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The Progress Illusion Reclaiming Our Future from the Fairytale of Economics

By: Jon D Erickson(Author), Herman E Daly(Foreword By)
251 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Island Press
Part history of neoliberal economics, part manifesto, The Progress Illusion is an urgent plea for an economy that does not devour the planet.
The Progress Illusion
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  • The Progress Illusion ISBN: 9781642832525 Paperback Dec 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
Price: £26.00
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

We live under the illusion of progress: as long as GDP is going up and prices stay low, we accept poverty and pollution as unfortunate but inevitable byproducts of a successful economy. In fact, the infallibility of the free market and the necessity of endless growth are so ingrained in the public consciousness that they seem like scientific fact. Jon Erickson asks, why? With the planet in peril and humanity in crisis, how did we get duped into believing the fairytale of economics? And how can we get past the illusion to design an economy that is socially just and ecologically balanced?

In The Progress Illusion, Erickson charts the rise of the economic worldview and its infiltration into our daily lives as a theory of everything. Drawing on his own experience as a young economist inoculated in the 1980s era of "greed is good", Erickson shows how pseudoscience came to dominate economic thought. He pokes holes in the conventional wisdom of neo-classical economics, illustrating how flawed theories about financial decision-making and maximizing efficiency ignore human psychology and morality. Most importantly, he demonstrates how that thinking shaped our politics and determined the course of American public policy. The result has been a system that perpetually concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, while depleting the natural resources on which economies are based.

While the history of economics is dismal indeed, Erickson is part of a vigorous reform effort grounded in the realities of life on a finite planet. This new brand of economics is both gaining steam in academia and supporting social activism. The goal is people over profit, community over consumption, and resilience over recklessness. Erickson shows crafting a new economic story is the first step toward turning away from endless growth and towards enduring prosperity.


Foreword by Herman Daly
Preface: Promises of an Ecological Economics

Chapter 1. The Education of an Economist
Chapter 2. Ascension of the Queen
Chapter 3. Growing a Market Society
Chapter 4. Coming of Age in the Econocene
Chapter 5. A New Story
Chapter 6. A New Economics
Chapter 7. A New Economy

About the Author

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An accessible and enjoyable history of economics; an urgent manifesto
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 Mar 2024 Written for Paperback

    Do you know what warms the cockles of my heart? A neoclassically trained economist turning on his own education and discipline. That describes the career trajectory of economist Jon D. Erickson. The Progress Illusion is part history lesson of how neoliberal economics ended up on top, part manifesto for a different economy. For Erickson, the answers lie in the emerging discipline of ecological economics. Though there is much to like here, I did notice some curious omissions.

    Part of what makes The Progress Illusion an accessible and enjoyable book is that Erickson injects his personal story into it. Like so many young men in the 1980s, he had a singular goal: "Study economics, major in business, and make lots of money" (p. 1). Why the change of heart? The first chapter charts how several teachers made him question how economics was getting away with e.g. not including externalities such as pollution in the cost of products and services. Reading The Limits to Growth and the Brundtland report that coined the term sustainable development brought that identity crisis to a head: "Shit, now what? I could feel my teenage dreams of a career in high finance slip away" (p. 16). It was when he encountered Herman Daly's writing on steady-state economics that he converted to ecological economics, a discipline that explicitly acknowledges that our economy is part of, and dependent on, our planet's ecosystem. For Daly, one consequence of this was that "infinite economic growth on a finite planet was both physically impossible and morally wrong" (p. 113). Erickson, in turn, is no less outspoken: "I'm convinced that economics as currently taught and practiced throughout the world is a planetary path to ruin" (p. 25).

    The impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet? I am on board with that. So how did we get to the point that mainstream economics blithely ignores this? The next three chapters, roughly the first half of the book, chart the history of neoclassical economics. Whereas classical economists (Malthus and John Stuart Mill are mentioned) never fully abandoned the notion of moral constraints and social obligations, neoclassical economics did, clothing itself in the objective language of mathematics. Greed became good. This history lesson showed me three things. First, if you have no formal background in economics, it provides useful context to famous names you will have no doubt heard mentioned. Second, this history is US-centric but for once it is appropriate. The USA has an outsized influence on the global economy, institutes such as the IMF and the World Bank are headquartered in Washington, DC, and the US dollar has become the de facto global currency. Third, the big picture is that neoclassical economics ultimately triumphed, despite renegade economists repeatedly speaking out against it and despite repeated swings towards more progressive governance. How? Some important contributing factors are that it was drawn up by privileged men, "a wealthy elite has always liked this model—a *lot*" (p. 38), and more recently well-funded conservative and business-friendly think tanks have persistently lobbied in its favour. With it have come all the harms that are blindingly obvious to many.

