Traditional end-of-year recaps highlight events in isolation. Much is taken for granted and many stones are left unturned. This won’t do as we enter 2012. I’m not talking about cataclysmic changes because of the Mayan calendar; I’m talking about a necessary shift in how we connect things in our worldview. While the global economic downturn has been a “big story” in 2011, we enter 2012 largely ignorant of the roots of the economic crisis or its role in the ecological crisis.
Events build-up! There is a crescendo effect. The dots must be connected and history itself must be explored. We are reaching this point in our collective consciousness and it’s long overdue.
2011 saw mounting extreme weather events, including here; these are continuing. The climate crisis can’t be grasped without looking at the economy through a new lens. It’s a crisis stemming from economic growth, tied to an unsustainable energy system that isn’t geared to meeting human needs.
We in Saskatchewan are among the highest per capita fossil fuel polluters on earth. And while provincial governing politicians brag of our economic boom, inequality abounds, especially in the north. The vast majority of this fossil fuel pollution comes from industry itself, from coal-fired electricity and from agrobusiness and private transportation.
Many of us kept our heads in the sand about this in 2011. Will this continue in 2012, if economic growth from the resource boom holds? We are repeatedly told that we can’t change our ways without undercutting our economic security. This view is what got Premier Wall his huge majority, though many more voters stayed home this time round. Playing “the economic card” still mostly works. It also worked for Harper in 2011. But will this half-hearted thinking continue working in 2012?
THE REAL ECONOMY
With all the talk about saving “the economy” it’s a little ironic that there’s so little exploration of how the economy works. On a global scale, especially since the 2008 financial meltdown, we see growing signs of systemic economic dysfunction. In Europe politicians are scrambling over their “debt crises”, doing what they think the market wants rather than being accountable to the needs of those who elected them.
If we continue to keep our heads in the sand, and to blindly depend on growing exports of non-renewable resources for our economic wellbeing, we may also be in for a big shock. The Saskatchewan economy increasingly depends on resource exports tied to traditional economic growth elsewhere, yet that growth is no longer assured. In the long run that might actually be a good thing.
In an energy-starved world you might believe there would always be demand for oil, gas and uranium from Saskatchewan. Really? Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has already reduced uranium demand. You might also think there would be an even more secure market for our grain and pulse crops, but the dominant economy isn’t actually based on production for need.
Humanity grew to 7 billion persons in 2011, adding a billion since 1999. One billion of us remain on the edge of starvation and yet our food doesn’t get to the hungry. They remain candidates for unreliable charity and food aid; according to the workings of our economic system, without income, they don’t qualify to consume.
Endless consumption is crucial to preserve the economic system. Domestic consumption makes up the bulk of the economic activity in our economy. Consumption is economic growth. And, to encourage perpetual consumption and growth we have all been encouraged to live on credit, which was very profitable for the financial institutions but ultimately made us all vulnerable, after the 2008 crash. Many hard-working people ended up losing nearly everything.
Making things even stranger, consumption isn’t directly tied to wellbeing. Since the 1970s, corporate globalization has promoted the myth that people in developing countries will become healthier if they consume more like us. I suspect that most of us still buy into some version of this.
Yet in 2011 several studies showed that more people are now dying from diseases linked to “over-consumption” than to malnutrition. Food security should exist for the billion people on the edge of starvation, but the major causes of death in the so-called “developed countries” – cancer, heart, disease, diabetes, etc., are now all tied to unhealthy, high consumption. Eating in a consumer society can even be considered an addiction. These diseases continue to rise elsewhere as global markets spread the same unhealthy “food” products.
Today’s economic growth isn’t primarily intended to meet human needs and increases in human illness can actually be “good” for the economy, for this creates a new and very lucrative market; look at the profits of the medical-pharmaceutical industry. The epidemic in anxiety is also profitable for investors and owners.
The pattern is getting clearer. Continued economic growth built upon the fossil-fuel industry brings us escalating extreme weather events. Growth in agro-business and the big food chains brings ill health. The economy is not evaluated by its consequences but only by its ability to be lucrative, for some.
You’d think this huge disconnect would be enough to motivate most of us to question the rationality and morality of the economy. This started to happen more widely in 2011. But not much here! Why is that? Will 2012 be different?
2011 saw the birth of the Arab Spring, which will continue to challenge colonial structures of the fossil-fuel economy. The sleeper in 2011 may have been the Occupy Movement. It was mostly comprised of upcoming generations who already face the brunt of growing inequality, the shrinking middle class and may face irreversible climate change. The way the corporate-run economy mal-distributes “wealth” is getting some attention: the 99% and the 1%! The Canadian Taxpayer’s Association has received much press about how many days work it takes for the average person to earn what they pay as taxes. We now know that for most of us it takes a year to earn what the top CEO’s earn in a day.
The myth that corporate economic growth benefits us all is starting to collapse. In just one decade, with the recession and many market bubbles bursting, the output of the global economy still doubled from $35 to $70 trillion. Did human wellbeing double? Of course not! Nor will it if fossil-fuel driven economic growth is allowed to double yet again. Growing concentration of wealth and inequality went hand in hand with this “economic growth” as did the rise in carbon in the atmosphere. It’s time we looked at outcomes, and stopped believing in endless promises. We owe this to our grandchildren.
With globalization the world has become even more precarious for people who have been dislocated from local, more sustainable economies, and must look for any paid work as a means to survive. Meanwhile, people continue to lose jobs due to corporate mergers and downsizing. More and more do temporary work with no prospect of job or income security. Those who gave their working lives to corporations are finding that their pensions and their prospects of old-age security are shrinking. Even after the sacrifices made by labour after the 2008 taxpayer bailout of banks, workers are being asked to take new wage cuts so that corporations can maintain their greedy bottom-line.
Is it any wonder we saw such “youth riots” in 2011? Will these just increase among those being marginalized in 2012? Or will other generations join with youth in envisaging a new kind of economy, where production is tied to human need and geared to sustainability? Politicians trying to maintain the status quo have not been able to give the necessary leadership. Each of us has a big choice to make in 2012, or we’ll find ourselves in an even greater fix come 2013.