Buying our way out of pandemic malaise is hurting the planet, experts say

Back in the spring, Canadian politicians spoke optimistically of a “two-dose summer,” signalling that a robust COVID-19 vaccination rollout would enable people to fully enjoy the warmer weather.

As COVID-19 infection numbers eased in recent months, provinces have relaxed restrictions and encouraged people to spend again.

While this was meant to provide a collective boost in the middle of a stubborn pandemic, this summer has put on another horror show of extreme weather — including a deadly heat dome and rampant wildfires in British Columbia and northwestern Ontario and drought in the Prairies.

Earlier this week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire report that stated unequivocally that climate change was human-made and that some of its catastrophic effects were already on view.

The destruction we’re seeing now is fuelled by decades of environmental harm, but it is also coming at a time when politicians and marketers alike are prompting us to spend — whether it’s at the mall, at the car dealership or on so-called revenge travel.

Mass consumption inevitably adds stress to the natural world, in the form of resource extraction and carbon emissions.

“There is always discussion that we should as consumers spend money to fuel up businesses,” said Bengi Akbulut, assistant professor of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University in Montreal.

“But I think the broader tension [right now] is whether we can grow our way out of the ecological breakdown.”

Listen | CBC Radio’s What on Earth looks at the climate cost of consumerism: 

What On Earth27:02The climate cost of consumerism

As Canada works to bounce back after pandemic-induced economic losses, we look at what’s changed when it comes to what we buy. And we find out if reimagining our relationship to our stuff could help fight climate change. 27:02

A reliance on consumer spending

When the economy takes a hit, financial analysts often tout consumer spending as an important means to recovery.

As a result of multiple COVID-19 lockdowns, many Canadians have significant savings — and a lot of pent-up demand. In March, the Bank of Canada estimated that Canadians had built up savings of $180 billion during the pandemic. At the time, the bank’s deputy governor, Lawrence Schembri, said that if 15 per cent of that were spent through 2023, it would speed up Canada’s economic recovery.

Most financial institutions have been watching this closely — RBC even has a Consumer Spending Tracker (previously called the COVID Consumer Spending Tracker). 

Peter Victor, professor emeritus in environmental studies at York University in Toronto, said that going back to 1900, economic growth across the world has largely been accompanied by increases in fossil-fuel use, mining and land development, all of which have a negative impact on sustainability.

“The idea of growing economically out of these problems just isn’t plausible,” said Victor, author of the book Managing Without Growth.

Some politicians and business people believe that attempts to lower carbon emissions will automatically hurt gross domestic product (GDP). Thanks in large part to greater energy efficiency and a reduction in the use of coal power, some jurisdictions, such as the U.K. and the state of California, have shown that an economy can in fact continue to grow even as it reduces emissions, a process known as “decoupling.”

But Victor said that emissions are only one part of the equation. “If it was just climate change, it would be bad enough,” he said, citing other pressing ecological issues, such as biodiversity loss and deforestation.

“There’s so much troubling evidence of the burden the human species is placing on the planet right now.”

A helicopter with a water bucket flies past smoke while battling a wildfire along the Coquihalla Highway south of Merritt, B.C., on Aug. 11. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The ‘degrowth’ argument

The emphasis on consumer spending and economic growth at the expense of environmental health is leading some to explore a model called “degrowth.” The term, which has its origins in the French word décroissance, has become associated with European thinkers such as Giorgos Kallis, a Spanish-based ecological economist and co-author of the book The Case for Degrowth.

Concordia’s Akbulut says degrowth aims to reduce the amount of energy and resources taken from the biosphere in the production and consumption of goods and services, and to create an economy that is more oriented toward environmental stewardship, as well as wealth redistribution and social justice.

She says degrowth isn’t a blueprint per se, but a way to think differently about how society is organized. At the moment, she said, economic growth “smothers and … dominates other social goals that a society might deem preferable.”

Some economists argue that degrowth is a case of “magical thinking” and that an emphasis on managing economic growth, as opposed to encouraging it, would lock a large number of people into poverty.

Akbulut says that to ensure all citizens have enough money to live, a degrowth economy would likely include measures such as work-sharing and some form of universal basic income.

For Victor, the debate over the importance of economic growth is secondary to environmental protection.

“As long as we’ve fixed the basic problem, which is overusing planetary resources, those economic measures of GDP and GDP per capita become far less significant,” he said.

What is ‘progress’?

Whether it’s called degrowth or something else, many people say countries need to re-examine what constitutes a healthy, rewarding life.

“We need to transform our notion of progress, because right now, our notion is defined by economic variables of wealth generation or GDP,” said Amanda Janoo, knowledge and policy lead for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a Scottish-based organization working to help economies put a greater focus on “sustainable wellbeing.”

While consumption plays such a large, tantalizing part in modern society, Janoo said that when people are asked directly what matters to their personal well-being, their answers are typically more prosaic: housing security, connections to other people, a meaningful job, a healthy planet.

“When you put the emphasis on that, you really recognize the critical role of our natural environment,” Janoo said.

Five countries — Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, Wales and Finland — have signed on to the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership, with the aim of sharing ideas about how to run states that emphasize personal and ecological well-being.

For example, in 2019, New Zealand released its first “Well-being Budget,” which is informed by data on living standards and puts individual well-being and environmental sustainability at the heart of budgeting decisions.

In 2019, the New Zealand government under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern released its first ‘Well-Being Budget.’ (Mark Baker/The Associated Press)

“It’s a pretty profound transformation that we need to undertake in order to deal with climate change and biodiversity loss, but I’m really hopeful that we’re at that moment,” Janoo said. “The urgency is there.”

While emphasizing well-being over economic growth is a hard sell for many politicians, Victor said that COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for people to reconsider what matters in life.

“There are those out there saying, ‘Now we can get past the pandemic and go back to consuming,’ but I think there’s a big question about … how many people are out there who are saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure I want to carry on doing what we were doing before.'” he said.

“I think it’s up for grabs at the moment.”

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