Citizen Action Monitor

Could “prosperity without growth” provide a framework within which to make sense of our existence?

The role of this framework, this “sacred canopy,” is to keep us from despair when confronted with existential threats.

No 2148 Posted by fw, January 19, 2018

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 1, his Introduction to Chapter 11, titled “A Lasting Prosperity,” Tim Jackson waved a red flag:

“Society is faced with a profound dilemma. To reject growth is to risk economic and social collapse. To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.”

In this synopsis, Section 2, titled “The sacred canopy”, Jackson explains how confronting a world of limits by joining in a task of reconstruction, one of rebuilding a different kind of prosperity from the bottom up, could enable us to “consolidate the things that matter to us, reduce unnecessary commitments, thus increasing our resilience to external shocks, and even improve our quality of life.”

With eloquence, he sums up Section 2 this way:

“Prosperity transcends material concerns. Doing well consists in part in our ability to participate in the life of society, in our sense of shared meaning and purpose, in our capacity to create and to care and to dream. We’ve become used to chasing all these goals through material stuff. Our challenge is to free ourselves from that constraint.”

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

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The sacred canopy, a synopsis, from Chapter 11, “A Lasting Prosperity” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Jackson thinks of prosperity not in terms of personal income, or as GDP growth, but as “the ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet” — which is not to dismiss the importance of meeting the income levels required to sustain the basic food and shelter needs for upwards of two billion people in the impoverished parts on the world.

And for those who equate prosperity with personal wealth, Jackson reminds us that more is not always better: “Stuff on its own doesn’t help us flourish. And sometimes it can even impede flourishing.”

So, what specifically does Jackson mean by “doing well” or “flourishing?” He defines these as “social and psychological tasks rather than material ones.

To do well or flourish is a component of prosperity – an important one at that – related to “the ability to participate meaningfully in the life of the society,” including, for example, the ability to: “give and receive love; enjoy the respect of our peers; contribute usefully to society; have a sense of belonging and trust in the community; and to help create the social world and find a credible place in it.”

In striking contrast, participation in a consumer society is valued mainly in terms of the ownership and possession of material stuff – stuff which has acquired added social and psychological symbolic value. In Jackson’s words:

Our sense of identity, our expressions of love, our search for meaning and purpose – even our dreams and desires – are articulated through the language of goods.”

There’s no denying the novelty value of stuff. And cherished possessions can “comfort us and give us hope.” In most respects, though, the purchase and accumulation of material possessions distract us from attending to social and psychological experiences that give our lives deep and lasting value and meaning.

Jackson cites the contribution of US sociologist Peter Berger in accounting for the success (or failure) of societies to deal with an anxiety that inevitably afflicts its members when confronted with “our own mortality and the loss of those we love.”

“Every society needs a framework within which to make sense of existence, he argues. This framework relates our temporal existence to some higher ‘sacred’ order. It provides the foundation for moral guidance and moral governance.”

Berger calls this framework the “sacred canopy.”

“The role of the sacred canopy is to keep us from despair, from the chaotic and sometimes meaningless void that lurks outside the neatly ordered structure of our lives, waiting to overturn our hopes and derail our best intentions.”

But what are we to do when material things promise that sacred canopy?

“Sacred goods remind us of those we love, of dreams we hold, of our hopes for the future. Their seemingly endless availability consoles us for the temporary nature of our lives, for our disappointments and failures. It assures us that society holds out the promise of better lives (for us and for our children) into the future.”

Jackson is not swayed. Consumerism may not be entirely empty of meaning but it promises more than it can deliver:

“It offers us a seductive sense of security, one that needs continually to be reinforced by engaging in yet more consumption. But even if it were sustainable, its success as a psychological strategy is fleeting at best. Pathological at worst.”

Is there any way to disarm a sacred canopy of consumerism? Could it be as simple as asking people to give up their addiction to stuff? Jackson says that would be like “inviting a kind of social suicide.”

To paraphrase Jackson, our challenge is to free ourselves from seeking a sense of shared meaning and purpose through the pursuit and possession of material stuff.

Recall Jackson’s opening words in his introduction to this chapter:

“Society is faced with a profound dilemma. To reject growth is to risk economic and social collapse. To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.”

In a world of limits, “consolidating the things that matter to us and reducing unnecessary commitments increases our resilience to external shocks and can even improve our quality of life.”

If we are to achieve “prosperity without growth”, if we are ever to gain the ability to flourish as human beings within the ecological limits of a finite planet,” we must be prepared to live frugally in a community where members honour their mutual obligations and responsibilities.

Jackson calls on us to join in a task of reconstruction, one of rebuilding a different kind of prosperity from the bottom up.

With eloquence, Jackson sums up Section 2 this way:

“Prosperity transcends material concerns. Doing well consists in part in our ability to participate in the life of society, in our sense of shared meaning and purpose, in our capacity to create and to care and to dream. We’ve become used to chasing all these goals through material stuff. Our challenge is to free ourselves from that constraint.”

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