Professor Tim Jackson, from the ESRC Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity gave the morning keynote at the Nexus Network second Annual Conference on 19 November 2015, on ‘Flourishing within limits – towards a social science for sustainable prosperity’.
You can download a pdf of Tim Jackson’s talk here CUSP Nexus conference Nov 2015_TimJackson
The following is an overview of Tim Jackson’s talk, by conference participant Chaitanya Kumar.
Need for understanding limits
Professor Tim Jackson, speaking at the Nexus Network conference on Scales, Levels and Spaces of the Nexus, opened by exploring limits to growth and our views on this as a society.
I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing and treading on each others heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human beings, said John Stuart Mill in 1848.
Growing economic inequality, stagnation of real wages, ever increasing working hours and overall decrease in human wellbeing; these are just a few of the many indicators that make us to evoke larger questions around the directionality of economic growth and development.
The last 3 decades of neoliberalism has entrenched a mode of thinking that insists on ignoring the physical limits to economic growth and has failed to challenge the notion of infinite growth on a finite planet.
From the nexus point of view; the questions on limits to energy and more importantly food, water and environmental services are critical in creating a future built on sustainability.
Such a holistic approach calls for greater political will to accept and operationalise limits to conventional means of economic growth, a thinking that is perhaps too radical for the world leaders that are gathering in Paris next week to negotiate an effective global response to climate change.
Meanings, symbols and narratives
Professor Jackson highlighted the importance of redefining the direction of development and the essence of human prosperity.
Human society has exhibited many needs over the centuries but few underlying frames include the need for subsistence, for identity or self-concept, for social cohesion or community and for a general maintenance of the status quo that offers the above needs.
While the basic need for subsistence is met through materials, the ones of a social, psychological and culture nature have been met through the ages by powerful symbols and narratives.
Throughout history, most of these symbols have been of a religious or mythical nature, but human society of the past century has managed to elevate the ‘accumulation of material goods’ as an important means to satiate these intangible needs.
While decision makers are busy trying to decouple economic growth and carbon emissions, another important decoupling is that of human prosperity with material consumption and unlike the former, human history is littered with lessons on how we can at least imagine if not immediately achieve the latter.
Prosperity transcends material concerns. It resides in our sense of identity and our pursuit of meaning. It rests in our ability to participate in the life of society. Prosperity consists of our capability to flourish as human beings.
Fun vs Carbon
The notion of humanity’s need for prosperity is indisputable and universally accepted. The means to achieve it are of course many and highly contested. A simple way, as illustrated by Professor Jackson in his talk, is to look at how we perceive fun and its carbon footprint under various scenarios.
He suggested that the future for greater fun with lower emissions seems to be an unusual combination of high technology and slow living. It is in some sense an acknowledgement of the inevitable growth of technology’s presence in our lives but a redefining of what we do with them and how we mutually co-exist within the physical limits of our planets resources.
The impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss give us a compelling reason to consider such seemingly radical views on human development. Whilst they don’t offer a clear strategy forward, they certainly give us and especially the practitioners of the nexus approach, guidance towards the ultimate direction we choose to take.
Conference image: with thanks to Edwin Cristancho Pinilla.