/The problems of economic growth

The problems of economic growth

By Jim Poling Sr.
From Shaman’s Rock

I’ve been struggling with a problem that many older cottage owners are facing.

Cottages used to be family heritage items passed from one generation to the next. Passing them on has become difficult – perhaps impossible – for many families.

Anyone inheriting a cottage in Ontario must pay estate administration tax (1.5 per cent of its value) and federal capital gains tax on 50 per cent of the dollar difference between the original cottage cost and its current value.

Cottage prices, like other types of real estate, have gone berserk so anyone inheriting a family cottage might be looking at paying tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of dollars in fees and taxes. Families without that kind of big money are forced to sell the places.

I have considered this an isolated problem affecting the tiny portion of the population fortunate enough to own a cottage.

This week while reading Yuval Harari, the Israeli historian and intellectual, I realized that my problem is not an isolated one. Yes, it is small, and isolated to cottage country, but it is a reflection of a huge problem affecting all humanity. 

That problem is our demand for constant economic growth.

Harari, author of the bestselling books Sapiens and Homo Deus, writes that economic growth exploits natural resources, seriously changing the environment and human life. Climate change is bringing us flooding, droughts and wildfires, zoonotic diseases, mutating viruses, extinctions, and distress migrations. 

Our leaders jabber away at conferences, like the recent COP26, about needed restraint but little will change. Unchecked growth will continue because there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t have what we have, and they want it.

India has 1.38 billion people, China 1.44 billion. Combined, that’s three billion people, most of whom do not have the lifestyles that we do – autos, nice houses, appliances, the Internet – all things that involve degrading the environment.

We’ve been working to limit the damage caused by growth but often we create new problems while trying to solve the old.

The battery revolution is an example. Power everything with batteries and you eliminate the huge environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels. Batteries, however, cause other environmental damage.

Battery operated devices require lithium and cobalt, two elements that are mined. Dust from cobalt mining contains particles believed to cause a variety of serious health problems. Mining waste often pollutes rivers, lakes and drinking water.

Lithium also is mined and like any mining has a toll on the environment, creating many tonnes of waste rock and industrial debris. Mining lithium also requires water – as much as 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium, according to reports from South America.

Looking at a map it appears the world has an abundance of water, however, only three per cent of it is fresh and is being reduced quickly. 

The United Nations says that four billion people – roughly two-thirds of the world population – experience severe water shortage at least one month of every year. It also says that 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by severe water shortages in the next eight years.

All this makes the problem of passing along a cottage appear pretty insignificant.

Humanity always has worked to find solutions to problems and will continue trying to solve major ones like climate change, or lesser ones like unrealistic real estate prices created by the unquenchable thirst of economic growth.
Our history is filled with examples of brilliant solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Medicines eradicated devastating diseases. Artificial devices allowed millions of people with lost limbs to enjoy normal lives. Electricity freed us from living much of our lives in darkness. The printing press helped us build the ability to deal with new and difficult situations.

But we still must answer the big questions about growth. How long are we willing to continue the production and consumption of stuff that that is destroying our planet? Can we find ways to produce only what we really need and still dramatically reduce the damage we create?

Whether we find brilliant solutions to deal with the problems of growth, I guess will be found in – as author Harari puts it in Homo Deus – the history of tomorrow.