January 5, 2020
The biodiversity and climate crises are a reflection of our culture’s emphasis on economic growth.
WHILE I WON'T BE ALIVE when the worst effects of the climate and biodiversity crises play out, children born today will be; and I think we owe it to them to be clear-eyed and fierce in our efforts to leave them a healthy planet. This edition of Focus, our entry into a pivotal new year and decade, provides thought-provoking reporting and analysis about the challenges of growth in the region, and what we are and are not doing to maintain the natural world on which we depend.
Like Focus’ writers, Greta Thunberg is a refreshing witness to our current situation because she doesn’t skirt around the truth. At last September’s UN Climate Action Summit, she famously told world leaders, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
The dark side of planet Earth (Photo by NASA)
It seems apparent that “business as usual”—especially eternal economic growth—is a recipe for the end of much that we cherish on this planet. Many species are going extinct with predictions of more to come as climate change wreaks its havoc. Our own species may have difficulty feeding itself, and many parts of the Earth will simply become too hot and dry for habitation. As Stephen Hume writes in this edition, sea level rise and flooding will progressively render coastal areas unliveable. Climate refugees are already searching for new homes and will grow in numbers, challenging the rest of us to make them welcome.
As disasters unfold, however, our GDP (Gross Domestic Product), as a measure of economic activity, will go up. This shows the inadequacy of the GDP as a yardstick of well-being or progress, and certainly of sustainability. Even the economist who developed it in 1934 warned it couldn’t be considered an indicator of well-being. Through the decades, its ups and downs have been reliably in synch with ecological destruction. It has always been easy to notice that rising GDP or economic growth comes with noise, waste and pollution, and that it is perfectly compatible with worsening poverty. But the reality that economic growth also ripped up the Earth and its ecosystems—and warmed the atmosphere—was somewhat hidden behind the scenes. Science and the environmental movement have removed our blinders. We now know (or should) that infinite growth on a finite planet is beyond unsustainable, it’s disastrously destructive.
Many advocate replacing the GDP with other yardsticks as a truer reflection of the well-being of a population—from Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness, to University of Waterloo’s Canadian Index of Wellness. The Green New Deal seems to have a more holistic approach, as does the “triple bottom line.” And there’s a growing chorus in support of a “steady state economy” or “degrowth.” Proponents include the likes of E.O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and David Suzuki.
According to the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, “In a steady state economy, people consume enough to meet their needs and lead meaningful, joyful lives without undermining the life-support systems of the planet. They choose to consume energy and materials responsibly, conserving, economizing, and recycling where appropriate…Personal and societal decisions about how much to consume take into account sustainability principles and the needs of future generations.”
Technological progress still exists in such a vision, but is driven by the need for better goods and services, as opposed to quantity.
A UK scholar, Joe Herbert, takes it a step further, writing: “degrowth argues for establishing more localized economies, which reduce the reliance on high-emission international trade flows. By strengthening the role of co-operatives, solidarity and sharing economies, production processes could be democratically organized around social and ecological well-being, rather than the resource-insatiable profit motive…degrowth not only provides a practical route out of climate breakdown but also offers the prospect of simpler, more fulfilling ways of living, where more time can be dedicated to community, relationships and creative pursuits. To reframe [Robert] Kennedy’s words, degrowth truly has the power to prioritize the things which make life worthwhile.”
On the other hand, a system which relies on continual growth will continue to exploit the planet’s natural resources, destroying ecosystems and the atmosphere that supports us all. As David Broadland shows in this edition, we are trashing our coastal forests, a natural gift, centuries in the making. The BC government and industry brag that such forestry—much of it in the form of raw logs shipped to Asia—is our largest export and a valued contributor to our GDP. But as David’s numbers illustrate, given an accounting of the carbon emissions involved, it is utterly nonsensical, resulting in a “carbon bomb” surpassing even that of the oilsands. Moreover, we are blowing the opportunity for an incredible carbon capture and storage system. Our forests, if re-imagined, could transform BC and Canada’s carbon footprint and the well-being of future generations.
THE HIGH LEVEL OF CONSUMPTION we in the developed nations engage in results in high levels of global CO2 emissions. Even our purchases of electric vehicles and solar panels have both emissions and other environmental costs associated with them, as they involve resource extraction, manufacturing, and shipping. Every time the Earth is forced to cough up more resources, biodiversity is impacted.
The luxury condos we’ve gained throughout Greater Victoria add to the biodiversity and climate crises. Often marketed to wealthy people from away, often as second homes which they will fly to and from regularly, they strain our infrastructure and have immense environmental costs. The planet and our communities would be better off densifying existing housing stock by encouraging single-family homeowners to host secondary suites and garden suites through innovative programs. Could the CRD or BC Housing help launch local industries to make modular or tiny-home garden suites that could be rented or purchased by homeowners willing to rent to others at an affordable (but not money-losing) rate? Right now it’s simply too costly for most homeowners to finance such homes themselves.
While there’s a growing call for a stable or steady-state economy that works for everyone, you won’t find many politicians advocating anything but continual economic growth. In fact, any proposal that might cause just the rate of growth to decline, risks condemnation. This helps explain why, for instance, at the municipal level, virtually all development is welcomed with open arms by city councils (see stories by Judith Lavoie, Briony Penn, and Ross Crockford). Most of them appear to believe growth is always good—so it’s up to us to educate them, or vote them out of office.
At the provincial and federal levels, the growth-is-good philosophy plays out in the abuse of forests and the continuing subsidies to the oil and gas industry (see Russ Francis in this edition).
Canada’s GDP largely parallels our greenhouse gas emissions which, on a per capita basis, are more than double that of the average of G20 nations. Relevant to coverage in this edition, the Climate Transparency organization highlighted this observation: “In order to stay within the 1.5°C limit, Canada needs to make the land use and forest sector a net sink of emissions, e.g. by halting the expansion of residential areas and by creating new forests.” And it’s critical to start making such changes in 2020, says the research body.
But it will be far from easy, and perhaps that’s why, once people get elected to office, they do things like buy an oil pipeline or encourage a bigger tax base through carbon-intensive development.
Such government decisions mean our role as citizens, actively encouraging wise, far-sighted policy change, is our most important role. While there are other things we can do at a personal level—from eating a plant-based diet to foregoing fossil-fuel-powered travel and home heating—the larger part of our per-capita footprint comes from our collective economy and the reality that 76 percent of the energy that supports it is from fossil fuels. Taken together, Canadian industries, institutions, the jobs they create and the taxes they and their employees pay, provide public health care, education, transportation infrastructure, waste management, care homes, pensions, social assistance, and on and on. We all benefit from Canada’s collective, carbon-intensive economy. Transforming it will not be easy or comfortable.
I think it’s safe to predict the 2020s will be a decade of transformation for us all, on many levels. A well-informed public is crucial to make that transformation happen, so Focus will continue to work on that front—aided by our readers. As our “Readers’ Views” section makes clear, you have a lot to contribute to the discussion.
Editor Leslie Campbell wishes Focus readers all the best in 2020, mindful that the best things in life are free, including a sense of community, peaceful times in nature and with friends, meaningful work, watching kittens play…