I’m not an economist, far from it; and someone will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong. But it strikes me that the current spate of daily bad economic news exposes underlying problems that surely need to be recognized and somehow brought into any discussion about how to turn things around.
First, the modern world economy is largely based on the idea that the pursuit of material wealth in all its forms – including monetary wealth itself – is the be-all and end-all of happy human existence on earth. Not that I wouldn’t mind winning one of a number of million-dollar, and now even billion-dollar lotteries: I am also, like most of us, a product of the consumer/materialistic culture into which I was born, and in which I have lived all my life. We are all victims of it, you and I. That’s true even if we’re strapped financially and can’t afford to buy much. We’re not good consumers; instead, we’re part of the economic problem known as a “lack of consumer confidence.”
In the eyes of more affluent society the growing ranks of the poor are too often branded as failures, including by themselves. It engenders unhappiness, more-so at certain times like – and this is hugely ironic – during the so-called Holiday Season when people can’t afford to spend a small fortune on presents for their children or grandchildren. After all, that’s where they too start learning about how the material world works. And so it goes, around and around.
Worst of all perhaps, in a world of diminishing expectations and hope, it makes some people angry – young people especially because they’re the ones who have less to look forward to – a steady job in a factory, for example, than those of us who count ourselves among the post-war “boomer generation.”
Many boomers – former flower children, if you like – have done well by the material economy. They got good jobs at union wages, had successful professional careers, made good money in real estate, invested their money in mutual funds and the stock market and made a lot more money, for a while. Now in their retirement they may be spending a lot of time “playing the market,” moving their money around, trying to make the best of what’s lately been looking more and more like a bad thing.
If anybody is looking for the proverbial “bottom line,” here it is: the material world, the consumer society, is not sustainable.
On the bright side, there’s a certain demographic of young people who know that already, either that or they’re turning away from that economic model for personal reasons, mostly, I think, out of necessity: why waste your time chasing a “vain thing.” They know they have to find, or more likely create a new paradigm that can be sustained into a new future of hope. They know, consciously or intuitively, that the prevailing values of the world they were born into are spiritually empty, and they want something better than that, for themselves, and the world.
They know, for example, about the growing gap between rich and poor; they heard “in the news” about the personal wealth of the richest one percent of people on earth, is equal to the other 99 percent. Indeed, 62 of those rich people were as rich as half of the rest of the world’s population. Meanwhile, many millions live and die in dire poverty, need, and hopelessness in an increasingly de-stabilized, war-wracked world. And they know that’s wrong, that something has to change.
I listen to a lot of “indie” Canadian music on, yes, CBC Radio, and am impressed by the spirit of creativity and energy in that community of young musicians. I’m sure there are many other young Canadians in various fields of endeavour, or searching for one, who are anxious to break free with a similar spirit. I can see it in my own grandchildren now coming of age. I hope the new government will find a way to tap into and help that energy find its way. It can build a new, positive, sustainable future for Canada, and help change the world for the better.
Speaking of that, the second basic problem the market turmoil exposes is the extent to which the current world economic model is tied to fossil-fuel consumption. It’s complicated, I know: We “consumers” buy less stuff, and national economies stop growing, or, in China’s case, stop growing as fast. Ship-loads of scrap metal remained anchored in Chinese ports, the demand for oil goes down.
And then, of all things, the major oil-producing (OPEC) countries, Saudi Arabia especially, refuse to cut production, even to stop the price of oil from collapsing; meanwhile, Iranian oil exports resume, further increasing the “glut” of oil supplies on the global market.
Now, this will always be a world that to some extent must run on oil. It’s the nature of machines: they need lubrication. I’ve got a good working tractor I’m not planning to scrap anytime soon. But an economy based to such an extent on oil and the vicissitudes of its price is, well, ridiculous. What fools or villains are pulling those strings, and why? And that’s not even getting into the whole issue of climate change.
Human beings have proven themselves to be adaptable, creative creatures; it’s what we are. The fossil fuel age can’t continue, no matter how much oil remains to be discovered and piped wherever.
It shouldn’t be happening in such an uncontrolled, precipitous manner. That’s obvious. It’s also obvious that Canada is way too economically dependent on oil. The sooner this country marshals its human reserve of adaptive creativity and helps invent a new economic/energy paradigm, the better, for all concerned.
Originally published in The Sun Times on February 6, 2016.