Mo’ Better blues

We can’t save the planet so long as we continue to increase our level of consumption.

"For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch," writes journalist Bill McKibben in his 2007 book Deep Economy. "You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both." McKibben's birds are a clever way of illustrating that, in the past, when the economy produced more, life usually got better. However, nowadays McKibben argues, it's no longer possible to hit both birds neatly with one stone. People have to choose between More or Better. McKibben's metaphor aptly illustrates his argument that we're paying a heavy price for our 60-year-old obsession with economic growth. The flood of consumer goods it produced has been accompanied by rampant environmental destruction and the threat of catastrophic climate change, while unemployment and poverty continue to plague us. And coming up with technological fixes so that we can continue to consume as usual on the one hand, and save the planet on the other, won't work. That's why seemingly good, green ideas like the province's renewable electricity plan aren't likely to succeed, because they hitch renewable energy to economic growth.

In short, "we need an alternative economy, not just an alternative energy system," says economist Juliet Schor. Like McKibben, Schor questions the desirability of continued economic growth in rich, industrial nations. And she provides convincing evidence that technological measures such as energy efficient appliances and cars actually increase energy use. In her new book, Plenitude, Schor also points out that in 1960, Americans consumed, on average, just a third of what they did in 2008. StatsCan figures show a similar increase in Canada, with personal spending on goods, for example, rising 57 percent from 1981 to 2005. Schor argues that to avoid ecological disaster, we need to stop defining wealth narrowly in terms of money, goods and growth, and instead use productivity gains to increase leisure time while we start making more things for ourselves and strengthen our family and community ties.

Schor points out, however, that politicians continue to trumpet the benefits of economic growth, while promoting technological fixes such as renewable energy schemes to avert climate change. "More far-reaching change, in growth aspirations, the basic structures of the economy, or the consumer culture, is barely under discussion," she writes.

For the moment, though, the political barriers to an alternative economy seem formidable. What Schor calls, the "business-as-usual" growth economy is still firmly entrenched. Here in Nova Scotia, the province is firmly committed to pursuing economic growth. In fact, its renewable electricity plan, announced in April, promises that "green" energy will create thousands of good jobs while "growing the economy." The plan calls for Nova Scotia to generate 40 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, mainly from industrial wind farms, burning wood waste and---if all goes well---importing hydro-electric power from Quebec over an expanded grid system that could be in place by 2013. The province is also committed to increasing energy efficiency levels as a way of keeping electricity consumption flat. Overall, it's hoping to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade by 10 percent over 1990 levels. It sounds admirable and, on the surface, it is. It's also clear from speaking with a senior official in the premier's office that the NDP government is thinking hard about conservation, renewable energy, and the path to a "greener" economy. But its goals conflict with the pursuit of economic growth in which we keep consuming more stuff.We need a more radical, decentralized approach to alternative energy and the economy.

Fortunately we don't need to look far for successful blueprints. Nova Scotia has a rich co-op tradition, pioneered in Antigonish by Moses Coady. The province could also adopt GPI Atlantic's Genuine Progress Index---a guide to an alternative economy in which quality of life is valued more highly than the quantity of things we buy. As Bill McKibben points out, More no longer automatically equals Better.

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