books economics growth sustainability

Prosperity Without Growth, by Tim Jackson

pwg“Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries” Tim Jackson warned in his report for the Sustainable Development Commission earlier this year. Fortunately he remains undaunted, and the report has been expanded and released as a book: Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a finite planet.

As you may have noticed, the response to the financial crisis has been to try to restore the status quo as soon as possible, returning us the pattern of steady growth that we had become accustomed to and that our capitalist model demands. ‘Stability – Growth – Jobs’ said the banner at the G20 summit. The problem is that in the longer term, stability and growth are incompatible. “An economy predicated on the perpetual expansion of debt-driven materialistic consumption is unsustainable ecologically, problematic socially, and unstable economically” writes Jackson.

The book goes on to elucidate three fundamental reasons why the growth model of economics is impossible to sustain. Firstly, it assumes that material wealth is an adequate measure of prosperity, when it is actually pretty obvious that a life worth living is much more complicated than that. Slaves to rising GDP, we sacrifice community and wellbeing in the hope that just a little more, and just a little bit more after that, will make everything alright. This is futile. The growth model is now undermining our happiness and causing a ‘social recession’. “Our technologies, our economy and our social aspirations are all mis-aligned with any meaningful definition of prosperity”

Secondly, growth is unevenly distributed, and so is doomed to fail at providing a basic standard of living for everyone. Globally, the richest fifth of the world takes home 74% of the income, while the poorest fifth gets just 2%. Since poverty is relative, growth will never fix it. It’s a mathematical impossibility. You could grow the world economy for a million years and still not make poverty history.

And that brings us to point number three – we obviously can’t grow the economy for a million years. We’ve already gone into ecological overshoot. “We simply don’t have the ecological capacity” says Jackson. “By the end of the century, our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the destruction of habitats, the decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migrations and almost inevitably war.”

That’s the case against. There are some easy answers, and Jackson dedicates a chapter apiece to these – ‘the myth of de-coupling’, the idea that you can grow without increasing material consumption, and the ‘green new deal’. Decoupling only works up to a point, he concludes. In theory, an advanced economy becomes more efficient in its resource use, meaning less CO2 is emitted and fewer resources are needed. In reality this doesn’t include imports, so all the materials use and emissions just happen elsewhere, perhaps in China. Even where true de-coupling does happen, the economy gains carbon efficiency at a rate of 0.7% a year, and it would need to be at least 11% a year to avoid climate change. The Green New Deal is a more promising idea and should be pursued, investing heavily in renewable energy and clean technology and stimulating the economy at the same time. Ultimately it still commits us to a growth strategy and is therefore not a long term solution.

Instead, we need to change the entire system, and change the culture that goes with it – developing “a new ecologically literate macro-economics” and “shiftting the social logic of consumerism”. Neither of these is an easy task, but it’s not impossible either. A new macro-economics could take shape around an alternative to GDP, something that honours the broader realities of human flourishing. The ‘iron cage of consumerism’ can be taken apart by reducing inequality and building community resilience. The government has a huge part to play in creating a level playing field, setting limits and resetting our national values.

This is where Prosperity Without Growth comes into its own. It’s easy to lament the unsustainable nature of growth economics. It’s slightly harder to re-imagine it on the other side. Hardest of all  is to detail the transition, how you get from growth to a steady state without breaking the economy. That’s the missing piece, and Tim Jackson has boldly stepped into the breach with a book that is clear, balanced and free of political bias. This isn’t a blueprint for such a transition, but it does show that it is possible. For that, Prosperity Without Growth has got to be one of the most important books of the year.

The tragedy is that our economic system requires growth. Without it, we have recession and job losses. A revolution would be a messy business and a catastrophe, but social transformation is not just possible, but vital. “The clearest message from the financial crisis of 2008 is that our current model of economic success is fundamentally flawed” Jackson writes in his conclusion. “For the advanced economies of the western world, prosperity without growth is not a utopian dream. It is a financial and ecological necessity.”


  1. Jeremy,

    Great review! I look forward to picking up the book version. I just recently read the report from the SDC of the same name. Is the book just a bound version on the same report or does it elaborate more? Rather, did you gain anything new from the book versus the report?


    1. I read the report a while back, but I’ve just compared them. It look like the book is longer and pulls it all together in a final chapter. It also goes into a little more explanation of how the economy works, so it’s an easier and slightly less technical read for those new to the subject.

      Most of it is word for word though, so if you’ve just read the report, maybe there’s not so much to gain from the book. Might be one to pick up a little later.

  2. Jeremy,

    I’ve just found this site. I’ve yet to read Jackson’s report but your review said a couple of things I find troubling: (I’m assuming you’re broadly in agreement with Jackson, you seem to be)

    1. The assertion that current levels of growth are ecologically unsustainable may seem crushingly obvious to you, but very few people who have looked closely at the topic agree. Nick Stern, Joe Romm, and the global consulting firm McKinsey, have all produced plans to keep climate change below 2C (by keeping atmospheric greenhouse gases below 450ppm) at minimal cost to economic growth. Not only can our current lifestyles in the west be made carbon sustainable, they argue, but can continue to improve, and be better shared with poorer nations. Do you reject these analyses outright, think they’re overoptimistic, or what?

    (It’s possible to have a wealthy Western lifestyle and be surprisingly sustainable. If you live in a shared flat, are vegetarian, use public transport, fly minimally and put on a jumper before turning on your heating, you’re really not a very big part of the problem. Wealth isn’t the issue: dirty energy and waste are.)

    2. The point about development is flat-out wrong, to the point of really having pissed me off, to be honest. Poverty is measured using relative measures in domestic politics, but in development it’s typically measured using absolute standards – $US PPP, usually, hence the oft-quoted ‘a dollar a day’. Economic growth has made real, vast differences in the lives of millions in China, Africa and elsewhere, raising life expectancy, reducing child mortality, and making life less uncertain and more bearable. Yes, nothing like as much of the benefits of growth accrue to the poor as should. But it’s just silly to argue that the poor have not got richer, just because the rich have got richer faster. You try telling a woman who used to have to walk miles for water each day, and now doesn’t because her growing country’s government built water pipes, that she’s no better off because the executives of Goldman Sachs make a lot of money.

    This is an old post, so apologies if your views have evolved. I’m sure you’re more thoughtful than your silly blog title suggests.

    Thank you,

    Rav Casley Gera

    1. It’s a contentious blog title, I’ll give you that. But I don’t think it’s silly, and I hope you’ve read enough blog posts to see that there’s a thought process going on here.

      On your questions – yes, I’m well aware that most people don’t share my view of growth. I read the papers, and hear the politicians speeches. I’m also aware of Stern and others and their plans. A lot of it hinges on 450 rather than 350ppm, and often on a longer time frame than many others would like. Stern even admits that his solutions err towards political feasibility rather than science.

      On point two, don’t tear your hear out just yet – I grew up in Africa and I’m passionate about growth in those places that don’t have enough. Neither am I naive enough to say that Africa is poor simply because the West is rich. If you read the paragraph again, you’ll see that what I’m disagreeing with is the simplistic assumption that if we grow the global economy more, poverty will be solved. It’s the same in a national economy. If wealth is poorly distributed, you need massive amounts of growth to achieve even a tiny rise in living standards for the poorest.

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