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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tim Jackson: Building a new economic model fit for a low carbon world is ‘the most urgent task of our times'

Prosperity without growth

The Earthscan book version of ‘Prosperity without Growth’ substantially updates Tim Jackson’s groundbreaking report for the Sustainable Development Commission, which rapidly became the most downloaded document in the Commission’s nine year history and contributed to a burgeoning debate about economic growth and its consequences for people and planet.

In the new book, Prof. Tim Jackson from the University of Surrey argues that building a new economic model fit for a low carbon world is ‘the most urgent task of our times.’ He says, ‘The current model isn’t working. Instead of delivering widespread prosperity, our economies are undermining wellbeing in the richest nations and failing those in the poorest. The prevailing system has already led us to the brink of economic collapse and if left unchecked it threatens a climate catastrophe.’

Global carbon emissions have risen 40% since 1990 and will continue to rise inexorably unless action is taken urgently. By the year 2050, the carbon content of each dollar of economic activity will need to be a staggering 130 times lower than it is today, if we are to make room for much-needed development in the poorer nations and remain within a 2 °C warming.

He says it won’t be easy. ‘We are caught in a profound dilemma. Economic growth is the default mechanism for achieving social stability. And at the same time it drives the scale of ecological damage. What’s needed now is an urgent commitment to building a different kind of economic system, one which puts people and planet at its heart. For the advanced economies of the western world, prosperity without growth is no longer a utopian dream. It is a financial and ecological necessity.’

Jackson challenges the belief that growth in material/resource use can be decoupled from growth in material/resource consumption via increased technological productivity - more for less. This is key tenet of what has been called ‘ecological modernisation.’ But he says that improvements in energy (and carbon) intensity are offset by increases in the scale of economic activity - a macro economic version of the so-called ‘rebound’ effect. Moreover, even if we can find ways of using resources more efficiently in net terms, we are wanting more, and so are using more resources overall.

While, this may be true so far, what would happen if, for example, we switched entirely over to renewables as our energy source? There would still be some material resource requirements, e.g., for constructing the systems, but the main operational input (fuel) would be zero and would remain so, however much energy we used, and could be supplied up to the overall limit of renewable energy availability - which ultimately is set mainly by the level of incoming solar energy and the efficiency of the system we can develop for using it. Of course, there may be ecological and resource limits to economic growth before that ultimate energy limit, e.g., competing land-uses for food production. That clearly is an issue with biofuels. But for most other renewables the limits seem some way off. So, while we really do need to begin to face these issues, if we can make the transition to using renewables, there could be room for continued growth for a while yet.

That said, it would obviously be easier to meet our needs, and make the transition, if we were less demanding, less driven by consumption as part of our sense of identity. We might even be happier, and less conflictual. That’s the basis of the idea of moving to ‘quality’ of consumption rather than ‘quantity.’ However that disguises some social and economic issues. Well off people are able to be more selective about quality and, if they want, can choose less eco-impacting options. The current economic system is also well able to meet this kind of need - profitably. But what about the rest - and especially those in developing countries living at or below subsistence level? They don’t consume much at present, and so are in effect outside the system. Many others will also be unhappy to give up expectations of benefits from continued growth in material consumption. Tom Burke (a visiting professor at Imperial College London) once put it nicely: ‘Life has got better in unsustainable ways,’ but not everyone is willing to change. We need to think in terms of sustainable consumption, but as Maurie Cohen, and Joseph Murphy put it in Exploring Sustainable Consumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences (Pergamon, 2001) any action that tries to limit the use of material objects but does not offer alternative ways of satisfying social and psychological objectives is likely to fail.’ We need new motivations and new visions of what we feel life is about.

It is important to talk about the limits of the current approach - that provides negative warnings, but we also need to look to the future, both to the possible attractions of a less consumerist world, and also to its limits. Jackson talks of ‘prosperity within limits,’ but it’s not really clear what those limits are - technically or socially. Green energy technology might extend them, and so might green living. While changing technology is usually seen as easier than achieving social changes, we don’t know if either will be enough long term.
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