Last week the Government of British Columbia and the Government of Canada signed an economic partnership agreement that "will invest a total of $50 million towards supporting long term economic growth." Down in Washington, DC, President Obama is pushing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan which he states will jumpstart economic growth. And, in his recent throne speech Prime Minister Harper said that his economic stimulus plan would be "making investments to promote long term growth."
The governments, their leaders, many economists and commentators who repeat the growth mantra don't get it. The world is in a mess because of too much growth. It is in a mess because there is too much production and too much consumption. And, that mess is compounded because there is too great an inequality between societies and economic classes in levels of consumption.
In my lifetime the human population of the planet has more than tripled. We have gone from a global society that had more than enough sustainable resources to support all of us to one that is consuming more than can be replaced. At the same time most of the other populations, such as those of fish, and resources such as fertile soil and clean water, have diminished.
The intelligent answer to our crisis is not to feed it with more unsustainable growth, but to begin a process of reversing growth. We need to replace the growth philosophy with a repair philosophy or our grandchildren will face crises that will make our current ones pale in comparison.
Governments and economists push economic growth as the mechanism to create employment. There are better ways at this point in history. The bulk of new employment must come now from jobs created to repair our infrastructure and the environmental damage that we have done to the planet. The finances to pay for those jobs must come from changing how we redistribute wealth in society. Currently wealth is redistributed primarily through market mechanisms. Markets will not work well for accomplishing what we must do. We need to change our method of redistribution by increasing government control of wealth through more progressive taxation.
Such ideas, of course, send the regressive conservatives into fits, flailing about and setting their hair on fire, which is understandable. Their purpose is to protect the interests of the wealthy, and the wealthy will be the hardest hit in a fairer and more just system. The rest of us will do fine. In fact, one of the most prosperous times in the United States was when the top income tax rates were in the 90% range. And the gap between rich and poor was smaller with top executives making about 35 times more than their workers. In 2005 they made about 300 times more than the average worker, and 900 times more than the minimum wage.
Whether we ramp up production and follow the market model, or ramp up taxes and create jobs through public spending, the amount of wealth remains the same. The difference is what we get for the end result.
The market model, based on continuous growth and increasing consumption, will hurt us environmentally as we devour the means of the planet to sustainably support us. In the end we will suffer a biologic crash. It will also hurt us socially as the rich get richer and the rest of us have less in comparison. That is a prescription for violent conflict and repressive government.
The rational model, based on a fair distribution of resources and responsible stewardship of our life support system, may be a radical lifestyle change for many, but it is also a prescription for a more liveable planet for our descendants.