Tim Jackson and Prosperity without Growth

Lecture by Professor Tim Jackson (author Prosperity Without Growth), Newcastle University, September 2011

Professor Jackson’s lecture was unusually erudite and engaging. Fortunately the big Curtis Auditorium was packed so many people got to hear his words of wisdom. Above all, he conclusively demonstrated that what he called the ‘old economy’ was finished, even though politicians, civil servant and business leaders run around helplessly trying to find some means of reviving it. He outlined the contours of a new economy that can satisfy genuine human needs, whilst not trashing the ecological base on which any form of economy inescapably depends.

The language with which it is conducted however, often befogs debate about these critical matters. Thus Newcastle-Gateshead councils’ One Core Strategy local development plan uses much of the language employed by Jackson (‘prosperity’, ‘sustainability’ and so forth) to justify a concerted attempt to revive the ‘old economy’. The government’s changes to the National Planning Policy Framework have also been presented by ministers as a step towards more ‘sustainable development’.

Elsewhere there are individual commentators like Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand who are using ‘sustainability’ to justify a radical expansion of both genetic engineering and nuclear power. Others like Amory Lovins argue that ‘smart growth’ can do the trick, avoiding any need for more radical change. So there is an unavoidable battle over the very meaning of such language.

Nice one Tim

Professor Jackson could not possibly cover even a fraction of what needs to be said in his allotted time but, hopefully, it may not be too churlish to note one or two absences, ones to do with words not said. First, however, a certain politeness in Jackson’s approach might be noted. Perhaps this stems from his personality, perhaps from too much time Jackson has spent in academia and the (outer) corridors of power (the recently chopped Sustainable Development Commission etc).

However, a bit more anger might be in order, not least to mobilise ordinary people. It might help to denounce more full-bloodedly the rottenness of our socio-economic order: the sheer stench of the present economic structures, the greed and irresponsibility, the breadth and depth of human suffering, the repression of protest, the violence against other forms of life… Indeed a TV show like Tamara Ecclestone: Billion $$ Girl or the exposés of the ‘City’ in Private Eye might perhaps do more to open eyes about individual profligacy or corporate abuses than the most technically correct economic graph. Certainly we need to pack emotional punches as well as sharpen rational arguments.

What did not come through forcefully enough from Jackson’s lecture was the way certain individuals and groups gain profit and power from ‘business-as-usual’. They systematically deny problems, witch-hunt those who raise alarm (witness the story of Rachel Carson), disown their responsibilities (remember Bhopal), drag their feet when action becomes unavoidable (crawling pace over global warming) and sabotage alternatives that threaten their exalted position (look at how the nuclear industry has tried to strangle solar rivals). We cannot ‘work together’ (as ‘reformists’ so often advocate) with people who, deep down, have no intention of co-operating with us.


Perhaps the biggest word missing from Professor Jackson’s talk was a small five letter one: ‘scale’. It was absent in several ways. One of his slides, for example, featured the conventional economic model centred on the circular interaction between firms and households. But Jackson did not directly address the issue of the very size of some of those firms, something that can make them “too big to fail” (at our collective cost… to their further profit) and which gives them such political ‘clout’ that mainstream politicians quail before them.

There is still more important matter of the ‘scale’ of all those households and the people they contain. But human numbers did not get a proper emphasis. It is not just a matter of their pressure on physical space and resources. The ‘weight’ of each voter in society’s ‘household’, for instance, inevitably goes down with a growing number of voters, not an argument against democracy per se, but still something to be taken into account, not least in gargantuan excrescences like the EU. It might also be noted that some of the world’s worst violence is happening in lands with the most rapidly growing populations: it is no mere coincidence.

Then there is the scale of the total human economy (numbers x. per capita consumption x. type of technology used) in relation to the total ecosystem as well as equivalent local and regional carrying capacities. There must be some proportion or else ruin must follow, as surely as night follows day. Obviously if we have fewer people, the ecosystem could cope with greater consumption per person (not just goods and services but comparative intangibles like ‘privacy’).

