Customer Reviews: Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet
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on August 12, 2010
We can't have our cake and eat it too, according to Tim Jackson. While many (or even most) people are convinced that "technology" and ever-increasing efficiencies will allow humankind, and especially us Rich World folks, to live green and still live large, this books demonstrates in well-documented detail the fallacy of this way of thinking. For instance, while we are getting more production for any carbon we emit into the atmosphere (25 percent more efficient globally in the past 40 years), our actual carbon output is up by 80 percent, as more people are finding more ways to burn fossil fuels--in effect overwhelming any impact from being more efficient.

Jackson is thorough in documenting our overuse of important materials such as copper, bauxite and iron ore, which he points out, if the rest of the world used like we do, world supplies would be exhausted within 20 years. He is also quick to note that not only are we exhausting the planet's physical storehouse and storage capacity for things like carbon, we are at the same time driving a large wedge between the haves and have-nots of the world. And more wealth won't solve these inequities: per capita income in the US is some $42,000 per year, yet the US has the largest income stratification of any rich nation.

He blames much of our problem on "novelty"--the pursuit of the new thing. This creates a throwaway society as product after product is "up-graded" for the next model; it also creates persistent anxiety among and between citizens as they strive for acceptance and supremacy via things. He feels that the goal of society should be to create a world that is environmentally sustainable and that focuses on helping people flourish--neither of which can be accomplished in a highly competitive capitalistic society whose mantra is "more." He calls for both local and national initiatives to redefine life, rewarding behaviors that promote the goals mentioned above.

Pithy quote: "Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilized society."
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on April 19, 2010
A useful re-statement of all the good arguments made over the past 40 years for transforming public policy beyond erroneous economic models. Summarizes the debate and the conclusions on the need to move to low-entropy models based on better understanding of real human needs and goals of equitable, ecologically sustainable prosperity. Some strange omissions, including E. F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful (1973) in its heavily focused British literature and the ascribing of the European Commission and the European Parliaments Beyond GDP conferences in 2007 ([...]) to the OECD. A good introduction for those unfamiliar with this 40-year old debate.

Hazel Henderson, author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy and co-creator and author of the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators
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on August 25, 2010
It is a good book, well written. The first part, where the author makes the case for the unsustainablility of the "growth model" of the economy was very well written. It cannot be said the same about the second part of the book, which was how will be possible the revert and fix the problem. I understand perfectly that it was the most difficult part of the book, and that such a complex matter cannot be fully covered in one book, but I was expecting something more than wishful thinking.
Anyway, it is a book worth reading.
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on February 6, 2014
Although, as a longtime environmentalist, I’m a member of the choir that this author is preaching to, I found myself resisting much of what he was saying, and I certainly could not imagine that a gung-ho, pro-growth, climate-change skeptic would be moved by the arguments presented in this book. My main takeaway was the realization of just how far apart people can be who are supposedly on the same team.

For one thing I had problems with the style and presentation of the book. The heavy use of sentence fragments made me feel I was reading an expanded PowerPoint presentation, and the pervasive presence of weasel-words like clearly is a sign of the weakness of the supporting arguments.

I was frustrated with the author’s fence-sitting. I was expecting to find, at a minimum, a clear alternative definition of prosperity, but this I did not get–at least, not that I can recall. Instead there were repeated statements to the effect that “our future idea of prosperity will have to include such things as . . .” But the author felt that coming down too definitely on exactly what should be done, or how, was beyond the scope of what one book–his book, anyway–could do.

Much of the book is concerned with providing suggestive evidence that alternative ways of measuring our economic activity and success are feasible. But too often, for my taste, this evidence consisted of the tentative findings of various social scientists, based on mushy things like opinion surveys. To me this is not “science” in any useful sense, for I have little doubt that, like expert witnesses in court cases, other soft scientists could be found to offer “evidence” supporting different or even contradictory conclusions. Only hard sciences–physics and chemistry–carry conviction, and there’s very little of that in this book.

What was most troubling to me was the author’s faith in government as the solution to our global ecological-economic crisis. My alarm bells first started ringing early on when the author says that although the bailouts of financial firms in the crisis of 2008 were used to fund multimillion-dollar bonuses for those firms’ executives, “politicians had no choice but to intervene in the protection of the banking sector.” This reader, for one, believes that politicians did have a choice. Can we possibly believe that there was no choice but to borrow billions of dollars in my name, and use it to reward their cronies for losing such stupendous sums of money?

