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Prosperity without Growth?


Thanks to Gary Friedman for leading me to the above web page with photographs of thousands of the world’s unsold cars. Every time I walk through a car-saturated city somewhere in the world (increasingly, these cities are in Asia), I wonder when this mad and mindless proliferation will stop. Having personally experienced  the dramatic improvement in quality-of-life since selling the family car a few years ago, it is definitely time for a planetary re-think. Of course a change like this is much easier when one lives in a city with good infrastructure, affordable public transportation, pedestrian-friendly built up areas, and safe bicycle paths that are separated from both pedestrians and cars.

Overproduction of cars is only the most visible and resource-consuming chunk of the overproduction of stuff in general. Which brings me to Tim Jackson’s influential book, Prosperity without Growth. In an age of quick soundbites, his message requires at least a few hours of thought to consider and digest. However, as a guest speaker in wide demand on platforms across the world, he has condensed the content of his book into 30 minutes divided in three roughly 10-minute chunks. The first part deals with the dilemma of growth; the second with exploring the economic and social systems that compound this dilemma. The third deals with avenues for change that lead to a different kind of prosperity. In the video below, hear Tim Jackson speak at a lecture in Australia in 2010.


For those in too much of a hurry to listen to the full 35 minutes of Tim Jackson’s talk, here are some of the most important questions, thoughts and ideas that came from the talk.

How can our economy continually expand on a finite planet? The answer is deeply philosophical and deals with who we are as humanity.

More than climate change, it is biodiversity loss that is furthest beyond planetary boundaries of sustainability.

To bring the poorest nations out of poverty under current patterns of growth, you need an economy that is 200 times bigger than at present, therefore growth is unsustainable.

Income growth matters in the poorest nations. As incomes increase, that distinction weakens. Beyond a certain threshold, income growth in rich countries does not lead to better quality of life.

Constant increases in labor productivity drives people out of work unless the economy keeps expanding. Constant growth is unsustainable. The answer is to de-couple the world economy and growth, but de-growth is unstable. In a world of 9 billion people, all aspiring to western levels of income, carbon intensity needs to be reduced from 770 grams per dollar to less than 6.

The consumption of novelty is the driving force behind the increased consumption of stuff.  Why do we consume much more than we need? In the words of anthropologist Mary Douglas we, as human beings, are helping to create the social world and find a credible place in it.

Consumer debt was encouraged. It led us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about; or worse still, who don’t care about us. So what was all that about?

Coming to face with planetary limits says to us that our prosperity hangs with the prosperity of those around us, as theirs does on us. Investment is a fundamental economic relationship between the present and the future.

An unrelated video entitled “Africa is Poor and 5 other Myths,” provides some pointers to avenues for change that lead to a different kind of prosperity.


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