The Growth Dilemma: Prosperity vs. Economic Expansion | Sustainable business custodian

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RThinking about prosperity is a vital task because our dominant view of a good life – and the economy intended to deliver it – have both taken a serious turn for the worse. Financial markets are unstable; inequalities are increasing; and despite the some 500,000 people who took to the streets before Tuesday United Nations Climate Summit in New York, the fight against climate change still faces a “frustrating lack of progress”. If that wasn’t enough, the proposition that more is always better has clearly not paid off, especially in the wealthy West. But questioning these values ​​is seen as the act of fools, idealists and revolutionaries.

I was reminded of this when I launched the Commission on Sustainable Development’s inquiry, Redefining Prosperity, which explored the relationship between economic growth and sustainability. “So that’s what sustainability means,” blasted a disgruntled treasury official. “Go back to living in caves.” This visceral response formed the basis of my work on the commission, prompting me to present our entire investigation as a cautious attempt to unravel the “growth dilemma.” Under the dynamics of unemployment and the pervasive logic of consumerism, it was bewildering to find an even deeper cause, some sort of existential angst about our place in the world.

Five years of austerity policies have done nothing to allay this anxiety. When David Cameron announced that he was putting his cabinet on a war footing in the “global race for growth,” you could almost feel the fear of failure that haunts us all: a fear so powerful that we would rather throw ourselves away. at the mercy of competition only to stop for a second to examine what really brings us prosperity and revise our economy to adapt it. “A world race … means an hour of calculation for countries like ours,” warned the conservative leader. “Sink or swim. Do or refuse.

Politicians love this kind of rhetoric. But is it too demanding to expect better from science? Enlightenment thinkers never intended progress to be a relentless expansion of desire. Rather, they suggested that society could learn to improve itself through critical attention to the world around us and our own place within it. We have learned over time that this review can never be completely impartial. But neither should it substitute dogma for careful investigation.

Do not mistake yourself. There is much to admire in the New report on climate economy: better growth, better climate. Its careful accounting of the additional investments required for a low-carbon transition is timely. His Ten Point Global Plan of Action is absolutely perfect. Getting a government to pay serious attention to just one element of the plan – reducing the cost of capital for low-carbon investments – would be a serious achievement. Does all of this justify the overt framing of the entire report around a questionable claim that we can eat our cake and still have it? Like President Obama tweeted on the day of publication of the report: “[t]his study concludes that no one has to choose between tackling climate change and developing the economy.

If you want the president of the world’s most powerful nation to stand up and tweet, you obviously shouldn’t start by spurring deep anxieties. However, this does not quite excuse the excesses that Better Growth, Better Climate launches in the direction of those who are not convinced by the existing economic model. We learn early on, for example, that growth issues have been “embroiled in controversies and ideological arguments”; and we are reassured that the approach of the new climate economy, by contrast, has been “to take the perspective of those who make the big economic decisions that affect the lives of people today.”

In the hands of Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, this thinly veiled appeal to the wisdom of the power in place borders on outright ridicule addressed to those who dare to question it. Better Growth, Better Climate “It may sound too good to be true, but it is not,” insists the New York Times columnist. “These are serious and careful analyzes.” He denounces any suggestion that decoupling growth and carbon emissions could prove difficult as a “hazy misconception” and accuses “left” growth skeptics of getting to bed with it. far-right climate skeptics. Krugman’s intention is clear: don’t touch growth, it’s sacrosanct.

I finally remember Gandhi’s improbable statement: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. It is good to know that we have passed the stage of ignorance. And it’s probably fair to recognize that there will be struggles to come. This is precisely as it should be, for there are real and complex challenges inherent in confronting the growth dilemma – not least is what to do about the visceral fear that haunts our economy and undermines our hope. . But none of this should prevent rethinking prosperity; and there are perfectly valid reasons to assume that improving our prosperity is not at all synonymous with growing the economy.

Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainability at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity without Growth.

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