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Books of the decade

Our contributors recommend some slow reading for the festive season

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We started the 2010s reeling from the Great Crash of 2008, and ended the decade with angry populism widespread in the Western world. Today, the global economy limps on more or less as usual, while resentment grows among the “little people” at an economic consensus many feel is rigged without really knowing who is to blame. Over the same period, climate change activism has gone from being a minority pursuit to mainstream debate, occasioning worldwide “school strikes” and, since the beginning of the year, the high-profile and colourful Extinction Rebellion movement.

What these dissatisfactions share is a sense of being trapped in an economic logic whose priorities no longer benefit society as a whole, but that — we are told — cannot be challenged without making things even worse. The foundational premise of that system is continual growth, as measured by GDP (gross domestic product) per capita. Economies must grow; if they do not, then recession sinks jobs, lives, entire industries. Tax receipts fall, welfare systems fail, everything staggers.

But what happens when growth harms societies? And what happens when growth comes at the cost of irreparable harm to the environment?

As Sir David Attenborough put it in 2013, “We have a finite environment – the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.”

This is the argument of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. The challenge the book sets out is at once simple and staggering. In a finite world, with limited natural resources, how do we deliver prosperity into the future for a human population that keeps on growing?

Jackson, who today is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, and Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), argues that we need to start by scrapping GDP as the core metric of prosperity. As the book puts it: “Rising prosperity isn’t self-evidently the same thing as economic growth.”

Growth is not distributed equally, and inequality is widening. At the time of the book’s first publication this was already true; after some ten years of quantitative easing in an attempt by governments to stimulate economies, the situation is even worse. But governments had to print money, because if they did not growth would falter.

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The pursuit of growth is also undermining social bonds and overall wellbeing. In 2018, a commission reported on the ‘loneliness epidemic’ that is blighting lives and worsening health across the UK, driven in part by greater mobility of individuals away from family connections. (Mobility of labour, of course, is essential to drive economic growth.)

This year, even The Economist acknowledged that rising growth does not guarantee rising happiness.

If that were not enough, the resources available to supply continued growth are dwindling: “If the whole world consumed resources at only half the rate the US does […] copper, tin, silver, chromium, zinc and a number of other ‘strategic minerals’ would be depleted in less than four decades.” (Prosperity Without Growth)

Rare earth minerals, essential for technologies from circuit boards to missile guidance systems, are projected to be exhausted in less than two decades. 

And this is before we get to the contested questions of “peak oil”, and climate change, and how far and fast we need to decarbonise — a topic on which even The Economist expressed concern in December this year.

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Inasmuch as the public debate considers these nested dilemmas, the vague sentiment is that technology will save us. The jargon term for this is ‘decoupling’ — that is, the ability of the economy to grow without using more resources, by becoming more efficient. But will decoupling happen?

The theoretical core of Jackson’s book is a detailed unpacking of models that suggest it will not, or that if absolute decoupling is possible it will happen so far into the future we will already have wrecked the climate and run out of everything. Rather than rely on this fantasy, Jackson argues, we must challenge the dependence on growth.

But how? The global economic system depends on growth and in times of recession it is the poorest who suffer first. It is a policy double bind: on the one hand, we must think of the environment, so governments encourage us to buy less, consume less, recycle more and so on. But on the other, they must deliver a growing economy, which mean encouraging us to buy more, consume more, keep the economy going. Electorates are, understandably, cynical about the sincerity of this flatly self-contradictory position.

What, then, is the alternative? Jackson is an economist, not a revolutionary firebrand, and his book does not call on us to bring down capitalism. In the second part of Prosperity Without Growth, he instead suggests some quietly radical approaches to bringing the global economy back into the service of human flourishing.

He advocates government intervention to drive much of the change he proposes, including encouraging economies to pivot away from manufacturing, finance and the pursuit of novelty at all costs toward less obviously productive but more human services such as slow food cooperatives, repair and maintenance or leisure services.

He also advocates heavy state support for ecologically-oriented investment. When I contacted him to ask about his book ten years on he spoke positively of the contribution that a “Green New Deal” could make on this front: “It shows a commitment to social and environmental investment that is absolutely essential to achieve a net zero carbon world”, he told me. “Simply put, we just can’t achieve that without this scale of investment, and that form of commitment from Government.”

He also told me he is often criticised for being “too interventionist in relation to the state”, as he puts it. But perhaps (though Jackson does not use the term himself) he might be more fairly described as post-liberal. Prosperity Without Growth is a quiet but excoriating critique of the growing human and ecological costs of liberal economics.

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Intriguingly, within Jackson’s proposals lurks another challenge to liberalism, that to date has not been greatly associated with the left: the critique of radical liberal individualism as a social doctrine. Along with state intervention to tweak the economy and drive ecological investment, Jackson argues that governments should promote “commitment devices”: that is, “social norms and structures that downplay instant gratification and individual desire and promote long-term thinking”.

Examples of ‘commitment devices’ include savings accounts and the institution of marriage. Governments should implement policies that clearly incentivise commitment devices, for doing so will promote social flourishing and resilience even as such institutions offer alternative forms of meaning-making to the pursuit of shopping-as-identity-formation.

Thus, we cannot save the earth without reviving some social values and structures today thought of as small ‘c’ conservative: stable marriage, savings, settled and cohesive communities with lower levels of labour mobility.

I asked Jackson whether some of the more vociferous socially liberal proponents of environmental change had cottoned on to these potentially quite conservative implications of his theories. He told me “This is an interesting question, for sure, and one that I don’t think has really been picked up – even by me!” (Except at UnHerd – see here and here for example.) But, he says, it is incumbent on us to set aside political tribalism in the search for solutions to our current dilemmas.

“I believe there are elements of a Burkean conservatism which are profoundly relevant to a politics of the environment, even as I am convinced that the progressive instincts of the left are essential in our response to social and environmental inequality. I see it as incumbent on those working for change both to understand the underlying motivations of different political positions and also to adopt a pragmatic politic in which solutions are suited to the challenges of today rather than the dogma of yesterday.”

Indeed.