books economics growth

Prosperity without growth – foundations for the economy of tomorrow

One of the books I recommend most often on this blog and elsewhere is Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. It came out in 2009 and introduced a whole new audience to the dilemma of economic growth on a finite planet. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s a good time, because a new edition has just been released.

Having read the original Sustainable Development Commission report and the first edition of the book, I asked Jackson whether I should read the new edition as well. He said yes, and that he had started out planning to update it slightly, and ended up doing substantial rewriting. So I did read it, and while I won’t write a full review (the last one still stands) I will mention a few of the new bits.

A lot has happened since 2009, but the economy has continued to disappoint and growth remains a top priority. In politics at least, postgrowth questions are still verboten, something the book addresses rather well. Governments have a responsibility to maintain stability, and in a growth economy that means growth. But they also have a responsibility to keep an eye on sustainability, inequality, and human welfare. Often those turn out to be opposing goals. “The state itself is deeply conflicted, striving on the one hand to encourage consumer freedoms that lead to growth and on the other to protect social goods and defend ecological limits.” With several years of conversations with politicians and policy makers behind him, Jackson is alert to the issues here. The book has a little more on policy, and on how we build a progressive state that has the freedom to act beyond the growth imperative.

Those conversations have also informed extra material on some key objections. When the book was first written, nobody had attempted to model a postgrowth scenario with the UK economy. (The treasury has the best economic modelling tools, and they don’t let anyone run postgrowth questions through it.) So Jackson has been working with Peter Victor, who has done some of the most detailed research on handling an economy without growth. Up to now that’s all modeled on the Canadian economy, so it’s good to see some experimenting with Britain. The book doesn’t dive into the technical details, but it answers some of the key questions – what might happen to inequality in a shrinking economy? Or how you could ever achieve full employment without growth? The book demonstrates that there are answers to these and many other common objections from both left and right. “A coherent ‘post-growth’ macroeconomics is entirely possible” says Jackson.

It’s interesting to see how the growth debate has changed in the last few years. One development has been a rise in the degrowth movement, so the book discusses that. Another is the creeping realisation among mainstream economists that slower growth may be structural, and words like ‘secular stagnation’ keep cropping up. This strengthens the case for a postgrowth economics considerably – this isn’t a utopian theory for ecological economists. It’s entirely possible that the age of economic growth is coming to a natural close in many parts of the world, so we’re going to have to start thinking about it whether we like it or not. This is something that Kate Raworth mentions in Doughnut Economics as well.

As before, some of the most useful material in the book is the uncomfortable mathematics around green growth and decoupling. The figures have been updated and are more urgent than ever – as we’ve discussed on the blog before, decoupling is a lovely idea that just doesn’t work when you do the maths. “The speed at which resource and emission efficiencies have to improve if we are to meet carbon targets are at best heroic, if the economy is growing relentlessly.” I’ll say more about this another time, as it’s one of the most important messages in the book.

Eight years on from the first book, the postgrowth movement has diversified and grown. Some of the big questions have been answered, others remain. But it looks more important than ever, and Prosperity Without Growth is still the best place to start.

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