Today we start a new series concerning the end of growth and how to learn to live with the new normal. Really it’s about stasis – ancient Greek term meaning “to stand still”. Most of us have been sensing this for some time as our communities, economy, citizenship, environmental sustainability and democracy appear mired in inadequacy in a fashion we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. None of our present institutions has come forward with sufficient solutions to lift all of these dimensions from their doldrums.
It’s time we started telling the truth to one another, especially as it refers to how we plan our economies. A raft of new books and studies have appeared in recent years that point to our ineffectiveness – the end of growth, a post-democratic era, days of decline, etc. It’s not the first time the developed world has leveled off, or even declined in such a fashion, but our present predicament in unique in the sheer amount of wealth flowing around the globe. Canada has never seen so much money moving through its financial sectors and yet a diminishing portion of it filters down to our communities and institutions. The middle-class is increasingly squeezed every year. Solutions to poverty now appear farther off than ever before and our country runs the risk of tolerating a permanent society of classes. A rising number of fellow citizens are working far longer hours for less. Also rising is the number of unemployed. Governments are running out of funds at all levels and years of attrition appear to lie ahead.
I think we all sense this but remain reticent to speak honestly with one another lest by even introducing the subject we hasten our days of diminishing returns. Worse still, our leaders at all levels don’t dare utter such warnings for fear it might undercut and undermine their own validation as elites. Politicians, public officials, educators, media spokespersons, writers, artists, researchers, even advocates, fear to break with the conventional wisdom of unending growth because they lack any kind of robust solutions to our daunting challenges. And so they carry on, tinkering around the edges of the status quo because to tell the truth would reveal their own ineptitude.
In their own way, citizens are no different. Having increasingly dumped on institutions for the better part of two decades, they nevertheless show little inclination to pull themselves together in ways that compensate for the dysfunction of the political order. At both ends of the democratic spectrum – governors and governed – the ability to speak truth to power has lost any salience because no one is really sure what the truth is anymore – we are only aware of the consequences of not possessing it.
The greatest danger of all is that, knowingly or unknowingly, we are in the process of slowly training our guns on one another. As we hearken to our leaders telling us we have less and less financial resources with which to face the future, we begin to witness workers turn on the unemployed or unionized employees, citizens dealing more aggressively with their aboriginal people and vice-versa, the middle-class fighting the marginalized for fewer resources, politicians ignoring their citizens, voters disposing of their ballots, Canadian west and east duking it out, political parties seeking to obliterate rather than cooperate, and Canadians maintaining actions clearly hostile to the environment.
The devastating recession we recently endured supposedly ended almost two years ago and yet little is changing. We know it and we witness the devastating effects on our fellow citizens unable to get ahead of the downward economic pull.
We are instructed repeatedly that we are in precarious times of transition but as long as we get the fundamentals right that we’ll be okay. When is that going to happen? This hasn’t been a two-year phenomenon but a decades-old financial and economic model that is leaving more and more on the margins. And as long as we continue to accept such platitudes and assurances, we will participate in our own decline and disenfranchisement.
We are Western democracies. That means we can control the levers of government to turn it in favour of the critical mass of citizens. Well, we used to believe that anyway. Now we’re informed that globalization has placed true and fundamental reform out of our reach as democracies – markets and their inexorable laws rule. Then what’s the good of a democracy if we can’t truly alter our fate?
I just finished reading a lengthy book on the life of Theodore Roosevelt. One of his observations has stayed with me: “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.” If that’s the case, then bring on the lunacy because our perceived sanity is not longer effective or even real. Lunacy is relative. Diefenbaker felt Pearson was “crazy” for introducing a new flag. Tommy Douglas was viewed as a Western Canada fanatic for his belief in healthcare. Let’s have more crazy people just like them because we now live in days of confusion and decline and a little reform might just be the ticket.
But we’re not going to fight for that – at least not yet. The time will come when economic oppression will cause us to clamour for change and vote accordingly. But until that moment, let’s spend some time considering the new normal and what it means for us.