But it is total pressures that tell. So we need ways of regulating the quality and quantity of human interactions with the rest of nature. Jackson tended to focus more on the need for new indicators and targets within the human economy (all necessary) rather than measures advocated by the likes of ‘steady-state’ economist Herman Daly to set limits to those total impacts. Daly also stresses the need for limits on economic differentials within society. If we must bake a smaller cake, it is even more urgent to share it out fairly.

Jackson effectively demolished one assumption after another of the ‘old economy’ loyalists, the growth boosters and the snake oil salesmen. Yet, at the end of his talk, the audience was not left with a crystal-clear presentation of the fundamental ‘paradigm’ choice: growth (of any shape or form) or the steady-state. [The latter is not some fixed point: rather it is more like the dynamic balance that a successful cyclist has to maintain] John Stuart Mill recognised this back in the 1840s so it is scarcely a modern insight. But it is still one that needs to be loudly voiced midst all today’s clamour “to get the economy growing again”.

Yet one more word was not heard loud and clear at this point: overshoot. There are, of course, dangers in voicing an excess of ‘bad news’ and, in any case, it must be presented sensitively. But facts are facts. Indeed, it only compounds the crisis if the reality is not faced that humankind – in toto – has already transgressed several ecological safety margins. Pursuit of growth of any kind at that point is like shovelling coal into the boiler of a runaway train heading for a cliff.[1]

The proliferation of all sorts of social ills suggests that, beyond a certain point, pursuit of more growth triggers parallel breakdowns within the purely human community too. Both individuals and whole communities can only be ‘stretched’ so far, before the social fabric begins to tear. Here Jackson did indeed make some excellent points about the absence of any linear correlation between economic growth and increased consumption, on the one hand, and, on the other, personal and social well-being. It is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing, let alone bad ones.


Discussion of these matters particularly suffers because of a veritable fog created by vague words like ‘growth’ and ‘development’. Those two in particular have come to mean whatever their users want them to mean. Indeed, they can be used to justify all sorts of unsustainable and unworthy things. The grossly over-praised Brundtland Report thus advocated an expansion of nuclear power, the putting of more land under the plough and a big growth in world trade. Another word is sometimes added: ‘quality’ (as in ‘quality of life’) or ‘qualitative’ (as opposed to quantitative) growth. Then ‘choice’ is also used promiscuously.

It might be wondered if all those heads nodding in agreement with Professor Jackson at the Curtis Auditorium event were actually agreeing with quite different things. In any case, the whole ‘old economy’ was denounced in generalities and, like sin, no-one was likely to stand up and publicly demand more of it. Of course, where it comes down to reducing, let alone banning of, specific activities and products, that unanimity might rapidly disintegrate. Thus calls for something as simple as a lowered motorway speed limit, desirable on many grounds, trigger virulent opposition.

But there are also deeper problems. ‘Personal development’ may be very worthwhile for the individual, while most of us welcome some choice in our lives. Yet all these things do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on physical things. One might develop ‘musically’, for example, but it might help to have musical instruments, hi-fi systems and concert halls, all of which come with ecological price tags.

Furthermore, individuals can only do so much; usually one (worthy) option comes at the expense of another, if only for reason of time constraints. Limits-to-growth and trade-offs apply again… and again, it is something lost in the verbal fog of ‘personal development’, ‘quality’ and ‘choice’.

Wreckers’ Ball

Professor Jackson’s picture of the world tended to be somewhat lacking in flesh and blood. Real people and real organisations were absent. It sometimes seemed as if the ills he so deftly described were happening of their own accord or were simply due to misunderstandings and misinformation. But forces like so-called Big Tobacco, Big Sugar, Big ‘Pharma’, the Fossil Fuel Barons and their ilk know exactly what they are doing and how much they stand to gain from doing more of it. Have we forgotten names such as Monsanto, Enron, Halliburton, BP, Cargill, Dow, BAE, Goldman Sachs and their ilk?

