In Our Hands
In Our Hands
Ep. 6. Tim Jackson on Post-Growth Economics

Ep. 6. Tim Jackson on Post-Growth Economics

From the archives, Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Professor Tim Jackson about investing for prosperity.

In this episode, Ramanan speaks with Tim Jackson, an ecological economist and Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) at University of Surrey. They discuss the battle between efficiency and scale, investing for prosperity, and the relationship between hope and action. Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

In Our Hands is a production of Amasia. Follow these links for more about our firm, the Amasia blog, our climate fiction podcast, and Ramanan’s blog.

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Show Notes

[00:00:14] Introduction

[00:01:38] Life and Career Path

[00:11:53] Capitalism in a Post-Growth World

[00:20:36] Problems and Opportunities of Our Time

[00:24:19] Optimism about Degrowth

[00:29:27] Action Steps

[00:00:14] Ramanan Raghavendran: Hello everybody.

Today's guest in our interview series is Tim Jackson. He is an ecological economist writer and the director of the Center for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity or CUSP. CUSP is a multidisciplinary research center which aims to understand the economic, social and political dimensions of sustainable prosperity. Its guiding vision for prosperity is one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish as human beings within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet. And right there, you can see why we're so excited, at Amasia, to speak with him. He's been at the forefront of international debates on sustainability for three decades, has worked with the UK government, the United Nations, the European Commission, numerous NGOs, private companies, and foundations to bring economic and social science research into sustainability.

From 2004 to 2011, he was economics commissioner for the UK Sustainable Development Commission where his work culminated in the publication of his, may I say, controversial and groundbreaking book Prosperity Without Growth. Most recently he's the author of Post Growth published in the United States in May 2021. And I would encourage everyone viewing this interview to go out and get those books because they're amazing. He holds master's degrees in mathematics and philosophy from Cambridge and the University of Western Ontario respectively and a doctorate in physics from the University of St Andrews.

[00:01:38] So I want to start right there with our first question in our five question format. Tim, a question about your background, your degrees and initial professional experience suggested something completely different from the path you are on now, how did you end up here?

[00:01:53] Tim Jackson: Yes, I suppose that's true. First of all, thank you for having me. It's great to talk to you. I mean, to be honest, I ran away from both physics and academia. This was in, I guess, early mid 1980s. Not exactly in disgust, but a little bit of frustration with the way in which academic science was being prosecuted at that point in time. And the bits of the science that I found the most interesting were not attracting funding, they were not attracting that much interest within the department. And I had, for a variety of reasons, I had this other side to me which was a kind of slightly artistic streak, I suppose. And I spent quite a lot of my free time during those quite dry sciences and philosophies working in the theater.

And so I kind of ran away from academia with the idea that I was going to be a playwright. And at that point, I had already sold a play to the BBC, which was kind of interesting. So I thought, well, hey, here we go. And then, I remember the day when-

[00:02:52] Ramanan Raghavendran: May we ask what kinds of plays?

[00:02:54] Tim Jackson: All kinds of things really, I mean, human story is what interests me. And I think that in some ways I've come back to that in Post Growth, because it's a book that's built around human stories and the drama that plays itself out through human lives and through which in a society, in a sense society kind of moves forward through those sort of critical points in thinking about the nature of the human condition and the nature of the challenges that face us. And although, in a scientific sense they're absolutely fascinating, they don't always come home to people unless you can sort of bring them home through the idea of human stories.

So I did write some environmental plays. I wrote some plays about sort of concepts, like the concept of altruism, for example. But all the time these stories and these plays were driven by this idea that drama is something that everybody, to some extent, can understand and has a power in our lives that sense of sort of fascination with other lives, with conflict between different kinds of individuals, different kinds of ideas, and with inspiration, with creative inspiration that leads to change, I think. So those were the kinds of plays that I started writing.

Actually my first play was a kind of protest play. It was a protest at the war that the UK government was prosecuting at that point across thousands of miles with Argentina, over a bunch of islands called the Falkland Islands. And young men of my age were dying for the territory of the flag. And the sort of futility of that sort of drove me into a kind of writing career.

