No 2010 Posted by fw, July 18, 2017
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“‘Number 10 has gone ballistic,’ barked a voice on the other end of the line. The tone was hostile. It was clearly not the journalist I had been expecting, nor a message that I had anticipated. But I recognized the caller immediately. It was the one person who, until that point, had been our closest ally in government, a key political sponsor of the SDC [Sustainable Development Commission], and a keen supporter of the work that we had been doing. In the space of a few seconds, it was clear all that had changed…. As it turned out, the advisor in question was on a plane to China at the moment ‘Prosperity without Growth?’ (with its conciliatory question mark) landed unheralded on the Prime Minister’s desk. It was a matter of days before the G20 leaders convened in London to ‘kick-start growth again’. ‘What on earth had we been thinking?’ roared our former ally…’” —Tim Jackson, Prologue, Prosperity without Growth, 2nd edition
NOTE — To avoid any confusion in the reading of this post, I want to make it clear that today’s format is somewhat different from my usual approach in that instead of reposting the author’s original piece, I have chosen to retell selected parts of the story in a mix of my own words along with the author’s words in quotes.
In the Prologue to his book, Tim Jackson offers us a peek behind the not so hallowed walls of government.
PM goes “ballistic”
In the Prologue to the second edition of Prosperity without Growth, Tim Jackson recounts a March 2009 tale about what caused Number 10 to “go ballistic” over the release of a report, requested by the UK Government’s independent adviser, Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), into the relationship between prosperity and sustainability.
As it turned out, the report, which took on the “g-word”, landed slap bang on the PM’s desk just days before the G20 leaders gathered in London to “kick start growth again.”
Consider the irony of the situation: The PM [Gordon Brown] goes ballistic over the release of a commissioned report, titled Prosperity without Growth? just when the G20 was about to discuss how to restart growth. (More about the PM going ballistic follows).
The timing could not have been worse, coming hard on the heels of press releases issued to announce the report’s findings and recommendations.
Apparently, the question mark at the end of the title did not help to allay the PM’s anger and anxiety.
About that question mark
As Economics Commissioner on the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, Tim Jackson authored the 2009 report Prosperity Without Growth? The transition to a sustainable economy. At the heart of a long-running inquiry Jackson led for the SDC, was a very simple question — What can prosperity possibly mean in a world of environmental and social limits?
The conventional view is that economic growth will lead to greater prosperity. However, it was becoming increasingly clear that infinite economic growth is not possible on a finite planet. Faced with that reality, there were only two ways forward: 1) continue to grow our economies without trashing the planet, i.e. decoupling the economy from nature, or 2) find a way to achieve prosperity without relying on economic growth.
“Neither is easy to deliver,” says Jackson:
“Physics, economics, politics, sociology and psychology all lay claim to aspects of the argument. Making sense requires a willingness to question received wisdom and a determined effort to avoid familiar axioms. It also relies on a degree of openness to the possibility of political and social change.”
The immediate question, however, was how to communicate a difficult message in this post-crash period. After 60 years or economic growth policy, conveying the message that “restarting growth” would require “sensitivity”. From the moment the inquiry was first announced, a Treasury official rose to accuse Jackson of wanting “to go back and live in caves.”
Choosing a title for the report was hard enough. In this post-crash period, choice of a title was met with “varying degrees of uneasiness.” Absent a question mark, Prosperity with Growth came across as a declaration. After discussing alternatives, that is, “something less provocative”, the decision was made to give the PM’s office veto power over the title. The PM’s advisor advised: “I don’t think it matters what you call it.”
Question mark it is: Prosperity Without Growth? The transition to a sustainable economy.
All was well. Or so Jackson thought.
“Number 10 has gone ballistic”
“‘Number 10 has gone ballistic,’ barked a voice on the other end of the line. The tone was hostile…. I recognized the caller immediately. It was the one person who, until that point, had been our closest ally in government, a key political sponsor of the SDC, and a keen supporter of the work that we had been doing. In the space of a few seconds, it was clear all that had changed. ‘What on earth had we been thinking?’ roared our former ally.”
What had we done wrong?
Had we been naïve? Was it wrong to take on the g-word? Had we acted rashly by releasing the report with the g-word in the G20 week? “Absolutely not”, reflects Jackson –
“…what is the point in having a strong political message and being too timid to convey it to the people to whom it should matter?…. The moment it stops being permissible to question the fundamental assumptions of an economic system that is patently dysfunctional is the moment political freedom ends and cultural repression begins. It is also the point at which the possibilities for change are significantly, perhaps decisively, curtailed.”
No going back now. It was too late to declare an embargo on the report. It had been released; press releases were out. As the week wore on, apart from an “oblique reference” in an article about the “green stimulus”, nothing, there was no coverage of the report anywhere.
The internet changed everything – The report goes viral
“Between an unwilling government and an unwitting media, Prosperity without Growth? seemed destined simply to disappear into the void. But at some point following the eerie silence of the ‘launch’, people began to download the report from the SDC website…. Before long, it had been downloaded more often than any other report in the Commission’s history…. The trickle very soon became a flood – one which, to this day, has not really abated”
Six months after its release, the report was published as a book. Within weeks it sold out; subsequently, 17 foreign-language translations were published.
Speaking invitations and celebrity status quickly followed, eventually leading to Jackson’s 20-minute keynote talk on the ‘growth dilemma’ to an international audience at the UN in November 2013.
A conversation whose time had come
“In the end, I gave up trying to predict or explain the… unexpected nature of the responses to the book. I began to understand that this was quite simply a conversation whose time had come. Or perhaps to be more accurate, whose time had come round again.”
Although the UK government’s austerity cuts claimed the SDC, and government officials ignored the report, what emerged was a demand from ordinary people worldwide to discover how Prosperity without Growth is possible.
The Prologue is longer, but I will stop here. Well, almost. Here are Jackson’s closing words to the Prologue as it appears in the second edition of Prosperity without Growth — without a question mark at the end of the title:
“Prosperity, in any meaningful sense of the term, is about the quality of our lives and relationships, about the resilience of our communities and about our sense of individual and collective meaning. What this revision shows, even more clearly than before, is that the economics for such a vision is a precise, definable and meaningful task.”
For more about Tim Jackson, see Wikipedia’s entry.
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