I am always shocked that political parties continue to promise economic growth as if it was some sort of holy grail. In fact, most of us know that the senseless pursuit of economic growth is going to tip us into tragedy.
We know, for instance, that continuing to emit greenhouse gases at this rate is going to kill hundreds of thousands of people and destabilize the world politically. Growth takes energy and energy use causes climate change. We also know that Canadian economic recovery is a result not of increased production, but because people are borrowing more. Household debt that has never been higher. If interest rates or housing costs increase even a bit, a lot of folks are going to lose everything.
We’re walking an ecological and economic high wire: why do we continue to pursue such stress, risk and danger?
The alternative is to growth is to “right-size” our economy. How do we decide what the “right” size is? Government can balance benefits with risk:
- Enough industry that we are prosperous but not so much that our air, water, soil and biodiversity becomes dangerous. We know what the safe limits are: all we have to do is monitor and stay under those limits.
- Enough free trade that we continue excellent relationships with our global allies, but not so much that we cannot sustain our own manufacturing and service sector.
- Enough taxation that can afford those things we value, especially our excellent infrastructure, health care and educational systems, but not so much that we throw money around just to create jobs. There are many ways to lead a fascinating and productive life: what’s wrong with slowing down and working less?
- Enough debt that people can own their own homes, but not so much that our entire economy is put at risk (while banks syphon record profits away from our communities).
What would it be like to live in a “right-sized” economy? Probably a lot like living in the 1950s. People walked more, lived in smaller homes, saved up for things they wanted, had a garden in the back yard and went camping on their holidays. One radio, one television, one telephone, all of which lasted for decades. Fewer clothes, but much better quality. Less exotic foods, but tastier and more nutritious. Less work, more time. Less waste. Less risk.
Sounds like taking a step backward? It is. But remember: we’re in trouble, and we need to scale back the way we live. It’s going to happen no matter what we do. Automation is going to replace 30 per cent of jobs within ten years. Eventually, enough people will default on their debt and topple our economy into recession. In other words, we crash into a mess we might not be able to handle, or we slow down purposefully, enjoying the slower, safer pace.