Also published on Resilience
“Empowering and elegiac” might seem a strange description of a book on economics. Yet the prominent author and former economics minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, chooses that phrase of praise for the new book Post Growth, by Tim Jackson.
In many respects the book lives up to that billing, and in the process Post Growth offers a hopeful vision of its subtitle: Life After Capitalism.
My dictionary defines an elegy as “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” In writing an obituary for capitalism, paradoxically, Jackson also gives us a glimpse of a far richer way of life than anything capitalism could afford us.
Along the way he takes us through the origins and later distortion of John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism; the demonstration by biologist Lynn Margulis that cooperation is just as important an evolutionary driver as is competition; the psychology of ‘flow’ popularized by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi; and the landscape-transforming campaigns of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai.
Jackson accomplishes all this and more, elegantly and with clarity, in less than 200 pages.
The dismal science and its fairytales
Since the mid-19th century, under the influence of the ideals of competition and survival of the fittest, economics has earned the sobriquet “the dismal science”. At the same time, contemporary economics grew in significant part from the theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in which the goal of economics would be the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. During our lifetimes, mainstream economics has proclaimed a gospel of unending economic growth. What gives?
In Mill’s day, Jackson writes, the word ‘utility’ was “a kind of direct proxy for happiness.” But meanings change:
“Economists today use ‘utility’ to refer to the worth or value of something. They tend to measure utility in monetary terms. The argument that we are driven to maximize our expected utility then assumes a very different meaning. But perhaps it’s easier to see now why the pursuit of GDP growth is seen as an irreducible good by economists and policymakers alike.” (Post Growth, page 52)
Speaking to the UN Conference on Climate Change in September 2019, Greta Thunberg famously dismissed economic orthodoxy as “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” Jackson devotes much of Post Growth to demonstrating, first, that this fairytale contradicts fundamental laws of physics, and second, that capitalism does not deliver ever-greater happiness, even for the minority in the upper half of the income scale, even during the brief and anomalous burst of growth following World War II. He explains,
“An infinite economy (the ultimate end of eternal growth) means infinite depreciation. Infinite maintenance costs. An infinite need for available energy to turn back the tide of entropy. At the end of the day, the myth of growth is a thermodynamic impossibility.” (Post Growth, page 79)
Jackson’s elegant discussion of thermodynamic limits notwithstanding, I found his discussion of the end of economic growth less than fully satisfying. He notes that labour productivity grew greatly up to about 1960, that this growth in productivity was the major enabler of rapid economic growth, and that as labour productivity growth stalled over the past several decades, so too has economic growth. He mentions – without clearly endorsing – the idea that this labour productivity was directly tied to the most easily accessible fuel sources:
“A fascinating – if worrying – contention is that the peak growth rates of the 1960s were only possible at all on the back of a huge and deeply destructive exploitation of dirty fossil fuels ….” (Post Growth, page 31)
But his primary focus is to outline why we not only must, but how we can, lead prosperous lives that give freedom to limitless human potential while still respecting the unyielding limits that thermodynamics set for our economy.
Growth when necessary, but not necessarily growth
Is money – and therefore, also GDP – a good proxy for happiness? In an important but limited sense, yes. Jackson cites what is now an extensive body of evidence showing that
“more income does a lot to increase happiness when incomes are very low to start with. Looking across countries, for instance, there’s a rapid increase in measured happiness as the average income of the nation rises from next-to-nothing to around $20,000 per person.” (Post Growth, page 52)
Beyond that modest income, however, the measured increase in happiness that goes with increased income dwindles rapidly. At the same time, research shows that “Society as a whole is less happy when things are unequal ….” From a utilitarian viewpoint, then, trying to constantly provide more for those who already have more than enough is pointless. But by closing the inequality gap – “levelling up our societies” – we can greatly increase the happiness of society as a whole.
Jackson doesn’t stop, however, with merely making that assertion. He dives deeply into discussions of the true value of care work, human creativity, the psychology of flow, and love. In the process, he goes a long way toward fulfilling a major goal of his book: presenting a realistic vision of a future “in which plenty isn’t measured in dollars and fulfillment isn’t driven by the relentless accumulation of material wealth.”
