System Change: A Low or No Growth Scenario

Posted on December 7, 2011


We can modify our daily habits, drive less, and eat organic, but what do we really need to do to achieve a more sustainable society?

Is it possible to continue within this “business-as-usual” paradigm and make any significant positive changes in order to save the planet?

Ecological Economist Peter Victor argues for a greater system change.  He does so through the “Low or No Growth” scenario, which he applies to the Canadian context in the attached video.  This video is part of the Council of Canadians’ “System Change not Climate Change” project, launched in September 2011, which is part of the global movement for climate justice.  This movement fights for a new paradigm, outside the dominant economic model.  Please have a look!  The presentation takes about 15 minutes, which could be too long.  In which case, I have summarized some of the main points below.

The economic system (comprised of goods and services, land, labour and capital, which is passed between firms and households) is at the centre of the earths system and can no longer be treated as separate, as it is completely affected by and interconnected with the economic system.  Victor argues that this low or no growth model could only apply to highly developed or rich countries.  In order for this to succeed, the following must occur:

  • New meanings and measures of success
  • Fewer status goals
  • Limits on materials, energy, wastes and land use
  • Stable population and labour force
  • Carbon price – more informative prices
  • More efficient capital stock
  • Shorter work year
  • More generous anti-poverty programs
  • Education for life not just work

Can we as individuals adapt?  We are highly adaptable beings, so most likely, as many of these concepts are in line with many people’s core values, and these changes could heighten our quality of life.  Can our major institutions adapt – moving away from this model of infinite economic growth?  If individuals put enough pressure on them, it is very likely that they can.  If movements like Occupy Wall Street continue, if they gain momentum, spread awareness, and change the conversation about our accepted system, then why not?

Peter Victor is the author of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster.  This book “challenges the priority that rich countries continue to give to economic growth as an over-arching objective of economic policy.  The challenge is based on a critical analysis of the literature on environmental and resource limits to growth, on the disconnect between higher incomes and happiness, and on the failure of economic growth to meet other key economic, social and environmental policy objectives” (  In his book, Victor combines a systems approach with more conventional economic analysis.

It has only been since World War II that economic growth has been the dominant economic policy objective.  But why do we not question why it remains this way today?  Victor argues that “rich countries should turn away from economic growth as the primary policy objective and pursue more specific objectives that enhance well-being” (

This idea of infinite economic growth worldwide is completely unrealistic due to environmental and resource constraints.  Also, this economic growth model has not brought full employment, eliminated poverty or reduced the burden of the economy on the environment.  So ask yourself, why don’t we change it?

Do you agree with the concept of a low-growth or steady state economy as a system change to strive for?  What are the major challenges to this shift?  Your thoughts, criticisms and comments are more than welcome!

 – K –

For more information:

Peter Victor –

System Change not Climate Change –

For further reading, check out this article in the news recently:

Richard Heinberg, The Guardian (2011.11.30). Life after the end of economic growth

Or for a more in-depth perspective, have a look at some of the work of Herman Daly (the grandfather of ecological economics) on Steady State Economies.  Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend (1993) Valuing the earth: economics, ecology, ethics (ISBN 0-262-54068-1) provides a concise introduction to some of the main ideas:  http://www.carp-