25 July 2013

The need for a global no-growth agreement

Trade agreements are all the rage among nations these days. And that might not be a bad thing if they were principally about trade rather than about empowering corporations at the expense of workers and governments.

In any case, what the world really needs is not global trade agreements but a global no-growth agreement. Sensibly, we cannot continue to use up ever more resources when the planet contains only a finite amount. We can substitute new resources for old ones, or use resources more efficiently, but the trend since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has been a relentless march of ever increasing demands on the Earth.
Another form of unrestrained growth
And then there is the other side of resource depletion: pollution. Using resources creates waste, and just as we are using up the Earth's resources faster than it can replenish them, we are creating waste faster than it can absorb it. We are, for instance, creating so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses we are causing the very planet to warm up. Climate scientists warn us that we have only a very few decades to halt this nonsense or the warming will be irreversible, and it is doubtful global civilization can survive global warming if it runs out of control. We must, therefore, come to terms globally about how to end growth.

Ending it will, as they say, require a new economic paradigm. We are, under our current economic regime, caught in a growth trap. For the last 250 years or so, advancing technology has made production ever more efficient, allowing for more production with less labour.  But less labour means fewer people working and the unemployed cannot buy much. Increase unemployment and the economy slows, tipping into recession or even depression. This is to be avoided at all costs. The inevitable answer is to produce more products, or create new ones, thereby creating jobs. In short, the answer is growth. To end growth, we must escape this trap. We must stop consuming ever larger amounts of stuff.

Various possibilities present themselves. For example, we could work less, accepting lower incomes--buying less stuff, but compensating ourselves with more time for family, community and pleasure.

In his book Alternatives to Growth: Efficiency Shifting, Conrad Schmidt offers the intriguing idea of reducing overall labour efficiency by creating jobs that are more labour-intensive. For example, if teachers average 30 students to a class, reduce class size to 25 or 20, or whatever the optimum teaching size is, and hire more teachers.

We might also make work more interesting at the expense of making it less efficient. When Henry Ford increased efficiency in his factories by setting up assembly lines where each worker installed one part over and over and over again, replacing groups of mechanics that made a whole car, he turned skilled workers into robots. More efficient it certainly was, but much less humane. It is time to put job satisfaction over job efficiency. Ending quantity growth, i.e. GDP growth, does not mean ending quality growth.

In the West, we have long passed the point where we create enough wealth to allow every person a comfortable living. We have to allow the undeveloped world some catch-up, but we are now well-positioned to tame growth.

There are solutions out there. What is not out there is serious political discussion of the issue. Meanwhile we race on toward the plundering of our Earth, sucking it dry of resources and defiling it with our waste. The clock is ticking on global civilization.

21 July 2013

400 ppm

Of all the events that occurred during my blogging hiatus, the one that struck me as the most significant, even including the massive flooding of my hometown, was the Earth experiencing for the first time in millions of years an atmosphere containing 400 ppm carbon dioxide, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii on May 10th.

As important as the Calgary flood was, it was a local event. Reaching an atmospheric CO2 of 400 ppm was a global event, important to every member of our species and to many other species as well.

It is an arbitrary number of course, 400 ppm is hardly worse than 399 ppm, but round figures catch the eye. This round figure tells us we are going in the wrong direction and fast, from 315 ppm to 400 in little over half a century. We are on the fast track to hit 450 ppm, the UN's official red line, by mid-century.

To quote leading climate scientist James Hansen, "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted … carbon dioxide will need to be reduced … to at most 350 ppm." Climate scientists such as Hansen are the people who know what they are talking about on the issue of global warming, the ones we ought to be paying attention to. So, yes, 400 ppm, as arbitrary as it is, demands our attention. It speaks to the survival of civilization as we know it, and indeed to life on Earth itself. Significant indeed.

18 July 2013

I participate in an historic event

For my first posting in seven months, I can hardly do better than comment on my participation in a truly historic event. I not only observed but became a fully-fledged, if highly reluctant, participant. The event I refer to is the greatest flood in Alberta's history, perhaps in Canada's history, the great flood of 2013.

I live in an apartment building beside the Elbow River, a normally gentle, sparkling stream fresh  from the mountains that once a year transforms into a roiling brown monster. This year it broke 80 years of relatively benign behaviour and went rogue, 80 years that lulled those who live along its banks, enjoying its many delights, into a complacency now deeply buried. Joined by its big brother, the Bow, it went on a rampage that drew international attention. Between them, they caused the evacuation of 75,000 Calgarians, eight per cent of the city's population.

It stormed through our building, turning everything on the ground floor, including three apartments and the furnace and utility rooms, into garbage. Fortunately my apartment is on the fourth floor and so escaped the ruination. Nonetheless, as I form these words I have been homeless for four weeks, displaced until the building is appropriately repaired and declared safe.

As the Elbow, still my favourite river despite its misbehaviour, puts its ill-tempered outburst behind it and returns to its gentle summer self, Albertans struggle to learn the lessons the flood has taught us. We must first recognize that rivers flood and the Elbow and Bow have flooded worse in the past. We have not taken them seriously enough, providing insufficient safeguards and allowing excessive building with inadequate codes to proliferate in the flood plains. This must be dealt with if damage from future floods, and there will be many, is to be significantly mitigated.

We might also keep in mind our reckless attitude toward our environment. We are Canada's pollution province, pumping more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than any other. We are the major contributor to global warming and thus to the increase in extreme weather events. It is quite possible that our mischief contributed to the flood. The price of disrespecting nature may be the most important lesson we can learn.