Photo: It's time to talk about a new vision for the economy

A cornerstone of our current economy, consuming goods, may give us fleeting pleasure, but it isn't making us happier. Studies show the pleasure derived from food, sex, exercise and time with loved ones or doing meaningful work takes much longer to fade. (Credit: Mikey G Ottawa via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Environmental Economist and Policy Analyst Michelle Molnar.

The federal leaders' debate on the economy focused on important issues — jobs, deficits, infrastructure spending, pipelines, climate change — but no one talked about a different vision for Canada's economy. What if we challenged our leaders to answer the dilemma posed by American journalist Charles Bowden: Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more? Not being able to even imagine an economy without continual growth is a profound failure.

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A better economic vision would support the right of all Canadians to live in a healthy environment, with access to clean air and water and healthy food. It would respect planetary boundaries and provide the moral imperative to decrease growing income disparities. Businesses would be required to pay for environmental damage they inflict, capital would be more widely distributed and ideas, such as employee shareholder programs with ethically invested stocks, would be the norm.

This alternative economy would connect people to family, friends and communities, focus on social capital investments over gross domestic product gains, and distribute wealth through taxes, social programs and minimum guaranteed incomes. In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write that developed countries with the greatest inequalities have higher rates of disease, mental illness, drug use and a host of other social problems. Reducing income gaps makes all of us healthier.

In Canada, we don't question our emphasis on constant growth. Our economic system favours short-term profits at the expense of our long-term health and survival. Despite more than five decades of trying to fix our environmental challenges, forests are still threatened, deserts are spreading and climate change is creating more frequent and intense storms, floods, forest fires and droughts.

We're also left with income inequality that threatens our democracy. Since the 1980s, the top one per cent of Canadians has increasingly enjoyed the biggest share of income growth and the least pain during economic downturns. Since 2009, the top 10 per cent have seen half of all income growth. The bottom 50 per cent of Canadians have not only seen declines in income growth, accounting for just three per cent of income gains, they've also been hardest hit during recessions.

In a statement that applies equally to Canada, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once noted, "We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both."

A cornerstone of our current economy, consuming goods, may give us fleeting pleasure, but it isn't making us happier. Studies show the pleasure derived from food, sex, exercise and time with loved ones or doing meaningful work takes much longer to fade. Worse, consuming stuff is not only addictive, it also feeds rivalry and societal overconsumption.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing uncovered some troubling truths about the connection between the economy and well-being. When Canada's economy was thriving, Canadians saw only modest improvements in their overall quality of life, but when the economy faltered our well-being took a disproportionate step backward. This is troubling, given predictions for an upcoming extended period of weak economic growth. Why are we so reluctant to talk about how we can get out of this cycle of endless buying and unsatisfying consumption by considering steady-state economies or even de-growth alternatives?

Despite this failure to imagine a better way, we may finally be seeing a change in course. The climate crisis is creating a global consciousness shift, with hundreds of thousands marching to demand change, and Pope Francis's Encyclical warning that economic growth and technology can't continue to trump all other concerns. Throughout Europe, North America and beyond, support is growing for confronting income and wealth inequality.

Imagine a Canadian election in which leaders gave us economic visions aimed at caring for people and the planet. It's time we talked about a future when we can live with less and be happier.

I'll be joining Peter Victor, one of Canada's most respected ecological economists, to talk about these ideas at a public event for the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics conference in Vancouver on October 1. I hope to see some of you there.

September 24, 2015

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Oct 07, 2015
7:53 PM

How do we bring about such a change? Most people are susceptible to change and ‘thanks’ to our politicians and corporations they will certainly use fear or greed to make the vast majority to disagree.

Sep 25, 2015
7:04 AM

Large enterprises are no more loyal, they move where they are less taxed leaving behind buildings and infrastructures we paid them, abandoning workers and their families. Moreover our governments play the game by competing with other governments to attract companies that will suck from nature and people without contributing. Quebec’s economy was always based on small enterprises. However, our current provincial government formed by the Liberal party is shrinking regional services and closing local organizations the citizens used to create small enterprises and jobs. Last year, Mr. Harper came to Quebec city to ask Quebecers to stop having different values than the rest of Canada. «It would be so much easier» he said. On his side, Trudeau and the federal Liberals deny the contribution of small enterprises. Our leaders are unconscious and serve money makers.

Sep 24, 2015
4:43 PM

The truth is the consumption driven economy has run it’s course. It has not only nearly ruined our environment but it has also fallen victim to it’s own successes. If you can no longer maintain full employment because of cheaper offshore labour or robotics being more profitable the capitalist production driven economy falls apart. This was known even in the 18th century. People must earn enough money to consume what factories produce for a viable economy to exist.

Production capitalism as opposed to the finance driven capitalism we have today was ironically viewed as leading to a peaceable socialist society by those same 18th century economists who were witness to suffering by the majority at the hands of a land owning minority.

Then as now most people were unhappy as they spend most of there time doing unsatisfying labour for diminishing returns.

The new road must take us in a direction that is sustainable for humanity and the environment. For certain there is joy to be found in the production of things that are not material or energy intensive and the lifestyle those pursuits would allow. There would still be endless engaging problems to be solved along the way but nothing insurmountable

The fastest and most efficient way to get where we want to go is still capitalism, within a progressive sense, were we would see satisfactory government deficits spent in ways that motivate movement in the desired direction. That’s what a viable new economic and environmentally sustainable model would look like. At the rate were going it may take too much time to get there.

Currently all governments are still locked into “balanced budget” type thinking which will short change future generations because to little of our effort will have been spent setting them up for success.

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