How can we ever reach a point of sustainability when we have an economy that by its nature must grow?

This is the question that has driven the work of Tim Jackson, director of the Center for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity in the United Kingdom, and it’s one he explored when he served on the British government’s Sustainable Development Commission from 2004 to 2011.

“My answer to that question was, ultimately, you can’t.”

At the time, he said, the dominant theory among economists was that a market economy could achieve sustainability by “decoupling” growth from the use of materials and resources through efficiency and technological innovation, like renewable energy. This “decoupling” would allow an economy to grow even as greenhouse gas emissions fell. This view continues to hold sway among policymakers and mainstream economists, but there’s a growing movement of academics and advocates who argue that unlimited economic growth cannot be sustained on a planet with finite resources.

Rather than structuring the economy blindly around growth, Jackson argues, we should think about what services are provided by a particular business, investment or type of employment. Economic policy would then be structured to encourage those businesses and investments that deliver important services, rather than those that provide growth. Such a system might value a school teacher as much as or more than a trader of financial derivatives.

“This was a real lesson from the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “The people who we felt were the least valuable people were the health workers, the care workers, the cleaners, the distribution people, the people on the front lines basically, who had been neglected, dispossessed, underpaid, underregarded in society for decades, because they weren’t productive in economic terms.” He added, “these people actually are the fundamental people who are providing for the quality of life in society in the most straightforward ways, and we neglect that sector of work at our peril.”

More broadly, he said, the pandemic, which prompted massive government spending in response to collapsing economies, might help illuminate how the world could reshape the economy.

“The hope is that we can take the good bits of that and we can actually work our way around the bad bits of it—the insecurity that came through lockdown, and loss of jobs, and loss of livelihoods and social tension—and we can build a society that actually is a nice place to be, it’s a healthy, resilient, community-based society in which people do have livelihoods and they do have meaningful jobs.” 

Nicholas Kusnetz

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