And we haven’t started on assorted religious fanatics, political crazies (Peru’s ‘Shining Path’, etc.)… not to forget a certain Jeremy Clarkson. Governments too play their malign part (Trident, foreign wars, new nuclear power programmes, support for genetic engineering, a wealth of ‘perverse’ subsidies, tax cuts for the super-rich, blind eyes to tax havens, etc… and, in some countries, economic incentives for large families). Then there are the assorted kleptocrats (Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier and so forth, though it seems unfair to leave out the likes of Warren Buffett, the Koch Brothers, the Duke of Westminster and their kind too), ‘mafia states’ (Russia, etc.), non-states (Somalia and co.) plus a weird and not wonderful variety of ‘rogue states’: Syria, Iran, Israel, North Korea… oh yes, and the USA

So we need to be frank and forthright about all those vested interests. That includes full recognition of those large sections of the general public who, either as workers or consumers, support, in one way or another, destruction-as-usual (Jackson’s work, it must be noted, is very perceptive about the psychology of consumerism). Many ordinary citizens play a willing, indeed wilful part of the waste and despoliation around us (from ‘litter louts’ to ‘petrolheads’). There is indeed a vast ‘anti-sustainability’ army with many generals and many, many more foot soldiers.

There are plenty of examples of this mass zeal for consumerism. The average wedding cost around £18,600 in 2011. It is not just a conspiracy by retailers to flog more stuff (an average bride’s outfit now costing £1500, for example) but something in which millions enthusiastically participate. The list could go on and on. The point is to be honest about the breadth and depth of opposition to what Professor Jackson called the ‘new economy’. It certainly can be discouraging. But naïveté will lead to even greater discouragement.

It is all very well to call for a ‘national conversation’, a ‘great debate’, and ‘dialogue’. But what if they – the massed ranks assaulting the Earth – are not prepared to listen and will not talk. Look how long it took to take lead additives out of petrol even though the hard evidence was overwhelming. How many died quite unnecessarily in the meantime? Look at the failure to stop the hunters, trappers, poachers, poisoners, forest clear-cutters, ‘wall of death’ commercial fishers, factory farmers … and the consumers of their products who – together – are wiping out biodiversity. Will sweet words of reason stop them? If not, what? We certainly need to talk about that.

Blocked passages

Another word might help disperse the fog created by the language of ‘growth’ and ‘development’. It is throughput: in other words, the physical space, energy and raw material passing through the human economy, whatever its actual form, capitalist or otherwise. A comparison might be drawn with the ‘throughput’ of food in the ‘economy’ of the human body: it has to come from somewhere, it creates side-effects as it passes through, and, of course, it has to go somewhere. An excess of even the healthiest foodstuffs does more harm than good.

The actual economy too depends on certain sources (limited by nature) and sinks (their number and assimilative capacities similarly limited) while the use of the actual good and services thus obtained can be disruptive beyond a certain level (e.g. more cars > more congestion > demand for more roads…).

The very title of Professor Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth rightly draws attention to the need to curb growth and strive for greater ‘service’ (fulfilment, contentment and so forth) from lowered impacts on the Earth’s life-support systems. But there does come a point beyond which we cannot keep on squeezing more satisfaction from fewer things. Indeed the disruptive impacts of Peak Oil and so forth suggest that the landing might be a hell of a lot bumpier than the common narrative of a comparatively painless readjustment suggest.

No mention has been so far of that other variable: information. But it too depends on physical ‘holders’ (books, computers, cabling, CDs, DVDs, libraries, and so forth) and is therefore constrained. Human brains and sensory organs too suffer, beyond a certain point, from ‘overload’, i.e. excess throughput. Anyone who attends committees will be painfully aware of the counter-productive nature of excess throughput in terms of overladen agendas. Similarly, excessive throughput of data, targets, instructions and general co-ordination activity bedevils planning processes.

So all claims about smart growth, better planning, more research, the unleashing of human creativity, the construction of a ‘knowledge economy’ (a.k.a. the ‘weightless economy’), ‘dematerialisation’/’postmateriality’ and so forth do contain some wisdom but ultimately it all comes back to the ground: the Earth and the ‘rules’ that have enabled it to sustain life. It might not be a popular thought but perhaps the real challenge is not ‘prosperity without growth’ but ‘sustainable contraction’.

