Tim Jackson, 2016 Hillary Laureate (UK)

Michael Brune, 2014 Hillary Laureate

Guest article by Tim Jackson


Thirty-one years ago, almost to the day, I moved to London to become a playwright. Though I had degrees in Maths, Philosophy and the Foundations of Physics, I was (and still am) intrigued by the transformative power of drama and had already sold a couple of radio plays to the BBC. It was a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence at first – radio writing doesn’t pay much – and I made my living mostly by waiting on tables in the evenings. 

But then something happened that was to change my life completely. On 26th April 1986, a fire in Reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine led to a nuclear meltdown. 

Realising the potentially destructive power of human technology on the environment, and on the lives of human beings, had a profound effect on me and radically changed how I felt I should spend my working life. 

Recognising that I had developed skills that were relevant to the challenge of transforming technology, I started working, voluntarily at first, for environmental campaign groups - Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. At that time, these groups were at the forefront in the campaign for alternative energy technologies. 

Shortly afterwards, I was appointed to a research contract at South Bank University exploring the economics of small-scale renewable energy technologies. Though I had no formal training in economics, this appointment was to set the course of my academic life: the economics of sustainability, broadly construed, became my life’s work. 

In those early years, I worked mainly on micro-economic problems, the financial feasibility of newer, cleaner technologies, and the cost-effectiveness of carbon emission reductions. Whilst at the Stockholm Environment Institute, I pioneered the first Marginal Abatement Cost (MAC) curve for the UK (Jackson 1991), long before the concept was popularised by McKinsey Global Institute. A key paper originally written in 1989 for the Hinkley Point Inquiry was picked up by the United Nations Collaborating Centre on Climate Change who then standardised the methodology for use in climate negotiations. This methodology became the foundation for McKinsey’s ground-breaking and influential work.

Even as I worked on these micro-economic foundations, I became increasingly aware of the wider social and macro-economic forces driving our environmental problems. At a crowded workshop, in the upstairs conference room of a London bookshop, in the autumn of 1988, I first encountered a presentation of Herman Daly and John Cobb’s Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. The divergence between the GDP and the Daly and Cobb Index instantly struck a chord with me and I set about developing the work further, expanding both the methodology and the geographical scope, first for the UK and then later for Sweden. 

I have remained involved in debates about alternatives to the GDP, in particular through a long-running collaboration with the New Economics Foundation, for over twenty years now. Most recently, I collaborated on a paper (Kubiszewski et al 2013) which draws together all of the studies that have been carried out using the Daly and Cobb methodology from across the world. The same striking conclusion about the divergence of GDP from ‘genuine progress’ emerges from this synthesis.

As a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, I also led a programme on preventive environmental management – pioneering a vision for society in which both industrial systems and social aspirations are more in keeping with the limitations of a finite planet. The work culminated in the publication of Material Concerns: pollution, profit and quality of life (Routledge, 1996) which set out this vision. 

‘In ten years’ time,’ wrote a former advisor to Gordon Brown about the book, ‘all managers will be thinking this way’. 

He was probably about a decade too optimistic in his prediction. But the book was notable for having within it an early system diagram of the ‘circular economy’, now the foundation for Ellen McArthur’s transformative vision of business and enterprise.

Material Concerns (named incidentally after the title of my second radio play) also signalled the beginnings of my interest in the social dimensions of sustainability. As a philosopher, I had always been interested in ‘root causes’. When my search for solutions led me further and further ‘upstream’, I began to develop a research programme at Surrey to explore not just the economic and institutional factors but also the social and psychological drivers of the consumer society. This is an interest which continues to this day and has informed the research collaborations I have led over the last decade.

