I’ve been reading today about a new book, ‘Prosperity without Growth’, which has been written by economist Tim Jackson, who is Economics Commissioner for the Sustainable Development Commission. It sounds full of really interesting ideas about today’s society and how we need to change. He argues that our government and media are fixated by economic growth and by rises on the stock markets. If our economy isn’t growing, the perception is that we’re getting less prosperous, and that’s bad. If stocks and shares are low, pension funds do less well, meaning that we have less prosperous pensioners, and that’s bad too.

But there are now a growing number of economists and commentators who are starting to think that prosperity and growth are not infinitely linked.  Indeed, they think that soon, prosperity will be impossible WITH growth.  Tim’s argument is summed up brilliantly when he writes, “The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist.”

An ecologist would argue that we can’t continue economic growth indefinitely, because we live on a finite planet with finite resources and if we use up those resources through growth, eventually we reach a full stop.  An economist would argue that we can ‘decouple’ economic growth from resource use through the increasing efficiencies that capitalism brings and indeed that we can reverse the damage through growth too.

Jackson argues that decoupling is a myth.  If we continue to push growth, we can’t achieve the CO2 emissions reductions that are needed and we will continue to accelerate climate change.  What we need, he argues  is for governments to stop thinking short-term.  They need to look further into the future than the next day’s headlines – or even the date of the next elections when it comes to deciding economic and ecological policy.

He argues that the market won’t move in the direction of sustainable development without incentives.  According to the UN Conference on Trade & Development’s World Investment Report 2010, $400bn (£250bn) would be required every year between from 2010-2015 to make the shift to a low-carbon economy, and this figure could climb to £1,300bn a year by 2030.  This kind of investment can only happen through governments taking long-term decisions. It requires a sustained effort from both the public and private sectors across a number of years, to promote new, cleaner technologies, to develop renewable sources of energy, and to shift to more sustainable consumption.  And these efforts need to be applied holistically: it’s no good encouraging renewable energy if you’re simultaneously outsourcing food and energy production to palm oil plantations or soy-fed livestock farming, which drives deforestation in other parts of the world.

How do we achieve this massive shift?  Jackson argues that measures to prevent climate change should be enforced through human rights law – for example, the rights to food, water and development.  Human rights courts could treat serious ecological damage such as mining and deforestation as human rights issues, blocking developments that cause climate change.

So by making the transition to a low carbon society a human rights issue, human rights organisations can put pressure on governments to ensure that long term strategies for carbon reduction  are drawn up, adhered to and if necessary enforced by legal action.  This idea is similar to the late barrister and campaigner Polly Higgins’ idea of drawing up the crime of ecocide, where significant damage to the environment becomes a crime against the planet.  But in Jackson’s premise, it’s the rights of humans to a decent life and environment, rather than the rights of the environment itself that would be protected.

And his suggestions for achieving ‘lasting prosperity’?  Well, for a start we all need to consume less “stuff” and to seek a type of prosperity outside the conventional trappings of affluence: within relationships, family, community and the meaning of our lives and vocations in a functional society that places value on the future.   I’ve ordered my copy of Prosperity Without Growth today and am looking forward to reading it.

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