The bold, visionary change needed to bring a new world economy into being will never arise from such feckless and fatalistic acceptance of government as it is currently practiced. As far as I can tell, governments are more responsible than anyone for the ecological harm that has been wrought on planet Earth. It is governments, after all, who subsidize Big Oil and pay people to destroy fisheries and mow down rainforests. Private interests, of course, could still accomplish these things, but not so quickly or so completely as when they receive government handouts to do so. Canada would still have a cod fishery if its government had not paid people to extirpate it. The idea that the Stephen Harper government in Canada might lead us toward a more ecologically responsible economics would make me laugh if it didn’t fill me with such bleak hopelessness. Our governments rule us; they don’t lead us. Our leaders–that is, the people we spontaneously wish to follow–will have to come from the grass roots.

This book was at its best and most interesting when the author was at his most wonkish. He spends time discussing GDP and the equations with which it’s calculated. But although I found this interesting and informative, I don’t think that a bold new “prosperity”-based economics can emerge from such technical futzing. “Maybe if we can tweak these equations a bit . . .”

My overall impression is that, although the author talks about vision, he sees and treats the question of changing the economic basis of our society as a technical one, to be solved ultimately by academics and bureaucrats. Even the attitudes of us consumers, which, according to the author, must fundamentally change, are really the responsibility of those same bureaucrats, who must construct the institutions and incentives that will cause the livestock, oops, citizens, to behave in the right way. Mr. Jackson sees a more thoroughly socialist society–one in which the evils of “capitalism”, with its promotion of “consumerism” via an unpleasant thing called “novelty”, have been overcome–as the most likely means of getting to the sustainable Earth we need to live on. In this view, a benign dictator or a benign oligarchy will shepherd us to the Promised Land of a prosperous, sustainable, socially leveled Earth.

Of course the author does not say that–not in so many words. But to me it is the necessary implication of a world in which the state is even bigger than it is today. As though our real problem were a lack of right-thinking technocrats. And if people won’t stop their neurotic pursuit of “novelty”, they will have to be forced–won’t they?

Our future and our prosperity are not technical questions. They are questions of principle, of ideas; they are philosophical questions, and they need to be discussed at this level. We do need a new idea of prosperity, but that idea needs to be clear and definite, and it needs to be communicated with passion and conviction by men of vision and integrity–our future leaders, whoever and wherever they are. That was never the mission of this book, but this book could have been and should have been a stone for the sling of one of those leaders, and I’m afraid it just isn’t.
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on July 15, 2011
I'm delighted that the author addresses this topic. I have some suggestions for a second edition:
(1) The subtitle should become the title
(2) The title should NOT become the new subtitle. It is inconsistent for the author to request the development of an ecologically-aware macroeconomics and simultaneously imply that he already has such a macroeconomics in hand. We don't know whether 'prosperity without growth' is our best option - maybe we need generations of economic and population contraction (rather than mere stasis) to get us out of the horrible jam we've gotten ourselves into.
(3) All references to the financial crisis of 2008 should to be removed. The crisis of 2008 is not (and will never be) viewed as suggesting that there is a systemic flaw in the capitalist model. Instead, the crisis is viewed as an acute illness brought on by the development and deployment of a fatally flawed mortgage securitization pipeline by thoroughly corrupt and unprincipled financiers.
(4) In order to convince someone to do something, you can use a carrot or a stick. The carrot that the author dangles here is not particularly appealing (flourishing without growth), and the stick is practically non-existent, except for one meagre sentence toward the end of the book: "By the end of the century, our children and grandchildren will face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the destruction of habitats, the decimation of species, food scarcities, and almost inevitably war." (p. 203) In the second edition, 'the stick' needs to be much more developed, or we humans will just continue on our present path.
(5) The powerful entrenched interests who will fight to the death to prevent the development and deployment of an ecologically aware macroeconomics should be described, along with the tools at their disposal and their manner of use. We can't vanquish an enemy we can't see.
(6) The population growth topic needs to be addressed more fully. A growing population appears to be fundamentally incompatible with a static or contracting economy. It's not sufficient to shrug our shoulders and claim the population growth problem is unsolvable, or depends only upon improved female education. There are things a society can do to encourage small or non-existent families - these policy options should be described and discussed.
(7) It's not clear that the authors are thinking sufficiently 'out of the box'. For example, the authors appear wedded to the traditional notion of 'work' as the foundation of a healthy society, but its not at all clear whether this notion can survive in its present form in an ecologically-aware macroeconomics.
(8) Existing work on this topic needs to be better described. Renegade economists (and others) have been thinking about this topic for decades (and even centuries - consider Malthus).

