On 22 April 2016, World Earth Day, environmental philosopher Dr Auke Pols gave a public lecture on ‘Prosperity without Growth’ in Baambrugge for the Cursusproject Abcoude – Baambrugge. The lecture dealt with the topic of economic growth policy and its relation to sustainable development and was inspired by Tim Jackson’s report on Prosperity without Growth. First, Auke examined the relation between economic growth and well-being. The basic (ethical) idea behind this is that the more we buy and consume, the more we (apparently) satisfy our preferences. Assuming that satisfying our preferences makes us happy, the more the economy grows, the happier we become. Yet this assumption can be criticised in a number of ways. For example, for many people ‘leading a good life’ entails much more than simple preference satisfaction and often entails consuming less (e.g. dieting or giving up smoking). Also, sociological research has shown that, once people are rich enough to satisfy their basic needs, happiness is influenced much more by other factors (e.g. social security, health) than by simple GDP growth. In addition, our current policy focus on growth has led to ecological problems (e.g. climate change, biodiversity loss), social problems (e.g. rising inequality) and economical problems (e.g. our current economy is designed so that it will either grow or fall into recession, but cannot stabilise.)
After the break, Auke considered two alternatives to our classical growth-based economic policy. The first is the New Green Deal, currently underway in many countries, that seeks to achieve environmental sustainability within the existing growth economy by technological innovation. Auke argued that while this is sorely needed, it doesn’t on its own solve most social and economical problems mentioned earlier, it requires the possibility of unlimited efficiency gains to be a long-term solution and an innovation tempo that is very much higher than what we have achieved so far, or what most optimistic prognoses say we can do. The second alternative is that of steady-state and degrowth proponents (including Tim Jackson), who aim for a ‘safe and just society’ within ecological limits that is able to satisfy all basic human needs. A transition towards such a society would require (among others): dismissing the GDP as an indicator for welfare and adopting proper indicators; limiting (e.g. capping or taxing) resource use or emissions; redistributing wealth (e.g. by capital taxes) and labour (e.g. through a shorter working week) and promoting alternatives for our consumerist culture.