This paper was presented to the Public Liaison Committee (PLC) of the
Waste Management study being conducted in the United Counties of Leeds & Grenville,
located on the St. Lawrence River, East of Kingston, Ontario.
The resolution from the last paragraph was passed on March 21, 1995.
If this were the 1600's and I were to tell you that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, you would hear me with disbelief. Galileo was tried for heresy for suggesting as much. At his trial the judges refused even to look through his telescope at the evidence he cited.
What I will suggest here is as much a heresy today as Copernicus's notion was four hundred years ago. I hope, however, that we will consider the evidence with more openness because the consequences of the present misunderstanding could be fatal.
For five years, the PLC, the Steering Committee and a million dollars have tried to solve our garbage problem. Millions more will be spent before we start depositing vast quantities of waste in a massive crypt. If all goes well, after it is full, the crypt will sit inert for decades or centuries with the leachate continuously being pump out and treated. When the vigil is finally interrupted, our solution will still be there awaiting the right combination of weather, tree roots and burrowing rodents to release its poisons into the circulating fluids of the environment.
Expensive engineered landfills and even recycling are solutions applied to the symptoms of the problem. If we expect to solve the problem we have to address the cause.
This is where I ask you to open your mind to think the unthinkable. The root of our problem is the growth ethic. The belief that continuously expanding economic activity is the route to well-being.
The human community has always grown, but the focus on expanding Gross National Product, (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has only reached religious proportions since World War II. This ascention has its roots in the industrial revolution when fuel driven machinery and mass production techniques offered quality shoes, cooking pots and all manner of other goods in abundance and at prices people could afford.
The elegance of the growth process rests on the motivation of self interest, a virtue to which people don't have to rise. In the Wealth of Nations published in 1776 by Adam Smith, the parable of the invisible hand made its debut. He wrote that if each individual pursued his own advantage he was 'led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,' and as a result did more to promote the interests of society than if he had deliberately set out to do so. By harnessing self interest and cultivating greed as a driving force, an economic system of great power developed, producing previously unimaginable wealth.
The invisible hand was a positive influence because in the 1700 & 1800's one could not make one's fortune without providing something of value to society. This continued to be true until the advent of mass media made it possible to pursued people to purchase things they would never have wanted. To this anomaly has been added electronic financial markets where vast fortunes are made far removed from any practical production. In fact, rather than enriching the world, this abstract trading is often responsible for destabilizing whole economies.
Further change has taken place in the last half century as the exponential growth of production has created a whole new order of problems. The magnitude to which economic activity has grown now threatens natural resource supplies and produces dangerous quantities of polluting waste.
The elegance of the Growth system is starting to tarnish. GNP and GDP are misleading indicators in situations like the Exxon Valdez oil spill where two billion dollars were pumped into the Alaskan economy during its partial clean up. Would we feel a surge of well being if a super tanker broke up in the St. Lawrence? Everyone would have work and much of the earnings would be spent at local businesses.
The same ambiguity can be found in the treatment of pollution related lung diseases, and cancers. The billions of dollars in research and treatment of these ailments help to swell the GNP. Should any of us suffer from these problems, as statistics indicate every third one of us will, is it fitting to take comfort in the fact that the money spent on our care will contribute to the nations well-being? If these diseases were eliminated and that money no longer spent, would the nation really be that much poorer?
Growth has its place. For each of us it was a central concern throughout our childhood. However, when we reached our present size, we stopped getting bigger. Continuing to grow physically past that point would not be much use. Similarly with society, as long as growth focused on providing adequate supplies of food, clothing, shelter and tools it was entirely appropriate. There are many places where these basic commodities are still not sufficiently available, but our economy does not look to these real needs in its search to expand. Such enterprise is not sufficiently rewarding to stimulate the motive force of greed. It is much more lucrative and expands the GNP more to refine techniques of obsolescence, automation and persuasive marketing.
Planned obsolescence is one practice directly at odds with our garbage concerns. Waste reduction enthusiasts promote durability and easily repaired goods. Yet making goods which break down or which pass from style and are just as well thrown away, is much better for Growth. When effectively done, people get a sense of value from their purchases then lose interest and clear the way for new purchases and all the related productive activity.
Maximizing profits by reducing production costs is another stimulant of Growth. The greater the profits, the more capital there is to invest in more production. If this means moving to a low wage country or automating jobs away entirely, that's progress.
Advertisement is another motor of Growth. One commandment of the Growth religion is to create want. By promoting desire, demand for goods goes up and the urge to make more money to buy more is cultivated. Both serve GNP. Advertisements takes many forms and promotes many different products, but they all advance the same message. For your life to be worthwhile you need to consume. The sheer sophistication, magnitude and persistence of the medium are sufficient that an outside observer might conclude that we are all extensively brain washed. Whether we call it brainwashing or not, the result is a lot of garbage.