At your service

The ‘new economy’, as presented by Professor Jackson, seemed to depend a great deal on an expansion of the so-called service sector, including health, social care and education as well as opportunities for leisure and what he called ‘creativity’. Now many of these things are very useful. The collective and individual costs of sickness, neglect and ignorance should need no underlining. Most of us welcome the chance to go walking, do some gardening and in all sorts of other ways pursue what might be seen as ‘re-creation’.

But this whole sector of society does not necessarily carry a lower ‘footprint’ than the dark satanic mills of yesteryear. For a start, as noted above, these activities all come with price tags. Nature’s accounts do not distinguish the energy and matter embodied in armoured cars or ambulances, for example. Generally the service sector still depends on extractive and manufacturing industries for the buildings and equipment it uses, even if some of those items might now be made out of sight, in faraway places like China (and thus charged to their, not our, ecological bills). Large-scale transportation, with all its impacts, is central to much ‘service work’ (look at all the car journeys by care workers, for example).

These activities also have their own direct impacts. Hospitals, for example, generate considerable amounts of toxic waste. Education buildings have covered large areas of land with brick, concrete and tarmac. [Professor Jackson’s lecture took place in a building that typifies the hideous carbuncles that many universities have thrown up; indeed much of the central campus at Newcastle University was carved out by destroying working class housing]

Communication systems, not least the banks of servers underpinning the Internet, consume large amounts of electricity and, in some cases, scarce minerals (a cause of war in places like the Congo). Indeed the scale of so-called ‘e-waste’ is now becoming quite unsustainable. Surely little needs be added about the costs of sport and tourism, be it the ‘green cancer’ of golf courses, the environments gouged out by all terrain vehicles of one sort or another, the waters polluted by leisure craft[2]… An increasing number of footpaths have been eaten away simply by the sheer number of walkers.

Limits-to-growth apply to the service sector in other ways. Many of its institutions have grown so big and become so bureaucratised that they frustrate the goals they were created to serve. Well documented cases of abuse, neglect and incompetence in hospitals and social services abound, suggesting that the problem is not just under-investment and poor training.

The incidence of iatrogenesis, for example, should discourage simplistic thinking that more ‘health care’, ipso facto, means more health. Schools, college and universities also suffer from a gigantism that make the whole experience more like a factory production line (one, with hugely rewarded managers at the top, as in the NHS,) than a rigorous and rich education. The inequalities inherent in private health provision, private schooling, private sports facilities and so on need no comment.

More generally, the allegedly ‘weightless’ and ‘placeless’ economy in the making, built on knowledge and innovation, is actually totally dependent on material things. This does not change just because a lot of those things are manufactured in sweatshops on the other side of the world. Many of the new ‘creative industries’, ‘digital hubs’ and so forth often pay poor wages on short-term contracts and offer sub-standard working conditions. Gender equality is often worse than in older businesses while pay hierarchies are often extreme.

So perhaps we ought to be a bit cautious about Professor Jackson’s bright ideas about a new economy resting on an expansion of the service sector. It also has to be stressed that no new economy can be considered truly sustainable if the goods and services on which it rests could not be sustainably generalised across the planet.

In other words, we have to keep asking what would happen if the 1.3 billion inhabitants of China had, say, the same number of computers, hospital beds, or golf gear in equivalent per capita terms as, say, the UK.


In any discussion of economics, words like ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ soon pop up. Again it is vital not to take them at face value. Thus mainstream economists, agribusiness representatives and many others will, for example, extol what they claim to be the high output from modern farming. Genetic engineers go further, claiming that GMOs are vital to feed the world (they never say anything about the number of mouths nor the hugely wasteful diets but that is another matter)

Such language must be contested. Perhaps Professor Jackson might have tried to find time in his admittedly short presentation to stress the central question of weighing output against total costs (cost of all inputs, side-effects and all other costs). Thus the ‘success’ of high output farming has to be set against not just the energy and raw materials it needs but also the nutrient depletion, soil compaction, aquifer depletion, water pollution, the destruction of biodiversity and so forth. It ought to include other costs like the nutritional decline of many foodstuffs yielded by the system. Full accounting would also include the break-up of rural communities due to the loss of local jobs due to intensive farm mechanisation.

