Saturday, 28 April 2012

A New Economics

I've just finished a stimulating read, Prosperity Without Growth; Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson (Earthscan, 2009). Described as 'one of the most outstanding pieces of environmental economic literature in recent years', the book asks, 'What does it mean to live well within the confines of a finite world?' Science, industry, digitalization have all brought great advantages. We live longer, we are healthier and better educated and we have a much greater diversity of opportunity than we would have had 100 years ago. And yet...

Even on conservative estimates, 2 billion people are undernourished or lack clean water. A study by Sheffield University (Dorling et al, 2008) shows that, although incomes have doubled over a 30 year period, there has been an erosion of geographical (ie. location-based) community which means that the loneliness index has increased to such an extent that even the weakest communities of the 1970s were experienced as more supportive than the strongest communities of today. It seems we can neither sustain the planet so that all can live nor find happiness ourselves in the societies of the over-developed world. Ben Okri (The Times 2008) puts it well, 'Material success has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy. Our false oracles have failed and we need a vision to live by.'

Jackson's book sets out a thesis for how we can 'flourish within limits'. He debunks the rampant materialism that governs Western economies with its underlying dependence on shaming us into wanting to buy more and more. Shame? Well, yes. Which of us has not wanted to acquire more because of that casual remark, 'Oh, you don't use an i-pad?' 'Oh you're not going to get a new dress for your son's wedding?' 'Ah, you're still driving that?' Just as a poor worker might spend money he can ill afford to have a decent shirt for work, we all feel shamed into keeping up with others or at least keeping up enough to be in the swim of things and to know what's going on and what people are talking about. In the most affluent economies, where differences in wealth are the greatest, Jackson argues that this dynamic of 'shaming' has got so out of control that non-materialistic values are ceasing to impact on the way society is organized. We consume too much, we do not value the contribution made to society by workers who care for those who do not produce wealth and we force anyone who does not want to consume so much to make choices that lead to their partial exclusion from mainstream society (try living without a car, computer or mobile for a month.)

The book examines different types of capitalism and market-driven economics and shows how these relate to sustainable solutions to economic organisation. It attempts to make suggestions about how we could become more value-driven and less consumption-driven. If long term commitment to our near neighbours and global partners were to replace laissez-faire, short-term gratification, Jackson argues, the end result would be greater fulfilment and happiness for us all and we would prosper much more. I would argue that what Jackson says chimes in very well with what I have always thought of as 'Kingdom of Heaven economics' (or the evidence in scripture for the ways we ought to look at economic growth).  The first principle is generosity - share, talk, discover values that unite, develop trust. Wealth comes in the guise of enough - enough to live, to share, to do what is needed in our own communities and not to damage the earth by over- consumption.

I'm very grateful to the Buckfastleigh Abbey (Benedictine Community) bookshop where I chanced on this rich volume; it's a complex and wide-ranging book which covers economics, family politics, psychological motivation, social organisation and much, much more as it stacks up the evidence for its central theme, namely, that, if economic growth based on escalating consumption continues to be the sole basis for delivering prosperity, then inequity and unsustainability will be the twin forces that bring the future of humanity to the brink of annihilation. The evidence presented shows that 'more stuff' does not mean 'more happiness' and 'business as usual' is not an option. The need for a new economics is pressing. Growth is surely needed in under-developed parts of the world but, in the over-developed countries, we need a radical programme, economic, educational , social and, of course, political, that is motivated by the benefits of having less. That's the NOW challenge - what could you do to use less, to have less, to share more and to enjoy yourself more? What would you like to be free of and free for? What would travelling lighter be like? 

1 comment:

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