This book deserves a wider readership than Thomas Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded". It's unlikely to get it for a couple of reasons that go beyond Friedman's celebrity status, which I'll touch on below. But instead of peddling utopian fantasies for market capitalists, Peter Victor (PV) raises timely questions about whether developed countries ought to continue economic growth into the indefinite future.
PV points out that growth in GDP hasn't brought some of the principal benefits claimed for it, such as full employment and environmental improvements. Indeed, the largest chunk of his critique is to show how GDP growth isn't sustainable from an enivronmental point of view. He also details how growth hasn't helped the poorest citizens in Canada, and has exacerbated inequality there. By means of scenario-based computer modeling, he shows how Canada might achieve a zero GDP per capita growth rate while reducing poverty, unemployment and debt/GDP. PV advocates a "steady state economy," an idea first (or most prominently) proposed by US economist Herman Daly. The book doesn't explore the idea of actually reducing GDP per capita, a notion called "de-growth" that is far more talked about in France, Italy and even Germany (where it's known as décroissance, decrescita and Schrumpfung, respectively) than in the Anglophone world. While I was disappointed by this restraint, I was pleased to see PV mention in several places the importance of employing more people for shorter working hours, an idea often discussed in Europe.
This is one of the best books of its type in English, but an accumulation of small points led me to give it less than five stars. One is its adherence to the steady-state view. This model assumes not only that we can know just the right amount of resources to extract, and the right amount to renew, but that we will actually do all those things. That's incredibly difficult to achieve in practice. Our understanding of natural processes is not so advanced that we can be confident of getting this right. For example, we're still figuring out the connections among marine microbes, the carbon cycle and climate, such as whether marine bacteria are a CO2 sink or a CO2 source (see D. Kircher, ed., "Microbial Ecology of the Oceans", 2nd ed. (2008).)
Another reason is that the book doesn't quite live up to the ideals announced in its Prologue. PV says there that his point is not "that we should adopt zero growth as an alternative, over[-]arching policy objective [, but rather] that we should not bother with growth as a policy objective at all" (@2). But GDP is an input in most of the linear equations equations determining consumption, employment, exports, etc. in the computer model PV features later in the book (see @185-189). So if you were using the model to explore policy options, it would be hard to say that you were ignoring GDP when formulating policy. I wrote to PV about this, and he explained that he "wanted to model growth in terms of changes in GDP because this is the way that it is conventionally measured," and so he thought it might be more convincing to his intended audience. To be more consistent with the Prologue, I'd have preferred to see the model's inputs be entirely independent of GDP, with GDP being computed ex post from the model's outputs.
Milder disappointments: PV includes surprisingly cursory discussion of the purported "environmental Kuznets curve", which supposedly shows that the cure for most types of pollution is more growth rather than less (@164-165). And the late Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, an economics professor at Harvard and Vanderbilt who had been Herman Daly's mentor, isn't mentioned at all (PV told me it was unintentional, and that he didn't have enough room in the bibliography). NG-R was among the first to point out analytically the fundamental flaws in conventional economics' treatment of the environment, and to advocate a move away from pro-growth policies. In Europe he's claimed as one of intellectual founders of the décroissance movement -- but he was skeptical about Daly's steady-state model. One hopes that Daly's North American followers won't airbrush him out of the photo, so to speak. (I don't want to suggest anything sinister about this omission, however; it's a very minor point. And I hasten to add that PV was very gracious and forthcoming in responding to all of my questions.)
While PV's writing style is far from Friedman's, it's more readable than usual for books directed at economists and policy-makers; for an academic style, it's relatively fluid. Unfortunately, though, the book has been published in a series called "Advances in Ecological Economics". "Ecological economics" is a code-word for the style of economics practiced, in the main, by Daly and his supporters, who are a minority among economists. It's different from "environmental economics," whose practitioners are more numerous and whose thinking is more conventional. So the series title may be a good excuse for lots of people, especially those who most need to read this book, to ignore it instead. I hope this review encourages you to do just the opposite.