As the world’s economies continue to dig themselves out of the “Great Recession of ’08“, some are now looking to a rising stock market, a sputtering of new jobs, and an uptick in corporate profits (much of it from the same corporations that triggered the collapse in the first place) as signs of recovery. As if clawing our way back to where we were before the house of cards began to crumble is a long-term solution, and endless growth is sustainable. Is something fundamental missing in such assumptions? Is scraping our way back to where we were a recipe for even worse times for our children? Is there another path to a truly prosperous and sustainable future?
To be sure, I am no economist. It is common knowledge that prevailing economic theory depends on endless growth and simply ignores the “externalties” of the environmental impact from economic activity. But even as it is considered “normal” or “right” there is a growing sense of unease that business as usual just won’t cut it any more. We may pine for the “good old days” even as we realize that they led to where we now are.
Yet we seem largely incapable of seriously considering an alternative. The mere mention of an economic model not dependent on growth is considered untenable. Much of time environmental considerations are often seen as a nuisance, a hindrance to a strong economy, and the purview of whacky tree-hugging, radicals or worse.
An unfair and grossly oversimplified generalization perhaps, but an economic model that ignores both environmental limits and ecosystem services is one that ultimately cannot survive – especially as the human population races past 6 billion inhabitants.
Prosperity and limits to growth
For too long the discussion has been cast as either/or – the “spotted owl” or jobs, carbon pricing or economic recovery, environmental regulation or free markets. But without ecosystem preservation, sound climate and energy policy or environmental protection, any economic recovery – and the jobs that come along with it – is unsustainable.
Whether we like it our not, our economic fate is tied up in how well we embrace and “internalize” the fundamental root of all human endeavor – the air, water, and land upon which we utterly depend for survival. Any sustainable economy places into the equation the true economic value of ecosystem services, the cost of their destruction, and the inherent limits on unending growth. We either learn to live within our means – or we don’t.
In his book Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson sums up the predicament in the beginning of his chapter “Redefining Prosperity”:
“The prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding economic paradise has come unravelled. Perhaps it worked better when economics were smaller and the world was less populated. But if it was ever fully fit for purpose, it certainly isn’t now.
Climate change, ecological degradation and the spectre of resource scarcity compound the problems of failing financial markets and economic recession. Short-term fixes to prop up a bankrupt system aren’t good enough. Something more is needed. An essential starting point is to set out a coherent notion of prosperity that doesn’t rely on default assumptions about consumption growth.”
In Prosperity Without Growth, Jackson lays the foundation of this discussion by defining economic growth and “prosperity” upon which our current economies are based. Acknowledging that development is vital for poorer nations, he makes the case that in advanced economies, the drive for ever more consumption adds little to human happiness and may well obstruct it, sending us down a rabbit hole of consumption in an unfulfilled desire for more – and of what we aren’t entirely sure.
Added to this, says Jackson, is clear evidence that ecosystems that support our economies are “collapsing under the impacts of rising consumption.”
“At the heart of the book lies a very simple question,” writes Jackson. “What can prosperity possibly look like in a finite world, with limited resources and a population expected to exceed 9 billion people within decades? Do we have a decent vision of prosperity for such a world? Is this vision credible in the face of available evidence about ecological limits? How do we go about turning vision into reality?”
Jackson then describes how we can transform an unsustainable growth economy into a “steady state” economy that fosters true human prosperity based within the limits of a finite planet.
Defining your own prosperity
You have to ask yourself, do really believe, deep down, that the current economic model of never-ending growth and consumption is sustainable – even as limited resources must support more people demanding their fair share of the spoils. Does consuming more make you happier?
If so, then never mind. Go get a cheese burger, turn on the big screen TV, and relax. There’s no point in twisting anyone’s arm. And I’d be a complete hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge I am driven to consumption as much as the next guy, more or less. (And to the degree that it might be “less,” is it near enough? Likely not. ) Nonetheless, I am a sinner seeking redemption.
We are products of decades of seemingly boundless growth fueled by cheap and plentiful sources of fossil energy. But like it or not, we are the generation – especially those younger than my late-baby-boomer years – that are left with the consequences and the reality of limits.
But if instead talk of economic recovery and getting “back” to the path of growth and the common definition of prosperity rings a bit hollow, you likely see that it is a path that cannot be sustained much longer. It is a frightening proposition to consider, a fundamental transformation of how we define prosperity and the idea of a “steady state” economy. But it may also just be the one great opportunity we now have to beat the odds and not only survive, but truly thrive as a society in a new century and new age. In any case, to me it seems the only viable option.
If it is difficult to see the path forward, you certainly are not alone. Reading Jackson’s book is one way to begin imagining a new world of true and lasting prosperity.
Tom Schueneman is a regular contributor to numerous environmental and sustainable business blogs including Planetsave.com, TriplePundit.com, Ecopolitology.com, Sustainablog.org and others. He also is the founder and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and is a renewable energy advocate, helping people learn how they can build their own solar panels.
Image credit: Plearn, courtesy Flickr