Last night I went to see David Suzuki speaking and he got me thinking about something. He spoke about how we've elevated the Economy to something above and beyond its actual purpose. The Economy is no longer about making sure everyone has their material needs fulfilled; it is considered a good in itself and our almost religious imperative is to grow it. (He says to John Baird: why do you keep talking about the economy, you're the minister of the environment, not of finance. aaah, snap!)
That's probably why I was so pissed off earlier this week when I saw the cover the National Post - two scenes of armageddon, with a headline that said something like: The Economy or the Environment? Yes, that old false dichotomy, resurrected by the Conservatives and spit out verbatim by their cheerleaders.
We worship at the altar of growth. How much did our economy grow this quarter? is the only legitimate economic question. But were there more or fewer hungry children this quarter? is a social question, unrelated to The Economy (I wish I could make a choir sing every time you read the word "economy" because I think that would capture my point well). The truth is, growth has only a tenuous connection to The Good Life (and can indeed be a pretty bad thing) and yet is has this special status. (Another D.S. paraphrase: we have twice as much stuff now compared to the 60s - are we twice as happy?)
I know philosophers have been philosophizing about The Good Life for a very long time and I'm unlikely to have any sort of breakthrough, but we all have a commonsense understanding of it which bears remembering.
We need food, shelter, water, clean air, love and community, security, and a sense of personal agency. These things are like the building blocks that allow us to live happy and fulfilled lives. A bigger house, new pair of shoes, or a fancier car won't make us happier. Yet somehow we have come to believe these things are good.
It brings to mind those who compare the situation of the poor in Canada with the poor in the slums of Calcutta or Sub-Saharan Africa (you know the kind of poverty you see on a World Vision commercial: little black children with big bellies and flies all over their faces). They say things like: our poor have everything they need. That's not real poverty. They want too much. They just complain because they want a big screen TV or an iPod.
The problem with being poor in Canada is not about lack of funds to afford a big screen TV. It's first and foremost about a lack of security. It's about chronic insecurity. It's about constantly being one paycheck away from being evicted. It's about having no room for error, no ability to be flexible: uh oh hydro costs went up this month - there's nowhere for that money to come from except from other necessities. It's about living in neighbourhoods that have more pollution and crime. Or possibly couch surfing, living with friends, sleeping in your car. Or for women, living with boyfriends who often have too much of control since they know you have nowhere else to go.
It's also about social isolation, and especially your children's. We live in a society in which kids who don't have what the other kids have are ridiculed and rejected. They grow up feeling like they are worth less than the other kids - simply because their family can't afford the right brand of sneakers. Don't scoff: it's true. That is life in this consumer-based society.
Once very basic needs are accounted for, it is the gap between the rich, the poor, and the middle class that determines how detrimental poverty is.
That is why even equal growth worsens poverty: if I make $10,000 per year and you make $100,000 per year, the gap between us is $90,000
Now let's say we each have a 5% increase in our wages. I made $10,500 and you make $105,000. Now the gap between us is $94,500. It's gotten much bigger, despite the fact that we both received an equal percentage of income growth.
We do not need 5% per annum. We do not need the Enrons and the Exxons to post ever higher profits each year. We need wisdom in the management of our earth's bounty. Equitable sharing of its produce. The return of cooperation as a driving force. Solidarity. Community.
Unceasing growth for its own purpose is tumor. Capitalism is a cancer.