Thursday, January 19, 2012

Prosperity Without Growth

I just finished reading the book Prosperity Without Growth.  It is a book designed to describe the fundamental flaws with current economics with regards to environmental sustainability and tries to come to some conclusions about how we can fix the problems we have encountered.  The simple summary is as follows:  Current economics is based on the idea of constant growth.  This growth uses up more resources and creates more waste every year.  There are limits to resources and waste capacity therefore we *must* at some point change our model to one where such growth is no longer required.

It is hard to argue any of the main premises of this book.  Tim Jackson very convincingly tells us that we cannot continue to increase our consumption of resources by a fixed percentage to infinity and that there are very good reasons to reverse this trend as soon as possible to avoid the catastrophes of climate change and environmental degradation.  He points out quite correctly that there are huge benefits to be gained in the developing world from economic expansion but that much of the developed world seems to gain no benefit in human happiness or prosperity from their extreme level of wealth.  I really respect how realistic Jackson is when he talks about how hard it is to massively overhaul the ways in which government, business, and people behave and I give him a lot of credit for not coming off like a revolutionary.  He approaches the topic logically and ends up at arriving at fairly extreme conclusions that I can't see any argument against.

The trouble is that even though Jackson is right that we need to very quickly change our world view and economic model to avoid huge problems I think his conclusion that it is feasible is wrong.  There is nothing logically or scientifically that would prevent society from accomplishing his goals but people who want a fancier gadget to impress the Joneses aren't affected by arguments by logic and science.  Not enough affected, at any rate.  The trouble is that he isn't asking something on the order of magnitude of fixing the ozone layer or avoiding acid rain.  We can't just retool our refrigerators or put scrubbers on smoke stacks, we have to give up flying almost entirely, completely overhaul the social rules that govern society, rewrite government priorities and mandates and scrap most of our current economics.  The level of sacrifice and change required is simply too much for people to accept in the face of long term consequences that mostly affect poor people living far away.

Of course we do have to change, and we will.  When the temperature really does rise and resources become more and more scarce we will eventually have to shift away from using so much and polluting so much.  I just don't think it will happen in the timeframe that Jackson is proposing, nor will it happen without substantial catastrophe to galvanize the masses into cooperating.  I think this book has a ton of fantastic ideas about how we could go about creating a society that can have prosperity without growth and happiness without environmental degradation.  If you are interested in the topic it is a great read.  Unfortunately I believe Jackson when he talks about how incredible the adjustments need to be and I don't think we are capable of making them as soon as he suggests we must.

Picture from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. It is certainly obvious that we can't continue to increase consumption of resources at a fixed percentage per year indefinitely. But is that what we are doing, and is it what we have ever been doing? I remember seeing a shirt once that said, "Only an economist could think that infinite expansion in a finite world is possible." But essentially limitless expansion is completely possible, as long as we keep redefining progress.

    I recall Bjorn Lomborg saying "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stone." Progress and expansion is increasingly being defined as growth of electronically stored information. I find it unlikely we will ever have prosperity without growth, because whatever prosperity means to us will end up being the thing we measure when we measure growth. Prosperity without growth in physical resources consumed is more than possible, but I think growth will always be there.