This interest also led to a 2005 report for the Sustainable Development Research Network on Motivating Sustainable Consumption. Sponsored by the UK Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the report was influential both in the chapter on ‘Changing Consumption Patterns’ in the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy and in the formation of the UK Sustainable Consumption Roundtable in 2006. The head of Sustainable Development in Defra at the time, Jill Rutter, transformed the insights from Motivating Sustainable Consumption into a simple ‘diamond’ graphic, which has been widely used to guide ‘behaviour change’ programmes across local government and civil society organisations. 

Somehow, and in spite of the full-time academic career I had by this time fallen into, I still managed for a while to maintain my ‘first’ career as a playwright. In fact, I received a steady stream of playwriting commissions from the BBC throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Inevitably though, my attitude to playwriting had changed. 

My writing had somehow gained a sense of purpose. I began to use the power of drama to explore our complex relationships to each other and to the planet. 

A highlight of this period was a 30-episode ‘environmental drama’ series entitled The Cry of the Bittern, first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1999. The series explored the core tension between the relentless expansion of human activity and its increasing impact on our fragile environment. This same tension was to provide the foundation for what is probably the defining work of my career so far.

In April 2004, I had been appointed as Economics Commissioner on the UK Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), chaired by Jonathon Porritt and reporting directly to the UK Prime Minister. 

Shortly after my appointment, Jonathon and I met in a London café to discuss what my work programme might be for the next few years. I remember it as a very short meeting, perhaps fifteen minutes at most. We were both rushing between other commitments. But that meeting was to set the course of my work for the next decade. 

The topic we settled on was the tension between economic growth and sustainability – the same tension I had explored dramatically in The Cry of the Bittern, and which had fascinated me for most of my working life.

Prosperity without Growth (Routledge 2009/2016) was the culmination of a five-year work programme on ‘Redefining Prosperity’ that I led within the SDC. It draw partly on the sometimes challenging relationship between the Commission and the UK government. But it was also influenced by the broad collaborative, multidisciplinary research I continued to lead at the University of Surrey. The aim of the book was to tease apart the concept of prosperity from the conventional assumption of expanding the GDP, to explore the challenge of decoupling economic activity from environmental impact, and to set out a vision for a lasting prosperity on a finite planet.

This vision continues to inform my ongoing research and my advocacy for change. It gave the inspiration for my ESRC Fellowship on Prosperity and Sustainability in the Green Economy (PASSAGE). It also provided the foundation for our newly-awarded Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), a five year £6 million cross-disciplinary collaboration involving seven universities, and a number of business groups and non-governmental organisations. 

Most directly, the book gave rise to my long-standing collaboration with ecological economist Peter Victor, in a common project to develop an ‘ecological macroeconomics’. A part of our aim (Jackson and Victor 2015) is to develop accessible online system dynamics models with which to explore the complex dimensions of the ‘post-growth economy’ (www.prosperitas.org.uk). This work continues under the CUSP umbrella.

It cannot truthfully be said that Prosperity without Growth had an immediately positive impact on its government sponsors. But it quickly became the Commission’s defining report. 

It achieved a totally unexpected audience amongst a wide variety of stakeholders and an influence way beyond the UK. 

It has prompted serious conversations about sustainable investment right at the heart of the financial sector. Six years and sixteen foreign translations of the work later, its power to galvanise one of the most vital debates of our time never ceases to amaze me. As I sit now revising the book for an updated second edition, I am humbled by the innumerable positive responses I have received to it.

I never entirely gave up on my playwriting ambitions. But the sheer volume of work associated with Prosperity without Growth has certainly challenged them in recent years. 

My most recent play, written shortly before the book was published, was one of a series of drama-documentaries that I wrote for a production team at BBC Birmingham. Variations is a love story, based around a particular movement in one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, dedicated to the woman many people believe was Beethoven’s ‘eternal beloved’. Variations also explored the tension between our passions and the sometimes accidental events that define our lives. The play won the 2008 Grand Prix Marulič, a prestigious European Radio Prize.

I am rather hoping it isn’t the last play that I ever write. But if it turns out to be, then perhaps it isn’t such a bad epitaph.