Get to work!! I'm waiting for the second edition!!
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on July 6, 2011
We are already at or near the ecological limits to growth of our magnificent planet. At the same time the economies of affluent nations, as presently conceived, require continuous growth to avoid collapse into recession and high unemployment. Tim Jackson's book Prosperity without Growth, examines this paradox in detail and presents a path toward its resolution.

A first step is to examine our definitions of prosperity. A shift away from prosperity pursued as opulence -- constantly acquiring new material satisfactions -- and toward prosperity enjoyed as flourishing -- deep and enduring satisfaction and well-being -- allows us to consume less while we enjoy life more. A graph of happiness as a function of average annual income reaches a plateau as essential material needs are met. A graph of life expectancy as a function of GDP per capita reaches a similar plateau. This insight helps us recognize that paths toward increased happiness do not require more material goods.

In the economies of affluent nations, competition stimulates technology improvements that increase labor productivity to reduce costs. As labor becomes more productive, fewer people are required to produce the same goods. This would lead to unemployment unless demand grows at the same rate as labor becomes more productive. If growth stops, unemployment increases, household income drops, demand drops and the system collapses toward recession.

This presents the dilemma of growth:
+ Growth in its present form is unsustainable -- unbounded resource consumption is exceeding environmental capacity, and
+ De-growth under present conditions is unstable -- reduced consumer demand leads to increased unemployment and the spiral of recession.

A solution to this dilemma is essential for future prosperity.

We can begin to see a solution in the "Green new deal". People need jobs and the world needs to manage a transition to sustainable energy. These two goals can be met simultaneously by directing investments away from opulent consumer goods and toward low-carbon systems that reduce climate change and increase energy security. In addition investments in natural infrastructure including sustainable agriculture and ecosystem protection provide long-term benefits. The engine of growth becomes creation and operation of non-polluting energy sources and selling non-material services. In addition, delivering the benefits of labor productivity to the workers would allow them more leisure and less stress as they enjoy a shorter work week. The book describes quantitative models to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach.

The many elements of such a transformation are described, including:

Establishing limits:
+ Establishing resource extraction and emissions caps, including reduction targets,
+ Reforming financial systems to support sustainability, and
+ Supporting ecological transitions in developing countries.
Fixing the economic model:
+ Developing a new macro-economic model based on ecological constraints,
+ Investing in jobs, assets and infrastructures,
+ Increasing financial and fiscal prudence,
+ Revising the national accounts such as GDP to include the value of ecological services and the costs of pollution and destructive activities.
Changing the social logic:
+ Adjusting working time policy to allow shorter or longer work weeks to suit the preferences of the workers and share the work to be done,
+ Reducing systemic inequalities,
+ Measuring capabilities and well-being,
+ Strengthening social capital, and
+ Dismantling the culture of consumerism.

This is an immensely difficult transformation; however it is essential for a lasting prosperity.
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…starting with the title, which reflects one of Tim Jackson’s central tenets. It should be possible to increase our “prosperity,” by which is meant our quality of life, without advocating endless increases in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (or is it GNP… or some other formulation?) Indeed, the measure itself is profoundly flawed, as Jackson (and others) have demonstrated. The sum total of all economic transactions is a poor measure of human well-being, particularly when annual income is above $15,000, as the author’s graphs indicate. It was John Maynard Keynes who made a metaphor out of “taking in each other’s laundry”: to wit, the GDP would increase if each of us were paid for doing the other’s laundry, but it improves the quality of life not one iota. (Jackson makes the same point by stating that cleaning up car wrecks does not improve the quality of life, but it does increase GDP). The other central tenet is Jackson’s critique of consumerism… the seemingly irrational need to acquire goods beyond any conceivable physical need. Our consuming of the earth’s resources is simply not sustainable, and is a prime motive force causing the now familiar “global warming.” With both of Jackson’s points, I am solidly in the “Amen corner.”

