Celia Brauer: Dear Justin—the economy you are so determined to grow is guaranteed to impoverish us all
“We need the middle class Canadians to have money in their pockets to save, invest, and grow the economy.”—Justin Trudeau
So it says in clear Canadian colours of red and white on the federal Liberal party website. I remember reading this last October when I was deciding which party to vote for in the federal election. That particular statement wasn’t a favourite of mine. But since you have been elected, I admit that, in the main, your activities and statements haven’t disappointed me too much—until recently. Lately, the rhetoric has been ramping up to further marry “economic growth” with “environmental protection” and then adding “intergenerational well-being”, as if they were one big happy family.
You don’t have to go far to hear this conversation again and again. For example, on September 21, when responding to a question on further bids to revive the Enbridge-pipeline proposal, you said: “Our government has been consistent from the beginning that Canadians need economic development while at the same time protecting the environment and the well-being of future generations."
The Power of Word Concepts to Shape our Shared World
One particularly worrisome case has presented itself recently. On September 27, 2016, you accepted the Pacific Northwest LNG Project. Your justification assumed that our common world is best served by “insights” from conventional modern economics, regardless of what they represent. Days after the Liberal party won the election in 2015, a large contingent of delegates was dispatched to the Paris Climate Change Conference amid much fanfare. A year later, on October 5, 2016, Canada ratified the landmark agreement.
And yet, your government is presently approving an $11.4-billion shipping terminal that would annually transport 19 million tons of liquefied natural gas to Asia. This will significantly increase Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by five million tons every year. It will also negatively affect local First Nations communities and have a substantial damaging impact on one of few self-sustaining wild salmon ecosystems left on Canada’s West Coast.
I find the “both sides of the mouth” content of the official Privy Council document reviewing this action to be astonishing. The paper clearly mentions that the project is “likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects”. It cites “concerns and interests identified in the consultation process with Aboriginal groups that are likely to be affected by the project”, which “include, but are not limited to, the effects on fish and fish habitat”.
There will also be influences to the “current use of land and resources for traditional purposes and on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as related impacts on potential or established Aboriginal rights or title”. But we as Canadians should not worry, since the governor-in-council is “satisfied that the consultation process undertaken is consistent with the honour of the Crown and that (these) concerns and interests have been appropriately accommodated for the purpose of deciding whether the significant adverse environmental effects are justified in the circumstances”.
The phrase “justified in the circumstances” appears several times. And why should Canadians be reassured by the governor-in-council? Because the statement “Whereas the Pacific Northwest LNG project would contribute to Canada’s long-term prosperity” is dropped into the closing paragraphs as if it is an indisputable truth. Really? The Privy Council admitted that the project is dangerous for children and other living things. But they decided it is acceptable because the numerous adverse environmental impacts and effects on indigenous peoples mean nothing in the face of supposedly improved “long-term economic prosperity”—presumably, only for Canadians not living in the area and probably not for all of them, either.
How did they figure that out? It seems too many people offer up their agency on a silver platter to the recommendations of a small group of so-called economic experts. For example, in the case of Pacific LNG, supposedly the project would increase gross domestic product (GDP). Are we also confident that it will increase GDP per capita? And even if it did, would it be a well-distributed increase in GDP per capita or just an increase that would result quite independently of how benefits and costs increased if GDP were distributed among Canadians?
And what about the destructive impact of Pacific LNG on nonhuman species and biodiversity? And the costs of depleting natural capital—something that has never been counted in GDP—since the inception of the measure in the 1930s. The fact that human beings do not formally recognize their complete reliance on natural systems for long-term prosperity has contributed to many of our present-day misfortunes. These notions allow us to falsely believe that economic well-being and ecological health exists as unconnected phenomena.
For example, since European settlement, indigenous peoples are no longer permitted to be the stewards of wild Pacific salmon. These miraculous fish don’t get to vote, not even to simply protect their right of survival in our much vaunted democracies. Consequently, they are today considered “species at risk”. The future of salmon—alongside all other plant and animals that are of “economic interest”, have been governed by crude notions of economic prosperity, defined in an artificially abstract, anthropocentric way. Interspecies dependence and biogeochemical cycles, critical to supporting life on the planet, are almost totally ignored.
