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The Dilemma of Growth

Tim Jackson of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) explains the Dilemma of Growth
My name’s Tim Jackson. I’m Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey. The dilemma of growth, put very simply, is that a continually growing economy is unsustainable, certainly if it’s continually growing in material terms, which is what our economies have done. But on the other hand, a declining economy tends to be rather unstable. So put very simply, growth is unsustainable, de-growth is unstable. So a conversation around prosperity is essential because of that dilemma, in some sense. If we can’t just deliver prosperity by growing bigger and bigger and having more stuff, then we have to think more intelligently about what prosperity is.
And actually, there are very good grounds for doing that anyway because as it turns, out having more and more stuff is not really the basis for prosperity. Certainly when you’ve got nothing at all, when you can’t even eat properly and you’ve got no shelter, no roof over your head, then you need material things and you need income to provide those material things in most societies. But beyond those material things, actually, a lot of our needs are kind of more social and psychological, and they’re to do with identity and to do with participation, and to do with meaning and purpose in life.
And these components of prosperity, these non-material components of prosperity, in a consumer society we tend to try and deliver through material goods. But they’re never very good satisfiers of those needs precisely because prosperity never really was, in the first place, just about material things. It was about quality and quality of life and well-being, and about our community and our families and our sense of security. And that really offers us a place to have a more interesting conversation about the good life, about what prosperity is, and about how we might avoid this dilemma of growth. So this idea that actually prosperity is not just about income is really borne out by statistics on happiness and and well-being.
And it’s really fascinating that over the space of 50 years or so, real incomes in the UK doubled, and yet the average index of happiness or life satisfaction stayed more or less flat. And in fact, in some of the statistics, you actually see a decline. So the percentage of people who report themselves as being very happy declined from around just over 50% in 1957 to only 36% or so in 2005. And that’s really odd, because we were, at that point, almost twice as rich as we had been in the mid-1950s. So if income was a good indicator of happiness, you should see that number going up, and we just don’t.

Here we hear from Professor Tim Jackson, one of the pioneers of the prosperity conversation and a key contributor to this course. He wrote Prosperity without Growth, initially published in 2009, and then updated in 2016.

In the video, Tim introduces the concept of the “dilemma of growth”, or the fact that “a continually growing economy is unsustainable” while “a declining economy is unstable”. This is the main challenge for any government when it comes to shifting emphasis away from growth. Lack of growth leads to instability, meaning many governments are stuck chasing it, despite its questionable impact on well-being, and its catastrophic impact on the environment. He also states that this dilemma of growth increases the need for a more intelligent conversation about prosperity. If we can’t deliver prosperity simply by expanding the economy, and “having more stuff,” what should we do instead?

In a consumer society, we try and deliver non-material components of prosperity, such as social or psychological welfare, with material goods, but this doesn’t work. Now that we have a greater understanding of this, it opens up the space for a new conversation about prosperity that avoids the dilemma of growth, and doesn’t pitch human wellbeing and our environmental limits against each other.

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Global Prosperity Beyond GDP

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