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Labour + Industry

Canadians, Let's Get Happy

Next PM needs to reinvent how our country measures success.

Chris Wood 10 Oct

Chris Wood is author of Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America and with a Tyee Investigative Fellowship, authored the series Rough Weather Ahead: How Global Warming Will Hit BC.

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We're consuming her future.

If you can, tear your eyes away from the meltdown in the fantasy world of high-finance derivatives.

The bigger threat by far is the rapid meltdown of the real economy we inhabit. The planet's top scientists are warning us that we are fast eroding the natural ecosystems on which our society and all its material and financial assets depend.

That's why the first order of business for our next prime minister should be reinventing how Canada measures success. Let me explain.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warned us in 2005 that two thirds of the earth's natural systems -- from those regulating our water supply to those that provide us with wild and farmed food -- are being used up faster than they can recover.

The date on which scientists calculate that we ran through all of the planet's annual production of eco-services -- and after which we began digging into our stocks of past years' production -- came and went late last month. It has been moving earlier with every passing year since we first went into ecological overdraft in the early 1980s.

These are not simply pretty parks or iconic fauna we're talking about folks. This is our life-support system that we are actively destroying.

Are we having fun yet?

It might almost be worth it if we were actually enjoying the party at the end of the world. But especially on this Thanksgiving Day, we should probably reflect on whether we're really as happy as they say we are. Surveys of self-reported happiness show that in the richest countries on earth, including Canada, people are enjoying life no more today than in the 1950s. But indicators of distress, from rates of addiction to mental illness to marital breakdown to the daily struggle to find time for oneself or one's family, those have all gone steadily up.

Ground-breaking Canadian ecological economist Mark Anielski did a remarkable thing in his province of Alberta. He compared its performance between 1961 and 1999 as reflected in its gross domestic product, the primary compass of our economic and political management, with a much wider range of indicators that accounted for scores of additional factors such as air quality, forest fragmentation, the extent of poverty, suicide rates and commuting times. He called these indicators of Alberta's genuine progress.

From 1961 to 1999, Alberta's GDP rose by 4.4 per cent a year on average. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Over the same time, the province's genuine progress as reflected in all those other things that determine whether life is worth living and whether the planet will continue to support human life at all, fell at an annual rate of 0.5 per cent.

In other words, Alberta wasn't really getting richer at all. Not in any of the ways that matter.

A dinosaur named GDP

As Bobby Kennedy memorably observed just weeks before he was shot down in a hotel kitchen, our familiar GDP "measures everything... except that which matters."

Kennedy wasn't the first to twig to the shortcomings of GDP as a compass. The economist who originally devised the measure of all the cash flowing through an economy, Simon Kuznets, warned the world not to use his invention for the very purpose it has served: as a guide to political and economic choices.

Nor is Anielski's genuine progress index (which he has since renamed his "Genuine Wealth" approach to economics) the only effort to develop a better navigational aid for our most important collective decisions. A Halifax group has worked for over a decade on a genuine progress index for that province. Toronto's Atkinson Foundation is supporting an initiative led by former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow (and including Anielski) to develop a Canadian Index of Well-being that will similarly reflect changes in the real quality of life in this country.

The Kingdom of Bhutan, of course, has become famous for hitching its development to something called its index of gross national happiness.

Better way to keep the books

We need more. In an article in the current issue of The Walrus magazine, I call on the next prime minister, whomever that is, to strike a Royal Commission tasked with designing a fair but effective set of accounting rules by which our conventional corporate and public book-keeping can begin to reflect in full all of the impacts of economic activity, including those on the environment and the quality of Canadians' lives. Beyond that, such a commission must draft a plan to return our economy to a sustainable, pay-as-you-go footing in its use of nature's services.

The three older parties competing for our votes quibble over carbon: tax it (Liberals) or cap it (Tories, sort of) or both (the NDP). None of their plans is especially convincing. The Harper government's is downright deceptive: under it, greenhouse emissions could actually rise as their 'intensity' (the amount of GHGs emitted for a dollar of GDP) falls.

The Greens, however, promise to measure not only "how much money changes hands" -- the function of the GDP -- but also "whether that economic activity makes us healthier and better educated, and the environment cleaner."

We need to hear much more on this from the Greens, and from the others something more than a debate over how to make the Tang hold out as Apollo 13 runs out of oxygen.

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