And then in the mid 1980s, actually, I had worked for a couple of places at the BBC at that point and I was sustaining myself with odd jobs in cafes and bars and repair industries and that kind of thing. And then April 1986 Chernobyl melted down and it was for me, it was like a kind of wake up call I think. It was like, actually I knew people who were working in the nuclear industry because that was one of the outlets from the people who were in my cohort in the physics department where I was. And if I'd been interested in that kind of career, I might've been working there myself. And Chernobyl to me taught me about the power and the danger of human technology. Particularly when it's not integrated properly into management and governance systems.

And I began to look actually, interestingly, at technology as in a different way. And I began, the next day pretty much, I walked into the offices of Greenpeace in London and said, "Look, I don't know if you can do anything with me, I'm a physicist. I've got all this background that might be useful. Like you, I don't believe in nuclear power and I'd like you to find me something to do." And I don't know if I thought they would put me on the boats, which was the most exciting bit of what Greenpeace was doing at that point in time. There was kind of protest boats running around the ocean, putting themselves in harm's way.

[00:06:11] Ramanan Raghavendran: May I ask a personal question? I mean this was the Thatcher era and if you weren't in that camp... I guess the question is, was there a lot of anger?

[00:06:20] Tim Jackson: I had a friend who worked in Greenpeace, who used to say that campaigns run on anger.

So there was a sense in which that anger sort of informed our work, I think in those days. And it was a fairly, it was easy to maintain in a way, because we knew who the bad guys were. They were in government.

And so we knew who we had to fight, what kinds of arguments we had to put together and as I say, this kind of campaign is run on, campaigners run on anger. It was very much a part of what you'd see, and actually I still see in my activist friends. And I think where that works and where it is a constructive rather than destructive anger is when it is able to transform itself into action, into agency, into getting out and doing something and saying something. And that in itself is a task that requires a little bit of, I don't know, self-discipline, a little bit of self knowledge, a little bit of learning because anger can also, of course, be potentially quite destructive.

But I think at that point that that little bit of anger and the way in which I began to engage with Greenpeace, who did very kindly, in a way, they didn't put me out on the boats, but they put me to work on the economics of the alternatives to nuclear power. So in particular, the renewable energy technologies, solar and wind, and so on, which of course everybody now talks about and is investing in and thinking about as technological saviors but at the time no one was paying attention to. And I became almost overnight a kind of accidental economist, I suppose. That was the beginning of that story.

[00:07:56] Ramanan Raghavendran: That's amazing. And then what did that lead to next? Because as of this point, we're still at Greenpeace.

[00:08:02] Tim Jackson: Yeah, I was working as a consultant at sort of arms length from Greenpeace from a guy who then was a mentor to me in many different ways, I think, partly through that personal journey of navigating those emotions of sort of anger and frustration and the sense of loss in some ways, but also very particularly in the campaigning work and in the work that we were doing. And so I owe a lot to those kinds of early mentors, I think. The people who sort of guided me through that process, but it was almost as though, I mean, I didn't give up playwriting. I kept that playwriting career going for another couple of decades aside.

But it was almost as though the moment I'd made that decision, that I was going to walk through this office in Greenpeace and say, how can I be useful to you in this challenge we're facing, that the world kind of bit my hand off in a way, it kind of, I then found myself in an academic context, which was the last thing I expected because as I say, I sort of ran away from academia, brushing the dust from my shoes as I went, if I could sort of metaphorically put it like that, swearing never to go back and actually within a couple of years or so, I had an academic post and a few years after that, I was given a permanent position in the University of Surrey, where I've been since, and that work drew me first through the technologies themselves and the economics of the technologies themselves.

And then to a realization that there was a kind of continual battle between efficiency and scale, that the technologies helped us to become more efficient in the way that we live but the continual expansion of the economy, that question of scale was always in a tension between that efficiency gain and the impact that it has on the planet. And what you need in order to reduce your impact on the planet is for efficiency always to be winning that battle between efficiency and scale. And actually what you saw in the data was that scale was always winning it. We were always growing faster than we could improve the technology. And that played out in the statistics at the global level, carbon emissions just went on getting bigger and bigger, even as our carbon efficiency improved year upon year upon year, it didn't improve fast enough.

