Saving the planet – a conversation with Tim Jackson

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An award-winning playwright as well as an academic, Tim Jackson has been at the forefront of European research and teaching in sustainability for more than 20 years. He tells eco-writer Sonja van Renssen that saving the planet means reversing a consumer lifestyle

Tim Jackson is not your typical eco-warrior. Indeed, the slim, well-dressed man with the grey hair could not look less like a warrior if he tried. Yet the words he preaches are words of revolution.  Professor of Sustainable Development at the British University of Surrey, and Economics Commissioner on the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, Jackson is trying to sell the idea that having more belongings or possessions doesn’t necessarily make society any happier.

“Outside formal economics, the idea just doesn’t exist,” he says. “There’s no model for it in ecology, it isn’t what we talk about in literature or philosophy. It isn’t even how people express themselves in daily life.”

In his book Prosperity without Growth, Jackson controversially argues that if the environment is not to be destroyed, the idea of economic growth may have to be abandoned. He firmly believes the key to a sustainable future is less consumption, and that this requires a change in lifestyle – the problem being a consumption-based society. “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 like creating identity. You can’t really extricate materials out of that without changing people’s lives,” he says.

 If the environment is not to be destroyed, the idea of economic growth may have to be abandoned

MATERIAL SUBSTITUTES

The economic crisis has shown just how deep the problem lies with governments begging people to consume and spend more to keep their economies afloat. Policymakers who insist lifestyle is too complicated an issue to get mixed up with should accept that they already are involved, says Jackson. For him, today’s world is, above all, tragic. “It’s the sustainability question that puts it most clearly … you can be philosophically unsatisfied with the idea of more stuff, but as soon as you put a notion of limits in place, it becomes tragic.”

The tragedy, according to Jackson, usually plays itself out by divisions between those who can afford material goods, and those who suffer the impact of a consumer society. Material goods have become a substitute for religion and spirituality, Jackson believes. With no formal religious affiliation, he has, nevertheless, since childhood, taken an interest in the dimensions of life beyond the material, beyond death. “For me there is a very clear sense that many of the things we actually value are not material in nature.”

HAPPINESS INDICATOR

Comparisons between this generation and life 50 years ago depend on how happiness is measured, says Jackson. He says he is “not entirely convinced by a happiness index because it’s difficult to measure happiness and it isn’t clear happiness is the only worthwhile outcome.” Instead, he proposes looking at a variety of indicators “measuring the strength of society” from the physical, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, to the psychological and social, such as participation in education and voluntary community work.

“Life expectancy, for example, has increased. But some indicators go in the wrong direction: an erosion of community, a loss of meaning, a fragility of identity. We have created a society that’s pretty good at pumping materials through it in pursuit of higher incomes and sometimes that’s given a better quality of life, we shouldn’t deny that, but it isn’t sustainable in the way it’s been created.”

RE-THINKING SOCIETY

Creating a sustainable society requires action on many levels, he says: re-thinking public space is just one example. If there were more public libraries, parks, museums and village halls to hang out in, Jackson says perhaps people would be less inclined to hit the shops as a means of participating in society. Urging action at an individual level such as cycling more or investing in ethical funds, Jackson also pushes for action at the community and, ultimately, the political level as a means of driving change in the very way the world is structured.

“It’s not about simple individual change to one’s own lifestyle,” he concludes. “It’s about challenging the structures that lock us in as individuals and communities into an unsustainable lifestyle.” As for his own level of happiness: “I think happiness is a little over-rated,” is the wry response. An award-winning playwright, he expresses some regret at not being able to write full-time and dreams of writing more plays.  “No doubt I will get back to it one day.”