Proper ‘book-keeping’ would also adopt a long-term time frame. Modern farming systems might be yielding – at the moment – an unprecedented amount of produce. But they are fast undermining their own foundations. The impact of ‘Peak Oil’ alone will doom this way of producing food. So in many respects what seem to be lower yield systems actually will produce more and more of better quality, albeit only over the long run.

In reality, genuinely sustainable production systems and associated technologies will be slower and smaller than today’s superficially productive farms and factories. The sustainable cake will cater only for greatly reduced demand. The reason is simple. Any stable system has to use a lot of what it produces simply to protect, repair and generally maintain itself: there is less left over for other uses.

So an agriculture based on the cultivation of perennials (as advocated by the Kansas Land Institute, for example) would be much more ecologically sustainable than one that cultivates annual crops but its yearly food yield would be lower. It is true that there are areas where there is avoidable waste such as planned obsolescence which offer scope for a better use of the existing throughput. Beyond that, increased productivity is possible only at the cost an increase in overall entropy within a system.

This is the absolutely critical point that many ‘anti-austerity’ campaigners seem unwilling or unable to grasp. One may criticise the gross unfairness of current austerity programmes and the things they target. But any government committed to sustainability would have to make deep cuts, ones that dramatically lower the overall ‘throughput’ in the human economy. Those cuts would, in turn, mean less wherewithal for many current goods and services.

Are resources running out?

In his frequent – and obviously important – references to the finite planet on which we all live, Professor Jackson tended to stress resources per se. In doing so, he did not give due attention to the other side of the coin: the side-effects of resource extraction, manufacture, consumption and disposal. To be sure, he certainly was making a critical point. As the ‘low hanging fruit’ model suggests (most accessible and finest fruit picked first), there is an inevitable shift, in a growing economy, from the best resources to lower grade, more distant and less secure sources of supplies as high quality ones are depleted. So the peak of high-grade coal is not far away, even if total reserves of that substance might seem voluminous.

Furthermore, some resources possess special qualities, ones that make the traditional practice of substitution far from sustainable. To be sure, the old ‘biofuel’ economy (wood-burning) was replaced by fossil fuels. Similarly, powered vehicles replaced horses. Uses were found for substances like uranium that were previously ignored.

But past practices may not be replicable in the future as we begin to deplete the cheap and ready availability of all sorts of resources at more or less the same time. Then society becomes locked into a deadly game of musical chairs. We will need to do things differently in the future.

So, often, the problem is not supply per se. Rather it is ‘collateral damage’. There might be mountains of coal: what is more unsustainable is the wreckage wrought by extraction and the equally harmful impacts of burning the coal once it has been mined and transported to the point of use. Indeed, the human economy mobilises all sorts of minerals such as uranium, lead and mercury, ones present ‘naturally’ but not in the locations and concentrations that their extraction, use and disposal create.

Even the most carefully controlled mining, processing, milling and all the other processing will degrade and pollute as well as cause direct harm to people (silicosis, pneumoconiosis, cancers, direct injuries etc.). All such activities deplete wildlife habitat, regardless of the abundance or otherwise of the resource itself. So to do monocultures of any kind. Just look at the biological deserts that are coniferous plantations, compared to unmodified old-growth woodland.

It has to be stressed that the second law of thermodynamics tell us that there will always be unrecoverable ‘losses’ in the throughput of energy and matter. Heat loss, material dissipation, wear and tear are unavoidable. Notions of a ‘zero waste economy’ are absurd, contradicting everything that science teaches us. That is not to say that we should not try to maximise reuse, repair and then recycling. But again there are limits!

Carbon con?

