Creating global prosperity without economic growth

What We’re Reading: July 2013

by Fernanda Tomaselli, Kendra Pierre Louis and Jen Hinton on 30th July 2013

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Prosperity without Growth – Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth was one of the books that really introduced me to post growth thinking, so revisiting it four years later has been interesting.

prosperity without growth cover

It’s a great introduction to the growth dilemma, the myth of de-coupling and policy ideas for how to flourish within ecological limits.  Jackson writes in a way that is both articulate and accessible to people who have no background in sustainability, environment or economics.  He also does a great job of showing the connections between all of these fields which are commonly seen as unrelated.

One of the best aspects of this book is that it seeks to redefine prosperity in terms that align with the latest research findings on human behavior, values, wellbeing and ecological limits.

It was published in 2009, so some of the information and ideas are already a bit outdated.  Other than that, there are a few ways in which I feel the book could be improved.

It would be nice if Jackson had used more of an asset-based approach.  The book follows the traditional equation of presenting the problem first, followed by solutions, rather than presenting some good news first.  There is also little acknowledgement of what’s already working and should be supported.  Also, the solutions section focuses on large-scale policy changes, with very little attention given to local and bottom-up approaches.

Despite these “room-for-improvement” areas, the book serves as an excellent introduction to the ecological, social and economic reasons for why we shouldn’t keep pushing for more economic growth and what kind of policy approaches might be appropriate for moving societies beyond growth.

–          Jen

Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

I’ve always been fascinated by psychology and the understanding of human behaviour. Why do we act in certain ways? What motivates us? In this captivating book, the psychologist and behavioural economist, Dan Ariely explores some of these questions and summarizes years of experimental research on decision-making and human rationality. In a nutshell, he shows how our behaviour isn’t as smart and rational as many of us would like to believe.

Predictably Irrational begins by telling Ariely’s own story and how through a personal misfortune, he became interested in understanding the factors that shape our thinking and influence our decisions.

predictably irrational cover

Each chapter summarizes one interesting finding. The first chapter ‘the truth about relativity’ explains how our perceptions and decisions are always relative – we don’t assess things in absolute terms but rather in comparison to something else. For example, our jobs, our possessions, and even how rich we are, are considered in relation to the situation of others, our past experiences and even according to our future expectations.

Another chapter touches on issues of honesty and describes research that evidences that when people are reminded about moral codes – for example, by reading the Ten Commandments – they tend to be less dishonest afterwards.

My favorite part of the book is the one that compares social and market norms. Ariely explains that we live in two worlds: one governed by social norms such as collaboration, altruism and unselfishness, and another world dominated by market norms where monetization is the rule. Although both have their function, market transactions are expanding to more spheres in our lives. Interestingly, Ariely demonstrates that, contrary to the common assumption, in many occasions people are more motivated and will work harder for social paybacks than for cash. He points out that “as we learned in our experiments, cash will take you only so far – social norms are the forces that can make a difference in the long run.”

Overall, this is a highly interesting and thought provoking book that is written in a very simple language. Each chapter deals with different experiments and phenomenons, so it’s pretty easy to choose the sections that you like the most and skip the ones that you don’t find too exciting. I think that post-growth readers will find this book appealing as it offers insights on the often trivial and contextual aspects that shape our decisions. In my life, it has been useful to understand my own behaviour and modify (to some extent) some harmful patterns like procrastination.

–          Fernanda

Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World – Stan Cox

I have to admit that I read Stan Cox’s Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World while I was stubbornly sweating it through a New York City heat wave without air conditioning. You might say I was predisposed to agree with the book’s central point: that the rise of the air conditioned American is killing the United States – and the planet. Anyone who has spent a summer stateside has experienced the bewildering norm of toting around a cardigan or fleece as a bit of sartorial shielding against disturbingly air conditioned stores, restaurants, and office buildings. Even a ride on a New York City subway car can be a goose bump inducing, shivery affair, if one is dressed for the 95 degrees it is outside, and not the 72 degrees it is inside.

losing our cool cover

Cox argues, convincingly, that the spread and normalization of air conditioning has left our society worse for the wear. He moves beyond the traditional complaints of environmental degradation – and there is plenty: to power just its air conditioners the United States fossil fuels its way through as much electricity as the entire African subcontinent uses period – to the cultural, and social effects of air conditioning. Cox links the rise of air conditioning to everything from Al Gore’s presidential loss in 2000 (had air conditioning not existed, the northern migration to the south also would not have existed), to the obesity epidemic (kids can while away the summer holidays playing video games because now – thanks to air conditioning – it’s cooler inside than outside.  Before air conditioning it was generally cooler outdoors than indoors), to the erosion of our social fabric. As we become increasingly cloistered in our air conditioned cocoons, and away from porches and stoops, we lose connection with our neighbors.

His argument in total is a damning conviction of the air conditioning industrial complex that increasingly has a global footprint. It’s not that air conditioning is totally without merit (hospitals immediately spring to mind as places where air conditioning is beneficial), but rather  that its widespread, indiscriminate use based in part on a complete refusal to accept the climate conditions of the places within which we are embedded is folly.  Cox lays out a number of alternatives to so much air conditioning, but its essence boils down to this: accept some discomfort. Summer is supposed to be hot, winter is supposed to be cold. The more thermal variation we allow in our lives, the better off we – and our environment – will be.  Despite the strict thermal comfort standards set for buildings, Cox points out “the relationship between temperature and comfort can never be fully described by mathematical of statistical matters… people adjust not only their clothing but also their activity level, posture, location and state of mind in order to feel comfortable.”

I loved Losing Our Cool, not only because it provided additional justification to my refusal to not have air conditioner (if New Yorker’s went easier on the air conditioning not only would the city’s air quality improve but the city itself would be several degrees cooler) but also because it draws incredible parallels between our desire to achieve maximum thermal comfort and our economy. The more tightly we try to get systems to adhere to theoretical models that are not grounded in place and in behavior, the more they fail to serve people, and the more we harm the environment.

–          Kendra

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