Contemplating life without growth

Posted on December 8, 2008 in Debates, Governance Debates, Social Security Debates – Opinion – Contemplating life without growth
December 08, 2008. Carol Goar

Only once in modern history, as far as economist Peter Victor knows, has a financial crisis led to a reordering of society’s priorities and institutions. The Great Depression was like no other downturn.

But as this recession deepens, the York University professor is detecting a new openness to ideas that challenge mainstream thinking.

Victor, 62, has just published a book entitled Managing Without Growth – Slower by Design, not Disaster. It invites readers to contemplate a future in which they don’t work longer, spend more and accumulate more to keep the economy hurtling along.

Since his book’s release on Nov. 18, Victor has been inundated with requests to speak, invitations to participate in panel discussions and opportunities to appear at academic forums. “It’s quite encouraging. People come up to me at these events and say: ‘I’ve been thinking these sorts of things for a long time.’ ”

He never anticipated, when he started writing in 2006 that his book would come out during the worst market meltdown in 79 years. He never imagined that world leaders would be questioning some of the long-standing tenets of capitalism.

“It’s hard to say which way it will go,” Victor mused in an interview. “People are willing to consider new possibilities. The danger is that they’ll focus exclusively on the financial crisis and ignore the deeper crisis.”

The deeper crisis, in his view, is that the quest for rapid growth, which fuels Western economies, is on a collision course with the Earth’s biophysical limits. “If the financial system breaks down, we’ll suffer for a while, but we’ll get through it. If we succeed in destabilizing the climate, we may not be able to get through it.”

Victor, who teaches at York’s school of environmental studies, calls himself an ecological economist. He grew up in postwar England, earned his undergraduate economics degree at the University of Birmingham, then moved to Canada to continue his studies. He has an MA and a PhD from the University of British Columbia.

He is not a tree-hugger or an anti-car zealot. In fact, he doesn’t live much differently than his neighbours in Bloor West Village. But unlike most of them, he rejects the proposition that economic growth is essential to progress.

He began the book as an academic inquiry. His former thesis adviser, Gideon Rosenbluth, posed an intriguing question: What would happen if Canada deliberately slowed its growth rate to zero between 2010 and 2035. Would there be enough jobs? Would poverty go up? Would greenhouse gas emissions fall? Would governments be able to finance their operations?

Victor used the most sophisticated econometric tools available. (The book is loaded with charts, graphs and equations.) He tested numerous scenarios and methods of applying the brakes.

Not surprisingly, he concluded that the question had no single answer. It depended on a variety of factors ranging from population growth to tax policy.

But there were ways to achieve full employment, reduce poverty, cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep government finances in good shape without economic growth.

People would have to live differently – work less, buy less and pollute less. Values would have to change. The economy would have to fit within the biosphere.

Victor admits many readers will have trouble getting their heads around the idea of life without economic growth. It’s alien to everything they’ve been taught. “If I can at least get them to open their eyes to alternatives, I’ll think I’ve accomplished something.”

Victor’s daughter, Carmen, and her friend, Laura William, decided the book deserved a better launch than a low-key academic affair. So they organized it. They invited 450 guests to the Boiler House in the Distillery District.

Mayor David Miller spoke (he’s a neighbour). David Suzuki spoke (Victor is on the board of the David Suzuki Foundation). The place was so jammed that 150 people had to be turned away.

Something’s stirring. It’s not a groundswell. But a conversation is beginning about what recovery really means.

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