Shortly after the release of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth (2009) – a landmark text of the “degrowther” movement, praised by sustainability advocates from Prince Charles to Noam Chomsky – the author was summoned to meet with a senior adviser at the Treasury. Jackson explained his basic arguments to the spad: our addiction to ever-increasing GDP is destroying the planet; it is difficult to decouple economic growth from unsustainable practices; hence, we must supplant consumerism with a non-material conception of prosperity based on creativity and care work. The adviser listened carefully before posing a simple question: “What would it be like for Treasury officials to turn up at G7 meetings knowing that the UK’s GDP had slipped down the rankings?” Jackson was, he writes, “dumbstruck” by this response. “How could I have missed that the politics of the playground is evidently still in action, even in the highest echelons of power?” The scholar made his excuses and left early.
This story – recounted in Post Growth, Jackson’s much-anticipated follow-up book – carries a wider significance for his school of ecological thought. “Degrowth” has been described by one of its founding figures, Herman Daly, as “a slogan in search of a programme”. The imperative to respect the Earth is undeniable, but when it comes to the political insight needed to effect this change, degrowthers often seem to falter. Whereas so-called “green growthers” – such as the green new deal supporters clustered around the Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders movements – have written detailed legislative proposals and established powerful campaign groups, GDP-sceptics have not yet articulated a realistic plan to achieve their radical vision. Their aloofness from the “politics of the playground” might be an intellectual strength, but it is also a strategic weakness.
Since the publication of Growth Without Prosperity, a number of environmental theorists – including Robert Pollin, Leigh Phillips and Kenta Tsuda – have echoed the Treasury official, raising serious questions about the practicability of degrowth models. They have noted that if the transition away from fossil fuels threatens to cause a green recession, the sudden contraction of other economic sectors would likely lead to mass immiseration. A strong redistributive state would be required to prevent this outcome; but the state apparatus would itself be eroded under any eco-austerity regime. Can degrowthers prove the ecological benefits of their agenda justify the risk of plunging millions into poverty?
What’s more, while Jackson’s acolytes view rising GDP as the root of climate breakdown, the fact is that carbon emissions and their environmental consequences have spiked during a period of slowing growth. As the economic historian Robert Brenner has written, “Since 1973 … the growth of GDP, investment, productivity, employment, real wages, and real consumption have all experienced a historic deceleration, which has proceeded without interruption, decade by decade.” History does not appear to demonstrate a causal link between dynamic growth and global heating. As such, green growthers have suggested that low growth rates are the true cause of ecocide: in conditions of scarcity, corporations can only sustain their profit margins by turning to ever more damaging forms of extraction and pollution.
There may be plausible answers to these questions, but they cannot be found in Post Growth. Rather than deepening his empirical analysis of the environmental crisis or assessing political escape routes, Jackson has evidently spent the last decade speculating about a “post-growth” future. This is in many ways a worthwhile exercise. His book abounds with prescriptions for the “economy of tomorrow” that challenge the orthodoxies of today. One of Jackson’s central arguments is that our failure to avert the sixth extinction event stems from a deep-seated denial of death. Continual economic expansion expresses a desire to transcend our material limits and rise above the state of nature. Yet this paradoxically increases the potency of those limits, rendering us powerless before the climate leviathan.
Having diagnosed this dream of immortality, Jackson presents a series of compelling alternatives. First, he writes, we must recognise that limitation is what enables “transcendence”. Only by accepting our fragile material condition can we hope to attain something higher – through artistic creation, romantic connections, community solidarity and so on. Second, there is an urgent need to recalibrate our idea of work. Under capitalism, the function of labour is to generate short-term profits, trapping us in a perpetual present that redoubles our delusion of eternal life. Yet in a society that soberly acknowledges death, work would become a valuable means of “world-building” – forging cultural artefacts that endure after we’re gone, and connect us with future generations. Finally, Jackson asserts that his zero-growth utopia will be founded on activities that cultivate a sense of “flow”. Sports, crafts, social interaction and meditation: these sustainable practices satisfy the craving for transcendence by absorbing our attention, removing us from the quotidian and creating an experience of timelessness. They offer an image of eternity without emissions.
All of this is intriguing. But without any indication of how we defeat the interests of fossil capital and allay the fears of green growthers, it remains something of a thought experiment. Instead of confronting such concrete issues, Jackson intersperses his philosophical reflections with biographical sketches – of Robert Kennedy, Emily Dickinson, JS Mill, Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, Geoffrey Chaucer and Kenyan political activist Wangari Maathai – and rather florid passages of creative writing.
Here he is in full flight, recalling his recent yacht trip down the River Thurne in Norfolk:
“Grey-green lichen shimmers on the moist archway. Its musty scent conjures the grim reality of long-forgotten lives. Liminality is populated with restless spectres from earlier transitions and uncomfortable glimpses into the immortal abyss … The sun dazzles you anew after the shadow of the bridge. Blue sky dances on the dappled water … Steam gives way to sail is the oldest rule in the book, from the smallest waterway to the widest ocean. And yet, inevitably, the lower reaches are dogged by thwarted tacks to windward and hurried avoidance strategies.”
One suspects that this impenetrable final sentence may be something of an avoidance strategy in itself – designed to divert from Jackson’s refusal to engage with degrowth critics. Granted, Prosperity Without Growth does not present itself as a set of policy proposals. Its aim is to imagine a culture reconciled to limits and mortality; and, on those terms, it succeeds. But at a time of crisis, ecological thought cannot afford to be so conjectural. The urgent questions are: which vested interests are obstructing the switch to renewables, and how do we defeat them? How can we guarantee a “just transition”, in which the poorest do not shoulder the burden of greening our economy? What kind of international settlement would be needed to give this project global reach? How do we ensure that the campaign for environmental justice is imbricated with other social movements centred on race, class and gender? These daunting questions have been confronted head-on by green new dealers. Unless “post-growthers” like Jackson catch up, their credo will never be more than a slogan.