Of course Professor Jackson is perfectly aware of much of this. He duly stresses certain instances of such ‘collateral damage’, mostly notably global (over)warming. There is a danger, however, of falling into what has been called the ‘carbon discourse’. In other words, what in reality is a many faceted ecological crisis is reduced largely to one (albeit extremely alarming) manifestation: carbon emissions. This can divert attention from other dangers, both within the threat from adverse climate change and beyond, as well as cast in a favourable but undeserving light certain policy options, ones that often go under the label of ‘low carbon economy’.[3]

For a start, greenhouse gases and carbon emissions are discussed so often together that they almost become one and the same thing. As a result, other ‘overwarming agents’ like methane may not get the attention they need. It might be wondered if there may be an element of self-censorship amongst many critics of the status quo. Gases like methane are intimately linked to basic activities like food production and therefore the number of mouths to be fed. That, in turn, leads to that most politically incorrect word ‘population’ (or, worse, the unwelcome thought that there may be too many mouths already).

At the time, there is not just an excessive growth in greenhouse gases from human sources but also a contraction, again to human activity, of balancing ecological ‘sinks’ as well as changes to the albedo of the Earth’s surfaces. The result is further overwarming and an even greater danger of a sudden flip into runaway climate change and resulting catastrophe. Complex and uncertain though these developments undoubtedly are, it is surely critical to use every opportunity to challenge widespread public perception that offsetting a few tonnes of carbon will do the trick.

The same goes for the idea of ‘low carbon economy’. To some extent this idea has roots in an older misperception that the problem is primarily pollution. Instead what humans put ‘into’ ecosystems may be less dangerous than what is taken ‘out’, by way of general degradation and simplification. In other words, many destructive activities are comparatively ‘clean’. One only needs to look at hydro-electricity. This energy source has arguably done more harm than nuclear power (to date!). In some areas it is eve thought to have increased seismic activity due to the sheer weight of impounded waters. But there are many such ‘clean-but-unsustainable’ activities such as overfishing, poaching, wetland drainage, aquifer depletion, salinisation, dredging, river engineering (e.g. replacement of vegetation with concrete embankments), tree felling, monocultural planting, importation of alien plants and animals, and the paving over of land.

A ‘low carbon economy’ would defuse none of these timebombs. Take the ‘green car, for instance. To be sure electric engines have a number of advantages over petrol and diesel ones. But the problem is not just the question of where the electricity comes from. ‘Green cars’ would still consumes vast acres of space for roads and parking as well as infrastructure such as traffic controls and street light. Pedestrians and other forms of life would still be killed and injured in big numbers. ‘Green cars’ would still drive urban sprawl further out into the countryside. There might be a case for some electric vehicles, e.g. taxis and delivery vehicles, but limits still apply.

Economic form

Another word does not figure prominently in much discourse about sustainability and prosperity: ‘capitalism’. Of course, it is one where, again, there is much debate about its meaning. Some restrict their definition of capitalism to ‘private production for private profit’. Others define it more broadly (as in ‘state capitalism’). Certainly the Occupy movement has given the phrase ‘anti-capitalism’ more resonance. Whatever the vagueness of statements from that source, perhaps its supporters are closer to the truth than those who propose a ‘caring capitalism’, one with a ’human face’, one operating “as if the world matters”, to use Jonathon Porritt’s phrasing.

Whatever definition is used, there seem to be fundamental and irresolvable contradictions between capitalism and long-term sustainability. The growth imperative is fundamental to the system: it cannot be reconciled to the finite nature of the Earth. The ‘cash nexus’ and the market mechanism discounts the needs of those who, for one reason or another are able to bid enough in the market place (the poor, those yet to be born, other species). Market-based systems also tend to destroy competition as the more powerful players gobble up weaker rivals.

So a radical economic restructuring will be necessary. There will still be a role for small and medium size private businesses but they will have to operate within a framework characterised by strong public regulations and a strong public sector, with a large number of activities performed by co-ops and other such associations.

