The economy is broken. Our best efforts to fix it rely on pumping more material stuff through the richest nations in the world, while the poorest 2 billion on the planet still languish on less than $2 a day. Resource scarcities are looming. Ecological limits are being exceeded in every direction. And our best attempts to temper this headlong rush to collapse are nothing short of a disaster.
Is that a harsh assessment? Well, let’s just take the famous Copenhagen Accord. A ten-page document full of hot air and empty promises cooked up by the world’s two “great” superpowers. Is that really the best we have to show for 17 years of climate negotiation? Actually it is, because the big guys said so. Might is right. It’s gunboat climate policy. The climate deal wasn’t the only thing that fell apart in Copenhagen. Global environmental governance got shafted.
As world leaders flit from abortive Copenhagen to smug Davos, they seem devoid of any real inspiration: caught between the mantra of economic growth and their blatant failure to tackle its impacts. The best we have is an empty annex waiting to be filled with aspirational numbers and an allegiance to “business as usual.”
Am I pissed enough? You bet I am!
So here’s my thinking: I’m going to find a small patch of land on the side of a hill, somewhere above the rising sea level. The soil will be fertile and the water will be sweet. I’ll build a permaculture home for my family and friends. We’ll keep a few chickens and maybe a couple of goats. Plant trees and grow vegetables. Write poetry, play music and fix the roof when it leaks. Conditions will be challenging but life will be good. At least we’ll be living in harmony with the planet. After two decades of fighting the storm, I’m off to find a lifeboat.
Tempting, isn’t it? Some people are actually doing it and I take my hat off to them. I think the lessons will be invaluable later. Maybe we can think of them like the first tiny settlements in the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies: social experimentation as the basis for future survival.
But even as my mind spins flights of fancy, a part of me hesitates. How long would this lifeboat strategy hold good? How many people could it accommodate? All 6.7 billion of us alive today? The 9 billion expected by 2050? How will people behave in a world with too few lifeboats? How safe will we be when the ship really goes down?
The more I think about it, the more I’m drawn back into the eye of the storm. Somehow we have to steer away from the reef before it’s too late. Or get ready to make running repairs fast.
Both of these things demand an economics fit for purpose. For the advanced economies of the Western world, prosperity without growth is no longer a utopian dream. It is a financial and ecological necessity. Riches for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilized society. A shared and lasting prosperity demands a massive uplift in “ecological investment”: low-carbon technologies, poverty alleviation and protecting ecological assets. It also calls for a new concept of “ecological enterprise”: resource-light, community-based activities that offer meaningful employment and deliver the capabilities we need to flourish.
But fixing the economy is only part of the battle. We also have to confront the convoluted logic of consumerism. And that’s going to need some restraints on unbridled materialism, a renewed vision of social goods and public spaces and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
Maybe this isn’t so far from my hillside idyll. A vision of prosperity based on what really matters, on providing capabilities for people to thrive within the ecological limits of a finite planet. Some of that is about material things: food, clothing, shelter. But it’s also about our ability to live well, to participate in society in less materialistic, more meaningful ways.
Above all, we need a credible vision of human progress. That certainly doesn’t exist in Davos. Nor does it yet exist on my hillside. For the moment, it seems to call on us to stay at the wheel, fighting the mountainous seas that threaten to wreck us all. Perhaps later there’ll be poetry and dancing and songs of contentment – or at least a sense of pride that we didn’t abandon our shipmates altogether.
Tim Jackson is the economics commissioner for the UK Sustainable Development Commission and the author of Prosperity without Growth: Economics For a Finite Planet.