PETER VICTOR is an economist who has been asking a heretical question: Can the Earth support endless growth?
Traditionally, economists have argued that the answer is “yes.” In the 1960s when Victor was earning his various degrees, a steady rise in gross domestic product (GDP)—the combined value of our paid work and the things we produce—was seen as crucial for raising living standards and keeping the masses out of poverty. We grow or we languish: This assumption has become so central to our economic identity that it underpins almost every financial move our leaders make. It is to economics what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is to physics.
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But Victor—now a professor at York University in Toronto—felt something tugging him in the opposite direction. Ecologists were beginning to learn that Earth does have limits. Pump enough pollution into a lake and you can ruin it forever; chop down enough forest and it might never grow back. By the early ’00s, the frailties of the planet were becoming even more evident—and unsettling—as greenhouse gases accumulated and chunks of Greenland’s glaciers began breaking off into the sea. “We’ve had 125,000 generations of humans, but it’s only been the last eight that have had growth,” Victor told me. “So what’s considered normal? I think we live in very abnormal times. And the signs are showing up everywhere that the burden we’re placing on the natural environment can’t be borne.”
In essence, endless growth puts us on the horns of a seemingly intractable dilemma. Without it, we spiral into poverty. With it, we deplete the planet. Either way, we lose.
Unless, of course, there’s a third way. Could we have a healthy economy that doesn’t grow? Could we stave off ecological collapse by reining in the world economy? Could we do it without starving?