Earlier this year, the Sustainable Development Commission (the independent watchdog on, well, Sustainable Development) released a report called “Prosperity without Growth.” It dared to suggest that endless economic growth might not be good for either humanity or the planet. It made a bit of a splash and here, rushed into print to keep the momentum going, is the full-length book of the same name, authored by Tim Jackson. (Earthscan, 2009, 264 pages)
It’s relatively easy reading, if you’re familiar with the academic style of writing. If you are not, you may find it a bit dry. Jackson’s intended audience is, I think, the policy makers and the people who influence them. That’s fair enough, but this is NOT the popular book that is going to have people emailing and facebooking about the perils of economic growth and the need for a rethink. Maybe that book can’t be written?
Roughly speaking, the first half lays out the problems and points out that increased efficiency isn’t going to mean less impact on the earth. The second half talks of the solutions, e.g. chapters entitled “the transition to a sustainable economy” and “a lasting prosperity.” Therein lies the all-too-typical problem of books of this nature: so much time is spent laying out the problem, that there is little space left for “solutions,” which tend to be a bit of a rushed shopping list. This book is much less guilty than some other recent efforts (e.g. All Consuming), and perhaps Jackson is keeping more specific recommendations in reserve for a sequel. Or perhaps he wanted to avoid the danger of being too prescriptive, of building castles in the air without proper foundations.
This book will NOT give you an overview of current thinking about the dilemmas of economics and environment. With a couple of exceptions (some brief mentions of Mishan and Daly) Jackson, in this book, ignores the existing body of work. He especially ignores the efforts of eco-Marxists/eco-feministslike Ted Benton, Joel Kovel, John Bellamy Foster, and James O’Connor, Ariel Salleh and so forth, presumably because he doesn’t want to taint his brand and offer critics an easy excuse to ignore him. That’s an understandable tactic, but it means there are a whole host of concepts- commodity fetishism, false needs, the treadmill of production, the metabolic rift, that don’t get a look in.
Reading the book, with its complaints of over-consumption, you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t being pushed by a multi-billion pound advertising industry. Popular books like No Logo, Fast Food Nation and the like do not get a look in, which is a pity, since they are the kind of reference point that many readers will be aware of.
I suspect Jackson is hoping to do for ‘steady-state economics’ what Lord Stern did for climate change economics, but I don’t think it will work. I don’t think he has quite the same social capital as the former World Bank chief economist and senior Veep, aka Baron Stern of Brentford, and the argument is a harder sell than Stern’s- it’s a much more difficult thing for people to get their heads around. Jackson surely knows this latter point, but also underplays the vested interests- both psychological and societal between us and the acts needed to save ourselves via his prescriptions.
This book, which should be compulsory reading for the top bods of the City Council and Regional Development Agency, will confirm the already-converted in their views, offer a few ideas to those curious about our species’ fate, but do little or nothing for those who simply don’t care or those blind pro-growthers out there.
My first little guide to Ecological Economics (2000? 2001? So long ago I don’t remember)