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It’s Time to Bust the Myth That Endless Economic Growth Is Good for Us

The constraints of capitalism are preventing us from achieving real human fulfillment and progress.

Cranes crowd the skyline in the Hudson Yards neighborhood of Manhattan, where developers have been constructing a quasi-gated cluster of high-rise condo communities.

In order to maintain the endless expansion and infinite growth that capitalist economies require, our economy demands ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. In fact, economists and politicians generally believe that we need to keep the global economy growing by around 3 percent annually, meaning that the economy needs to double every 20 years — that’s twice as much of everything 20 years from now — and then twice as much as that 20 years later.

It’s not hard to see how this kind of exponential, infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet — and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing ecosystems collapse. However, it’s not just an environmental concern. In his latest book, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism, ecological economist Tim Jackson explores how the ideology of growth permeates our minds and our societal institutions in insidious ways which end up making us miserable.

Truthout spoke with Jackson about why this ideology is so pernicious, why it is holding us back from truly flourishing as a species, and what a post-growth world might look like.

Robert R. Raymond: To start, I’m wondering if you could lay out the main arguments you write about in your book.

Tim Jackson: The main argument in the book is that a world after growth and after capitalism could be a richer place. In some sense, both growth and capitalism, although they’ve contributed to progress, have also swindled us. They’ve sold us a false dream about what progress means and even about what human satisfaction means. And in locking us into an iron cage of consumerism, they’ve prevented us from seeing the depths of the human spirit and the possibilities for human fulfillment and for human progress.

One of the main points I wanted to make is the idea of limits — the idea that growth in the conventional sense is limited and the planet is limited — and turn that idea on its head and say that you [can] think of limits not as a constraint, not as a prison that keeps all of our possibilities limited to the amount of materials or the amount of money that we have or the possibilities for expansion of the economy, but actually as an idea of a doorway, a gateway to a different world.

We should think of limits as teaching us, not about what is bounded, but what is unbounded. Those unbounded parts of our lives, those unbounded possibilities, our endless creativity, our ability always to find places where we can dedicate our energy to human progress, to social connection, to relationship, and to a sense of meaning and purpose. That’s a core idea in the book, that beyond limits lies this expanse where there’s an even deeper fulfillment to be found.

In the book, you describe how our leaders have developed an “allegiance to the great God of Growth.” Can you describe why capitalism is reliant on growth? Is it an essential part of the system? In practical terms, what are some of the consequences of our reliance on infinite growth?

You can think of capitalism broadly as a system that privileges the idea of selfish profit-seeking behavior at the core of the organization of our economy. And that profit-seeking behavior is supposed to lead to efficiency — and sometimes does lead to efficiency, and sometimes even benefits society — but it works better in one set of activities than it works in another. It works quite well when you’re talking about the efficiency with which we use materials to build products and then expand our markets to sell them to other people. And the difficulty is that once you’re on that particular path, you’re almost immediately locked into a process that says, “Well, we get more and more efficient and we expand further and we invest our proceeds into technologies which make us more efficient again.” And you find yourself very quickly in a process in which expansion becomes integral to the system itself.

Where this goes wrong is — apart from the planetary implications of accumulating more and more stuff and building more and more things and consuming more and more products — there’s an inbuilt inequality there because the few people that are able to accumulate, because they own capital resources, can make themselves much richer. But it doesn’t necessarily always trickle down to the poorest in society. And in fact, in the last 40 or 50 years, we’ve actually seen the opposite. The rich got much richer and the poorest people in society found their wages stagnant, their livelihoods insecure, their work precarious — particularly in advanced economies.

How has COVID informed your understanding of our growth-based economy, and what has it revealed about the shortcomings of our current economic system?

One of the most striking lessons of the pandemic has been that it’s exactly those people, those precarious livelihoods, who turned out to be the most critical when it came to protecting our lives in the face of the coronavirus. That is, the care workers, the nurses, the teachers, the frontline workers, the people who delivered goods and services when we couldn’t get out, the people who cleaned … all of our homes and offices, the people whose livelihoods had been squeezed by. We forgot about the people who just sustained us, the people who nurtured us. So that economy of care was the one that had gone missing over several decades because of the way that capitalism has this locked-in drive towards expansion and profiteering and productivity.

