books growth

Book review: Managing without growth, by Peter Victor

If you are sceptical about the virtues of economic growth, some people will assume you just don’t know anything about economics. That’s going to be true in some cases, but there are of course plenty of serious and well-informed thinkers who question GDP growth as a policy objective in rich countries. Some of them are economists, and Peter Victor is one of them.

In Managing Without Growth, Peter Victor describes why growth needs to be left behind in wealthy countries, and how economies can be managed without it:

“The biophysical limits of the planet will prevent the kind of economic growth enjoyed by rich countries from being extended to all peoples of the world. Rich countries should make room for economic expansion in those countries where the need is greatest.”

Regular readers will note that this quote is basically identical to the central premise of this blog.

Managing Without Growth is a comprehensive look at GDP growth, starting with where the idea came from, what we want from it and whether or not it delivers. It assesses the real and the perceived limits to growth, both environmental and social. And having found growth wanting in developed countries, the later chapters of the book turns to how an economy could be run without it. This is its most significant contribution, as there are many critiques of growth, but fewer economists have really studied the practical side of postgrowth economics.

In particular, Peter Victor has designed economic models that can put ideas to the test, mainly using economic data from his native Canada. They show how various combinations of policies could bring economic growth onto a sustainable plateau – reducing carbon emissions while ensuring a high quality of life. It depends on a stable population, shorter work hours, and shifts in taxation from income to consumption, among other things. This is the second edition of the book, which is updated and includes some new modeling work done with Tim Jackson, who co-authors a chapter.

The most important message is that a sustainable postgrowth economy is not impossible. As the book’s tagline has it, it could be run “slower by design, not disaster.” All sorts of other questions follow however. For example, is it still capitalism? (Short answer: the definition of capitalism is flexible enough, but why does it matter what we call it if people and planet are flourishing?) If we’re looking for a stable population, what does this mean for immigration? What about international trade, or the deficit?

The book deals with these questions, and many more, in technical detail. As a reader with no formal training in economics, I did get lost a few times in the numbers, the modeling, or the discussions of pricing mechanisms and market information. It’s not a book for a mainstream audience. If you want something more introductory, try Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. There’s lots of crossover with my own The Economics of Arrival as well, and we cite Victor’s work extensively. But if you want to get into the nuts and bolts of postgrowth economics, then Managing Without Growth is the book for you.

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