The Environment and the Economy

For me, there are two main issues in this year’s federal election.

1. One is the environment. In recent years we have had ample evidence that the climate is changing. We have seen it in the extreme weather and the melting ice caps and glaciers, and in the disastrous flood problems in Louisiana, the Philippines and Bangladesh. We know that there have been a number of ice ages in the past, and periods of warming between them. We may not be able to stop these changes, but we can prepare for them and prevent the most extreme damage. It is high time that we prohibit building on flood plains, that we pay attention to our endangered shorelines, and that we act globally and help the poorer nations in their distress.

But much of the environmental problem is man-made. Increasing pollutants in the air, fewer trees and other plants to cleanse the atmosphere, increasing instances of asthma and other respiratory diseases especially among small children, growing smog problems in our cities, expanding deserts, increasing dependence on non-renewable resources such as coal and oil, all alert us to the possibility that within the next millennium human beings could become as extinct as the dinosaurs.

Still, in spite of the warning signals, we continue to depend on coal and oil, drive gas-guzzling cars, convert vegetable matter into biofuel, smoke tobacco and marijuana, and generally act irresponsibly. And the Government takes only half-hearted measures. I am reminded of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938. He promised that there would be “peace in our time”. And of the false prophets crying “all is well” when destruction was at the city gates (Jeremiah 6:14). Denial is not an option.

Strong action is needed, and it may be that all the actions promised by all the political parties – cap and trade, green shift, carbon tax, mandatory emission reduction, taken together, will not be enough to stem the tide. In this campaign I suspect the politicians are afraid to admit the full extent of the danger and the necessity of strong action, for fear that they will lose votes. For the necessary action will be costly. Economic adjustment will drive taxes up.

2. The second issue is economic. I believe it was J.K. Galbraith who described our system as a ”horse and sparrow economy”: give a horse enough oats at the front end, and enough will come out at the rear to keep the sparrows happy. (I saw that picture played out many times when I was a boy, in the 1930s.) Another appropriate phrase is “a trickle down economy”. Our economic development is dependent on people who control large amounts of capital; the concentration of wealth enables the wheels of industry to turn; the benefits then trickle down to the masses.

Under today’s conditions this may be the best system available to our society, but I hate to think so. Unfortunately in a free market economy each business must compete with others, and this often means paying minimal wages and otherwise cutting costs. It means competing with other jurisdictions where the legislated minimum wage is lower or non-existent. Competition among powerful interests and powerful countries with other standards often makes it difficult for the most well-meaning managers to play fair with their employees and with their customers. It also interferes with pension funds and other benefits, whether these are employer or government related.

One function of government is to protect the poor and vulnerable against the wealthy and powerful interests. We do this in many ways: through the justice system, through free schools and health care, through disability and old age pensions, through laws governing minimum wages, and through human rights legislation. Such provisions are absolutely necessary, and the standards need to be raised. We need a Guaranteed Annual Income for everyone.

About 20 years ago the Canadian Parliament agreed unanimously to eradicate poverty. Since that time the poverty gap has increased; the rich have grown richer and the poor have lost ground. I hold that for any employer or CEO, or the head of any department or agency, to make ten times as much as his humblest employee is exploitation and sinful and should be prohibited. Nobody needs a half million dollar income, or a million dollar home; such affluence is shameful and obscene. I agree that effort and ability should be rewarded – but not to that extent.

Among the nations also, the wealthy countries have grown richer and the poor nations are poorer. To our shame. It is said that a billion of the world’s people have insufficient food and drinking water.

Whether nationally or internationally, we cannot depend on market forces – unbridled, profit-oriented capitalism – to eradicate poverty and build a better society. Our economy must be structured in such a way that everyone who can work will have a job at more than the present minimum wage, that those who cannot work will be able to live in dignity, that every child and youth can get an education and that everyone will have free and equal access to appropriate health care. The major cause of war and crime will then be eradicated.

I have read statements by world famous economists that it is possible to save the planet and humanity. But there will be a cost.

Environment and the equality gap – both can be fixed, if there is enough political will.

This is a difficult message to accept in this year of 2008. We are threatened in at least three ways. And when we are threatened, financially and otherwise, we tend to circle the wagons and protect ourselves and our kind.

For one, the crisis in the stock markets will result in losses, particularly for those who have investments.

Secondly, the recent tendency to extreme weather, particularly here in North America, means that someone has to pay the for the damages.

Thirdly, we are beginning to realize that the human race, and especially those of us in the western world, have been living beyond our means, and using up our resources faster than they can be replaced. One economist (Bill McKibben) is quoted as saying that if present trends of consumption continue, we will reach a level beyond the world’s capacity by 2050. He is quoted as saying that globalization has allowed people to live off others in far away places without having to absorb social costs. (Jon Magnuson in Christian Century, July 29, 2008). Other economists seem to agree. But from what I have read, they also agree that the world (and the human race) can be saved.

How will the cost be paid? How will the adjustments take place? I suggest we shall have increased taxation and belt tightening, and extension of a triage system which is already in operation. It will mean drastic changes and a reorganization of our social and economic system. This is no time to call for lower taxes.

One more thought: I believe it was Archbishop Romero who said that when he fed the hungry he was called a saint, but when he asked why they were hungry he was called a communist. He was assassinated. We too must ask why the poor are hungry.

Are we ready for the challenge? Do we have the political will?

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