And that I think is what led me to these questions, these macroeconomic questions about the growth-based economy, the values of consumerism that drive it and the nature of a genuine lasting prosperity that could be conceived of as a shared prosperity in place of what I began to see around me, began to articulate around me, sense around me of a world divided between those who have, and still want more, and those who don't even have enough to live on. And that sort of dynamic around the injustice of that world. Again, an injustice that brings anger as one of the responses to it, drove me to look more in depth, I suppose, at the structure and dynamics of this growth-based economic system that is inherited.

[00:11:08] Ramanan Raghavendran: And that is a great segue and thank you for that, because I think this background is important in setting the context for what is going to follow. Because we're going to dig into some of your ideas, which I have to tell you resonate in a fairly significant way with me. So we can start with sort of the basics. Some of the viewers of this series may not be familiar, in fact, I would probably say most of them will not be familiar with the ideas of post-growth. And so would you mind just giving us, you can call it an overview or, what happens to capitalism? I am a so-called card-carrying capitalist, although, as you can tell from my preamble, I'm having all kinds of issues with that.

[00:11:53] What happens to capitalism in a post-growth world?

[00:11:56] Tim Jackson: Yeah. This, in a way it was a sort of progression for me when I wrote Prosperity Without Growth, the work that came out of the work I was doing with the UK government. Almost as soon as we raised, even notified our sponsors, because it was an agency that reported directly to the prime minister at the time. And as soon as we alerted our sponsors and our sponsor departments to the idea that we were even questioning growth, we had sort of a furious sense of, yeah, now we know what sustainability means. It just means going back to live in caves, doesn't it. And I literally had a civil servant in a meeting that I was presenting the idea, stand up and shout that at me from the back of the room. And so this challenge to the growth-based system was an extraordinary one already.

And so to come out on the back of that and say, well, actually you can't have capitalism either. We're going to question that too, at the time was something that I didn't do. I finessed that argument by sort of saying, "Well, it's capitalism, Jim, but not as we know it, once you've made these changes to this growth-based economy." And maybe you can keep some capitalism in a post-growth world that isn't a capitalism with relentless accumulation attached to it. It's a capitalism with purpose. It's a capitalism with a social conscience. It's a different kind of capitalism. And I was attacked actually at that point from both sides, both from the people who thought I was a rampant anticapitalist just trying to hide it. And also from a bunch of people who sort of said, "Well, you should have just come out and said it, capitalism itself sucks. The structure of it can never do without growth. It's part of the growth imperative."

And these arguments around the terminology and what we called ourselves and whether we did, or didn't align with capitalism or not, became in some senses, in some senses they spurred me on, in some senses, they were quite frustrating because the arguments about any questioning of capitalism, particularly at that time, 10, 15 years ago, was always deemed, particularly in the US, as being about aligning your interests with what has become a sort of nationalistic enemy of communism. And so you inevitably, you're kind of falling into this capitalism, is it capitalism? Well, if it's not, then it must be communism and therefore you, on the other side.

[00:14:26] Ramanan Raghavendran: You're absolutely correct. It is framed like that.

[00:14:30] Tim Jackson: It's a sort of extraordinary, an extraordinarily unhelpful division, I would say. And so, and yet there is this sense in which within capitalism, there's a kind of growth imperative, there's a cap—a few growth imperatives really. One is that the idea of kind of profit maximization in firms leads to a situation in which you end up underpaying your workers, disinvesting in the future and looking continually to keep your shareholders happy at the expense of people and planet. That is something that drives itself through the profit maximization principle, which is central to the way that capitalism works. And then there are the ways in which the financial system leverages itself on the back of future growth. And in particular, the ways in which it makes debt, particularly public debt, very difficult to manage in a situation where you don't have growth.

And so I began to realize that I couldn't run away from these problems, but I didn't want to address them. Post Growth is the most recent book. The one that was published in May is not a book for policymakers, really, although I hope some policymakers read it, it wasn't written in the way that Prosperity Without Growth was that was written really directly, a report to the prime minister, talking to policymakers, giving them a list of the things that could be done about the situation, very clear things that could be done in terms of environmental policy, economic policy, what has to happen inside investment, what has to happen in our social world and the dynamics of consumerism and saying, well, you can, we're not at the mercy of these forces. They are a human construct. We created this system under a certain set of ideological beliefs, and we can change it.