Except for some fine art and the structural part of special buildings, everything manufactured becomes garbage. Every increase of production will result in increased garbage. Some of the waste can be recycled, but even if we were to return 50% of it to productive uses we would be back to present volumes in a little over twenty years. This figure is based on a 3% growth rate considered minimal for economic health. Eliminating garbage through reduction and reuse clearly inhibit Growth and are counter economic.
One last point of concern is that the value of Growth has been so thoroughly promoted that activities which do not contribute to GNP are considered second rate. These include caring for children and helping our neighbours. Although these practices still go on, those who indulge in them fall behind the real achievers in society. The impact of this shift in values is felt throughout society as a generation of children who were raised as uneconomic burdens move out into society and as the mutual support systems of many communities, particularly in urban areas, fall into disrepair.
These arguments indicate short comings of the Growth imperative, but what choice do we have. A business after all cannot survive without a positive bottom line. This appears to be true on the level of individual businesses but let us exercise our imaginations for a while. Consider this quote from John Maynard Keynes, one of the fathers of modern economic thought.
"The whole conduct of life was made into a sort of parody of an accounts nightmare. Instead of using their vastly increased material and technical resources to build a wonder-city they built slums, and they thought it right and proper to build slums because slums, on the test of private enterprise, paid, whereas a wonder-city would, they thought, have been an act of foolish extravagance which would, in the imbecile idiom of the financial fashion, have 'mortgaged the future'; though how the construction today of great and glorious works can impoverish the future, no man can see; until his mind is beset by false analogies from an irrelevant accountancy."
False analogies from an irrelevant accountancy! What is Keynes getting at? Could there be another measure of human well being? Perhaps one that does not have the dangerous side effects of Growth everlasting?
I suggest that sustainability provides a more relevant accountancy. If not on the level of individual businesses, certainly for society as a whole. The guidelines of this measure are familiar to some of you, but I will reproduce them here for reference.
ACTIVITIES ARE SUSTAINABLE WHEN THEY:
If our goal were to sustainably provide for people, rather than to make the economy grow on the faith that the expanding wealth would trickle down to people, very different aspects of life would be promoted.
First of all, the value of sustainability deals directly with problems of resource supplies and waste. Human activity, the economic process, is seen clearly as a sub-system of our finite planet's ecology. From this perspective the comment; how could businesses continue without a positive bottom line would be met in equal disbelief by; how can we maintain businesses which deplete resources and accumulate waste? The common ground here is full cost accounting, where the presently overlooked long-term costs of resource depletion and wastes are included with other costs of doing business.
Planned obsolescence would be seen as clearly anti-social since it unnecessarily deteriorates future opportunities. Full cost accounting would help to bring this into line by making manufacturers responsible for the waste they create and for the draw down of resource supplies.
With sustainability as a primary value, there would be a very different approach to labour. The element of equity implied by point #7 suggests every person is important. Without the pressure to always be increasing efficiency, work could be spread around and people could be afforded the luxury of taking time at what they do, to do a good job and to make a quality contribution to society. This one change would do more to solving problems of family violence, crime and the abuse of alcohol and drugs than a one hundred fold increase in the law enforcement budget.
We might wonder, if the persuasive voice of advertising were to fall silent, what people would want? If people were not persuaded to look for fulfillment in expanding consumption, they might look to themselves and their communities for satisfaction. The three L's, learning, love and laughter and other qualities of our humanness, like creativity, sport, service and appreciation of the world within and around ourselves can be far more satisfying than the latest consumer marvel. These qualities can provide abundant personal satisfaction with a minimum of drain on natural resources or waste production. Life-based activities, however, seldom contribute much to Gross National Product.
There are areas in which environmental sense makes economic sense. Reducing energy use through efficiency measures in heating and production processes can raise profits substantially. The same is true for recycling of waste cutting disposal costs and in some cases, reducing the expense of raw materials. The areas of common ground would be considerably expanded by full cost accounting. There are however some fundamental areas of conflict between the value of growth and that of sustainability as indicated above.
We can count on people rising to self interest. It is not so certain that we will respond to more altruistic values. Be that as it may, I suggest that in the present era, we will come closer to serving the interests of society if we promote service, compassion and generosity rather than greed. When we no longer approach economics as a competition to see who can get the most, and see it rather as a cooperative venture to assure the well-being of present and future generations, there will be a dramatic improvement in our prospects. We might in fact find a satisfactory solution to the garbage problem and we could look at the children of the day with hope, rather than fear for the world they are growing to inhabit.
Therefore: I move that the PLC recommend to the Steering Committee and through them, to the Provincial Government that accounting practices be instituted that factor in the full costs of resource availability, waste and the social impacts of economic decisions; and that when conflicts arise between the value of economic expansion and that of sustainability that the sustainability be given primacy over economic expansion.