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A credit card superpower

Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund released its latest World Economic Outlook, in which it downgraded its predictions for growth in the Canadian economy.

Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund released its latest World Economic Outlook, in which it downgraded its predictions for growth in the Canadian economy. In 2014 we will, if the IMF is right, experience the slowest growth in G20 countries outside the economic graveyard of the European Union.

Growth is capitalism’s yeast. In order to function, a capitalist economy has to keep producing more and more stuff and consumers have to keep buying it. A huge part of human enterprise in the current system is dedicated to promoting growth, so much so that the wealthiest humans who have ever lived, modern-day CEOs, got rich by making corporations grow, either by producing and selling more stuff, or by buying out other corporations whose stuff sells.

From the outside, if there is an outside, this ferocious promotion of ever-accelerated economic growth can only look like a form of mass-suicide, or perhaps more accurately a form of genocide against future generations. This is not a difficult concept to grasp: eventually, stuff runs out. What will our grandchildren, or their grandchildren, do in a world without stuff?

The counter to this argument is that stuff doesn’t necessarily mean foodstuff, or raw resources, or manufactured goods. Include ideas, art, and culture and the economy might grow as long as the human mind retains its creativity. Seen in this light, a rational economy might be one that took as little as possible from the Earth’s finite supply of resources and made as much as possible out of it, one that grew by creation, rather than by extraction.

But that is not the world as seen by Stephen Harper. Since 2006, Harper has made his vision for the Canadian economy as plain as a puddle of spilled bitumen: to hell with creativity, we’re “an energy superpower.” He has bet the farm on the tarsands, even more so than the two Liberal prime ministers before him, extending billion-dollar annual subsidies to at least 2015, waging a fierce PR battle against carbon pricing and environmentalism, and muzzling government scientists whose findings threaten his superpower dreams.

According to Vladimir Milov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The ‘energy superpower’ concept is an illusion with no basis in reality,” because there is “a mutual dependence” between producers and consumers. Milov was talking about Russia, but he could have meant any country laying claim to energy superpower status.

It turns out that having a lot of oil to sell doesn’t confer the kind of influence you get with a vast economy and a giant military machine. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that there really is such a thing as an energy superpower; would its economy be showing up at the bottom of G20 growth predictions?

To judge by the IMF report, Canada is less an energy superpower than a consumerist one. We don’t grow our economy by strip-mining the boreal forest after all, we grow it by all going out and borrowing money to buy stuff. We spent ourselves out of the 2008 recession by wracking up the highest personal debt on record. Now that the cards are all maxed, there’s no room to grow. As the Financial Post puts it, “If Canada is to pick up its pace of growth ... the economy will require a seismic shift away from its dependence on households.”

In a discussion of the world’s broken, irrational, heartless economy there are plenty of examples that trump the personal debt of Canadians. Global warming and Third World poverty spring to mind. On the other hand, it’s at least illustrative that the economy of a resource-rich country like Canada should turn out to be one giant personal-debt bubble. Surely there’s a more rational way to make the wheels go round.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.