And these are the things that you could do in various areas. And it became clear to me though, that there was a sense that the government found that difficult to listen to, the policymakers found that difficult to listen to. In fact that came home to me very, very strongly. I've received quite a lot of robust pushback from the sponsors of the Commission. And the Commission itself was closed down shortly after that report was published, "Who needs that kind of advice, thank you very much." But it became sort of clear to me that at the same time, that there was an enormous audience of people who were incredibly interested in this debate and they were unusual suspects. They weren't, the environmental campaigners running on the anger that I had witnessed in the 1980s. They were actually from, everything from community groups in villages, to theaters, fascinatingly from my point of view, to investment houses, to inter-governmental organizations.

And the most fascinating of those in a way was the audience investment houses, because I mean, partly they're populated by very clever people. And partly those very clever people are able to understand an argument as basic as the one that I was making, this continual expanding economy, driving itself through profit maximization, neglecting the interests of people and planet, is heading society towards disaster. And of course, in those terms, that's a fairly, there were people inside the system who could see.

And I remember that one of the first conversations I had in an investment company, where a guy, and one of these very bright guys, and they had invited me in to talk about this, what was essentially almost seemed like a challenge to their entire rationale and to their entire industry. And the guy who'd invited me in sort of then sort of said to the group, "What do we make of Tim's analysis?" And a lot of them just sort of turned around and said, "Well, basically we're all fucked, but what can we do? This is our business. This is what we're doing. This is what we know how to do. We have to keep on doing it." But to their credit, they didn't just keep on doing it. They began to transform. They began to think through what investment actually means and what its rationale is within economics and what its social purpose is, what its social license is in society, which is to provide that commitment in the present towards a workable, livable future for other people and indeed for other species.

And when you transform the concept of investment in that way, it becomes something that is profoundly important to get right, and profoundly important to communicate. And so that work of, I think, on the back of Prosperity Without Growth and finding that it had this audience in a very different place, that led me to go back to this deeper critique of capitalism and where the bear pits are within capitalism that have been leading us astray and Post Growth is a sort of a prequel almost to Prosperity Without Growth in the sense that it's appealing to that wider audience that I never had expected was there. But it's also engaging in a much more philosophical conversation about not just the economy, but the nature of the society that we want to live in. Interestingly, one of the translations of, a German translation of the book, which has just been published in a couple of weeks. They changed the title. And then in retrospect, I really liked the title and the title that they chose is just How Should We Live: Ways Out Of The Growth Trap.

[00:20:11] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, in the end, it is the great question of philosophy, right? How should we live and what that meant for Plato and what that means for our very capitalism ridden society are different things, but I think many of the questions remain the same. Which brings us to the next question, which is that every age and every era thinks this is the crucial moment in human history, right.

[00:20:36] And questions of human flourishing and prosperity have existed since the dawn of time. What makes this moment the crux, in terms of problems and opportunities?

Can we in fact, hold a mirror up to ourselves and our planet and make the case that this is a moment like no other, so I guess that's the question.

[00:20:56] Tim Jackson: Yeah. I mean, I think if you look at those graphs that sort of those hockey stick graphs that are associated with the change of CO2 in the atmosphere, the incidents of environmental impact, the destruction of habitats, the loss of other species. Where we look over kind of millennia of what appeared to be stability, and then see the influence of the development model of the last century, century and a half, that does tend towards a, it tends to make us think that this is a moment like no other and that the forward direction of those trends is a very uncomfortable place to be. We're pushing ourselves out of the comfort zone that humanity evolved within, we're pushing the planet out of that comfort zone as well. And so we're kind of, I accept the point, there is a sense of apocalysm, if that's a word, I'm not sure it is, that is associated with that view. And I'm not sure either that it's a very helpful sense.

Because it tends to kind of blind us to possibilities for action and to deepness of thought, and we've become anxious, we're rabbits in the headlights and our sympathetic nervous systems click in and it's fight or flight, or it's getting worse, guys, it's getting worse. It's even worse today than it was yesterday. And there's nothing we can do about it. Or you've all got to change and these strategies can potentially be paralyzing, I think. And so, in some sense, I think bringing back that realization, bringing the us back from the brink of apocalysm is a kind of good thing to do. And to relativize our concern about the future is something that every society to some extent has witnessed, experienced, and may even be a part of the survival strategy of societies to have such a sense.

