Prosperity without growth is possible, but only if accompanied by greater equality
Opinion: If the world consumed as America does we would need five more planets
A petroleum refinery along State Highway 225 in Pasadena, near Houston, Texas. Photograph: New York Times
‘We are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about.”
So the economist Tim Jackson describes the growth and consumption culture of contemporary capitalism in a talk arising from his book Prosperity Without Growth.
He argues it is possible to have one without the other, based on the African ubuntu ethic (“I am because we are”) encouraging greater awareness of social interdependence; and on a different prioritising of novelty over tradition encouraging better understanding of sustainability.
As he sees it, this is not about overthrowing capitalism but creating a more equal and ecologically conscious world society. But if climate change means economic growth based on unlimited expansion of capitalism is no longer viable without risking global destruction, his optimism about means may be misplaced.
There is a pressing need to explore this subject critically as the glimmerings of renewed growth beckon a route out of recession and austerity in the most developed economies.
Restoring employment and living standards takes absolute priority over environmental protection, even while the bigger picture shows we are reaching global limits on finite resources and tipping points in major environmental change.
The consumption culture Jackson describes is overwhelmingly concentrated in the richest parts of the world. The World Bank calculates the wealthiest 10 per cent of the world’s people consume 60 per cent, whereas the bottom 40 spend only 5 per cent and the bottom 70 a mere 15.3 per cent. The world’s population nearly tripled from 2.5 billion to seven billion between 1950 and 2008, whereas global gross domestic product rose eight times. So inequality is built into consumption globally as well as nationally.
One way to measure finite resources is to calculate the ecological footprint left by unsustainable overconsumption. Such studies show this rich minority uses the equivalent of one and a half planets a year on consumption and waste, meaning it takes the Earth a year and a half to replenish natural resources such as fish, water, forests, farmland and minerals overused by the rich north in a year. Extrapolating existing trends to 2030 shows two Earths would be necessary.
If the whole world were to consume like Americans, five more planets would be needed.
Alas, we have only got one. Hence the infinite and endless consumption and growth imperative is bound to result in resource conflicts and wars, and then in environmental disasters unless it is radically changed. Last May, the benchmark measurement of global carbon dioxide emissions at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii passed 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years, having been 315 in 1958. This increase causes temperatures to rise.
It was last this high five million years ago when the Earth was three or four degrees hotter, sea levels were 40m higher and homo sapiens not yet evolved. That puts a more frightening perspective on other indicators such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap.
Ecologically careless firms
Jackson’s ethical alternative contains important truths. But how compatible are his solutions with a capitalism dominated by huge profit-maximising and ecologically irresponsible corporations such as Shell Oil, Rio Tinto, Ikea, Apple or Monsanto, each larger and more powerful than most nation states?
A passionate and well-documented paper by Richard Smith of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London
(paecon.net/PAEReview/) argues an ecosocialist case that capitalism is incompatible with planetary survival. It deserves hearing and debate.
He puts forward six theses. Capitalism of this kind is overwhelmingly the main driver of planetary ecological collapse. Obvious solutions like stopping greenhouse gas emissions or non-recyclable waste are impossible if profit- making economic growth takes priority over ecology.
Economies must be socialised and planned to: stop out-of-control growth in the global north; retrench or shut down wasteful polluting industries; reorganise production of durable, shareable goods; steer investment towards renewables, public transport and other unmet needs. Major issues like solar or coal, fracking or reducing fossil fuels should be decided by referendum.
Prosperity without growth is possible only with greater social equality – globally and nationally.
Yes, such a programme is crazy and utopian to most mindsets. But it is being taken up by millions of Chinese protesters against pollution and corruption; by Turkish, Brazilian and popular European movements; and by a growing awareness of the need for radical change.