That to me is a deep structural problem in the way that we’ve organized our economies. And we can think about taxes to redistribute the wealth that’s too concentrated, we can think about mechanisms or technologies to change the impact on the climate. But right at the heart of that is this mechanism that systematically demotes the importance of some of the most socially valuable people in our society. And I think that’s the biggest challenge that we have to face as we come out of the pandemic, and as we think about life after the pandemic, and as we think about life after capitalism.

What would a post-growth economy look like, for us in the West, but also for the Global South? There are some on the left who advocate for “growth agnosticism,” which is a stance that acknowledges that some parts of the world still require some form of economic growth. What are your thoughts on that?

I do think it’s important to be a little bit differentiated — there’s no one-size-fits-all vision. And I also happen to believe, and I think the evidence really supports this, that in the poorest places in the world some income growth is essential. When you look at the relationship between income and life expectancy, say, what you find is that as you go from having virtually nothing to around about $15,000 per capita, you get these vast increases in life expectancy and educational participation, you get a vast reduction in infant mortality and maternal morbidity. And even things like happiness increase very quickly from zero income to around about that $15,000 mark.

That’s real evidence that investing in and increasing incomes in the poorest countries is a good thing — there are places where incomes need to rise. And then you look at the data past that $15,000 per capita point across countries and you find a really bizarre phenomenon, which is that the prosperity gains, the gain in life expectancy, for example, the gain in terms of lower infant mortality, those gains really start to tail off, and in some cases, they even go into reverse. So, you get these perverse situations where you have very rich economies like the U.K. or the U.S. with life expectancies which are lower than in countries like Cuba, Costa Rica or Chile. This data really tells us something critical. It tells us that prosperity — quality of life, life expectancy, health — is not a linear function of income. It points us in the direction of the kind of initiatives that we have to take and the places where they need to be taken.

It goes together with this idea, which is another core idea in the book, about balance. When you have a deficiency of something, then having a bit more of that makes sense. Growth makes sense. When you have an excess of something, having more of it actually takes you into a worse position. And the problem with capitalism is we tend not to see where that point of balance lies, we tend to miss it because it’s continually driving forward, continually expanding, continually lionizing the idea of more — when sometimes less is what’s needed.

We’ve been talking about a lot of really big concepts — a lot of interesting ideas of where we could go as a society and a lot of the challenges and difficulties that exist right now in the way that we’ve organized our economic systems. But to zoom in a little bit, what are some of the practical paths forward in order to begin moving towards that balance you’re talking about?

In my last book, Prosperity Without Growth, I presented a threefold distillation of this. First, establish the limits, because it’s the limits that tell you how you can afford to live. So we must make clear what the limits are: like the emission pathways that will lead us to a safe place in relation to climate, the limits of how much oil or gas we can afford to dig out of the ground, the limits around material implications of our lives, or how much can we afford to put into the ocean. We have to make those limits part of our accounting processes so that we can see the natural frame within which we live.

And then there is my second main theme which is to fix the economics, because the economics are profoundly broken in exactly that sense that we were talking about before. That, for example, the most important people in society are very poorly rewarded and mistreated by capitalism. And so, the economics that says that a financial sector worker deserves 1,000 times the income level of someone who is saving lives on the front line of the pandemic, is broken.

So, putting in place mechanisms that guarantee the basic services that we need in society, like health and education, putting in mechanisms that pay people decent salaries, putting in place mechanisms that perhaps provide, as we did in some countries during the pandemic, a kind of basic income that allows people to actually undertake care work in the home — unpaid work, that contributes massively to society. There are so many different ways of reconfiguring our economic incentives and they have to play a part in how we make this transition.

And then my third strand is to change the social logic. We live in a logic that dysfunctionally encourages us into endless anxiety in order to promote the sense that we are only complete if we go out shopping, if we consume, and that our only satisfactions are to be had through that role in society. It’s a poor understanding of our psychology. We deliberately inculcated it — we’ve encouraged that view of ourselves in order to have the people that we need within the system to [continually] go out shopping so we can continue to make stuff so that we can keep the economy going. [A new] social logic demands that we think differently about who we are; it demands that we reframe our idea of ourselves.

There’s a huge potential lying there waiting for us to lead more satisfying lives, lives of action and creativity and engagement and social concern that are deeply fulfilling and that offer us this space where we are no longer trashing the planet for the sake of the next latest material craze. So, in other words, I’m passionate about this idea that beyond capitalism is a richer world, a more fulfilling world — as well as one that is less damaging to the planet and to other people.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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