Citizen Action Monitor

Can eco-modernists provide an escape route from the “dilemma of growth?”

Tim Jackson critiques their proposed decoupling solution and concludes it would only work for angels.

No 2115 Posted by fw, December 6, 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 of the Home page.

In Section 2 of Chapter 9, Tim Jackson considered whether the degrowth movement could provide an escape from the horns of the dilemma of growth. He concluded that degrowth “gives us too little to go on in building a post-growth macroeconomics.

In this synopsis of Section 3, ambiguously titled “Angelizing growth”, Jackson directs his attention to “a much more powerful lobby who take almost exactly the opposite position” to the degrowthers – the eco-modernists.

Their proposed solution – “Endless improvements in the material efficiency of the economy so as to reduce the overall material throughput even as the economy continues to expand.” In a word, ‘decoupling’ will provide an escape from the dilemma of boundless, endless economic growth.

In reviewing their arguments, Jackson rejects their claim to have found an escape from the dilemma of growth, echoing economist Herman Daly’s opinion that “it would be necessary for us to become angels.

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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‘Angelizing’ growth, a synopsis, from Chapter 9, “Towards a Post-Growth Macroeconomics ” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

In Tim Jackson’s informed opinion, the degrowth movement has not yet proven that it can provide an escape route from the dilemma of economic growth by delivering stable social and economic growth.

“Not to worry”, claims “a far bigger, equally passionate and often much more powerful lobby who take almost exactly the opposite position” to the degrowthers. Rejecting demands for a post-growth society, the eco-modernists cling tenaciously to the pro-growth position.

Their proposed solution – “Endless improvements in the material efficiency of the economy so as to reduce the overall material throughput even as the economy continues to expand.” In a word, ‘decoupling’ will provide an escape from the dilemma of boundless, endless economic growth.

Decoupling, whether relative or absolute, Jackson argues convincingly in Chapter 5, “is a myth”.

And Jackson finds a supportive ally in economist Herman Daly, who wrote, more than 30 years ago, that to escape the earth’s biophysical limits of boundless, endless economic growth, “it would be necessary for us to become angels.

Moving on from the ethereal contemplation of angels, Jackson returns to Chapter 5’s arithmetic lesson to challenge of the “huge technological demands” of achieving the theoretical potential of decoupling. Keeping up technologically with the fast pace of economic growth would be challenge enough; but, asserts Jackson, “The most crucial question of all turns out to be about society rather than about technology. Is this massive technological transformation possible in our kind of society?

The answer to that question, as discussed in Chapter 6, is a resounding “No.” Jackson persists: we wouldn’t be able to decouple fast enough to either stay within environmental limits or to avoid resource constraints.

Placing their faith in the future power of some, as yet, undefined or unproven technological fix is insufficient reason to place all bets on endless improvements in the material efficiency of the economy.

Where does this leave us? The dilemma of growth remains unresolved:

“Is the economy of tomorrow a growth-based economy or is it not? Is the economy of tomorrow stable or is it not?”

In the next section, Jackson turns his attention to the question of growth.

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