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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2009

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Editors' Picks - July/August 2009

Can We Grow Sustainably?
Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth? The Transition to a Sustainable Economy (London: The UK Sustainable Development Commission, 2009)

The UK Sustainable Development Commission provides an independent sustainability perspective on all matters of government policy and action. It also scrutinizes how government departments conduct their affairs and the degree to which they keep their business in sustainable order.

The commission’s latest contribution, Prosperity without Growth? The Transition to a Sustainable Economy, penned by Economics Commissioner Tim Jackson, provides a comprehensive synthesis of the role of the economy, regulation of the financial sector, and future for capitalism from a sustainability perspective. To act in such a manner, an economy must respect the bounds of nature; retain functioning ecosystem services, such as clean water, stable soils, and replenishable natural resources; and function to the advantage of all those living in the distant future. Necessary to such an economy is a fair and robust society of citizens who respect each other and their descendents and, in doing so, appreciate nature’s limits.

The question the title asks, whether we can have prosperity without growth, is deliberately rhetorical. The report analyzes the meaning of prosperity and asks if the current purpose of the economy can operate through continued growth to meet the two fundamental sustainability objectives of creating a resilient global ecosystem and a society at peace with itself in being prudent within limits. “Prosperity is not synonymous with material wealth,” the report concludes. Rather, it is a social construct for giving everyone the capacity to flourish according to their capabilities while consuming within nature’s bounds.

Jackson rejects that it is possible to stabilize the climate or ecosystems by decoupling economic growth and depletion of natural resources through more efficient production. Instead, continued growth will cause ecological disruption and social distress, notably among the world’s most vulnerable people, who contribute little to overall growth in consumption. But Jackson also rejects the notion of a “de-growth” economy on the grounds that as jobs and businesses disappear, chaos would reign.

But the report does offer an alternative path: in the face of the current economic crisis, it envisions an opportunity for the renaissance of a new eco-oriented society and economy based on values of responsibility, virtue, sharing, caring, and a recognition of the overall economic advantages of responsible consumption, social entrepreneurship, and resilient ecosystems. It also sees a joint role for the state, the private sector, and civil society to enable communities to prosper in a myriad of ways, revealing the joys of living and cooperating sustainably. To this end, the report identifies steps governments can take—for example, investing in public assets and infrastructures, sharing the available work, and imposing clearly defined emissions caps—to help build a sustainable macroeconomy, protect capabilities for flourishing, and respect ecological limits.

Jackson recognizes that current economic arrangements do not and cannot steer society to a sustainable outcome. Instead, he calls for a fundamental debate over the future role of humanity—that is, what it means to be human—in an increasingly depleted and violent world. The prosperity emerging from such a debate would arrive through responsibility and obligations to others, in a manner that lets nature breathe.

Timothy O’Riordan
University of East Anglia
Norwich, United Kingdom

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