In the early 1980s, one of my professors was Fred H. Knelman. Born in 1919 in Winnipeg, he went on to study chemical engineering and earned a doctorate from London University. He was in England’s capital at the time of the infamous thermal inversion, the Great Smog, which in a weekend killed over 4000 people, sickened almost 100 000 and eventually went on to take 8000 more lives.
In part, that tragic event may have motivated him to teach environmental studies at Concordia for about 16 years. He wrote several books, including “Anti nation: transition to sustainability“. Along with other intellectuals in the 1970s, he questioned the wisdom of economic growth. One of the few professors who did not own a car, he envisioned an efficient economy that did not grow at the expense of health and the environment. Why couldn’t technology be used to produce quality-goods rather than sheer quantity? Sure, mass production drives down the cost per item, but why not pay more for something well-made and durable but which has far less hidden costs? This sensible approach is in tune with Environment Canada’s description of sustainable development.
Sustainable development is about meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations. It is about improving the standard of living by protecting human health, conserving the environment, using resources efficiently and advancing long-term economic competitiveness. It requires the integration of environmental, economic and social priorities into policies and programs and requires action at all levels – citizens, industry, and governments.
Economic growth, it is argued, can take people out of poverty. Yet in the U.S., the world’s largest economy (soon to be overtaken by China), the fruits of growth tend to be concentrated among the wealthy. Among OECD countries, the U.S. has the 4th highest gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, a shrinking middle class and a 17% poverty rate, higher than the 11% OECD average. It has the 2nd highest homicide rate among those countries, the world’s highest incarceration rate, no universal medicare and college tuition that is so high that 68% of students graduate with an average of $30 000 of debt. Despite all of this, since 1972, in 10 consecutive federal elections, not more than 57.46% of eligible voters have cared enough to vote.
The other gargantuan economic engine of the world, China, is ruled by a single party with rampant corruption. Beijing’s concentration of PM 2.5 particles, small enough to get into into the lungs and bloodstream, reached 505 micrograms per cubic metre in 2014, over 20 times higher than what the World Health Organisation recommends. Their own government has admitted that 19.4% of crop-growing land is contaminated with industrial waste, which also often finds its way unfiltered into major rivers.
Smaller economies that possess better social programs and environmental policies than the United States and China, respectively, are economically tied in to the big two engines and are to various degrees still enslaved to consumerism. So the rest of the countries cannot wash their hands of the problems of the largest powers.
But after 40 years of talk and print about a quiet revolution towards something sustainable, towards a world based on care and craft and not on power and money, much of our population still fantasizes about winning a lottery. If it’s not Power Ball, it’s the aspiration of becoming a star actress, big league athlete or a Fortune 500 executive, a lust for fame and megabucks granted to one lucky winner out of myriads of dreamers. Meanwhile, social inequalities and looming climate change are not dealt with. Why is this so?
1. Part of the elite must oppose the status quo and feel alienated enough to mobilize the population.
2. There have to be widespread economic and fiscal strains.
3. The rest of the population has to feel anger at the injustice.
4. There has to be a shared narrative of resistance.
5. International relations have to be favourable to the revolution.
Not of these conditions are being met. (1) is not in the cards among our wealthy elite. Most believe that social ills can only be remedied with more raw economic growth, and they resent taxation and regulation. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those who feel economic strains cling to the American —or Chinese dream— while in many countries fiscal strains, which in part are exacerbated by catering to large corporations, are dealt with by handing debt to future generations. (2)Despite the above average poverty rate, in the United States, 42% of the population still resides in households with at least $75 000 of income.
(3)At best, the anger of the masses is dissipated through gargantuan sports, entertainment industries and social media, all of which advocate more spending. The rest of the frustration contributes to white collar crime, rape, theft and violence. (4) The narrative of resistance is present, but it’s neutralized by divisiveness. People blame completely different sources for their anger and propose incompatible solutions. Finally, condition (5) cannot be a factor because in a world economy, no country can become sustainable independently.