More fun, less stuff

By Elías Camhaji

Get over it - For decades, growth has been the answer to almost every economic problem. Somewhere along the line, growth lost its lustre - and while we dither over what to do about growth, we are leaving deep scars on the Earth. Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, believes a new approach to economics could ensure a bright future for the planet and help us live happier lives.

It was a rainy holiday, typical for the north of England, when Tim Jackson's kids badgered him into taking them to an animal park. While walking between the tiger cages, the lion enclosures and the screeching bonobo monkeys, among annoyed adults and screaming children, the Jacksons could tell something did not feel right. On their way out of the park, they had to walk through the gift shop, piled high with stuffed animals and other souvenirs. Despite not really wanting to buy anything, Jackson ended up taking home some of these fluffy toys. It seemed like his children had enjoyed neither the visit to the park nor the toys. The next day, they spent a day in the wilderness with just their bags on their backs. His children were as happy as they could be. "There is an enormous lesson in that," Jackson says. "Our needs as human beings are not best satisfied inside the gift shop, but in the open, in the world, interacting with people." But in a world where accumulation and consumption are thought to be keys to prosperity and success, can we imagine a future where we worry less about owning things and care more about personal fulfillment? During the symposium, Jackson argued that in order to do so, we should be thinking of enhancing human development and creating opportunities for people rather than worrying about growing GDP.

You have talked about the dilemma of growth: We cannot live with it or without it. Is growth possible without trashing the planet, or do you think we have to trash the concept of growth altogether?

"I think we have to set growth aside, to be honest, because we have been fixated on this idea that we want GDP and we want GDP to grow. Economists, statisticians, and accountants will tell you it is not a very good measure in the first place. GDP is not a measure of wellbeing, nor does it measure many other things very well. What we need to focus on is getting over the dilemma of growth, on having an conomy that creates quality of life and provides opportunities for people to flourish. Then you worry about how you make that economy work."

Which players have to take action to make these changes happen?

"The larger players have to change the infrastructures and the institutions. Enterprises should be asking themselves what the nature of their business is - not just what kind of business they have, but also where it sits in the nature of the world and human potential. Business can improve
people's lives, and there are successful businesses in that space. That does not mean that businesses do not often find themselves in difficult places, just like people. That is why you need to think of a role for governments: regulatory frameworks, social investments, and ultimately having the potential to regulate stability and instability within the system."

Politically, how do you sell the idea of slowing down growth?

"I do not think you do. What you sell is the idea of full employment, the idea of good health systems, the idea of good education. And you create your economy in a way that makes that work. That does place a strong emphasis on governments and political leadership. But it is not political leadership to go out and say: 'growth is bad, turn off the switch.' There is no policy that works along those lines. The policy has to be about creating the conditions for a good quality of life, and making the economics of that work."

But some critics may say you would need to sacrifice welfare in the short run and that would be very traumatic for many people.

"It is also why you have to have the flexibility in government to do such social investments. You need those to protect people in need and to put them in places where they can be reskilled. It is very clear there would be losers: Very rich people who had it good for so long do not want that to stop. They do not want the party to be over. You have to have strong political leadership to say that the level of inequality is unacceptable and financial markets are dysfunctional. Governments do not really have a lot of weapons in that fight. The two weapons they do have are enormous public support and the concept of social investments."

Is this affordable for the developing countries?

"I do not know. It is an argument mainly for the rich economies. It seems very clear to me that the poorest countries in the world do need growth. But if developing countries are embedded in the same economic system that relies on materialistic and relentless growth, that is actually not improving conditions. If that is the system the developing countries are relying on, then it, too, has to change. A post-growth economy is as important for developing countries as it is for the richer economies. It just has to happen in a different way and on a different time scale."

In 1972, The Club of Rome presented an influential book called "The Limits to Growth" right here at the St. Gallen Symposium. It seems like we haven't made much progress over the last four decades. Why are you still optimistic about finding a solution?

"I am partly optimistic, because economic growth in advanced nations is already running out of capacity. I think that realisation gives us hope, because it is not a bunch of people saying 'Slow down! We are damaging the environment.' It is actually the economy that says, 'wait - where is the growth?' Hence, there is room for a new conversation, and one that was not possible in the same way before."

You have been very critical about the Western lifestyle and our appetite for consumption. What steps can people take to foster sustainable growth?

"There is always something that individuals can do. There are alternatives, but some of the alternatives have to be organised at a structural level. Individual people cannot just do the whole task by choosing to be different, because they are locked in a social, economic, and financial system. That is totally outside individual control. That makes people think, 'I cannot do anything, I am just going to go on living my life.' That does not work either. It is possible to do things. Any individual can ask questions, vote with their spending patterns against those companies who create working conditions that are unsustainable, and make choices in their own life about their recreation."

And how do you practice what you preach?

"By walking from the symposium to the Einstein Hotel. It is absolutely wonderful, far better than waiting for a limousine to carry you through the traffic to go there. Walking is one of those things that is healthy for the individual and better for the planet, and it can be very enjoyable under the right circumstances. You can choose not to be embedded in this destructive consumerist system. But because not everybody has that access, part of the job is to create the infrastructure to enable people to have more fun and less stuff."

Tim Jackson attended the 46th St. Gallen Symposium (11-13 May 2016) to debate "Growth - the good, the bad, and the ugly". His opening speech on "The case for slower growth - but how?" can be watched here.