A Canopy of Hope

By Tim Jackson

The slopes of Mount Kenya, in the district of Nyeri in Kenya, were once scattered with hundreds of wild fig trees called mugumos in the local (Kikuyu) language. Their tough bark was the colour of elephant skin. Their gnarled roots drilled deep channels through the rocky earth to drink thirstily from the groundwater below. The trees bore a small round fruit which ripened in the sun to a warm orange colour. And their branches were alive with the song of the tinkerbirds and turacos who feasted there.

Wherever they grew, the mugumo trees threw a 60-foot canopy across lush, fertile undergrowth. Somewhere, close by, you would always find a babbling stream, set free by the roots from the groundwater below, to offer a source of clean safe drinking water for the families who lived in the region.

One of those was the family of the late Wangari Maathai, scientist, activist, politician, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize – and founder of the Green Belt Movement which has since planted tens of thousands of trees across Africa. In her memoirs, Maathai described being sent to collect water and firewood from the slopes. Her mother would always remind her not to take wood from the tree itself or even from the undergrowth around it. ‘Why not?’ the young Wangari would ask. ‘Because that’s a tree of Ngai [the Kikuyu name for God],’ she was told. ‘We don’t use it. We don’t cut it. We don’t burn it.’

At the age of 20, Maathai left the region as part of the ‘Kennedy airlift’ to study science in the US before taking her PhD in Nairobi.  It was almost a decade before she revisited the land of her birth on the slopes of Mount Kenya. What she found there shocked and saddened her. The new owner of the land had cut the tree down to grow tea. The lush undergrowth had disappeared. The soil was arid. The stream that bubbled up from the earth where the roots had broken through the rock had disappeared.

Over and again, across Kenya, Wangari found the same story repeated. With the memory of childhood, she mourned its loss. With the eyes of a scientist, she grasped its devastating logic. Without the fig tree, there was no easy access to the groundwater. Without its shade, the undergrowth was lost. Without its roots, the soil became unstable. Landslides devastated the mountainous slopes. The drinking water dried up. The birds fell silent. The land and its people suffered the consequences. Her mother’s simple folklore, swept away by the advance of Western capitalism, had coded for a deep protection of the fragile ecosystem, the basis for a resilience that has now gone.

Maathai’s is just one of the many stories that have brought inspiration to me (and to countless others, of course) in the intervening decades. So it was to her and to others that I turned, when I sat down to write Post Growth – life after capitalism, which has just been published by Polity.

How should we live?

The book itself is an intellectual journey with one simple question at its heart. How should we live? It recognises that our conventional answer to this perennial question no longer works. Capitalism is broken. The relentless pursuit of more has delivered climate catastrophe, social inequality and financial instability – and left us ill-prepared for life in a global pandemic. Its answers draw, inevitably, on the decade or so of lessons learned since the publication of an earlier book Prosperity without Growth, which, by a quirk of fate, first appeared as a government report twelve years to the day before Post Growth did.

Aside from that strange coincidence, and the obvious parallel focus on the dilemmas of growth, the two books are very different from one another. Post Growth wasn’t written for policy makers. It isn’t trying to persuade government or convince them ‘what to do on Monday’. It doesn’t have much in the way of graphs and figures, numbers and statistics. And I doubt very much that the current UK Prime Minister is going to wish it had never been written, as Gordon Brown did when the earlier report was published.

I guess it was written for all the people that Prosperity without Growth wasn’t written for – but perhaps should have been. The ones who, in a dramatic turn of events in the days that followed the launch of that earlier work, began to download the report in their tens of thousands. The ones who, for more than a decade, went on inviting me to banks and boardrooms, to village halls and community centres, to theatres and libraries because they were keen to have exactly the discussion that the governments of the day resolutely didn’t want to have. What can prosperity possibly mean on a finite planet?

A manifesto for system change

Post Growth is as much a prequel as it is a sequel to Prosperity without Growth. It dares to imagine a world beyond capitalism – a place where relationship and meaning take precedence over profit and power. It is in some sense a manifesto for system change. But it’s also an invitation to rekindle a deeper conversation about the nature of the human condition. And there’s no doubt in my mind: that task is as timely now as it’s ever been.

Even as I was sitting down to write in the early days of last year, a young Chinese doctor named Li Wenliang had alerted the world to a new, unfamiliar and surprisingly virulent strain of coronavirus that had broken out in an area of Wuhan city. He had been roundly reprimanded for his pains. Within a few weeks he would be dead: a heroic statistic on the alarmingly exponential curve of an escalating pandemic. Li would be the first of many, unnecessary and utterly preventable deaths, as frontline workers lost their lives caring for others.

Within weeks, the global economy would be plunged into an existential crisis. Denial would turn to confusion. Confusion would turn to expediency. Expediency would overturn everything. Normalcy would evaporate more or less overnight. Businesses, homes, communities, whole countries went into lockdown. Even the preoccupation with growth would diminish momentarily in the urgency to protect people’s lives. Alongside an uncomfortable reminder of what matters most in life, we were being given a history lesson in what economics looks like when growth disappears completely. And one thing became clear very rapidly: it looks nothing like anything the modern world has seen before.

Eventually we will find a better terminology to describe this new terrain. The language of postgrowth situates itself a little too close to the object of its scrutiny. But for today it is still a necessary thought-world. Even in the midst of change, we remain obsessed with growth. Post Growth is a way of thinking about what might happen when that obsession is over. It invites us to explore new frontiers for social progress. It points us in the direction of an uncharted terrain, an unexplored territory in which plenty isn’t measured in dollars and fulfilment isn’t driven by the relentless accumulation of material wealth.

Life after Capitalism had been at first a tentative, almost speculative subtitle for the book. An invitation to the reader to imagine our prevailing economic paradigm as a temporary thing; a barely surviving remnant of old ways of being; not as the immovable immutable truth it presumes itself to be. But in the early months of writing, capitalism was taken apart, piece by piece, in an increasingly astonishing effort to save lives and rescue normalcy. During the year 2020, the world witnessed the most extraordinary experiment in non-capitalism that we could possibly imagine. We now know that such a thing is not only possible. It’s essential under certain circumstances. The goal of Post Growth is to articulate the opportunities that await us in this vaguely glimpsed hinterland.

From the slopes of Mount Kenya to the University of Kansas. From the horror of Nazi Germany to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. From the ancient wisdom of the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, to the civil disobedience of the Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, I wanted to draw together a coherent narrative for our time. A different story from the one we have consigned ourselves to. A canopy of hope – much like the one provided by the mugumo trees where Wangari Maathai was born. A source of inspiration, drawing on deep currents that still run deep beneath the deceptive surface of capitalism. A clear spring to sustain our thirst for renewal.

Since its publication, I’ve become convinced that the task I began in Post Growth – much like the one I started in Prosperity without Growth – is just the first step in a continuing journey. Its job right now is to help us reflect honestly on the situation we find ourselves in. Its deeper task is to lift our eyes from the ground of a polluted economics and glimpse a new way of seeing what human progress might mean. Soon it will not be needed. But its power for today is to free our lips from the mantra of yesterday and allow us to articulate a better tomorrow.

Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey in the UK and Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable ProsperityPost Growth – life after capitalism is published by Polity Books (2021).

Image: Sergey Yeliseev under a creative commons licence on flickr