That's a much richer place in a way to begin a dialogue about how we should change, than one that says we've got whatever it is, 100 months left or 18 months left or 10 years left, or we have to have done this by 2030, which is rapidly approaching, or we've got to solve this in COP26 in Glasgow in a month or so's time because that's our last chance.

This kind of last chance saloon dialogue is a difficult one. It's a very difficult one, even for people working towards those goals. But it's an even more difficult one I think, for ordinary people, for whom these issues are outside, what they normally comfortably like to think about.

[00:23:31] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yeah. And I want to, in my next question, sort of explore the idea of optimism and, this has been on my mind lately, as I'm sure it has been on many people's minds because the new IPCC report came out, as you know, and it's not a report that inspires optimism, let's put it that way. And it's not written in a way that leaves room for a whole lot of hope. It feels like the most pessimistic, thus far, of all the reports. And on the one hand you want the facts and you want the truth. But on the other hand, the solution can't be, "Let's all just lay down and die." And in our work, in my day job, but even in my non day job stuff, I find lots of reasons for optimism in the sense of us fighting to make things better and different.

[00:24:19] So the question for you is why are you optimistic about the idea that degrowth ideas might actually be implemented over the next five, 15, 20 years? What gives you your optimism?

[00:24:35] Tim Jackson: Well, I think my optimism comes from the idea that actually post-growth society could be a better place. And that was very much a theme within the book Post Growth, is the richness of this world beyond our obsession with growth. And so that gives me something to strive for, in a sense, but I'm not immune to pessimism, I'm not immune to a sense of despair and what I was, and neither are the students that I work with, for example, in the university or many of those angry activists who are now suffering from crises of despair. And kind of what I tell my students at least, and I think I believe this, is that the opposite of despair actually isn't optimism, but action. And it's a very different place to be because it gives you a sense of efficacy.

If you can find a route to be doing something which is aligned with the future, and it's a way of kind of returning yourself I think, to the ability to be a change maker, to do something in the world and to have a sense that we do, at the end of the day, live inside a system which is entirely a construct of ideologies of ideas of the past that have been reified in our institutions, in our political systems and are not scientifically locking us into disaster. And that is an extraordinarily empowering sense to have, even though ideology, and this came to me very much from the philosophy that I was studying back in Canada, in the very, very early days, which taught us that scientific knowledge itself, that fact itself, is not this hard-nosed thing that cannot be changed, but is socially contextual.

It depends on our understanding of science at that time. It depends on the way in which society is organized at that time. It's very gendered at various points in time, it's become kind of masculine, hard-nosed, technological, ideological, optimism that says that the only way for progress is through the mechanism of the market. And this is the way that governments, even governments, have to operate as well is pure ideology. It's thin air, it's mirrors and—smoke and mirrors. And yet it has an enormous power on our lives. And I think to me that, that realization which comes very strongly through the philosophy of science has informed the way that I think about change, because I am never put off, if you like. I've never kind of, I'm never deterred by the idea of what appeared to be institutional hard structures.

And even sometimes, although I think there are limits to this, I think there are ways in which we should also, always, as scientists, be skeptical of scientific fact.

That's quite a difficult thing to say in a context in which scientific fact itself is being manipulated by interests that don't have the best prospects of society or of humanity or of the planet at their heart. But it's also a place where, what we should be doing as human beings and within society is taking the best knowledge that science can give us and separating that best knowledge from these ideological belief systems that somehow, sometimes are even more powerful than scientific fact because they appear to be immutable. And that I think is what capitalism has presented itself as in the ideology of, particularly of the West, over the last few decades. And it's spurious.

[00:28:17] Ramanan Raghavendran: I can obviously second and third that big time, because these are the worlds I have lived in my entire working career, right. So I'm surrounded by luminaries for whom these are laws. This is how the world should work and look at this failed experiment over there, and this failed experiment over here, and therefore this is good, and all of that was and is bad. And I think these black and white binaries are getting in the way of getting to a better place. And that brings me to my last question. We're in the venture capital business. If you strip away that verbiage, look, we're an investment company. We invest in things, well, we invest in companies.

