amounts of ash into the atmosphere. The resulting population bottleneck probably resulted in the evolution of the modern mind as it’s after this period that we first find evidence of cultures. It was a close run thing but we came through it better able to cope with the world; though, ironically, those coping mechanisms now threaten to destroy us in turn. Perhaps, the humans who emerge into the post-industrial world will be better adapted.

Having read Daly, I was already familiar with the premises of the steady-state economy so much of Prosperity Without Growth covered old ground. There were, however, some interesting data that enlarged upon Daly’s argument. The first is simply Jackson’s ability to update the numbers; we have over 15 years of additional data to shore up Daly’s contention that the growth-oriented, mass-consumption economy is insupportable. As the example mentioned above illustrates, technical advances lag behind population and resource exploitation, worsening our environmental impact. The second is that Jackson devotes a good deal of ink trying to get a handle on what “prosperity” means. In a growth economy, prosperity is an ever accumulating amount of material goods. There is evidence that material abundance bears a relationship to life satisfaction, but only up to a point – satisfaction of basic needs with enough left over for a modest enjoyment of relative ones. This linkage weakens considerably beyond that point. Jackson draws the moral that growth makes a real difference in quality of life in poorer countries and shouldn’t be abandoned until everyone can meet basic needs plus a bit extra; the developed countries (really: the overdeveloped countries) need to pursue no-growth policies and restrict their consumption.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Jackson’s vision of a society that promotes “human flourishing” as a New Age, self-actualization utopian fantasy because he can’t concretize it: What would an average day-in-the-life of a post-industrial citizen look like? It’s impossible to say. The changes required to bring it about are so fundamental that 21st century observers would think they’re looking at an alien civilization. You’re better off reading SF from the pens of [a:Ursula K. Le Guin or Edgar Pangborn to get an idea of the possibilities.

I’m getting to the point where I’d seriously devote myself to living a sustainable – at least, more sustainable – lifestyle but it’s scary and I have responsibilities at the moment to nine dependents They’re my cats and they may not weigh as much in the balance as a lover or children would but I do love them and want to provide as comfortable – as prosperous – a life as I can for them. and I feel overwhelmed, much as I did after finishing Endgame: Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization. I write this review comfortably ensconced in an air-conditioned apartment deep in the urbanized bowels of Los Angeles, using a criminal amount of resources to live better than many humans – living and dead – could possibly imagine and ask how we can, in good conscience, deny or severely restrict the material benefits of modern life to our children or to the billions in the developing world? We can’t. But we can find the wisdom and moral rectitude to live a sustainable life here and devote our collective energies to creating technologies that make the transition to a no-growth future easier.