28 Jan 2023

Prof Tim Jackson: Imagining life after capitalism

From Saturday Morning, 8:30 am on 28 January 2023

The idea of de-growth, as opposed to constant economic growth, has gained traction recently.

Last years’ IPCC report on mitigating climate change, cited it for the first time and the European Research Council has recently given the equivalent of $15.5 million to academics to study post growth policies.

Professor Tim Jackson is a specialist in sustainable development and his new book is Post growth: Life after Capitalism

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Photo: AFP

De-growth certainly goes against decades of the economic grain, he tells Kim Hill.

Growth as a way of organising economies goes back to the post- great depression era, he says.

“All of a sudden there were blockages in the economy, which meant that lots of people were out of work and mainstream economists like John Maynard Keynes, and then the politicians like Roosevelt, looked at that situation and said, somehow we've got to stop it being the case that people lose their jobs and their livelihoods. And the only way to do that is to keep the economy growing.”

The GDP system of codifying national accounts emerged from this era, he says.  

“The gross domestic product became, at that point, really the primary indicator of success for economies almost entirely around the world.”

And so we’ve been on a path of chasing constant growth ever since, he says.

“And yet, there comes a point at which more becomes too much. The World Health Organization has said that nowadays we have more people dying from diseases of over-consumption than dying from malnutrition, under-nutrition.

“That's a symptom of our times in the sense that we flipped from being a place where more and more is a good thing, because we just didn't have enough, to a world in which actually, we're getting too much of certain things. And of course, that also has a huge impact on the planet.”

Politicians remain wedded to growth as the solution to all problems, he says.

“But that growth has proved harder and harder to come by. In the developed economies, the so called advanced economies, the growth rate has been declining over the last few decades.

“And to all intents and purposes, we're already living in a kind of post growth economy. But we haven't figured out how to make that work, how to ensure that people do have jobs and decent livelihoods, how to make sure that are enterprises, our firms work in a slightly different way how to make our public services more sustainable.”

Post growth economics requires us to ask fundamental questions, he says.

“What does progress mean? Where do we want to go? What's our vision for the future? Where do our kids want to be? What kind of world do we want them to inherit?”

Fundamentally, he says, it is how do we live well within the limits of a finite planet.

“We're living on a planet where climate change is already creating disasters in in all sorts of ways around the world, and where we're told by scientists that those disasters will get worse in the future.

“And we're also in the same time, we're living in a world where some people into 2 billion people without access to clean water supply, people without decent housing.”

He doesn’t believe ‘green growth’ is a panacea, he says.

“Green growth is a lovely term, it's something that should appeal to everyone. And it sounds like we don't have to change the status quo very much, we don't have to think too deeply about what our economy is doing, we don't have to change our priority to chase growth in GDP.

“This time, we're just gonna make it a little bit greener. And the difficulty is we really haven't been very successful in doing that.”

Without questioning the economics of growth necessary rapid changes will not happen, he says.

“We have to really, really work hard to get our carbon emissions down, to stop the loss of nature, the devastation of species, the impact on our oceans and our soils and on the atmosphere.

“And if we just put all our eggs in the basket of green growth, we tend not to focus on the speed at which those changes have to happen.

“And that's why I'm just a little bit sceptical of it.”

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Photo: Tim Jackson

It's 50 years since the book Limits to Growth came out, but we seem to be treading the same ground, he says.

"There’s been lots of conversations, work that's been done by the original authors of Limits to Growth, and the work of the Club of Rome, the work that's been done in inter-governmental organisations in the United Nations, the work that's been done in universities, the work that's been done by the kids, when they turned out for the school strikes Fridays for Future.

“Their voices were clarion clear, they had a kind of an understanding of the challenge that was amazing for 15 and 16-year olds.

“And, yet, somehow, our politics and our economics has resisted that conversation.”

His book does not seek to discourage aspiration, he says.

“That hope for a better life for us and for our children, it's something that we can't afford to throw away, we can't afford to throw that hope away.

“And yet it's being taken from our kids because of the damage that our economy has caused to the planet.

“And we have to put something in its place, we have to put a vision of what it means to be human, in its place.”

Poverty and stark inequality are unsustainable, Jackson says.

“Poverty, in some sense, is legitimated by the idea of growth because as long as you keep everything growing, those rich people can continue to get richer and richer, as long as the poor people get richer as well.

“And there's two things wrong with that; one is it has not happened, that idea that wealth will trickle down from the richest to the poorest, just hasn't happened. In practice, actually, we've seen huge increases in the inequalities in society.”

We can't afford poverty in a world in which there are environmental limits, he says.

“And that's the truth of the matter.”

Tim Jackson is a specialist in sustainable development at the University of Surrey, Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity and on Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Advisory Panel.