generosity growth sustainability

The Wilberforce Award – because endless growth is not sustainable

There’s been an unexpected twist to the economic growth debate in the last couple of weeks, with the launch of the Wilberforce Award. Australian businessman Dick Smith has offered $1 million to “a young person under 30 who can impress me by becoming famous through his or her ability to show leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy.”

The award will be announced in a year’s time, and there’s no application process. Smith will be watching the media to choose his winner, so the only way to win it is to get on with presenting the case for an end to economic growth. And lest anyone be tempted to point out the ironies of enriching oneself by advocating an end to growth, Smith stipulates that the funds will go towards “advancing the momentum the winner will have already achieved.”

“It has become obvious to me,” he writes, “that my generation has over exploited our wonderful world – and it’s younger people who will pay the price. Like many people my age, I’ve benefited from a long period of constant economic and population growth – we are addicted to it. But sooner or later this consumption growth will have an end. We appear to be already bumping against the limits of what our planet can sustain and the evidence is everywhere to see.”

The name references William Wilberforce, who argued and won the case against slavery despite a popular perception that the economy could not function without slaves. Economic growth is similarly entrenched, and it may take a visionary of Wilberforce’s calibre to break its hold.

The Wilberforce connection was particularly striking to me this afternoon as I read about the award for the first time. If I got up from my desk and walked 20 yards to the office kitchen, I’d be standing on the very the spot where Wilberforce and his collaborators met, albeit three floors up. The office I’m in is attached to Christchurch and Upton Chapel in London, and right out the window is the steeple that was donated by the family of Abraham Lincoln to thank the church for its role in ending slavery. It’s now a rather odd looking office block and a hub for business start ups and charities, including Stop the Traffik.

Anyway, I began this year with the Beyond Growth project and the hope that 2010 would be the year we mainstream the growth debate. It’s not there yet, but it’s tip-toeing closer every week. The Wilberforce Award could represent a big leap forward.

It’s exciting to see someone put their money where their mouth is on economic growth, and I hope the offer gets a wider audience in the media. As a gesture alone it could be very helpful in raising awareness. My only hesitation is that the award will go to an individual rather than to a project or a movement. But as Joshua Nelson suggests in his response at Steady State Revolution, perhaps it’s just what’s needed to bring people together. I’m looking forward to seeing what Dick Smith’s generosity inspires in the next twelve months.


  1. Jeremy,

    Thanks for the link! Yea, this is exciting stuff! I can’t wait to see how the things work out. There’s a few of us already talking about ways to band together (more on that later).

    I think this award poses a great opportunity for those of us working on this cause to not only work together, but also use the media and money to create a movement.


  2. Great news.

    I like what you have written: “Anyway, I began this year with the Beyond Growth project and the hope that 2010 would be the year we mainstream the growth debate. It’s not there yet, but it’s tip-toeing closer every week.”

    It was only about a year ago that I was wondering with a friend: Does anybody else think these thoughts.

    Within a year it has become clear that there are many interested in changing the current way of life into something more sustainable, more community based, better, happier,…
    And it is definitely growing and growing.
    The recent elections in Britain and Australia even give a glimmer of hope that some of this movement has already started to cause ripples in mainstream political life.

    I look forward to seeing the results of this competition.

    I like that it targets youth, as actually I think too often it is the youth that are far too caught up in consumerism, and there is a need to engage them in sustainability and a desire for community.

    To Joshua (above) – sounds great. Good luck. I was also thinking that I’d like to cooperate or promote or do something for some of the candidates for this competition.

  3. Paul,

    That’s great! The more help the better! These are dire issues in need of motivated people to help spread the word.

    I know the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy has been an valuable resource for me and I have enjoyed volunteering with the group. They recently made me their Washington State Chapter Director, too! Anyway, that is one group always looking for people to get involved. I can give you more information on them, too, if you would like – email me.

    There is also the New Economics Foundation in the UK, as well as the GrowthBusters in Australia. I’m not sure where you are in the world, but this group of like-minded people out there are always welcoming to new comers to the cause!

    In terms of the group forming to tackle the award, we will welcome help as well!


  4. Under 30?? hey, you’re still in with a chance,aren’t you Jeremy?? This time next year you could be a millionaire!

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