Tim Jackson: An economic reality check

I want to talk to you today about prosperity, about our hopes for a shared and lasting prosperity. And not just us, but the two billion people worldwide who are still chronically undernourished. And hope actually is at the heart of this. In fact, the Latin word for hope is at the heart of the word prosperity. “Pro-speras,” “speras,” hope — in accordance with our hopes and expectations. The irony is, though, that we have cashed-out prosperity almost literally in terms of money and economic growth. And we’ve grown our economies so much that we now stand in a real danger of undermining hope — running down resources, cutting down rainforests, spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, changing the climate — and the only thing that has actually remotely slowed down the relentless rise of carbon emissions over the last two to three decades is recession.

And recession, of course, isn’t exactly a recipe for hope either, as we’re busy finding out. So we’re caught in a kind of trap. It’s a dilemma, a dilemma of growth. We can’t live with it; we can’t live without it. Trash the system or crash the planet — it’s a tough choice; it isn’t much of a choice. And our best avenue of escape from this actually is a kind of blind faith in our own cleverness and technology and efficiency and doing things more efficiently. Now I haven’t got anything against efficiency. And I think we are a clever species sometimes. But I think we should also just check the numbers, take a reality check here. So I want you to imagine a world, in 2050, of around nine billion people, all aspiring to Western incomes, Western lifestyles. And I want to ask the question — and we’ll give them that two percent hike in income, in salary each year as well, because we believe in growth. And I want to ask the question: how far and how fast would be have to move? How clever would we have to be? How much technology would we need in this world to deliver our carbon targets? And here in my chart — on the left-hand side is where we are now.

This is the carbon intensity of economic growth in the economy at the moment. It’s around about 770 grams of carbon. In the world I describe to you, we have to be right over here at the right-hand side at six grams of carbon. It’s a 130-fold improvement, and that is 10 times further and faster than anything we’ve ever achieved in industrial history. Maybe we can do it, maybe it’s possible — who knows? Maybe we can even go further and get an economy that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, which is what we’re going to need to be doing by the end of the century. But shouldn’t we just check first that the economic system that we have is remotely capable of delivering this kind of improvement? So I want to just spend a couple of minutes on system dynamics.

It’s a bit complex, and I apologize for that. What I’ll try and do, is I’ll try and paraphrase it is sort of human terms. So it looks a little bit like this. Firms produce goods for households — that’s us — and provide us with incomes, and that’s even better, because we can spend those incomes on more goods and services. That’s called the circular flow of the economy. It looks harmless enough. I just want to highlight one key feature of this system, which is the role of investment. Now investment constitutes only about a fifth of the national income in most modern economies, but it plays an absolutely vital role. And what it does essentially is to stimulate further consumption growth. It does this in a couple of ways — chasing productivity, which drives down prices and encourages us to buy more stuff. But I want to concentrate on the role of investment in seeking out novelty, the production and consumption of novelty. Joseph Schumpeter called this “the process of creative destruction.” It’s a process of the production and reproduction of novelty, continually chasing expanding consumer markets, consumer goods, new consumer goods.

And this, this is where it gets interesting, because it turns out that human beings have something of an appetite for novelty. We love new stuff — new material stuff for sure — but also new ideas, new adventures, new experiences. But the materiality matters too, because in every society that anthropologists have looked at, material stuff operates as a kind of language — a language of goods, a symbolic language that we use to tell each other stories — stories, for example, about how important we are. Status-driven, conspicuous consumption thrives from the language of novelty. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system that is locking economic structure with social logic — the economic institutions, and who we are as people, locked together to drive an engine of growth.

And this engine is not just economic value; it is pulling material resources relentlessly through the system, driven by our own insatiable appetites, driven in fact by a sense of anxiety. Adam Smith, 200 years ago, spoke about our desire for a life without shame. A life without shame: in his day, what that meant was a linen shirt, and today, well, you still need the shirt, but you need the hybrid car, the HDTV, two holidays a year in the sun, the netbook and iPad, the list goes on — an almost inexhaustible supply of goods, driven by this anxiety. And even if we don’t want them, we need to buy them, because, if we don’t buy them, the system crashes. And to stop it crashing over the last two to three decades, we’ve expanded the money supply, expanded credit and debt, so that people can keep buying stuff. And of course, that expansion was deeply implicated in the crisis.

