Citizen Action Monitor

In defining what it means to prosper, capabilities for flourishing offer a good starting point, provided …

… The capabilities to flourish are “bounded within certain inevitable limits.”

No 2050 Posted by fw, September 13, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin. 

To put in context the synopsis of the 4th and final section of Chapter 3 of Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, here is a brief summary of the first three sections.

In Section 1, the Introduction, Jackson declares that “the prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding material paradise has become unravelled.” What’s needed now, he contends, “is a bold new vision of prosperity at a societal level.

Jackson envisions a prosperity that nurtures human flourishing, advances social cohesion, and promotes wellbeing, but not at the cost of environmental degradation.

Turning to the “wisdom traditions” as a source of inspiration for a revisioning of prosperity, the author finds affirmation for a prosperity that nurtures: obligations and responsibilities to others; compassion and caring for others’ wellbeing; health, family, friendships and work fulfillment; discovering life’s purpose and meaning, including those derived from religious and spiritual belief systems.

So begins Jackson’s search for a new vision of prosperity at the societal level.

Continuing the summary …

To ensure a “credible account of prosperity”, Jackson borrows three concepts from a landmark essay, The Living Standard (aka The Standard of Living) by the distinguished Indian economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel prize winner in Economic Sciences. The three terms Sen used to characterize his concepts are opulence, utility, and capabilities for flourishing.

Opulence refers to “a great abundance or extravagance”, and corresponds, notes Jackson, to “a conventional understanding that prosperity is about material satisfactions. … the more we have, the better off we are.” It’s obvious why Jackson would reject opulence as “bold new vision of prosperity” – prosperity for the poorest societies, yes, but not for the wealthiest.

Sen’s second concept, utility, relates to the “uses and satisfaction” to which commodities are put. Mainstream economists use GDP as a measure of satisfaction. GDP – the per capita measure of total spending by households, government and business investments — is used as a measure of wellbeing. But as Jackson points out, this is a “deeply flawed” measure because GDP includes “all our destructive lifestyle practices.”

The above recap brings us to the fourth and final section of Chapter 3, which Jackson titles “Bounded capabilities for flourishing”, borrowed from Amartya Sen’s third concept, capabilities for flourishing. Section 4 appears below.


Bounded capabilities for flourishing, a synopsis, from Chapter 3, “Redefining Prosperity” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Sen’s third concept of the living standard is based on the “capabilities that people have to flourish.”

Sen says the key questions to ask have to do with how well people are able to function in any given context. The aspects of life that Sen cites are – nutritional health, life expectancy, participation in society. (In this context, “to function” means the ability perform those aspects of life in the context of a society.)

Sen places less emphasis on the functions themselves – for example, taking part in the life of the community, finding worthwhile work, use their education, caring for themselves — than on the capabilities or freedoms they have to do so. In other words, people should have the right to choose whether or not to participate in society, to work in paid employment, and perhaps even whether to live a healthy life. It is the capability to flourish that constitutes progress.

Jackson contends that it’s the functions themselves, rather than the capabilities or freedoms, that give meaning to the more abstract term ‘capabilities’.

Moreover, there are good reasons not to overemphasize freedoms. In a society, legal, ecological, and morals are among the limits that are typically placed on freedoms. Also, The freedom endlessly to accumulate material goods may simply be inaccessible to a world approaching 10 billion people.”

Capabilities for flourishing are a good starting point from which to define what it means to prosper”, says Jackson, provided that the capabilities to live well are “bounded within certain inevitable limits.” 

Jackson establishes the limits relative to two “critical factors:”

The first is the finite nature of the ecological resources within which life on earth is possible: the regenerative capacity of our ecosystems, the available resources, the integrity of the atmosphere, the soils and the oceans.

The second limiting factor on our capability to live well is the scale of the global population. The bigger the global population, the faster we hit the ecological buffers. The smaller the population, the lower the pressure on ecological resources. This basic tenet of systems ecology is the reality of life for every other species on the planet. And for those in the poorest nations.

“A prosperous society can only be conceived as one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish in certain basic ways.

In this bounded context, Jackson returns to three fundamental questions: “What does it mean for us to flourish? What are the functions that society should value and provide for? How much flourishing is sustainable in a finite world?

Answering these questions “is not a trivial task,” says Jackson. Although a list of the components of prosperity could be drawn from philosophers, writers and sages across many knowledge domains, ideally, whatever the sources for the list, it should still be negotiated in open dialog, ultimately becoming a basis for public policy. Close attention to the social, psychological and material conditions of living are called for — conditions in short supply in capitalist free-market societies. That is the challenge we face in redefining prosperity.

Are we any closer to arriving at “a bold new vision of prosperity at a societal level?” At the very least we know what components we can eliminate from the list.

In his concluding paragraph to Chapter 3, Jackson writes”

“The possibility that humans can flourish, achieve greater social cohesion, find higher levels of wellbeing and still reduce their material impact on the environment is an intriguing one. It would be foolish to think that it will be easy to achieve – for reasons discussed in more detail in the next chapter. But it should not be given up lightly. It may well offer the best prospect we have for a lasting prosperity.”

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