Last year, First Nations political leader Arthur Manuel published his book Unsettling Canada: Between the Lines. In it, he states: “One thing is certain; the flood waters of colonization are, at long last, receding.” This should be the truth, but, clearly, it is not yet so. In the case of Pacific Northwest LNG, all the fancy wording and due process does not hide the fact that, just like the old days, the government of Canada is acting like a supreme dictator. With one swipe of a pen, they will likely be eradicating an ecologically robust watershed and a way of life for indigenous people alongside a myriad of flora and fauna—all in the name of “economic prosperity”. If everyone knew and agreed what that meant and how it can be achieved, the dominant, conventional view might make some sense. But there is no such agreement or consensus; it pretty much depends on who you ask and how much power they wield.
To give your government some credit, you did require “significant changes…to the project design” to appease aboriginal groups. And you plan to “take into account the implementation of mitigating measures that the Minister of the Environment considered appropriate”, such as imposing a cap on emissions and an increase in carbon tax, which is supposed to make the rest of us feel better. But your intentions to wield absolute power while foisting such an invasive and damaging resource-development project on the people of this country and the world does not fundamentally differ from the behavior of Canada’s original colonizers.
And what, exactly, is the prosperity—or the growth and development—constantly cited? The reverence for these seemingly sacred objectives frequently stops us in midair, halting any rational debate. Does not economic prosperity mean a sustained salmon ecosystem where the miracle of a rich, tasty food source appears on its own energy annually and provides free, wild sustenance for 137 species while asking nothing in return except respect and stewardship? Or does it mean that enough “money in our pockets” exists for three vehicles in every carport, a sea of skyscrapers in every urban centre, and mounds of short-lived consumables for every desirous human, even if this cornucopia of stuff too often turns into useless and toxic garbage?
It is a proven, scientific fact that in contrast to natural ecosystems, which are cyclical and self-sustaining, most industrial-production and consumption activities are a one-way ticket. They are inherently unsustainable and depleting processes that transform low-entropy matter into long-lived waste products and ongoing sources of pollution. And yet your government’s clear choice of direction is to let this continue.
Reviewing the Human Constructs of the Economy and the Environment
So why are present day policymakers so married to highly damaging, irresponsible, and outdated concepts? The answer, in short, seems to be that governments like yours believe in the continuation of what went before. You imagine that if these practices appeared to work to keep humankind going for the past 500 years, then they can probably continue for the next few hundred, at least. The problem is that they only appeared to function successfully in the past because the capital of the natural world was so superabundant relative to the human population that those in charge didn’t imagine economizing its use.
Perhaps this was why economists since the 19th century ignored natural capital entirely in their models of economic process. Even as little as 150 years ago, the world was less full of people and their artifacts. Natural ecosystems were much healthier, biodiversity greater, and wildlife more plentiful. But this is no longer the case. To continue to form policy with such antiquated views is highly unscientific, self-deceptive, and outright dangerous. If today’s nightmare scenario continues, catastrophic environmental outcomes will seriously compromise life on Earth for all species.
Most rational people will agree that true wealth for humanity requires that natural resources be present in sufficient numbers. Humans exist in sustainable societies when they have an adequate food supply—either through annual agriculture or wild harvesting—alongside shelter and energy. Where critical resources are not available and cannot be imported, migration becomes necessary. Yet our whole human population cannot migrate away from planet Earth.
For most of their existence on the planet, humankind lived in small numbers and survived by employing a nomadic lifestyle. The advent of annual agriculture in the Neolithic Age more than 10,000 years ago created a different reality. Groups could settle in one area. They had more children to help with food production, so populations grew. And the naturally democratic processes that occurred while nomads wandered in smaller bands evolved to more autocratic ones to mitigate inevitable differences between larger groups of people. Often, those who were able to amass wealth in food stores held power over others who did not.
In the last few decades of the Industrial Revolution, a relatively more “modern” paradigm, that of neoclassical economics, became established. By then, the morally, messy business of slavery had been scrapped. Fossil-fuel production—first coal in the 19th century. then oil and gas in the 20th and onwards—was powering our much more mechanized economic activities. With a growing trade in natural resources and the spread of western-style market economies around the globe, the finiteness of the Earth and its natural wealth no longer seemed like an important constraint in economic processes.
But make no mistake: the “economy” and the “environment” are just mere abstract human constructs. The environment is not something external to us; in fact, it is the only real source of human prosperity on Earth. It’s long past the time our policymakers use deceptively convenient definitions to squash rational debate. They must understand and accept humanity’s precarious position in the biological and physical reality of our common planet.