But this — I just want to show you some data here. This is what it looks like, essentially, this credit and debt system, just for the U.K. This was the last 15 years before the crash, and you can see there, consumer debt rose dramatically. It was above the GDP for three years in a row just before the crisis. And in the mean time, personal savings absolutely plummeted. The savings ratio, net savings, were below zero in the middle of 2008, just before the crash. This is people expanding debt, drawing down their savings, just to stay in the game. This is a strange, rather perverse, story, just to put it in very simple terms. It’s a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about. (Laughter) (Applause) But before we consign ourselves to despair, maybe we should just go back and say, “Did we get this right? Is this really how people are? Is this really how economies behave?” And almost straightaway we actually run up against a couple of anomalies.

The first one is in the crisis itself. In the crisis, in the recession, what do people want to do? They want to hunker down, they want to look to the future. They want to spend less and save more. But saving is exactly the wrong thing to do from the system point of view. Keynes called this the “paradox of thrift” — saving slows down recovery. And politicians call on us continually to draw down more debt, to draw down our own savings even further, just so that we can get the show back on the road, so we can keep this growth-based economy going. It’s an anomaly, it’s a place where the system actually is at odds with who we are as people. Here’s another one — completely different one: Why is it that we don’t do the blindingly obvious things we should do to combat climate change, very, very simple things like buying energy-efficient appliances, putting in efficient lights, turning the lights off occasionally, insulating our homes? These things save carbon, they save energy, they save us money. So is it that, though they make perfect economic sense, we don’t do them? Well, I had my own personal insight into this a few years ago. It was a Sunday evening, Sunday afternoon, and it was just after — actually, to be honest, too long after — we had moved into a new house.

And I had finally got around to doing some draft stripping, installing insulation around the windows and doors to keep out the drafts. And my, then, five year-old daughter was helping me in the way that five year-olds do. And we’d been doing this for a while, when she turned to me very solemnly and said, “Will this really keep out the giraffes?” (Laughter) “Here they are, the giraffes.” You can hear the five-year-old mind working. These ones, interestingly, are 400 miles north of here outside Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria. Goodness knows what they make of the Lake District weather. But actually that childish misrepresentation stuck with me, because it suddenly became clear to me why we don’t do the blindingly obvious things. We’re too busy keeping out the giraffes — putting the kids on the bus in the morning, getting ourselves to work on time, surviving email overload and shop floor politics, foraging for groceries, throwing together meals, escaping for a couple of precious hours in the evening into prime-time TV or TED online, getting from one end of the day to the other, keeping out the giraffes.

(Laughter) What is the objective? “What is the objective of the consumer?” Mary Douglas asked in an essay on poverty written 35 years ago. “It is,” she said, “to help create the social world and find a credible place in it.” That is a deeply humanizing vision of our lives, and it’s a completely different vision than the one that lies at the heart of this economic model. So who are we? Who are these people? Are we these novelty-seeking, hedonistic, selfish individuals? Or might we actually occasionally be something like the selfless altruist depicted in Rembrandt’s lovely, lovely sketch here? Well psychology actually says there is a tension — a tension between self-regarding behaviors and other regarding behaviors. And these tensions have deep evolutionary roots, so selfish behavior is adaptive in certain circumstances — fight or flight. But other regarding behaviors are essential to our evolution as social beings.

And perhaps even more interesting from our point of view, another tension between novelty-seeking behaviors and tradition or conservation. Novelty is adaptive when things are changing and you need to adapt yourself. Tradition is essential to lay down the stability to raise families and form cohesive social groups. So here, all of a sudden, we’re looking at a map of the human heart. And it reveals to us, suddenly, the crux of the matter. What we’ve done is we’ve created economies. We’ve created systems, which systematically privilege, encourage, one narrow quadrant of the human soul and left the others unregarded. And in the same token, the solution becomes clear, because this isn’t, therefore, about changing human nature. It isn’t, in fact, about curtailing possibilities. It is about opening up. It is about allowing ourselves the freedom to become fully human, recognizing the depth and the breadth of the human psyche and building institutions to protect Rembrandt’s fragile altruist within.

What does all this mean for economics? What would economies look like if we took that vision of human nature at their heart and stretched them along these orthogonal dimensions of the human psyche? Well, it might look a little bit like the 4,000 community-interest companies that have sprung up in the U.K. over the last five years and a similar rise in B corporations in the United States, enterprises that have ecological and social goals written into their constitution at their heart — companies, in fact, like this one, Ecosia. And I just want to, very quickly, show you this. Ecosia is an Internet search engine. Internet search engines work by drawing revenues from sponsored links that appear when you do a search. And Ecosia works in pretty much the same way. So we can do that here — we can just put in a little search term. There you go, Oxford, that’s where we are. See what comes up.