    The next three chapters lay out Erickson's proposal to, as the book's subtitle says, reclaim our future. First, we need a new narrative, different from the (ultimately) biblical narrative that encourages us to take ownership of natural resource, go forth, and multiply with abandon. For many, that new narrative is green growth, which he calls out for the farcical solution it is, given that it refuses to break with the core economic logic of perpetual growth. Growth cannot solve the problems created by growth. Second, we thus need a new economics. For this, he leans heavily on E.O. Wilson's idea of consilience, the notion that knowledge in different disciplines should converge. The problem with neoclassical economics is that it ignores other fields. It pretends that we can separate the economy from material and energy flows, ignoring the natural sciences, and it pretends that we are rational actors who only act out of self-interest, ignoring the social sciences. Third, we need a new economy. Whereas the previous chapters occasionally suffer from generic statements along the lines of "change is necessary", leaving you with the "how" questions, this chapter gives more pragmatic answers. Examples include tax reform, breaking up monopolies, investing in public goods, employee rather than shareholder-owned companies, and democratic stakeholder projects such as cooperatives. For his part, Erickson focuses on educational reform. Just how necessary this is was highlighted in the article How Higher Education Imperils the Future that he co-authored: "an unspoken truth [is] that while the [natural] sciences [are] meticulously documenting environmental destruction, the social sciences and humanities [are] propping up the very systems of economics, law, governance, and philosophy that promote a planetary suicide pact" (pp. 192–193).

    I admit that I found little in this book to disagree with. In particular, I was taken with his idea that growth should be seen as the initial stage of a maturing economy, as a temporary phase towards stability, which is a universal characteristic of growth in the natural world. That said, I was surprised that, despite referencing work by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, he studiously avoids any mention of degrowth. Fine, you may disagree with it, but then tell us why! Though I still have to fully engage with degrowth scholarship, I have noticed that many progressively-minded people *really* dislike the term degrowth as it is does not make for a compelling story. This attitude, to me, completely misses the point: there is no sugarcoating the problem that, as Erickson admits himself, "some must do without excess so that others can simply get by" (p. 121). So, degrowth it is. Suck it up. Even degrowth advocates argue it will be a temporary transition to a right-sized, steady-state economy.

    The history lesson and introduction to ecological economics are easily the book's strongest suite. Seeing I am already fully on board with Erickson's ideas, perhaps I am not its target audience though. Like many books diagnosing social ills, The Progress Illusion suffers somewhat where proposing solutions is concerned. That said, it does better than many others by recognizing that, while we already know what form of economics does not work, figuring out what does will require radical pragmatism: "a willingness to try whatever works, guided by an experimental mindset and commitment to empiricism and measuring results" (pp. 173–174). That call is very welcome indeed.
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Jon D. Erickson is the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at the University of Vermont, a faculty member of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment. His previous co-authored and edited books include Sustainable Wellbeing Futures, The Great Experiment in Conservation, Ecological Economics of Sustainable Watershed Management, Frontiers in Ecological Economic Theory and Application, and Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning.

By: Jon D Erickson(Author), Herman E Daly(Foreword By)
251 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Island Press
Part history of neoliberal economics, part manifesto, The Progress Illusion is an urgent plea for an economy that does not devour the planet.
Media reviews

"Erickson's cri de coeur is bracing and coherent. Progressives should take heed."
Publishers Weekly

"Erickson's powerful new book shows how flawed economic thinking has shaped not only our economy but also our society and politics. The story is both deeply disturbing and hopeful, as Erickson describes an emerging brand of economics that shifts focus from GDP to well-being. Highly recommended."
– James Gustave Speth, former Dean, Yale School of the Environment; author of America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy

"Interweaving the history of economic thought with stories of his personal scholarly journey, Jon Erickson walks us through the old ways of economic thinking that led us here and reveals a potential path forward. This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about our collective future, and the intellectual tools we need to build a brighter one."
– Laura Schmidt Olabisi, Associate Professor, Department of Community and Sustainability, Michigan State University; President, United States Society for Ecological Economics

"A searing, authoritative, and well-documented indictment of an economics that advocates economic growth as the solution for every problem created by economic growth. If you know a young person contemplating a career in economics, you owe it to them to save their soul by giving them a copy of this book."
– David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth

"Given that the Arctic has mostly melted, it seems axiomatic that our planet's economic system is not working very well. But Jon Erickson explains – in simple and powerful terms – just why that is, and just what would need to change if we were to actually build a world that worked much better. It's a real gift to all of us!"
– Bill McKibben, author of The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon

"In accessible language filled with stories, ecological economist Jon Erickson shows how growth-driven economies, worsening inequities, and greenhouse gas emissions are interconnected, and thus it is possible to envision alternate paths forward which address all three."
–Patricia (Ellie) Perkins, Professor, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University and editor of The Routledge Handbook of Feminist Economics

"This book is a must-read for those who wish to understand how a promising discipline strayed inexorably from a more humane path to one that extols unbridled materialism, inequity, and environmental destruction. Economics can be rescued from its self-destructive path by having more courageous, assertive, and iconoclastic scholars like Erickson."
– Steve Onyeiwu, Andrew Wells Robertson Professor of Economics, Allegheny College and author of Emerging Issues in Contemporary African Economies

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