That is a very capitalist endeavor to say the least, right. And I guess one thing that's been on my mind as we're talking, and as I've read your work as well, is how do we translate in our own lives and work the messages that you are conveying, which as you can tell from this conversation, I am largely if not completely in agreement with, how do we translate that into action?

[00:29:27] What is it that people like me should be doing?

And you may not have an answer, but if you do have a thought or two, that would be interesting.

[00:29:36] Tim Jackson: I think it does go back, to me, to thinking through, within this transformation that we need, do we still need investment? Yes, of course we do. And what is the nature of that investment? And as I was suggesting earlier, it seems to me that the fundamental, that there are a couple of things that drive investment, one is a sense of prudence, or concern for the future, bearing in mind the lessons of the past and the immediacy of the present. That's the allegory of prudence that I talk about in the book, this beautiful sort of illustration of that moment in time in which the present makes sense because we're concerned about the future, through our knowledge and our lessons about the past. And the other is this idea of commitment that under even more basic than that sort of sense of prudence over time is the sense of a commitment to the future.

And to me, that's what investment is. It is about putting aside resources in the present in order to protect wellbeing into the future. And that's a task really that, today I think makes sense across the whole gamut of investment from small scale community based crowdfunding type investments through the magnitude of institutional investments that are also providing a financing vehicle for people's income, their pensions later in life, or smoothing out the purchases that they're making that they can't afford in their younger life. And towards that sort of end of technology investment that you guys are engaged in and venture capital, which if you like, is the edge of that. And that, I don't know that I've articulated particularly where venture capital should be moving within this idea of investment as commitment, but it is a venture. It is a risk.

And I thought, almost 20 years actually I chaired a venture capital advisory board in Denmark, which was investing in cutting edge capital. And it was a labor of love that process because it was before its time. It turned round the multiple, I think, of somewhere just below one over the 20 years that we were working on it. And yet it sort of did provide a vehicle for financing the innovation that we know that we need in order to achieve the transition that will address the challenges that we're facing.

And so I think, I feel very strongly that there are definitely those elements within what we see as capitalism, which are incredibly important, but they also, they need to be challenged and they need to be transformed to become those vehicles of transition, to become those vehicles of change. And in some places, that can lead to some sort of uncomfortable questioning about the conventionally construed performance of some of those vehicles. And of course, for venture capital counts its returns in multiples. And one is just not a very good multiple by conventional standards, but it did a job over that period, that multiple actually did invest, it did a job, yeah.

[00:32:58] Ramanan Raghavendran: And I think if I were to close and just—

[00:33:00] Tim Jackson: And I think that's my, yeah. I mean, I guess I would say that in a sense to the extent that at every stage in all of those investment architectures, the extent to which you can return to that idea of investment as a commitment to the future, rather than a kind of zero sum game where the winner takes all, that's a shift in the direction that we need to see.

[00:33:27] Ramanan Raghavendran: And if I were to close us on those notes, I mean, I think the issues we're grappling with at Amasia, my firm, are on both sides. And on the one side, it's, how are we measuring returns? There is the conventional industry way, which is economic multiples, and we operate that way. That is the basis for how we operate. But then on the other end of the paradigm, and this is something that you did not touch on is, we're growing and we're being successful and all those things are happening. And on the other end that implies a concentration of economic reward in a few hands, including our own, right. And so that's really been gnawing at me that, we can't run around claiming we're doing great things for the planet when on the one end of the extreme, we're potentially going to end up making the wealth concentration issue worse.

And as you can quickly imagine the solutions to that are unconventional and require a real act of will, to say, this is how we are going to live and operate. Work in process, we'll see. You have been incredibly kind with your time. And I feel like every interview is amazingly thought provoking, this is right up there. And it has touched on topics that we have not covered with other people. You're a busy person and you've been very kind and gracious. And I want to thank you for the time you've spent with us.

[00:35:07] Tim Jackson: Thank you. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

In Our Hands
In Our Hands
In Our Hands is a podcast series featuring interviews with climate and sustainability experts on the front lines of climate action, emphasizing behavior change. Guests include researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, authors, and more.