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Post growth

“A good life doesn’t have to cost the Earth”

“How do we want to live?” is the question that concerns Tim Jackson, a British economist and professor for sustainable development at the University of Surrey. In his book “Post growth: Life after capitalism”, Jackson asks us to reflect on a world that is obsessed with constant growth, in which the climate catastrophe has long since become a reality, and other Earth systems are reaching a tipping point. This item is the sixth in this year's culture special with reviews of artists' works with developmental relevance.
“The game changer” is an artwork created by street artist Banksy to thank hospital workers during lockdown: here at Southampton General Hospital. picture-alliance/empics/Andrew Matthews “The game changer” is an artwork created by street artist Banksy to thank hospital workers during lockdown: here at Southampton General Hospital.

Jackson does not fundamentally reject growth. In those places where there are shortages, growth is entirely sensible and necessary, he writes. But he believes the situation is different in so-called affluent societies, which are characterised by excess. In places where there is enough, Jackson claims, “artificial shortages” must be constantly created in order to keep the motor of consumer society running. Doing so feeds a permanent sense of dissatisfaction; the old must always be replaced by the new, at the expense of resource and energy consumption. Jackson believes that the obsessive fixation on high growth rates and our consumer behaviour is leading to massive environmental destruction, the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity, with unforeseeable consequences.

GDP and prosperity

Jackson is interested in the question of what prosperity is. Since the 1950s, the gross domestic product (GDP) has been used to measure the size of a country’s economy and has been considered equivalent to social progress. But he doubts whether the GDP measures the right things and points to a quote from American politician Robert F. Kennedy, brother of US President John F. Kennedy, who said in a campaign speech as early as 1968 that the GDP counts too many things that detract from our quality of life and excludes too many things that people truly value.

According to Kennedy, the GDP “counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder,” but not “the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play”. Nor does it include the work of those who care for children or others at home. Kennedy concludes that the GDP “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”. The message is that simply measuring economic activity and calling it progress is no way to achieve lasting prosperity.

The coronavirus crisis

The global coronavirus pandemic revealed the shortcomings of a capitalist economic system that is constantly striving for growth, writes Jackson. According to him, the system promotes short-term profit for few instead of the long-term well-being of a society. The pandemic clearly demonstrated, however, the importance of care work and the value of health care. Occupations such as nursing in hospitals or retirement homes in particular had been systematically devalued. As a result, underpaid people who were most exposed to the virus carried out their essential services on the brink of exhaustion, and others lost their jobs entirely, while a few rich and privileged people continued to earn a profit.

During the global lockdown, the fixation on growth was paused in order to protect people’s lives. Countries that prioritised the health of their people over productivity were able to minimise suffering, Jackson writes. Consumer habits took a backseat and we were reminded of what is most important in life.

Socio-ecological transformation

Jackson believes that especially the insights gleaned from the coronavirus and climate crises, as well as from social tensions and rising inequality, should change our way of thinking. The goal should be to develop sustainable principles for a good life and thereby usher in a socio-ecological transformation (for more, see Sabine Balk on www.dandc.eu).

Conversely, Jackson is sceptical of green deals and the corresponding green growth. According to him, it is difficult to imagine infinite growth in a finite world (see Praveen Jhan on www.dandc.eu). It is not only essential that we stop using fossil fuels, he writes, but also that we acknowledge the finite capacity of all ecosystems. Jackson calls on readers to fundamentally rethink how we deal with nature.

Balance instead of growth

The end of growth does not mean the end of social progress, according to the book. Its main message is that “a good life doesn’t have to cost the Earth”. Jackson counters the myth of growth with his vision of a society that makes us richer instead of poorer without growth, where balance is valued more than growth, and prosperity means more than material excess. “Post growth” is a continuation of his previous book, “Prosperity without growth”. It is a manifesto for a different economic system. The book does not offer any ready-made solutions. Instead, it relies on scientific, political, historical and philosophical insights and anecdotes to invite readers to reflect on what makes life worth living.

Jackson, T., 2021: Post growth. Life after capitalism. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Dagmar Wolf is the editorial assistant at D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.

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