But Jackson never really addresses the “elephant in the room”: global human population growth. In fact, four to five times in the book he accepts it as a “given” that the world’s population will be 9 billion in 2050, and we must make adjustments now to accommodate all these new people. Why not just accept the fact that the world’s temperature will increase 2 degrees Celsius by the same date, and make the necessary accommodations? Jackson’s first graph is a plot of “economic growth” vs. “ecological overshoot” over time (the latter is a rather fuzzy concept)… but should not this first graph concerned “population growth”? Indeed should we not actively be striving to determine the optimum population for the planet in direct conjunction with human’s impact on the earth’s warming?

The book was published in 2009, with the “economic meltdown” of 2008 not very far in the rear view mirror. Another of Jackson’s “givens” is that the financial system had to be bailed out, and those who wanted to seize the opportunity to have more meaningful reforms were dubbed “revolutionaries.” But is the concept of eliminating “a bank too big to fail,” through meaningful anti-trust laws, “revolutionary”? Teddy Roosevelt, where are you now that we need you? Jackson never addressed the specific mechanisms that the Federal Reserve used to bail out Wall Street via the expansion of its “balance sheet” through bond purchases (a dressed up version of printing money – but only for a select few) and the 100% tax rate it imposed on savers (by fixing interest rates at almost zero). The government bails out the super-rich from their follies, at least at 100 cents on the dollar, and is only willing “to hear the pain” (and do nothing about it!) of the 99%. This should have been a central focus of this book, and was not.

In his chapter entitled “The Iron Cage of Consumerism” Jackson restates and rehashes many of the points made by Vance Packard over a half century ago in The Status Seekers (that is, we purchase goods to “one-up” our friends and neighbors) and The Waste Makers. Jackson’s statements on page 97: “The cycles of creative destruction become ever more frequent. Product lifetimes plummet as durability is designed out of consumer goods and obsolescence is designed in. Quality is sacrificed relentlessly to volume throughput,” could have come directly from the latter work.

Finally, Jackson’s last chapters address ways in which we might be able to move towards a sustainable economy and a lasting prosperity without ever addressing the issue that we have moved away from both of these goals since the days of Vance Packard, and in particular, WHY we have moved away from them. (Packard is not listed in the references). Could it be that the power elites (nor is C. Wright Mills listed!) are quite comfortable with the existing social and economic order which provides a vast “pool” of insecure labor to do its bidding? But don’t get me started… since Jackson never did commence addressing any of these issues. As a final comment, I found much of the prose beset by turgidity as well as tautological platitudes. Alas, I really wanted to like this book, instead, 2-stars.
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on October 24, 2015
This book is a provocative outgrowth of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, 2003 – 2009. Unlike the US politics of “sustainable growth”, many environmentalists and ecologically minded economists in the UK recognize a fundamental contradiction between sustainability and conventional economic growth, even so-called “green growth”. Faced with the coming contraction of global material prosperity, Jackson successfully lays out the challenge of creating a less material form of prosperity to guide both politics and economic development.

Read Charles Eisenstein’s book “Sacred Economics” for a complementary take on this theme, including ideas such as “negative interest” that could be used to guide investment in a contracting economy. Jackson’s mathematics for sustainable economics (Appendix II) has some of the right concepts but lacks the proper mathematical framework, which is the nonlinear system dynamics of the limits-to-growth studies from the 1970s.

Already on page 2 Jackson lays out the fundamental fact that is so unpalatable to capitalists and their investors and cheerleaders: “In pursuit of the good life today, we are systematically eroding the basis for well-being tomorrow”. That is, capitalism, as we know it, is totally dependent on profit, but opportunities for profit in a contracting economy (due to limits-to-growth) are few and often only achieved by damaging exploitation of people, natural resources, or ecosystems. Thus as we head from ecological overshoot into collapse over coming decades, capitalism will lose its credibility. And what will take its place – especially if the endemic warfare we already see in the Middle East spreads globally?

As Jackson says on page 15: “The concept of governance itself stands in urgent need of renewal.” But first Jackson takes a harder look at the financial collapse of 2008, concluding that “The very policies put in place to stimulate growth in the economy eventually led to its downfall.” In fact I just finished a good article demonstrating how China did exactly the same the thing with the same results – the bursting of its real estate bubble in 2014 and stock market bubble in 2015. Jackson concludes that “Our ecological debts are as unstable as our financial debts. Neither is properly accounted for in the relentless pursuit of consumption growth.”

