Reimagining prosperity

Small island developing states face many challenges.  High on the list is economic growth and development.  For without growth livelihoods stagnate, deflating any hope of better times ahead.  What we seek – the whole point of economic development – is some level of prosperity.


But the notion of prosperity requires a closer analysis, because it can mean different things to different people.  Depending upon your socio-economic status, where you live, your cultural influences, each of these can influence your relationship with prosperity and what you strive for.  

Economic prosperity

Historically, developmental economists have linked prosperity with economic growth.  Specifically, increases in gross domestic product – the totality of goods and services produced – are equated with rising incomes.  Rising incomes, in turn, mean affluence, abundance, and, generally speaking, more “things.”

Prosperity, in this historical perspective, essentially boils down to material possessions – the more the better.  Your status improves as your possessions increase, which is fueled by rising incomes.

Tim Jackson, the British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, explains that “the conventional formula for achieving prosperity relies on the pursuit of economic growth.  Higher incomes will increase well-being and lead to prosperity for all, in this view.”

What are the consequences of limitless growth?

In his book Prosperity Without Growthand also in this TED talk, Tim Jackson discusses the consequences of unending growth for a planet with finite resources.  Aimed primarily at the developed western economies, Jackson highlights the need to reconcile “our aspirations for the good life with the constraints of a finite planet.”

We see, for example, that with a projected population of more than nine billion people by 2050, most of whom wish to emulate a western lifestyle, there simply aren’t enough resources to produce all the goods and services to which the world’s population aspires.

Almost all the natural resources we require to live a life of abundance and growing affluence – water, wood, oil, and other basic commodities – are in limited supply.  And, through overconsumption, result in harmful environmental effects that cannot be sustained.

Still, developing countries, and certainly the 40 percent of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day, have every right to expect improved living standards.  What might we do to lift our populations from poverty, while providing sustainable living standards for future generations?

How might we reimagine prosperity?

Prosperity cannot be decoupled from material well-being.  At the same time, for people to flourish, we must also consider physical and mental health; trust, security, and a sense of community; education and meaningful employment; as well as relationships and the chance to participate in the life of society.

It is this more holistic sense of prosperity that has resonance when considering the ability of populations to flourish in a sustainable way – while being mindful of the boundaries created by environmental and resource constraints.  The traditional sense of prosperity considers only the economic side of the equation.  Prosperity reimagined adds social and psychological well-being to the mix.  Tim Jackson summarizes this approach:

The challenge for society is to create the conditions in which these basic entitlements are possible.  This is likely to require a closer attention to the social, psychological and material conditions of living – for example, to people’s psychological well-being and to the resilience of communities – than is familiar in free-market societies.

Crucially, though, this doesn’t mean settling for a vision of prosperity based on curtailment and sacrifice.  Capabilities are inevitably bounded by material and social conditions.  Some ways of functioning may even be forestalled completely, particularly where they rely heavily on material throughput.  But social and psychological functionings are not in any case best served by materialism…. As social psychologist Tim Kasser has pointed out, this new vision of prosperity may serve us better than the narrow materialistic one that has ensnared us so far.

Prosperity in an island context

Countries throughout the world have embraced the free-market concept of prosperity described above, and for good reason – lifestyles have improved and wealth has increased at an unprecedented rate.  Today, however, we are bumping up against the carrying capacity of our physical world.  At the same time millions remain mired in poverty.

Islands, and island economies, provide a unique template to consider sustainable solutions to growth while preserving rich traditional cultures that, in many cases, may be more attuned to a reimagined holistic and community-based concept of prosperity.  Pacific-rim small island developing states, with their strong community traditions, have already begun to adapt such an approach.

Island communities may indeed flourish by, essentially, leap-frogging the traditional growth model – in much the same way developing countries have recently embraced wireless communication technologies without having to first develop a landline-based infrastructure.

This is an important conversation to have, without any absolute right or wrong approaches.  The fact that we are pushing the limits of the current economic growth model cannot be denied.  Increasingly, we are faced with environmental degradation and population constraints that, if ignored, will overwhelm our collective ability to effectively deal with them.

What are your thoughts?  What suggestions do you have to reimagine prosperity and sustainable development?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *