Prosperity without growth: a contradiction in terms?

Sunday 31 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery

Is economic growth reaching its limits? There can be little doubt that in the past economic progress provided huge benefits for humanity. For two centuries or so, life expectancy has surged, the food supply has easily outstripped a rising population and science has advanced tremendously. But have we reached the stage where the costs of growth have started to outweigh the benefits? Critics of growth link numerous problems to prosperity. Inequality is rising, people are becoming no happier, mental illness is rife and obesity is plaguing the developed world. We have also reached the stage where we are running up against natural limits on a finite planet. Resources are being depleted, biodiversity is falling sharply, pollution is endemic and climate change threatens to destroy us all.

Defenders of growth retort that the critics are being grossly one-sided. Humanity continues to benefit enormously from rising prosperity. We are living longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives than ever before – including billions of people in the poorer countries. Many challenges remain but the record shows that human ingenuity can overcome them. The constraints that exist are mainly self-imposed rather than immutable barriers to progress.

So has economic growth run its course as a boon for humanity? Can the link between growth and progress be broken?  Should progress be redefined from a conception based on economics to one focusing on human well-being? What is to be made of the idea of limits to growth?


Listen to session audio:


Daniel Ben-Ami
journalist and author, Ferraris for All: in defence of economic progress and Cowardly Capitalism

Tim Jackson
professor of sustainable development, University of Surrey; economics commissioner, UK Sustainable Development Commission; author, Prosperity Without Growth: economics for a finite planet

Stuart Simpson
financial services professional; researcher and writer, emerging economies and quantitative finance

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Recommended readings
Ferraris for All: In Defence of Economic Progress

The growth of the economy and the spread of prosperity are increasingly seen as problematic rather than positive - a trend Daniel Ben-Ami has termed 'growth scepticism'. Prosperity is accused of encouraging greed, damaging the environment, causing unhappiness and widening social inequalities. Ferraris for all is a rejoinder to the growth sceptics.

Daniel Ben-Ami, Policy Press, 14 March 2012

‘Stop plundering Earth or in 20 years Man will need two planets’

Mankind is plundering the Earth’s natural resources at 1.5 times the rate it can replace them, and the tropics are bearing the brunt of wasteful Western lifestyles, a study has found.

Ben Webster, The Times, 14 October 2010

What we can learn from our hunter-gatherer ancestors

The roots of our current problems of climate change and resource depletion go back 6,000 years to the arrival of farming

Caroline Wickham-Jones, Guardian, 30 September 2010

Growth sceptics selling the economy short

Sustainability, like fairness, preparing for the future or choice we can believe in, is very hard to oppose. It's vague and woolly meaning makes it a perfect political tool, a blank canvas on which disaffected voters can project their anxieties about chronic congestion, resource shortages and catastrophic climate change.

Daniel Ben-Ami, The Australian, 27 July 2010

The Asian century calls for a rethink on growth

It has become a truism, buttressed by the hard realities of economic performance, that the 21st century will belong to Asia.

Kevin Brown, Financial Times, 1 July 2010

Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet

No one denies that development is essential for poorer nations. But in the advanced economies there is mounting evidence that ever-increasing consumption adds little to human happiness and may even impede it. More urgently, it is now clear that the ecosystems that sustain our economies are collapsing under the impacts of rising consumption.

Tim Jackson, Earthscan, 2 November 2009

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