Serious questions in a silly season

This week, the Toronto Stock Exchange Index lost nearly 500 points amid plummeting commodity prices and talk of a global recession.

This week, the Toronto Stock Exchange Index lost nearly 500 points amid plummeting commodity prices and talk of a global recession.

At the same time a preview of the National Intelligence Estimate being prepared for the incoming American president warns of economic instability as a result of global warming.

Considering that both Canada and the US are in the process of electing leaders, this might seem like a good time to confront these realities.

Instead we get pooping puffins and the Americans get swift-boating and bridges to nowhere.

The more serious the issues facing the world, the sillier politics gets.

We can expect to hear plenty in the coming weeks about who is best suited to lead (either America or Canada) during difficult economic times. But who will ask the tough questions about the fundamental re-organization of the world economy that needs to take place in the very near future?

Global warming and pollution, species extinction, world hunger, war, crime — all of these are at bottom economic issues. A growth-obsessed world economy is driving an ever accelerating rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Famine results from wars fought over oil-rich territory. Crime is nurtured in the growing gap between the rich and poor.

Periodic recessions are an inescapable part of the growth economy. For a while, everything has to slow down and cool off. It means some people have to suffer — unemployment soars, people lose their homes, in poorer parts of the world people go hungry. After a time the economy is “stimulated” again and things begin to pick up — for some at least.

It’s a system that does a great job of producing billionaires, and then protecting their interests, but it’s an insane way to run an economy. You just can’t keep growing forever.

Growth means increased consumption of resources. It means increased pollution. But who wants to live in a state of permanent recession, with all the hard times that accompany low economic growth?

This is the discussion you won’t hear on the hustings this fall, although it’s the real issue that underlies everything you will hear about.

How do we build a sustainable economy? You’ll hear lots about climate change, but less about the fact that our current economic system makes it almost impossible to cut back on GHG emissions.

Sustainability is about local production. It’s about reduced consumption. It’s about organic agriculture. It’s about forest management that doesn’t destroy forests. It’s about resource extraction that leaves the land intact.

The problem with sustainability is that it runs contrary to current notions of profitability. Not that the operator of a sustainable business can’t make a profit, but there are limits.

In fact, limits are what sustainability is all about, and that’s why you don’t hear about it much at election time. Elections are about hope and promise, usually false. They are also largely controlled by rich people, who don’t want limits on their wealth.

As Canada begins to feel the sting of the economic slowdown there are two paths we can take. By the use of tax-cuts and economic incentives we can try to keep the engine rolling along with as much speed as we can gather, or we can use the slowdown as an opportunity to adjust to a long-term future of slower growth.

The first course is the road to disaster. Whether in 10 or 20 or 50 years, with the planet’s resources stretched thin and its environmental tolerances exceeded, growth will be impossible, and the recession permanent. The second course will be a tougher one at first, but it’s the only sane path we can take.

You won’t hear much about sustainability during the election season, but you can still take it into account when you vote, on either side of the border.

Here’s a tip: billionaire candidates and rich powerful political parties will never turn their back on the system that generates their wealth and power.

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