The difference with Ecosia though is that, in Ecosia’s case, it draws the revenues in the same way, but it allocates 80 percent of those revenues to a rainforest protection project in the Amazon. And we’re going to do it. We’re just going to click on Naturejobs.uk. In case anyone out there is looking for a job in a recession, that’s the page to go to. And what happened then was the sponsor gave revenues to Ecosia, and Ecosia is giving 80 percent of those revenues to a rainforest protection project. It’s taking profits from one place and allocating them into the protection of ecological resources. It’s a different kind of enterprise for a new economy. It’s a form, if you like, of ecological altruism — perhaps something along those lines. Maybe it’s that. Whatever it is, whatever this new economy is, what we need the economy to do, in fact, is to put investment back into the heart of the model, to re-conceive investment. Only now, investment isn’t going to be about the relentless and mindless pursuit of consumption growth.

Investment has to be a different beast. Investment has to be, in the new economy, protecting and nurturing the ecological assets on which our future depends. It has to be about transition. It has to be investing in low-carbon technologies and infrastructures. We have to invest, in fact, in the idea of a meaningful prosperity, providing capabilities for people to flourish. And of course, this task has material dimensions. It would be nonsense to talk about people flourishing if they didn’t have food, clothing and shelter. But it’s also clear that prosperity goes beyond this. It has social and psychological aims — family, friendship, commitments, society, participating in the life of that society. And this too requires investment, investment — for example, in places — places where we can connect, places where we can participate, shared spaces, concert halls, gardens, public parks, libraries, museums, quiet centers, places of joy and celebration, places of tranquility and contemplation, sites for the “cultivation of a common citizenship,” in Michael Sandel’s lovely phrase.

An investment — investment, after all, is just such a basic economic concept — is nothing more nor less than a relationship between the present and the future, a shared present and a common future. And we need that relationship to reflect, to reclaim hope. So let me come back, with this sense of hope, to the two billion people still trying to live each day on less than the price of a skinny latte from the cafe next door. What can we offer those people? It’s clear that we have a responsibility to help lift them out of poverty. It’s clear that we have a responsibility to make room for growth where growth really matters in those poorest nations. And it’s also clear that we will never achieve that unless we’re capable of redefining a meaningful sense of prosperity in the richer nations, a prosperity that is more meaningful and less materialistic than the growth-based model.

So this is not just a Western post-materialist fantasy. In fact, an African philosopher wrote to me, when “Prosperity Without Growth” was published, pointing out the similarities between this view of prosperity and the traditional African concept of ubuntu. Ubuntu says, “I am because we are.” Prosperity is a shared endeavor. Its roots are long and deep — its foundations, I’ve tried to show, exist already, inside each of us. So this is not about standing in the way of development. It’s not about overthrowing capitalism. It’s not about trying to change human nature. What we’re doing here is we’re taking a few simple steps towards an economics fit for purpose. And at the heart of that economics, we’re placing a more credible, more robust, and more realistic vision of what it means to be human. Thank you very much.

(Applause) Chris Anderson: While they’re taking the podium away, just a quick question. First of all, economists aren’t supposed to be inspiring, so you may need to work on the tone a little. (Laughter) Can you picture the politicians ever buying into this? I mean, can you picture a politician standing up in Britain and saying, “GDP fell two percent this year. Good news! We’re actually all happier, and a country’s more beautiful, and our lives are better.” Tim Jackson: Well that’s clearly not what you’re doing. You’re not making news out of things falling down. You’re making news out of the things that tell you that we’re flourishing. Can I picture politicians doing it? Actually, I already am seeing a little bit of it. When we first started this kind of work, politicians would stand up, treasury spokesmen would stand up, and accuse us of wanting to go back and live in caves. And actually in the period through which we’ve been working over the last 18 years — partly because of the financial crisis and a little bit of humility in the profession of economics — actually people are engaging in this issue in all sorts of countries around the world. CA: But is it mainly politicians who are going to have to get their act together, or is it going to be more just civil society and companies? TJ: It has to be companies.

It has to be civil society. But it has to have political leadership. This is a kind of agenda, which actually politicians themselves are kind of caught in that dilemma, because they’re hooked on the growth model themselves. But actually opening up the space to think about different ways of governing, different kinds of politics, and creating the space for civil society and businesses to operate differently — absolutely vital. CA: And if someone could convince you that we actually can make the — what was it? — the 130-fold improvement in efficiency, of reduction of carbon footprint, would you then actually like that picture of economic growth into more knowledge-based goods? TJ: I would still want to know that you could do that and get below zero by the end of the century, in terms of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, and solve the problem of biodiversity and reduce the impact on land use and do something about the erosion of topsoils and the quality of water. If you can convince me we can do all that, then, yes, I would take the two percent.

