My guest on this week’s podcast is Professor Tim Jackson, ecological economist, author, and playwright. Since 2016 he has been Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) at the University of Surrey in the UK, where he is also Professor of Sustainable Development. He is well known for his book, Prosperity without Growth (2009/2017) which has been translated into 17 foreign languages. His latest book Post Growth – Life after Capitalism was published by Polity Press this year. In 2016, Tim was awarded the Hillary Laureate for exceptional international leadership in sustainability. In addition to his academic work, Tim is an award-winning dramatist with numerous radio-writing credits for the BBC.
Tim was one of my examiners for my recent doctorate on the nature of change. Towards the end of our conversation he mentions that it’s quite entertaining that the tables are now turned, and the fact that he gave me a moderately hard time in my viva, or doctoral defence as Americans call it. So yes, he did make me sweat. But actually I’m immensely grateful to him, because the amendments he requested are now forming the core of my forthcoming book, The Ocean in a Drop.
But I have to admit that coming into this conversation, I did feel a bit like a poorly prepared undergraduate heading into an exam. I hope my nerves aren’t too obvious!
We talk about Aristotle, wisdom, resilience, fear, consumer capitalism, Maslow’s hierarchy, 100 year plans, inequality, the 1%, materialism, the science of desire, pitchforks, revolutions, yoga, yin and yang, the patriarchy, and our mutual confession to being closet monarchists.
What I really appreciate about Tim is his courage to question the status quo, especially around GDP as the pre-eminent metric of success – when we know it’s a tremendously poor indicator of wellbeing and happiness. We’ve been sold this myth that sustainability is all about sacrifice and wearing a hair shirt and it just isn’t true. Once our basic needs are met, we really do have the opportunity to have happier people AND a healthier planet – at the same time – by focusing on the things that bring real joy, like doing fulfilling work, having healthy relationships, and feeling safe and supported by our community – we really can have our environmental cake, and eat it.
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Tim’s favourite quote, from Lao Tsu, which we discuss at the start of our conversation: ‘That enough’s enough is enough to know.’
We’ve been led into this dream of a kind of materialistic cornucopia, that we can have everything we want, that we can go on having it forever, and that future generations will have even more of it. But apart from the ecological impossibility of that, I find it philosophically and psychologically bankrupt, because I don’t believe that’s what human fulfilment and human happiness is about. I don’t believe that, when you ask people if that’s what it’s about – I don’t believe that philosophers of the ages think that’s what it’s about, or poets, or dramatists, or novelists – I think that actually, we’ve given away such an intricate part, an integral part of our humanity, by thinking that we’re just novelty-seeking hedonists who want more and more material stuff.
I’ve always been fascinated with the work of Abraham Maslow, and in his early work he pitched something which has been called the hierarchy of human needs. He pitched it in a fairly hierarchical way, saying you have to have subsistence – if you don’t get enough to eat then you’re not worrying about what’s happening tomorrow. And then, when you get over that, you’re worried about your social needs, and how you get on with your neighbours, and your relationships, and your status in the pecking order. And after that, if you’re lucky, you can get on to your transcendental needs, this sort of self-actualization, and this higher development of who we are as beings. And this metaphor of the hierarchy stuck somehow. But when we go back to Maslow and look at his later writing, for example in 1968, he published a book where he said that we also have a side of us, which is much less material, which is ultimately transcendental, and possibly even something that we could call spiritual and these two things go on in human beings at the same time, not one after the other. And the reason most people don’t get to that point is that we live in a society that actually encourages those materialistic values over the social and spiritual and psychological values.
Those who benefit from inequality have no desire at all to do anything about it, and those who suffer from inequality have no power to do anything about it… what we’re looking for is a politics brave enough to give voice to that muted outrage, to give it a place to go… we’re still looking for those brave political leaders who are prepared to articulate that, and be the mouthpiece, to be the representatives of those who don’t have the power to articulate, and don’t have the voice to be heard.
Men have suffered under this [patriarchy]. There’s a deep unhappiness beneath our vision of masculinity, and there’s also a sense of freedom in moving away from it.
It’s been found that more materialistic people find it harder to reach that state of flow, even though it’s the most satisfying thing in the world. Materialism actually stands in the way, and we tried to figure out why on earth that is. And we discovered that more materialistic people tend to try and force the positive, and turn away from the negative, so they turn away from undesirables. And all this energy that you take suppressing the undesirables and not facing the fear actually takes away from the focus and the concentration that you need to achieve the state of flow.
Show Notes and Links:
The Science of Desire, by Ernest Dichter
The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson
From Alain de Botton’s School of Life, an analysis of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
TED Talk by Nick Hanauer: Beware, Fellow Plutocrats, The Pitchforks are Coming
The Dandelion Insurrection: Love and Revolution, by Rivera Sun
To find out more about Tim and his work, his website is https://timjackson.org.uk/