books growth

Book review: Post Growth, by Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth is one of the most influential books on the postgrowth bookshelf, written in the wake of the financial crisis and clearly articulating the limits of economic growth as a measure of success. This book also comes in the wake of crisis, a time when “alongside an uncomfortable reminder of what matters most in life, we were being given a history lesson in what economics looks like when growth disappears completely.”

That’s the thing with postgrowth economics. Ten years ago it was easily dismissed as a utopian irrelevance, something advocated by idealists who didn’t really understand economics. Today it looks a whole lot more practical. We didn’t choose a postgrowth economy. It has been imposed upon us by circumstances, and all of a sudden the question of whether you can run an economy without growth looks more immediately useful.

Jackson’s new book, Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, offers a perspective on this world after growth. Once we let go of the very obviously flawed idea of endless economic growth as our metric of success, what becomes possible?

Post Growth is more a book of philosophy than economics. It draws on literary and poetic traditions rather than economic theorists. It’s not concerned with numbers and modelling (see Jackson’s collaborations with Peter Victor for that stuff) and instead it’s full of people. Each chapter has a main character, a person whose life and thought embodies the kind of vision of human flourishing that Jackson wants to explore. GDP is investigated through Robert Kennedy’s promising electoral run. The breakthrough science of symbiosis, as discovered by Lyn Margulis, forms the basis for discussing cooperation and competition. One of my personal heroes (who I’ve written a bit about this year), Wangari Maathai, demonstrates the wisdom of investing prudently in the future rather than rinsing the present for a quick profit.

It’s an unusual approach for a book on economics to devote so much attention to, say, the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. It’s perhaps not so surprising when you remember that Tim Jackson was a successful dramatist before he was an economist. His radio plays have often introduced scientific or philosophical ideas, and the dramatist’s skill of identifying symbolic moments in the everyday life of a protagonist is brought to bear here.

Through this cast of characters, the book investigates a variety of post growth themes, and some less familiar ones in the literature too. There’s a chapter on how a fixation with growth has been terrible for health, and how a post growth economy would recognise the importance of balance. I particularly liked the chapter on work, which looks past the usual left/right concerns and asks what makes work worthwhile. There’s a discussion of flow, and the role that rewarding work plays in a good life.

There’s also an important section on power, which is often missing in these sorts of debates. How do we get around the conundrum that “those who want change tend not to be in power” while “those who hold power tend not to want change”? The chapter looks at the social contract and the role of civil disobedience in holding power to account.

Post Growth is perhaps the most imaginative book I’ve read on the topic of economic growth, a lyrical and thoughtful account of where capitalism fails and the many ways that things could be done better: “More is not always a virtue. Struggle is not the only basis for existence. Competition is not the only response to struggle. Drudgery is not the only reward for labour. Productivity doesn’t exhaust the return to work. Investment is not a meaningless accumulation of financial wealth. Denial is not the only response to our own mortality.”

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