Late-stage capitalism, in fact, goes to great lengths to ensure that people are not happy.
Merchants of discontent
In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, Jackson says, the industrialized economies were able to produce material goods beyond the needs of citizens. The response of capitalism was to develop ways of ensuring that consumers constantly feel they “need” more. The burgeoning advertising industry “drew on another metaphor, borrowed from an emerging ‘evolutionary psychology’: the insatiability of human desire.”
This development “turned Mill’s utilitarianism completely on its head”, trading not in happiness but in discontent:
“Anxiety must tip over into outright dissatisfaction if capitalism is to survive. Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to spend. Consumer products must promise paradise. But they must systematically fail to deliver it. … The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability consistently to disappoint us.” (Post Growth, page 91)
Fortunately there are ways to pursue fulfillment and satisfaction which do not depend on ever-increasing consumption. In this respect Jackson draws extensively on the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi and his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).
In Jackson’s description,
“People ‘in flow’ report an unusual clarity of mind and precision of movement. They experience a sense of confidence and control over the task. But there is also a sense of being lost in the moment, sometimes even being carried along by a momentum that is entirely outside of oneself. People describe a sense of wonder, a connectedness to the world, a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond happiness or the gratification of pleasure.” (Post Growth, page 101)
Fleeting pleasure can be bought and consumed. By contrast enjoyment, in Jackson’s use of the terms, typically takes work – the enjoyment from playing a sport well or playing music well may involve an investment of hundreds of hours of focussed attention. This work need not and often does not have adverse environmental impacts.
Clearly one needs a basis of material prosperity – beginning with adequate nutrition and housing – in order to pursue what Jackson describes as high-flow activities. But in a relatively egalitarian society which provides basic needs for all, people can achieve lasting satisfaction in activities which, Jackson and colleagues have found, tend to be both high-flow and low-impact.
“Flow exemplifies with extraordinary clarity the kinds of dividends that remain available to us in a postgrowth world,” Jackson writes. “Flow offers us better and more durable satisfactions that consumerism ever does.” (Post Growth, page 102)
While celebrating human creativity, it is equally important to restore the dignity of “the labour of care.” Some activities are fundamental to maintaining human societies: providing the food we need every day, taking care of children, providing comfort and care to those stricken with illness or in the fragility of end-of-life. Jackson notes that many people suddenly realized during the pandemic how fundamental the labour of care is. But we have done precious little to afford workers in these sectors the respect and security they deserve.
When we honour and reward all those who perform the labour of care, and we promote the lasting enjoyment that comes from flow activities rather than the resource-sucking drain of consumerism – then, Jackson says, we will have the foundation for a resilient, sustainable, postgrowth society.
Can we get there from here?
Jackson cites an oft-told joke in which a tourist on a road-less-travelled asks an Irish farmer about the best way to Dublin. The farmer replies, “Well, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.” The point being, of course, that no matter how inauspicious our present location may be, we can only start from exactly where we are.
Unfortunately I found Jackson’s road map to a post growth society unconvincing, though he makes an honest effort. In successive chapters he relates the work of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich That Hanh. Their examples are moving and inspiring and Jackson draws important lessons from their achievements and from the obstacles they faced.
But Jackson’s book is likely to reach primarily an audience in wealthy countries, and primarily readers who have at least a basis of material prosperity if not far more than they need. If we are to reach a post growth society soon enough to avoid both environmental conflagration and social collapse, a large number of relatively wealthy people need to realize they can be much happier by escaping the treadmill of constantly greater wealth accumulation and constantly greater consumption. I think Jackson is right on the mark in his discussion of flow, and I’d like to believe that his vision will catch on and become a civilization-defining vision – but Post Growth doesn’t convince me that that appealing future is likely.
In the concluding chapter Jackson writes, “In the ruins of capitalism, as I hope to have shown in this book, lie the seeds for a fundamental renewal.” I believe he has identified the seeds we need, and I dearly hope they will grow.
Illustration at top of page, from clockwise from top left: Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, in photograph from Wikipedia; author Tim Jackson, photo copyright by Fernando Manoso-Borgas, courtesy of press kit at timjackson.org.uk; philosopher John Stuart Mill circa 1870, photo from Wikimedia Commons.