Then Jackson takes a more philosophical look at prosperity, seeking a “happiness based measure of utility, not an expenditure-based measure” (p. 41). Ultimately he concludes that we must learn to live within limits – limits on our consumption hence on our freedom too, which I note could range from the ancient Buddhist practice of detachment up to modern practices of voluntary simplicity. Later he contrasts this approach to the psychology and economics that drives consumerism.

Conventional capitalism fails because it pushes toward either expansion or collapse, when what is needed is resilience (p. 64). But before going deeper Jackson looks at the “Myth of Decoupling”, decoupling being the economists’ claim that it is possible to achieve material economic growth with fewer resources and environmental impacts by sheer efficiency. While seemingly possible in certain theoretical frameworks, it is difficult to find in practice. Part of the problem is “Jevons paradox” – that efficiencies in one area simply lead to new spending in other areas. Another problem is that the “other areas” may be far removed in a global economy, hence not measured, such as replacing smoke stacks in Europe by smoke stacks in China for manufacturing. Another problem is that big efficiencies have typically come from new technology, which itself requires major and sustained investment, hence more resources or at least a significant shift in resource usage. Of course, during a long period of sustained economic contraction the incentives for efficiencies will be strong, so many will happen naturally, mitigating the economic collapse, yet big efficiencies in infrastructure which require major investments may never happen as different factions fight for control over declining resources, even destroying critical infrastructure in the process. Far more likely are minor efficiencies combined with simply using less. Thus Jackson concludes that salvation through efficiency” is nothing short of delusional” (p. 86).

Finally Jackson introduces the economic proposals that seem to make the most sense, such as a “Green New Deal” (p. 107). But are these “too little, too late”? Or would they require financing by strong taxation of luxuries, carbon, etc., elements which are not part of traditional Keynesian stimulus packages? Or would at least partial government ownership of large enterprises be necessary when crucial long term investments yield losses instead of profits?

Jackson also takes a look at labor productivity vs returns on capital, an area where economists have created a great muddle, one that has led Jackson and many others astray. For example, in some places people are calling for work sharing and more leisure time, given current levels of productivity, and this has actually been practiced in Germany. Of course this would seem to make sense for affluent people with economic security. But in the US the majority are not in this position, with intense competition for getting or keeping the shrinking number of jobs that do pay well and have benefits, so many of those who could theoretically job share end up working harder, not less.

Now consider what happens when rising energy and resource costs drive the global economy into long term contraction. This will mean declining productivity of capital and a gradual return of human labor to some endeavors. Already in the US we are seeing a resurgence of organic agriculture as industrial agriculture reaches its limits to growth. Thus, even as energy and resource efficient technologies continue to grow in areas like information and communications, we’ll see a revival of human labor in other areas, and not just services.

However, Jackson fails to see this dynamic, in part because economists typically confuse labor productivity with the productivity of energy, resources, and technology. Thus while it is true that humans and machines can act together to produce enormous quantities of goods and services, what part of that productivity do you attribute to the people and what part to the machine? Marx would attribute most of the productivity to the person, while a capitalist would attribute most of it to the capital. Historically it is obvious that most of the productivity derives from the capital, as GDP correlates closely with energy usage, in contrast to all the problems economists have with their “production functions”. Yet this is the wrong question, since how the benefits of productivity are distributed is entirely a matter of the governing political economy.

In the end Jackson offers the vision of a “resilient” economy as a worthy short term goal, an economy based on an awareness of limits-to-growth and the likely shocks ahead. In other words, it’s the old Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared”. As disasters mount, this point of view should gain traction with both technological optimists and pessimists.
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on December 3, 2012
In this book TIm Jackson does a great job of articulating the problems with the paradox of sustainability in a growth economy using classical macroeconomics. His solution, unfortunately, is a discussion of macroeconomics. Are his proposals theoretically correct? Yes, as far as I can tell. Would they be useful to anyone without dictatorial control over the global economy? Not as far as I can tell...

Worth reading the first half so you can cite his well researched argument against the perpetual growth economy in your own work.
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on June 25, 2013
All surviving natural systems are steady-state, that is, each component's waste is the input to some other component, in conformity with the laws of thermodynamics. Our economy defies these laws, with the results we see all around us daily.

Tim Jackson presents a clear discussion of how me might go about bringing our economy into conformity with the laws of Physics. This volume belongs on your bookshelf beside "Enough Is Enough" and "Supply Shock".
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