For the past five decades, the pursuit of economic growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world. Questioning that goal — particularly in this time of global financial crisis — is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.

But in fact the pursuit of economic growth has failed. It has failed on its own terms, it has failed to deliver a good life for all, and it’s now in the process of destroying the planet.

Much has been heard in global markets about Australia’s performance in the financial crisis, about its enviable shoots of recovery — protected, of course, by the richness of its mineral reserves and exports to its resource-hungry Asian neighbours. But returning to business as usual — in the shorter or longer term — simply isn’t an option. How to achieve prosperity without growth is now the single most important question of our time.

That doesn’t mean going back to live in caves. It’s an argument for redefining prosperity, reconstructing economics, renewing our vision of the good life. Nor is this just a vision for greenies or the lunatic fringe. A recent report commissioned by President Nicolas Sarkozy and steered by US Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recommended a shift from using GDP as the focus for gauging national prosperity. Launching the report, Sarkozy remarked “the crisis not only makes us free to imagine other models, another world, another future. It obliges us to do so”.

What does this mean in practice? The UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission has outlined 12 steps to a sustainable economy in its recent report Prosperity without Growth.

It means thinking differently about the economy, about working lives, about our relentless appetite for consumerism. As governments do all they can to kick-start consumer spending, the one piece of advice you won’t hear is “buy less stuff”.

But restraint in spending doesn’t mean a collapse in livelihoods. The most important step of all is a massive increase in green investment. South Korea is leading the way, taking itself seriously as a model for the new economy. Why could that not be Australia?

None of this is to suggest that we don’t develop. Access to adequate food, good health, education and shelter is vital, particularly in the poorest nations. But that doesn’t mean locking ourselves into a “shopping mall economy”, which erodes our ability to flourish as human beings. The materialistic model of development is bankrupt. Much like the debt-fuelled financial system that until recently supported it.

Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions are expected to fall as much as 3%  this year because of the global recession. Consuming less may be the single biggest thing you can do to save carbon emissions. And yet no one dares to mention it. Because if we did, it would threaten economic growth, the very thing that caused the problem in the first place.

Professor Tim Jackson is economics commissioner for the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission and author of Prosperity Without Growth: economics for a finite planet (Earthscan, London 2009). He will be keynote speaker (by video link) at the Green New Deal Conference ( in Melbourne this Saturday, October 24.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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