Lots of talk about growth, but few peo­ple act­ing to curb the harm it does

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - ED­I­TOR'S NOTES

MU­NIC­I­PAL ELEC­TIONS HAVE LONG been plagued by low voter turnout. Don’t ex­pect this year to be any dif­fer­ent. And that’s a shame, and not only for the ob­vi­ous rea­sons. Look­ing ahead, it just might be that small lo­cal democ­ra­cies play a big role in pre­serv­ing our way of life.

Small and lo­cal are al­ready buzz­words in farm­ing: we’re catch­ing on to the fact food pro­duced close to home on fam­ily farms pro­vides wide­spread ben­e­fits.

In the big­ger pic­ture, a re­turn to lo­cal­ized ac­tiv­i­ties and small-scale farm­ing rep­re­sent some­thing of an an­ti­dote to the growth mantra that per­me­ates our cul­ture – go big or go home doesn’t ben­e­fit us, some­thing de­luded amal­ga­ma­tion ad­vo­cates should keep in mind, no mat­ter what the rum­blings from Doug Ford (do con­sider the source).

Growth-re­lated is­sues have been on dis­play in the town­ships of late, and a topic of dis­cus­sion – or what lit­tle dis­cus­sion there’s been – dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign.

Growth – i.e. de­vel­op­ment – is likely the most di­vi­sive and gal­va­niz­ing is­sue in mu­nic­i­pal pol­i­tics (think of past de­bates over Wal­mart and slots, right through to gravel pits). Change al­most al­ways fos­ters re­sis­tance. That’s espe­cially true as much of the change is not for the bet­ter.

At the re­gional level, the prob­lems of growth are man­i­fest in the still-not-func­tional light rail tran­sit scheme that will serve few and bur­den the re­gion and its cit­i­zens for years to come. On top of its other woes, the sys­tem sets us on a course to waste a whole lot of money and to pro­mote harm­ful growth in the fu­ture in or­der to jus­tify the poor de­ci­sions made yes­ter­day and to­day. The en­tire ra­tio­nale for spend­ing more than $2 bil­lion de­pends on con­tin­ued growth. Pro­po­nents tell us the train is not needed to­day, but will be when the pop­u­la­tion in­creases by half again. Even at that point, buses might still serve us bet­ter, but the train will en­cour­age growth – there’s that word again – in the down­town cor­ri­dor.

Though less of an is­sue in this elec­tion – it’s re­ally too late to turn back now – the LRT is the wrong choice for tran­sit. It’s the wrong choice to get peo­ple out of their cars. It’s the wrong choice to curb sprawl. But some peo­ple will make money even as the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion the re­gion hopes for hurts those who most de­pend on tran­sit. The idol of growth trumps all those con­cerns. (Less talk this time, un­like the disin­gen­u­ous dis­cus­sions four years ago, but the is­sue is an­other good rea­son to vote for any­one other than the in­cum­bents.)

This is not an iso­lated is­sue. The en­tire sys­tem of gov­ern­ment and the econ­omy are both pred­i­cated on growth. None of our politi­cians at any level is talk­ing about rev­ers­ing that trend, even though con­stant growth is by def­i­ni­tion im­pos­si­ble. Life on a fi­nite planet makes that clear.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of hu­man ac­tiv­ity is the clear­est in­di­ca­tor of where growth is a prob­lem. We use up non-re­new­able re­sources and we spew pol­lu­tants into the air, wa­ter and soil. That can’t go on for­ever.

Nor can we con­tinue to pave over land, espe­cially pro­duc­tive farm­land, in per­pe­tu­ity. That, of course, is one of the ar­gu­ments made in favour of the tran­sit sys­tem: the war on sub­ur­ban sprawl.

We live in a so­ci­ety that is ob­sessed by growth eco­nomics – growth for growth’s sake. It’s an ob­ses­sion that no longer serves us.

Our cur­rent life­style has a dra­matic im­pact on the Earth. We con­sume at a rate be­yond sus­tain­abil­ity, with each of us putting a claim on an in­creas­ingly large chunk of the planet’s sur­face to make pos­si­ble our con­sumerist ten­den­cies.

While we’ve rec­og­nized some of the per­ils, if only in lit­tle ways, our ef­forts have been largely in­ef­fec­tive. Yes, we sep­a­rate our trash into var­i­ous re­cy­clable com­po­nents. Yes, we look at ways to make items with fewer ma­te­ri­als. Yes, we try to get greater fuel ef­fi­ciency out of our ve­hi­cles. But the eco­log­i­cal dam­age of ex­treme growth con­tin­ues be­cause there are more of us con­sum­ing more goods as in­creas­ing num­bers of prod­ucts come to the mar­ket. With tech­nol­ogy, we see built-in ob­so­les­cence and rapid turnover fu­eled by our de­sire for the lat­est and great­est, for in­stance.

Any move­ment to counter that trend needs to take aim at what econ­o­mists have long called ex­ter­nal­i­ties: trans­fer­ring to so­ci­ety the costs of pro­duc­tion while the prof­its go to in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies. If we’re go­ing to change the sys­tem, we’re go­ing to have to take move away from that prac­tice.

The sys­tem de­pends on so­ci­ety – govern­ments and cit­i­zens – to bear the cost of the in­fra­struc­ture, both hard and soft, with­out which cor­po­ra­tions couldn’t op­er­ate. Forced to take that into con­sid­er­a­tion when mak­ing busi­ness de­ci­sions, com­pa­nies would likely take a dif­fer­ent tack, one more lo­cal, de­cen­tral­ized and hu­man in scale.

While the prob­lem is sys­temic, and real change ul­ti­mately de­pends on re­duc­ing the global pop­u­la­tion, the is­sues of growth and qual­ity of life are at play even in the up­com­ing mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion. Vot­ing for those es­pous­ing some­thing other than the sta­tus quo is a start.

Per­haps it’s time for some pol­icy-driven agen­das, for some­thing that will in­ject in­ter­est into mu­nic­i­pal pol­i­tics. Maybe then we’ll get some politi­cians pre­pared to de­fine the real pri­or­i­ties and to make the ad­just­ments needed to bring spend­ing in line while de­liv­er­ing on those ba­sic qual­ity of life is­sues most of us are con­cerned with.

That would help re­store le­git­i­macy of gov­ern­ment in gen­eral. There’s been

a grad­ual ero­sion of the over­all re­spect for demo­cratic and ac­tive gov­ern­ment be­cause our politi­cians have lobbed up too many easy tar­gets. Ev­ery time they fall down on the job – and there are many ‘ev­ery times’ – they pro­vide am­mu­ni­tion to those who would see the en­tire sys­tem pulled down.

That’s why a back-to-ba­sics ap­proach ap­peals to so many of us: in­trin­si­cally, we know gov­ern­ment is get­ting too big, too waste­ful and too un­ac­count­able. Lead­ers who ac­tu­ally get us back on track – as op­posed to talk­ing the talk sim­ply to get elected – will be do­ing us a much larger favour than leav­ing us stuck on the same dead-end track.

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