The idea that economic growth is the panacea for all human problems didn’t work all that well centuries ago, but it is much more dangerous now. And yet it seems that your government believes that all you have to do is utter the right words and all will be well. The political right and centre likes the notion of “economic growth”. The ideological left likes “fairness and equity”; “Intergenerational well-being” suits the green wing. And all factions include the “environment” with varying degrees of support. For example, you added Climate Change to the title of the Minister of the Environment. But until policy is created that appropriately addresses serious ecological threats, the natural world will continue to be depleted by our excessive human “needs” alongside the frivolous, transient “wants”.
Where We Are At Now
With regard to our present attitude to the environment, it appears we may be going backwards. The combined negative impacts of exponential economic and population growth are unprecedented. A measure of 400 parts per million (PPM) of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere has just been reached and exceeded. In recent years, all of the Earth’s species have had to deal with major heat waves, droughts, rising coastlines, mass die-offs, and catastrophic weather patterns. With a complete halt in global fossil-fuel productions, there might be a chance of a saving a living planet for the future.
But here in Canada, your administration continues to follow in the footsteps of the former government. You are still hoping to build additional fossil-fuel pipelines. You continue to encourage dirty-oil production in the tarsands and hydraulic fracking. You support hydro megaprojects that massively ruin ecosystems—and, in the process, stifle the development of renewable resources with much less environmental impact. And yet, today the bizarre truth is that few of these projects make good business sense without the hidden subsidy of environmental neglect.
Meanwhile, your government has an “expert panel on economic growth” hard at work to test the waters. The chair, Dominic Barton, works for McKinsey and Co. management consultants, whose “clientele includes 80% of the world's largest corporations, and an extensive list of governments and non-profit organizations”. It’s not surprising that almost no members of the panel seem to be willing to ask themselves whether a global economy dominated by large corporations really is a good idea. And they certainly don’t see their role to invest in the maintenance of natural ecosystems. Instead, they are “calling on the government to launch an ambitious national infrastructure bank capitalized with $40-billion in federal funds aimed at attracting major institutional investors”.
One wonders what expert opinions this panel would have offered on how to deal with the sunken fuel-barge tug that recently leaked oil into the waters of the Pacific Ocean off Bella Bella—the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation. This tragic episode damaged pristine ecosystems filled with food sources for people and other species.\
Or, what did the panel think should have been done with the increasingly violent interchanges between the U.S. National Guard and the Standing Rock Water Protectors at the Dakota Access Pipeline. And what about the potential for similar confrontations with protestors in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia should the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline be approved? Would the experts ever admit that this continued tragic state of affairs is the result of their and your government’s flawed image of true prosperity?
Preconceptions of what constitutes economic value for human beings have been around for centuries, and they are not likely to change anytime soon. Not without a fight, anyway. People vote. They shop. They sit at boardroom tables. So in discussions between human, one will hear, for example, that economic growth is fundamental to social equality. It’s not easy to clearly contradict the argument that megaprojects like the tarsands and Site C provide jobs for people who then have more money in their pocket to buy houses, cars, clothes, and vacations. These are all considered “economic drivers” in a world in which the purpose of national economic management is seen only as the simple-minded maximization of GDP.
Your government, like those before, seems to think that resource-extraction megaprojects are a continual “golden ticket”, since they are frequently proposed as economic activities. But surely somewhere, somehow people will comprehend that a large GDP has little, if any, logical connection to true prosperity. Actually, the reverse is true. The growth of this abstract statistic is increasingly correlated with the impoverishment of the natural world. The dominant textbooks of conventional economics may assume natural ecosystems will provide endless free services indefinitely without causing any problems. But sound natural science and the traditional ecological knowledge of many indigenous people tell us otherwise.
“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” But we never could afford “la meme chose” long ago and we certainly can’t afford it now. If people only keep their own interests in mind, and are sufficiently shortsighted, the continuous pursuit of economic growth will, obviously, seem like a good idea. But this strategy has only worked in the past because we assumed that colonizing an advancing frontier was a way of solving our problems. Today, our society is perhaps just a few decades away from a much harsher confrontation with planetary limits than ever before. If we continue to pursue increased GDP without properly measuring what we are losing in terms of biodiversity and climate stability, we are making that looming confrontation a lot worse than it needs to be.
Urgent change is needed. If the human species learns to control its numbers and limit unsustainable activities, we may be able to live prosperously within our ecological limits. But if we insist on trying to defy these constraints and attempt to maximize the human-created construct of GDP into an indefinite future, we will experience a very hard landing, indeed.
A fellow Canadian human being