(Published in UCT GSB Newsletter Feb 2011)

The friendship between Presidents Zuma and Sarkozy in the lead-up to the 2009 COP 16 Copenhagen conference may have formed around mutual benefits from French nuclear power technology and skills. It may be more beneficial if it extends to discussions investigating the sustainability of economic growth itself.

This is the purpose of a commission set up by Sarkozy and the French government called  the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.  It is being led by eminent Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen and former World Bank president Joseph Stiglitz.  The aim is to throw light into the purpose and workings of the economic growth model and its usefulness for general human and social wellbeing.

The UK government has been funding its own Sustainable Development (SD) Commission whose programme “Redefining Prosperity” is also researching the dilemma of economic growth in an ecologically limited world.  One of the outcomes is a book “Prosperity without Growth” by Tim Jackson (Earthscan 2005) which has been widely lauded.

Economic growth has attained the power of a religious ideology and attacks on it verge on the sacreligious.  But it is increasingly being seen as having serious shortcomings especially in the light of 2008/2009 global recession and in the resource constraints of the natural biosphere which global warming has thrown into stark contrast.

Incessant materialist consumption is antithetical to the way natural systems operate, yet is seen as the engine driver of our economies.  How do we stop the train heading for an abyss or at least redirect its path towards a destination that is more humane and less destructive of humanity and the ecosystem which supports us?

Author Tim Jackson, who is economic commissioner of the UK’s  SD Commission sets out in clear and cogent terms how growth and its primary measure GDP are no longer properly serving people or nature.  However, the transformation towards an economic system more benevolent is a major task, probably the major challenge of our times.

With forewords by Herman Daly, author of landmark book “Steady State Economics”,  and renowned author Bill McKibben, the book takes the reader through a carefully reasoned background to the growth-based economy, its structural and social underpinnings and then turns to various alternatives to creating a more positive future.

The book is thus far from a polemic for radical action, it is instead a carefully reasoned and very accessible diagnosis of what ails the current economic paradigm and provides pointers as to how to transform it.

As Jackson writes, “Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilized society.  Economic recovery is vital.  Protecting people’s jobs – and creating new ones – is absolutely essential.  But we stand in urgent need of a renewed sense of shared prosperity.  A deeper commitment to justice in a finite world.”

This is not about dismantling capitalism but it is about ending an age of irresponsibility and growing up to see the dangers to individuals and communities of rampant commercial consumerism, and how its resulting inequities in the end serve neither rich nor poor nor ecological health.

The ‘social logic’ of material possessions and their acquisition and symbolism is fully acknowledged but the way modern consumerism – based as it is on promoting anxiety and novelty at the same time –  is shown up to be detrimental to personal and community life not to mention our natural resource base and the atmosphere.

‘Prosperity without Growth’ points to reducing material use and throughputs by “decoupling” resource use from production, increasing service-based work with a much greater role for government in investing in ecological capital, in fostering green jobs in a low-carbon economy and in encouraging greater social participation to help rebuild community life.

Intended mainly for developed economies, the book has many lessons and challenges for developing countries like South Africa.  One of these is the bling consumer culture espoused by many of our political and business figures which models an unattainable  lifestyle for the vast majority of South Africans.

In the wake of the financial meltdown (in effect a massive failure of the ‘free’ market),  the shortcomings of the growth economy serve to underscore the important role of government in helping manage economies in closer co-operation with the private sector  – in a socially equitable and ecologically astute way.  The intended result is a future of true and lasting prosperity.


–        Hugh Tyrrell is a Cape-based writer and green business consultant.

–        Contact info@greenedge.co.za  Tel: (021) 448 8123.

–        Visit www.greenedge.co.za


Article by Hugh Tyrrell  in UCT Graduate School of Business newsletter