Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jackson's Cinderella economy

I just finished reading Tim Jacksons book Prosperity without Growth, one of rather many (including my own Garden Earth) recent books challenging conventional wisdom about growth.

The book makes an easy read, and it is well written and structured. It has a large listing of references but the text is not littered with tables or charts. It deals with both ecological, social and psychological challenges in a discourse about what it is the creates prosperity, or flourishing as Jackson also calls it. It shows, convincingly, that growth isn't, or shouldn't be a prerequisite for a good life on earth. On the contrary growth, and the thereby linked constant quest for more makes us less satisfied (Jackson is careful to point out that material growth is still needed in the developing world). He shows in many ways that the notion of de-coupling, i.e. that we can have economic (GDP) growth and reduced environmental impact is a myth. E.g. even if we shift from manufacturing and "things", the way we spend our leisure time now account for as much as 25 percent of our carbon footprint. He sees one part of the economy as a candidate for prosperity creation without detrimental effects on the environment, this part he calls the Cinderella economy: social and community based enterprises, farmers' markets, gardening sport clubs and libraries to mention a few.
"People often achieve a greater sense of well-being and fulfillment, both as producers and consumers of these activities, than they ever do from the time -poor, materialistic, supermarket economy in which most of our lives are spent. But in formal terms these activities - let's call them ecological enterprises - barely count. They represent a kind of Cinderella economy that sits neglected at the margins of consumer society".
Like many others he calls for changing the macro-economics and proposes variables to reflect energy and resource dependency, ecosystem services and stocks of natural capital. He makes many recommendations for a transition to a sustainable economy grouped under
1. Establishing the limits (Resource and emission caps; Fiscal reform)
2. Fixing the economic model (developing the macro-economics; investing in jobs; revising national accounts (GDP))
3. Changing the social logic (Working hours; tackling inequality; measuring flourishing; dismantle consumerism and strengthening social capital).

He criticizes, in my view rightfully, Green Economy initiatives, not for being bad but for not being enough, and for keeping people within the Growth paradigm

He asks the question if all what he proposes amount to "the end of capitalism". His discussion here doesn't impress as much as the rest of the book. He first says that the answer depends on how one define capitalism and reduces this (referring to Baumol) to whether the means of production lies in private hands rather than with the state . In my view a fatally flawed definition, a definition that implies that also most pre-industrial societies were capitalist with the exception of a few centralised empires such as Incas and Pharaohs. With this definition he goes ahead to reduce the question about end of capitalism to be about private or state ownership of means of production. He concludes, rightly, that between pure private and pure state there is a wide spectrum of possibilities. He does mention other options, such as employee ownership, but only as an argument for why the clear distinctions between capitalism and socialism (now, suddenly, "end of capitalism" would have to mean "socialism") is rather meaningless. In the end his answer to the question is that it is an irrelevant queestion: "Is it still capitalism? Does it really matter?"

I can understand that Jackson doesn't want to get stuck in the "capitalism" discussion. To challenge one of the most sacred cows of capitalism is a mouthful already, and when one attack capitalism people close their ears. In this way his book reminds me Jonathon Porrits Capitalism-as if the world matters, another book that shows well how unsustainable current development and that all the incentives are wrong. Unfortunately however, the proposals Jackson (as well as those of Porrit, Hawken and Lovins) makes for how to solve things in the economic sphere, their feasibility is totally dependent on the incentives and economic drivers that rule and those are largely a result of the capitalist society we have. We can't put them on the head and keep the system. Or to borrow the words of Murray Bookchin

Capitalism not only validates pre-capitalist notions of the domination of nature – it turns plunder of nature into society's law of life. To quibble with this kind of system about its values, to frighten it with visions about the consequences of growth, is to quarrel with its very metabolism. One might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation. (Toward an Ecological Society)
Still, I recommend Tim Jackson's book.

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