Jan 13, 2011
'Stepping off the GDP escalator' path to sustainable economies
Every day there seem to be new doom and gloom stories about the economy. We hear that unemployment is up, house prices are going down and inflation keeps rising. Meanwhile experts speculate on when and how the UK and other countries will escape the recession, and talk about ways of making the economy grow. But is this the only way? Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, argues that there are alternative economic models that still enable everyone to lead a comfortable and contented life.
Buy, buy, buy; that is the message that most of us hear, and for the last few decades rampant consumerism certainly seems to have ensured that the economic bubble continued to grow. But like all bubbles, the economic one eventually had to burst, and the current global recession is causing some people to question the wisdom of pursuing an ever-growing economy.
"Right now the only way we know to keep an economy going is to consume more and more, but I'm asking if we could do better than this," says Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For A Finite Planet.
"Previously it has been taboo to raise the question of economic growth within government – economic stability is seen to rely on growth," says Jackson. But he thinks that the global recession, change in UK government and failure to reach a climate deal in Copenhagen last year have all helped to break down the taboo and open up debate. "It is now possible to question whether GDP is the best measure of how well we do as a nation, and to ask what happiness really means," says Jackson.
Certainly the current coalition government in the UK appears to be taking this on board, having announced a plan to try and measure the happiness of the nation. "This is something that the previous UK government had been doing since 2006 and it is a good step forward, but measuring happiness alone is not going to be enough," explains Jackson. "We also need to act on the findings and input them into policy decisions."
To pursue a secure and sustainable economy Jackson believes that the UK may have to take the bold step of relinquishing some of its economic power. "The UK is used to being a G7 country," he says. "Stepping off the GDP escalator strikes real fear into policy-makers' hearts. It feels a bit like demoting yourself to the second division. But if you're comparing yourself against the wrong measure, you're on a highway to nowhere."
Instead, Jackson says, we need to build up sustainable infrastructures, to create resilient and sustainable economies. And a key part of sustainability is the support of social organizations that improve quality of life for everybody, such as health services, a strong agricultural base and education.
Looking around at how other countries have fared through the most recent recession, Jackson thinks that the evidence speaks for itself. "The economies that have come out best are those that have more of this kind of social resilience, such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries," says Jackson.
However, even when a country decides to pursue a more social and ecological market economy, turning people's behaviour around is not always easy. "You can't change behaviour through persuasion," says Jackson. "Instead you have to make it easy for people to make the right choices, by investing in public transport and low-carbon technologies, for example – creating the conditions for people to thrive in society in less materialistic ways."
The conclusions that Jackson comes to draw on over 20 years of research into sustainability. Currently he is director of the ESRC Research Group on Lifestyles Values and Environment (RESOLVE), which aims to develop a robust understanding of the links between lifestyle, societal values and the environment, and to provide evidence-based advice to policy-makers seeking to influence people's lifestyles and practices. In addition to his academic and policy work, Jackson is an award-winning playwright and active communicator, and contributes regularly to the media.
About the author
Kate Ravilious is a contributing editor to environmentalresearchweb.