Environment or economy a difficult trade-off

Sacrifices must be made to protect our future

On Oct. 1, I was extremely privileged to have former CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin, and academic, broadcaster and superstar environmentalist David Suzuki in the CKUW studio.

They popped by just before their evening talk at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre where they were to talk on the need to ground our economic system in ecological principles.

Our conversation revealed a number of seldom discussed realities.

For example, Dr. Suzuki disclosed the fact that he had advised former Liberal Leader Stephan Dion not to make a carbon tax a plank in his economic platform.

Suzuki had predicted, correctly as it turns out, that the ambitious proposal would be misunderstood and misrepresented by the opposition during a heated partisan political debate.

Moreover, during a recent conference of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy at which Preston Manning and other right-wingers were present, Suzuki told me the overwhelming consensus was that a carbon tax would be the most powerful instrument for lowering consumption.

Another interview highlight was the “good news,” as Rubin put it, that an inevitable economic collapse, which has already started, will benefit the environment.

Since economic activity is linked with the consumption of fossil fuels, an economic downturn will result in fewer emissions. The dip in CO2 emissions recorded in 2009, for example, was, according to Rubin, a direct result of the recession and not any government initiative.

Rubin and Suzuki make it clear that there are advantages to living lightly on the planet.

Our economy has dragged us into lifestyles where we have more creature comforts than ever, yet we need to devote more time to make the money to pay for all that stuff.

Maybe without all of those nifty novelties and gadgets we would spend more time with each other, our kids and our communities.

One aspect of our conversation that I thought deserved more development, however, was the ability of society at large to cope with the transition to a slow-growth or no-growth economy.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that our society is addicted to cheap oil, and as any addict can tell you, getting that monkey off your back can be more painful than you think.

So what happens when our society begins to go into withdrawal?

Even those of us who get the message and support the need to change are finding that transition difficult to achieve. Even our distinguished visitors are relying on fossil fuel guzzling airplanes to get around.

Moreover, economic collapse means people lose jobs, they lose homes and, in many cases, families break apart.

Rubin himself pointed out that high food prices played major role in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that our society is addicted to cheap oil, and as any addict can tell you, getting that monkey off your back can be more painful than you think.

The current North American population has come to accept the idea that all of life’s necessities are accessible by credit card and that grocery store shelves stocked with items from around the world are their birthright.

I have heard middle-class types grumbling on the streets of Winnipeg about those “natives and immigrants who take our jobs!”

We’ve heard about the Tea Party types who seem to have overwhelmed the Republican Party in the U.S. demanding less taxes and less government as the panacea that will take us all back to the good old days.

Will the general public support leadership urging them to localize, consume less and grow their own food?

Or will they support the pushers in government who will continue to feed their addiction with policies that pit citizen against citizen and resource wars to the bitter end?

I leave you with this quote from the final scene of the 1975 Sidney Pollack movie t’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In 10 or 15 years - food, plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then? … Ask them when they’re running out. Ask them when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask them when their engines stop. Ask them when people who’ve never known hunger start going hungry. Do you want to know something? They won’t want us to ask them. They’ll just want us to get it for them.”

Michael Welch is a science student and news director at CKUW 95.9FM.

Published in Volume 67, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 24, 2012)