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Moving to a sustainable economy requires lifestyle change

12/07/2011

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Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, believes strongly that policymakers must lead a change in lifestyles and values to save the planet.

Author of bestseller ‘Prosperity without Growth’, Prof. Jackson argues that if we want to stay within the limits of sustainability, we may have to redefine progress, taking into account environmental and social indicators as well as economic growth. . Creating a truly sustainable society needs more than technological progress, it also requires a change in how we live. Prof. Jackson sits on numerous Government advisory panels, including as economics commissioner on the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

How important is lifestyle change versus technology in creating a sustainable society?

My argument is that we won’t get there by technology on its own. Our lifestyle is inherently consumptive in nature and polluting in its impact. What characterises the consumption society is not just that it consumes a lot but that it dedicates that consumption to all sorts of social and psychological tasks such as creating identity. You can’t really extricate materials out of that without changing people’s lives.

What is the role of policymakers in achieving such fundamental change?

The answer to that starts from another question: what is the role of policymakers in creating a culture of consumption? They are continually co- creating the consumer society, through institutional structures, fiscal incentives and, sometimes, quite explicit messages. For example, in the wake of the financial crisis, politicians everywhere asked people to please go out shopping together, to start spending money again.

This was backed by financial incentives, some of which were good in the sense that they encouraged green technologies for example, but there were also a whole load of bad ones such as scrapping schemes for used cars to encourage new car sales.

My overall argument is this: the government continually creates a culture of consumption because it needs consumers to keep the economy going. The crisis showed very clearly that the government can’t afford to do anything else. But it makes the job of changing lifestyles incredibly difficult.

The government has to examine its own role in driving consumerism and begin to unravel it. There are huge tasks there for policymakers. They tend to shy away from the idea that they can engage in lifestyle as an issue but in reality they are already doing so.

What can policymakers do in concrete terms to change things?

There is a whole swathe of things, from fiscal incentives to encourage more sustainable behaviour, to regulation around advertising, particularly for children – some countries have already taken steps in this direction. Policymakers can encourage people to save rather than spend and ensure long-term savings vehicles are ethical and invest in green technologies.

Governments should also encourage small-scale local enterprises dedicated to ecological and social goals. These small organisations are going to be essential in sectors from health, education and social work, to leisure, recreation, and renovation.

Finally, if you want people to flourish without material consumption, you have to provide them with the means to do so and one way is by rethinking public spaces. A lot of what material goods do is to provide us with a means of participating in society. Public space is another way of doing this. Government has a key role to play in creating and maintaining public libraries, parks, museums and village halls.

Do you see much appetite for the ideas of green GDP and green growth?

Green growth is huge. It will increasingly define how mainstream economists and politicians attempt to reconcile a growth-based economy with the environment. It’s a very powerful idea that makes a lot of sense in some ways, certainly in that you should base your economy on investments in green technologies and decouple resource consumption from economic value.

The main question is: how realistic is it to decouple our economies sufficiently that we can still have economic growth but also remain within ecological limits? There are a lot of assumptions you have to make, about technology in particular. I think on the whole they are more a product of wishful thinking than a realistic assessment of the evidence.

So how should we define progress in future?

I’ve talked about prosperity in terms of our capabilities to flourish and there is a variety of different indicators that would measure that. One is life expectancy, another is infant mortality, and you can measure things such as participation in education and in voluntary activities. These are measures of the strength of society in a way.

Many of these are measures we know about but putting them together in a consistent framework and building policies to deliver them is still subjugated most often to the pursuit of GDP.

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