Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson

Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite PlanetProsperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although, as a longtime environmentalist, I’m a member of the choir that this author is preaching to, I found myself resisting much of what he was saying, and I certainly could not imagine that a gung-ho, pro-growth, climate-change skeptic would be moved by the arguments presented in this book. My main takeaway was the realization of just how far apart people can be who are supposedly on the same team.

For one thing I had problems with the style and presentation of the book. The heavy use of sentence fragments made me feel I was reading an expanded PowerPoint presentation, and the pervasive presence of weasel-words like clearly is a sign of the weakness of the supporting arguments.

I was frustrated with the author’s fence-sitting. I was expecting to find, at a minimum, a clear alternative definition of prosperity, but this I did not get–at least, not that I can recall. Instead there were repeated statements to the effect that “our future idea of prosperity will have to include such things as . . .” But the author felt that coming down too definitely on exactly what should be done, or how, was beyond the scope of what one book–his book, anyway–could do.

Much of the book is concerned with providing suggestive evidence that alternative ways of measuring our economic activity and success are feasible. But too often, for my taste, this evidence consisted of the tentative findings of various social scientists, based on mushy things like opinion surveys. To me this is not “science” in any useful sense, for I have little doubt that, like expert witnesses in court cases, other soft scientists could be found to offer “evidence” supporting different or even contradictory conclusions. Only hard sciences–physics and chemistry–carry conviction, and there’s very little of that in this book.

What was most troubling to me was the author’s faith in government as the solution to our global ecological-economic crisis. My alarm bells first started ringing early on when the author says that although the bailouts of financial firms in the crisis of 2008 were used to fund multimillion-dollar bonuses for those firms’ executives, “politicians had no choice but to intervene in the protection of the banking sector.” This reader, for one, believes that politicians did have a choice. Can we possibly believe that there was no choice but to borrow billions of dollars in my name, and use it to reward their cronies for losing such stupendous sums of money?

The bold, visionary change needed to bring a new world economy into being will never arise from such feckless and fatalistic acceptance of government as it is currently practiced. As far as I can tell, governments are more responsible than anyone for the ecological harm that has been wrought on planet Earth. It is governments, after all, who subsidize Big Oil and pay people to destroy fisheries and mow down rainforests. Private interests, of course, could still accomplish these things, but not so quickly or so completely as when they receive government handouts to do so. Canada would still have a cod fishery if its government had not paid people to extirpate it. The idea that the Stephen Harper government in Canada might lead us toward a more ecologically responsible economics would make me laugh if it didn’t fill me with such bleak hopelessness. Our governments rule us; they don’t lead us. Our leaders–that is, the people we spontaneously wish to follow–will have to come from the grass roots.

This book was at its best and most interesting when the author was at his most wonkish. He spends time discussing GDP and the equations with which it’s calculated. But although I found this interesting and informative, I don’t think that a bold new “prosperity”-based economics can emerge from such technical futzing. “Maybe if we can tweak these equations a bit . . .”

My overall impression is that, although the author talks about vision, he sees and treats the question of changing the economic basis of our society as a technical one, to be solved ultimately by academics and bureaucrats. Even the attitudes of us consumers, which, according to the author, must fundamentally change, are really the responsibility of those same bureaucrats, who must construct the institutions and incentives that will cause the livestock, oops, citizens, to behave in the right way. Mr. Jackson sees a more thoroughly socialist society–one in which the evils of “capitalism”, with its promotion of “consumerism” via an unpleasant thing called “novelty”, have been overcome–as the most likely means of getting to the sustainable Earth we need to live on. In this view, a benign dictator or a benign oligarchy will shepherd us to the Promised Land of a prosperous, sustainable, socially leveled Earth.

Of course the author does not say that–not in so many words. But to me it is the necessary implication of a world in which the state is even bigger than it is today. As though our real problem were a lack of right-thinking technocrats. And if people won’t stop their neurotic pursuit of “novelty”, they will have to be forced–won’t they?

Our future and our prosperity are not technical questions. They are questions of principle, of ideas; they are philosophical questions, and they need to be discussed at this level. We do need a new idea of prosperity, but that idea needs to be clear and definite, and it needs to be communicated with passion and conviction by men of vision and integrity–our future leaders, whoever and wherever they are. That was never the mission of this book, but this book could have been and should have been a stone for the sling of one of those leaders, and I’m afraid it just isn’t.

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