Thursday, January 25, 2007


NO MORE GROWTH, FEWER PEOPLE.....Oh my God, who will serve me at Tim Horton’s?

Environmentalists have long been depicted as doomsayers. Critics like Julian Simon and Herman Kahn made their careers casting doubt on their warnings about the future. One, John Maddox, claimed in 1972 that the scale of human activities was too small to threaten sea plankton or enhance the natural greenhouse effect. It was Maddox who introduced the party-line of growth-a-holics and small-town boosterism: doomsday warnings undermine the human spirit. Politicians like Brian Tobin still tell us than we must conceal or sugar-coat the truth because public morale requires “positive” messages. We must lie, and join their chorus of “a robust economy and a clean environment.” Maddox also sounded a now familiar warning that doomsday prescriptions for freezing economic growth would result in social stagnation and deny the poor a chance to share in prosperity. For growth-a-holics, its always about growing the economic pie to help the poor rather than dividing it more equitably. Raise the tide to float all boats.

The fact is, fear-mongering is a specialty of the growth lobby. For them the choice is not between capitalism and a steady-state economy, between growth and stability, but between growth and collapse. Edward Heath, a former British Conservative Prime Minister, characterized the choice this way, “ the alternative to expansion is not an England of quiet market towns linked only by trains puffing slowly and peacefully through green meadows. The alternative is slums, dangerous roads, old factories, cramped schools and stunted lives.”

Growth advocates would conjure up a similar scenario for Canada if proposals to freeze economic and population growth and reduce consumption rates were implemented. To preview what such a Canada would look like, they would point to Saskatchewan or Newfoundland or to many rural areas across the country that have been depopulated by economic stagnation. The first sign of trouble would be that the local Tim Horton’s just wouldn’t be able to fill the position of the kid who quit last week and you’d wait forever for your coffee and donut. Then you’d notice a shortage of staff at the local hospital, and you just couldn’t find an electrician or a plumber to come to your house, or a nanny for your kids. If you were lucky enough to maintain your health into old age, you’d avoid the chronically under-staffed nursing homes and die alone in your own house without the benefit of a homemaker.

In Garrett Hardin’s “Living Within Limits:Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos”, there is a chapter entitled “The Necessity of Immigration Control”. Therein Hardin presents two sections: “Is there such thing as a Labour Shortage?” and “Must an Older Population Be Dependent on Immigrants?” He deals with the clichés of the pro-growth advocates by saying that there are large reservoirs of labour in the economy right now. There still are a lot of housewives who would jump at part-time paid employment outside the home. Most of America’s 11 million college students have little passion for learning. College is, as one prof said to me in 1969, a parking lot to keep kids off the labour market—if jobs were begging they would leave for them. Most work currently done is inefficient, the work week is more like 20 hours rather than 40 in many establishments, efficiencies can improve a service deficit. I recall the situation in East Germany in the summer of 1989 when there was a perceived shortage of medical staff at hospitals. After the wall came down, and systems were integrated, and the East Germans were introduced to West German efficiencies, it was discovered that there was actually a surplus of staff in East German hospitals. “Feather-bedding” had been the rule. I have had also heard the old song and dance that if we don’t admit 400,000 immigrants every year and grow 1% annually there won’t be enough people to pay for my pension. Its like the pyramid selling scam. More and more people come in at the bottom of the pyramid to support the people at the top. But this kind of thinking takes no account of efficiences occasioned by new technologies, of increased productivity of the workforce. Suppose I’m a ditch-digger, and I retire, and economists say that it will take three other ditch-diggers to pay for my pension. OK. But what if we introduce a back-hoe? We really don’t need those three ditch-diggers anymore do we? Hardin also offers other options. The work week can be extended. Or retirement can be postponed—many older folk don’t want to retire, and many would work a shorter day or a shorter week. Hardin concludes that complaining of a labour shortage is easier than thinking.

But it must not be denied that the transition to a steady-state economy could involve severe adjustments. It may very well be a relatively Spartan existence offering material sacrifices of the kind my parents put up with during the war. During that time, according to their stories, you could not indeed get a plumber or electrician to help you, or even buy a bathtub, and the people who served you in stores and restaurants were indifferent to you, if you could find them, because the labour shortage made their jobs secure. Nevertheless life in Canada was richer then than it is now in many respects according to their testimony. And lets not forget what 10 million Canadians were able to accomplish then. They put a million men in uniform—10% of their population!—and replaced their services by tapping into reserves of labour formerly untouched:women. Older men like my grandfather served as air wardens and older women like my grandmother did hundreds of hours of volunteer work for the war effort. They created a planned economy of full employment that set priorities and met them. People made sacrifices and were satisfied with less because they were persuaded they were doing it for a just cause. We too have a “just” cause to rally around—saving our environment. If Canadians could totally and abruptly re-design their economy in 1939-45 we could the same with enough resolve.

The alternative of jumping off the Perpetual Growth Machine involves infinitely less hardship and pain than staying on it. If left unchecked Economic Growth, propelled by Population Growth coupled with high consumption rates, will defeat reduced greenhouse emission standards and continue to damage biodiversity. When ecosystems lose their ability to function, they can’t perform the 33 trillion dollars of free annual services that allow life on this planet, including ours. Our human “economy” is underpinned by biodiversity. We may adapt somewhat to climate change and oil depletion, albeit at immense cost , but we won’t be able to adapt to the loss of biodiversity. When it’s gone, waiting for your Tim Horton’s donut and coffee will be the least of your worries.

The question then, is not as growth-addicts would pose it –Growth or Collapse?

Or even Growth or Stagnation?

The choice facing us is simply, Steady-State or Extinction? Make your choice now while there is time to make it.

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