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The pitfalls of an economy based on endless consumption

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Leslie Campbell

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April 25, 2020

YESTERDAY, NEW FEDERAL-PROVINCIAL FUNDING was announced that will provide rent relief for small businesses and non-profits. This is excellent news.

And today, the BC government reports it has secured 324 hotel rooms for Victoria homeless people (and 686 for Vancouver’s). Another positive move.

Later in the day, I get the usual emailed news release from the provincial government. It always begins the same way, just with new numbers: “Today, we are announcing 95 new cases, for a total of 1,948 cases in British Columbia.”

Ninety-five is a big daily jump, for BC, one that is partly explained by outbreaks in two poultry processing plants on the mainland, 53 cases in all as of today.

Given such numbers and the fact that the new coronavirus is thought to have originated in a meat market, I wonder if more people will shun meat? 

At times like this I feel relieved to have a vegetarian diet, though I know fresh produce can spread disease as well. Global industrial agriculture seems to demand conditions that make contamination a definite risk: low-paid people working in close quarters and often co-habiting with others in close quarters. 

I feel for the farmers all over Canada complaining about the border restrictions, which are making it difficult to get skilled farmhands from Mexico or elsewhere. But it is an odd situation. We cannot get enough Canadians to do the work because the wages are so low for long hours of physically demanding work. If the wages were higher, the cost of food would rise. Our desire for cheap food is a large part of the problem.

In the Western world and beyond, our economies have relied on turning us all into good consumers. We want so much and purchase so much non-essential goods and services (including exotic vacations), our food budget has to be kept in check so we can afford all that other stuff.

I do fear it will all collapse in a fitful, painful way, something like this pandemic. Relying on endless economic, consumption-based growth to keep us afloat cannot work in the long-run, can it? Certainly not without wrecking the planetary systems we depend on, from pollination to the very atmosphere we breathe.

On an individual level, we will have to make do with less. I doubt we’ll be any less happy as long as we still have the basics: a comfortable home, decent food, access to good education and health care.

But again, our economy, our governments, our endless shops, cafes and services, all depend on us being big consumers of non-essentials.

Airline travel, for instance is a big non-essential (in most cases), one that costs a great deal both in consumer dollars and impact to the environment. Despite growing awareness of the climate crisis in recent years, air travel has only increased and was projected to continue in that direction. The coronavirus crisis has brought it to a virtual halt, with airlines crying for bailouts. Yet it has become evident that we can manage quite well without most of those flights, whether for business or pleasure. The great speed with which the virus was transported around the globe during January and February should, alone, be adequate evidence of the tremendous damage that air travel can wreak on the planet and its inhabitants.

I am hoping that latter realization helps on the climate crisis front. As the Suzuki Foundation notes, “If left unchecked, [carbon emissions from the airline industry] could consume a full quarter of the available carbon budget for limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C.” Emissions from flights stay in the atmosphere, for centuries. 

Unfortunately, international aviation is not covered under the Paris Agreement and the industry enjoys tax-free jet fuel on international flights, giving rise to absurdly low prices that obviously do not reflect the true costs of flying. (I have not flown for 16 years.) The federal government should not bail out the airline companies.


Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of FOCUS. She welcomes your comments below or through the “Contact Us” button.

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