CA: Tim, thank you for a very important talk. Thank you. (Applause).

The Science of Overpopulation

So I assume you know that there’s a lot of people on this planet. As of last week, Wednesday, I think, was when we turned over to seven — I –, nobody knows. But nobody knows exactly how many people there are, it’s kinda hard to keep track; it’s a big planet. But there are about seven billion people on the Earth right now. And they keep getting born, all the time. In fact, for every 2 people who die, about 4 are born. Every second, there are about four babies introducing themselves to this world, and there are less than two people saying goodbye to it. So, easy math here, our world’s population is growing by about 2.5 people per second. And as a reminder of this, during this video I’m going to have 2.5 ping pong balls being thrown at me every single second throughout the entire rest of the video. Who’s hitting me in the face every single time? [Intro] Ok, instead of the balls, uh, were just gonna do a clock because I get nosebleeds pretty easily, and I don’t want you to have to see that. So 7 billion people, it’s hard to actually get your mind around how many people that is, maybe if you were to just like sit down and count to 7 billion, it would take you like 200 years or something.

On the other hand, there is plenty of space for them. If you took 7 billion people and stood us shoulder to shoulder like we were at a Sting concert, those 7 billion people could fit in an area the size of Los Angeles. We can fit on the Earth. There’s space for us all. So as long as there’s space for us all, what’s the big deal about having 7 billion people? Well it turns out people have been thinking about this for a long time, since around 1800, when the world first clocked 1 billion people. I know what you’re thinking, you’re like 1 billion, that’s nothing, haha. Well at that time all the economies in the world were based on agriculture. How much stuff we could grow with human hands, farm animals, maybe a scythe and a wooden plow or something.

So that kind of technology, a billion people was really pushing it. And the first like big-time thinker guy, to totally have a cow about there just being too many freakin’ people was a British economist named Thomas Malthus. Thomas Malthus calculated that human populations tend to grow exponentially, while the ability of humans to feed each other tends to grow more linearly. And so our growth as a species tends to outstrip our ability to feed everyone. And when that happens, it’s pretty obvious what happens, you get the famine, and the starvation. And for the people who are left over who don’t die of those things, they can get taken care of by disease and war. Basically, Malthus thought that humanities natural state was to be cruel, miserable, pathetic and sniveling in a pile of dirty underpants. In his essay on the principle of population, Malthus observed… “The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.

They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should their success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.” Diseases also have an easier time taking hold, and of course starvation can kill off a lot of people as well. Though he did make some pretty good points, as long as humanity is well-fed, we’re a pretty nice lot of people. But I have this problem too; when my blood sugar just gets a little bit low, I start killing all of my neighbors — that’s not actually true. When you and your family’s lives are threatened by starvation there’s a lot of things that you will do for food, including go to war. However, what Mister Doom and Gloom didn’t predict was the frickin’ Industrial Revolution- which not only allowed the production of much more food with far fewer laborers, it was also the impetus for this.

Uh, yeah. What that there is, is uh, the population of the Earth busting through Malthus’s ceiling and then his atmosphere and then his ozone layer and then his mesosphere and then his – probably be pretty impressed by this. If you’re not impressed yet, ah, just keep staring at it. I can wait. I got all day. It took humanity fifty thousand years to go from zero to one billion people, and then to get from one billion to seven billion, about two hundred. So wow, Industrial Revolution, thank you for allowing us to grow more food using machines, and for the fast and efficient transportation that it takes to move all that food around to the people who needed it, and thanks for the medical advances too, which help us understand things like the importance of soap and the way that diseases worked, and as a result, humans now live about four decades longer than the average guy in the eighteenth century.

Yeah! Industrial Revolution! So Malthus might have been right about how frickin’ stupid it was to be a human if the Industrial Revolution had not happened. So now, the world’s population is growing at about 1.1 percent per year, which is a tiny bit better than the 1.3 percent per year that got us here. If this current rate continues by 2050, we should have about 9.3 billion people on the planet. So the question is: at what point are these numbers going to outstrip our ability to feed all of the people on the planet? It turns out actually that the question isn’t how many people can the Earth accommodate, it’s more like: how many rich people can the Earth accommodate? Because people in general, they tend to demand stuff for their survival like uh, oxygen, water, and food. But rich people, we have different expectations. We, for example, in America have a lot of agricultural crops, and we have to use a lot of fresh water to water those agricultural crops.

