LET'S FACE IT – the really inconvenient truth is that the age of unconstrained exuberance is over. Techno-industrial society has broken faith with Gaia and is now wrestling its twin demons of hubris and greed. It is illusory to think that anything can ever be the same. Nevertheless, not a single candidate in the recent Canadian and American federal election campaigns fully acknowledged the global ecological crisis or recognized the transformative possibilities inherent in today’s economic downturn. On the contrary, the Harper and Obama governments are leading the world in efforts to resurrect the status quo, pouring billions of dollars into failed banks, corrupt brokerages, a severely mismanaged auto industry and dubious stimulus packages. Deep in denial, contemporary society will apparently do anything to reproduce the economic pyramid scheme that is at the root of both its ecological and social crises. Le Bon was right. Truth and high intelligence are not the primary determinants of socio-political behaviour.

What if they were?

A culture governed by greater introspection and thoughtful analysis would seize on today’s economic turmoil as an opportunity to deal more creatively with the (un)sustainability conundrum. The world needs an approach to global development that does a better job of reflecting biophysical and social realities.

As a first step, society should acknowledge that infinite material growth on a finite planet is an impossibility theorem. Political leaders could then redirect economic policies away from maximizing growth and toward achieving optimal scale. This is the point at which the economy produces maximum net benefits and beyond which further growth is uneconomic (i.e., the costs exceed the benefits). In short, individual nations and the global community should do as Herman Daly suggests: strive to create steady-state economies that emphasize true development (qualitative improvement), not mere growth (quantitative increase). A planned economic contraction aimed at optimizing outcomes would certainly be more prudent than today’s spontaneous financial train-wreck.

The transition to zero-growth would force the world to address sensitive questions about human population, lifestyles and equity that it has heretofore studiously avoided. What constitutes a suitable average material standard of living? How many people could a steady-state economy support sustainably at that standard?

These are critical issues. At present, the richest 20 per cent of the human family take home 76.6 per cent of world income, while the poorest 20 per cent subsist on a pathetic 1.5 per cent. In a world in overshoot, sustainability requires that wealthy countries significantly reduce consumption to free up the ecological space needed for necessary growth in the developing world. In theory, this should not be too painful since wealthy countries have long passed the point at which there is a significant correlation between either objective or subjective indicators of well-being and income. In his recent book, Managing Without Growth, York University professor Peter Victor shows that careful manipulation of tax, investment, trade and employment policies would enable countries like Canada to limit growth while actually increasing overall well-being.

An easy starting point might be to repair our so-called market economy. Any good economist will tell you that government intervention is legitimate and necessary to correct for such abject market failures as climate change. (Prime Minister Harper is an economist, isn’t he?) For example, a well-designed carbon tax (or, if you prefer, a cap-and-trade system) can be an effective way to internalize the previously unaccounted costs of using fossil fuel. Such ecological fiscal reform is necessary to ensure that market prices tell the truth about the total social cost of goods and services. Such measures don’t “wreck the economy,” Mr. Harper, they fix it – and advocates of efficient markets should be the first to say so.

Nor should governments subvert carbon taxes by offering rebates, by reducing other taxes or otherwise rendering them revenue neutral. Such illusory voter manipulation merely redirects consumption to other underpriced, often imported goods produced by using even more energy. Instead, the proceeds from carbon control should be used to offset the damage caused by fossil fuel use or to reduce rising carbon emissions.

Canada has millions of hectares of insufficiently restocked forest land; why not apply carbon-tax revenues to creating a system of dedicated carbon-sink forests to soak up our carbon emissions? As a bonus, this would spawn a vital new industry – restoration ecology – in former or declining forest-industry towns. And while rejuvenating our forests, the new coterie of professional land stewards would simultaneously be restoring fish-and-wildlife habitat, improving landscape aesthetics, increasing water quality and quantity, improving flood control and priming the tourism industry. What a deal!

Then again, perhaps the money should go into subsidizing home upgrades and corporate retrofits (such as more efficient motors, better insulation, thermal windows, solar heating), thus reducing Canadians’ use of fossil fuel while simultaneously spreading economic benefits across the country.

Seem over the top? Well, consider the emerging scientific consensus that the 21st century will be marked by either just such a controlled transition to sustainability or by erratic descent into violent chaos. The initial price of avoiding collapse may seem daunting, but it’s chump change compared to the cost of implosion. Given these circumstances, people are beginning to recognize that their individual self-interests may best be served if society begins to seriously address humanity’s long-term collective interests.

These issues are at the heart and soul of global sustainability. They are the issues our political leaders should have addressed in their electoral debates last year and should be debating now as the world struggles with deepening economic recession. In short, what the masses need are political leaders with a firm grasp of contemporary reality, not purveyors of illusion. But perhaps we ask too much. As Le Bon observed, “Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations….”


William Rees, co-author of Our Ecological Footprint, is a human ecologist and ecological economist at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning.

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