Response to Tim Jackson

In: Uncategorized

7 Nov 2010

Finally, a chance to respond to Tim Jackson’s piece on our debate last weekend (see 2 November blog post).

The most surprising thing about Jackson’s note on our debate was his surprise. Everything I said last Sunday was completely in line with the arguments in Ferraris for All. I would not have expected him to agree with me on most points but none of what I said should have taken him aback. In particular, much of my book is taken up with arguing that growth scepticism is a mainstream view.

Rather than tackle every point Jackson makes I will focus on some of the main ones:

* It is disingenuous to claim that our differences on poverty or human ingenuity are insignificant. For example, I support an economic transformation of the third world in which its living standards rise to those of the West (hence “Ferraris for all”). Jackson is hazy on the desirability of such a development; saying in our debate the he would also like the living standards of the poor countries to rise to western levels. But if the premise of a “finite planet” is accepted it is hard to see how this goal can be seen as either possible or desirable. At the very least there is a tension in his argument.

* He fails to take up the central point of my introduction: that human activity is not constrained by a finite planet. In my speech I used the example of oil to make this point. Humanity can overcome scarcity by using oil more efficiently, finding new sources of oil and ultimately using substitute sources of energy such as nuclear. We are not constrained by limited amounts of energy (or “the second law of thermodynamics”). In addition, the challenges posed by climate change (or environmental “sinks”) can be overcome by the application of technology.

* Just one example of the mainstream character of growth scepticism. Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth, by his own acknowledgement, draws heavily on the work of Amartya Sen with its concepts of “capabilities” and “flourishing”. Yet Sen won the Nobel prize in economics in 1998 – hardly a sign of a marginal viewpoint. He is also a professor at Harvard and was formerly the master of Trinity College, Cambridge. In addition, Sen’s notion of “development as freedom” was central to the conceptual foundations of the United Nations Development Programme’s notion of “human development”. Sen was a consultant on the first Human Development Report in 1990 and he wrote the introduction to this year’s 20th anniversary edition. In other words, Sen’s views are central to today’s mainstream (and in my view impoverished) development consensus.

* It is strange to see Jackson so baffled by my contention that human activity should not be modeled on behaviour seen in nature. Nowadays I am in a minority but I am far from alone in upholding human exceptionalism: the belief that humans have unique qualities that set them apart from the rest of nature.

The dismal record of Malthusians in predicting human starvation illustrates my point. Thomas Malthus famously argued in 1798 that human population growth tended to outstrip the rise in food supply. Therefore, in his view, mass starvation would ultimately keep the number of humans in check. In the event his predictions proved completely wrong as the food supply surged alongside population growth.

Yet the Malthusian model probably does work for all other animals besides humans. If, say, ant or lion populations grow too rapidly their numbers could well be held in check by mass starvation. However, humans, with their unique capabilities, are different.

This support for human exceptionalism is indeed the central difference between myself and Jackson. More generally it is what separates classical humanism from green thinking.