Do you want to take a guess at the number one irrigated crop in the United States of America? Unless you’ve heard this statistic before, you were wrong! It’s grass! It takes more water to create lawns than it does to create all of the corn in America. We’re using it like crazy; though it is a pretty scarce resource, we can use less than one percent of the water on our planet. Most of it is salt water that we cannot use to drink or irrigate crops, and 70 percent of our freshwater is frozen in glaciers. So clean freshwater, non-negotiable and scarce. So what’s next? Ah, food. The world’s combined food output could feed around 11 billion people, and yet, there are 1 billion people who need food. So yeah that’s one of the most pathetic and infuriating things about our planet. So if there’s enough food for 11 billion people, and there’s 7 billion people and a billion of them are hungry, who is eating all of our food? Food, is eating all that food.

A huge amount of the food that we grow in America gets uh, in turn eaten by livestock. It’s so hard to say the truth, which is that, but, rich people can do what they want. Now when I say ‘rich’ it’s important to note that I’m not talking about like, uh, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent rich. I’m talking about if you have running water, electricity that comes into your home, a computer that you can watch youtube videos on, and regularly can afford to eat meat – you are a rich person on the earth, and you, you know sometimes we just have to come to terms with the fact that we – even those of us who don’t have it great in America – have it better off than a whole lot of other people. There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t get that. If you can have a hot shower, that’s like the peak of luxury to me. So assuming that you are a first worlder, that you live in a developed country in Europe, or you live in America or Japan, you consume on average as much stuff as 32 Kenyans.

And now the number of well-off people in the world is starting to increase dramatically and quickly, and this is what we’ve always wanted for the world. So now we have all these moderately well-off people walking around all over the planet, and it’s great! Except that they require more. In the meantime though, a huge percentage of all of the babies that we’re talking about being born right now aren’t being born to these rich people in the developed world. They’re being born in developing nations, and so the population isn’t just growing. It’s growing in this weird, sort of scary, lopsided way. Fact is, people in a lot of developed countries have kinda stopped having babies. Like Japan for example, everybody’s like ‘Japan what are you doing? Why aren’t you having any babies??’ and Japan’s like ‘Uhh don’t know kinda don’t feel like it.’ So on average, Japanese people are having about one baby per household. They’re not even replacing themselves, compared to two or three babies in America or like, five or six in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

So developing nations are having a baby boom, and that’s what happens when you get, you know, vaccines and antibiotics and safe water and better sanitation. You get fewer babies dying, and we are all completely and totally in favor of fewer babies dying, I hope. But it also means that there are going to be a lot of new Sub-Saharan Africans in the next 50 years or so, and that is where a lot of the 1 billion currently hungry people are already living. So while those of us in the developed world are not having any babies at all and yet consuming enough food for like, four truckloads of babies, the governments in developing countries are struggling with where to put all of these new people and how to feed them all. And you also get what is known as a ‘youth bulge’. A lot of developing nations are currently seeing a huge explosion in people between the ages of 15 and like 29. And all of those youth are out there, looking for the same jobs, all at the same time, feeling generally hormonal as youth do, and being pretty unhappy with their lot in life. Some social scientists conjecture that youth bulges like this have been responsible for nearly every insurrection in history, from the English revolution in 1640 to the more recent Arab Spring.

And neither of those things were bad things, but we should be aware that there may be more of it coming. And another thing that Reverend Malthus never thought of is: what happens when humanity gets together and takes over the whole frickin’ world? Seriously, because it turns out that there are actually supposed to be some other things living on this planet with us. Through our desire for more space and more stuff, we’re putting pressure on pretty much every habitat on earth. So much so that worldwide, 52 species of mammal, amphibian and bird move one category closer to extinction every single year. You know, this world is pretty big, but there’s only so much room and it turns out that Bengal tigers aren’t particularly well-suited to high rise living. So the more there are of us, the fewer of literally everything else there is, except for like, things that we enjoy eating, and petting – dogs and cats as well; their populations continue to grow. So happy birthday new people, welcome to Earth. I’ll try not to screw it up too much for you. If you’re interested in more things to do with global population, please check out the description below.

There will be links in there for our source materials. You can also ask us questions and leave ideas for future episodes of SciShow in the comments and get in touch with us on Facebook and Twitter as well. Goodbye..