Prosperity without growth – Economics for a Finite Planet

“Prosperity without growth – Economics for a Finite Planet” by Tim Jackson, 264 pages, Earthscan 2009, £12.99.

This book deals with some difficult questions: how do we change an economic system, capitalism, based on constant growth when we live in a world with limited resources? How do we feed 9 billion people in 2050 when rising sea levels will reduce the amount of land for agriculture? How do we switch from fossil fuels to renewables, from rampant consumerism to society where we value other things than ownership of stuff, while avoiding mass unemployment? In other words, how do we create a sustainable society based on social justice?

Tim Jackson is the economics commissioner on the UK government's Sustainable Development Commission. He makes a devastating analysis of why we cannot continue with “business as usual”. He explains how the current worldwide banking crises combined with the ecological crises (climate change, pollution, resource depletion) creates an urgent need for a radical rethink of our priorities. In summary the solution to both crises is the same: we need to produce less consumer goods, reduce our working hours, make more social/collective long term investments and the creation of a new culture.

Tim Jackson seems to be getting some unlikely followers: “President Sarkozy, the Nobel-prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz and elements of the Financial Times' commentariat are among those arguing that prosperity is possible with out GNP growth, and indeed that prosperity will soon become impossible because of GNP growth.” (Jeremy Leggett, author of “Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and Global Energy Crisis”).

This easy-to-read book deserves to be read by anyone interested in sustainability and social justice issues. It is a good framework for a public debate on how we want our society to develop. Without disagreeing with Tim Jackson’s conclusions I think there are a couple of things that also needs to be debated: we need to change our food production so it becomes sustainable; the corporate world (which includes a lot of the media) will put up a fight against even a mild version of Tim Jackson’s proposals. Big business has a lot of power, including political power, and how to meet such a challenge is really not discussed in “Prosperity without growth”. Tim Jackson correctly points out that the state has to take a lead in this transformation towards a sustainable society but he sees the state as being independent of corporate business. It does raise the question whether it is necessary to democratise big business in order to achieve what Tim Jackson wants to achieve.