Culture | Don’t let a good crisis go to waste

Peter Victor’s vision for a more sane economy

Could the current economic crisis also represent a rare opportunity? Peter Victor thinks so. He is an Environmental Studies professor at York University, and was at McGill last week to discuss his new book, Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not by Disaster. We spoke following his talk.

Victor believes that unless we begin to move away from the ever-increasing production and consumption of energy and materials as the modus operandi of our economic system, we risk serious social and ecological crisis. Victor sees a precious opportunity during the current economic downturn to redesign our economic system in more environmentally and socially desirable ways. And the best way to do this is to fundamentally question the wisdom of the prevailing economic policy objective of virtually every country on earth: economic growth.

As it is currently practiced in industrialized countries, economic growth is an unquestioned public policy mantra, and among the discipline’s most holy grails: the more economic growth we can produce, the better for our society. But according to Victor, growth has largely failed as a public policy objective in eradicating poverty, alleviating environmental destruction, and narrowing income disparities. In some cases, it could be argued that growth has exacerbated these problems. “The promises of economic growth, have not been kept,” Victor says. “In many ways, poverty has gotten worse in Canada over the last 30 years, income distribution has become more unequal, [and] the generation of greenhouse gases and nuclear waste have increased. These are all related to growth.”

To be sure, he admits that growth has helped produce enormous wealth in some countries and could yet bring benefits to developing economies. But the problems associated with continued growth now seem to be overwhelming the benefits. “If a country is very poor, getting richer [through economic growth] can really make people better off, but that connection doesn’t stay that way forever. You can reach a point where you are rich enough that getting richer doesn’t solve your problems.”

According to Victor, even if we were to try to sustain economic growth indefinitely, it is no longer a viable option for us from an environmental standpoint. “There comes a time when a population should say ‘we’ve got enough’ and [equitable] distribution becomes more of an issue. When you have an economy that is operating at about $1.5-trillion dollars – as the Canadian economy now is, that’s a lot to work with for 33 million people. We don’t lack the resources.”

Victor says the process of transforming our economy will not happen overnight, nor should it, but it is high time we acknowledged that the current approach is not working, and start considering alternatives. “[The current economic situation] provides a welcome opportunity to re-direct the economy, and it makes sense to act on it,” he notes.

Whether we will act is another matter entirely, and Victor is not sure the political will exists when most leaders seem preoccupied with “growing” our way out of the current recession. But he remains optimistic. “There are lots of emerging movements – the hundred mile diet, the voluntary simplicity movement, and so on – all of these are indications that people want to make changes in their own lives…. Politically, I think it’s still an open question. How do we address the economic problem at the same time as dealing with the environment. That would be leadership.”