There is not the space to go into detail regarding the systemic shortcomings of capitalism or the alternatives to it (on which, to be fair, much work still needs to be done). The point here is that the ‘plutocrats’ – or whatever one wishes to call them – are a major menace as are all the structures that create and sustain them. This needs to be said loud and clear. There should be no truck with the likes of Will Hutton who seem to think that a few reforms (curbing ‘excess’ bonuses, etc) will suffice. Nor should we make the mistake of blaming just one sector, finance, or a few rogue traders when the real problem is a whole system, of which the banks are but a part.

The Big Plan?

Of course ‘planning’ is not some cure-all. Frank Dikötter’s latest book Mao’s Great Famine documents in grisly detail how planned economies can go disastrously wrong. That was an extreme example. But socialist economists such as Oscar Lange came to advocate a degree of competition because of the very real difficulties encountered in the operation of a planned economy. Clearly Stalinist tyranny and foreign hostility made the problems worse in the case of the Soviet Bloc.

That said, it is hard to create the conditions required for successful planning. Accurate data collection, analysis, projections, co-ordination are all easier said than done. Furthermore, planners do have a habit of treating, people and places as mere units to be moved around at will or least on their charts. Look at the many disastrous urban redevelopments and big housing projects that now scar modern cities.

However, if attempted more modestly and at a human scale, with full transparency and accountability, planning can really serve sustainability. Indeed there have been some remarkable examples of planning, though often it seems to require the stimulus of war (e.g. D-Day) or international competition (e.g. the Apollo programme). The Victorian public health programmes provide a more benign example of what collective action can achieve.

It might be noted that there is a considerable degree of (effective) planning inside big businesses while the introduction of market mechanisms in the public sector has often has been downright harmful. Step forward the NHS! [We will leave aside notions of ‘popular planning’ since it is far from clear how many can really participate in such processes, as, again, limits-to-growth theory warns us]

But, regarding issues of ownership and control, we have to avoid dogma and judge cases individually. Beer production might be best done in private micro-breweries while inherently ‘collective’ things like water utilities and the railways should be in public hands. At times, some half-way house like Land Trusts or Housing Associations might be best. But only the state can attempt an overall limit to the size of an economy. Capitalism can never do that… until it is too late.

Beyond economics

Last but not least, we have to avoid the dangers of economic reductionism, of seeing today’s problems only in narrow economic terms. Many problems pre-date capitalism (however defined) and indeed have no necessary connection with any kind of economic order. Mention might be made of sexism, racism, bureaucratism, anthropocentrism and what Professor David Orr has called ‘biophobia’.

Indeed the conservation of non-human species cannot rest upon any kind of economic calculation. It depends upon the ethics of ‘intrinsic value’. Indeed the allocation of ‘shadow prices’ to ecological services, including biodiversity, could actually make things worse since it might show that there could be ‘cost-free’ eliminations of, say, certain flora and fauna.

Conversely there is much more to sustainability than just economic changes (vital preconditions they might be). Professor Jackson is to be thanked for pointing out many things that could and should be done. But perhaps we need to stop talking so much about targets and indicators, with more effort put into the details of what the carrots (and sticks) that will be needed to ensure that they are achieved.


Czech. B. (2013). Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. New Society.

Daly, H. (1992). Steady-Sate Economics. Earthscan.

Dietz, R. & D. O’Neill (2013). Enough is Enough. Earthscan.

Fodor E. (1999). Better Not Bigger. New Society

Greer J. (2008) The Long Descent. New Society.

Hamilton C. (2003). Growth Fetish. Pluto Pr.

Heinberg R. (2011) End of Growth. Clairview Books.

Henwood, D. (2005). After the New Economy. New Press.

McKibben, B. (2011). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. St Martin’s.

Ophuls, W. (1993) Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. Freeman

Trainer, T. (1995). The Conserver Society. Zed.

Zovanyi, G. (2013). The No-Growth Imperative. Earthscan.


and of course

Tim Jackson’s own Prosperity and Growth (Routledge, 2011)

[1]. Some of those margins – or, rather, ‘minefields’ – are listed here:


[2]. See: http://www.stopthrillcraft.org/definition.htm

[3]. See: http://www.sts.vt.edu/faculty/crist/Beyond_the_Climate_Crisis.pdf


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