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Greening Up — Reimagining Our Plagued Economy – Part 3

Michael Jessen
By Michael Jessen
June 8th, 2020

“If the coronavirus crisis has shown us one thing, it is that our society is not sustainable. If one single virus can destroy economies in a couple of weeks, it shows we are not thinking long-term and taking risks into account.” – Greta Thunberg

At the end of Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, the author reveals that Dr. Rieux is the book’s narrator. The doctor relates what he has learned during the pestilence: “that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Dr. Rieux sums up the tale as one of a group of people who “while unable to be saints…strive their utmost to be healers.”

We are living through a global confrontation with mortality. Our normal routines have been abruptly stopped. We struggle with loss and impermanence, individually and collectively.

Yet it is also a time to think of transformation, a wake-up call from Mother Nature challenging us to reconceive our purpose on planet Earth.

In my first column in this series, I advocated that we come to grips with the issue of inequality.

As authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett stated in their book The Spirit Level, “the populations of societies with larger income differences tend to have worse health: lower life expectancy and higher rates of infant mortality, mental illness, illicit drug use and obesity.”

More unequal societies experience more violence (as measured by homicide rates) and have higher rates of imprisonment.

Children suffer greatly in unequal societies, say the authors, and “have lower levels of child well-being and educational attainment, more teenage births and less social mobility.”

“In the final analysis everyone – almost everyone – in this country, be he debtor or creditor, is anxious to help the other fellow out if the other fellow is in distress.” – Murdoch Alexander MacPherson, in a speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1934

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has demonstrated his compassion through more than 50 economic support measures costing almost $153 billion as part of its COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.  Additional tax deferrals, loan guarantees to businesses, and other liquidity support initiatives are costing the government billions more.

While the Bank of Canada creates money for the federal government, most of this stimulus spending is borrowed and mounts the federal deficit which is expected to reach $250 billion.

This money is supposed to be repaid even though our federal government is in theory considered eternal and never has to worry about ever totally reconciling the debt. In fact, Canada’s government has run a deficit for 150 years of its history.

My worry is that concern about the size of the deficit will result in austerity measures which have been proven to “lead to significant increases in inequality, a decline in the share of income going to labor, and higher long-term unemployment, according to a  International Monetary Fund working paper.

We cannot let tax increases and reductions in government spending take away the gains we are making to reduce inequality during this pandemic. This may be the time that we seriously contemplate giving everyone that needs it a universal basic income.

“The grandchildren should not bear the debts of the grandparents.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In the second column of this series, I questioned the way banks controlled our financial and environmental destiny through their interest-based debt mentality and their lending practices to fossil fuel-based enterprises.

While some big U.S. banks – JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup – have  announced they would curb lending to oil and gas drilling projects in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, they are among 35 global banks that have lent more than $2.7 trillion to the fossil fuel industry since the signing of the Paris climate accord in 2015 that placed limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, said in January it would limit its investment in the coal power business and make managing for sustainability and climate risk a key part of its investing strategy.

All Canadian and U.S. banks and investment companies must follow suit and refuse to invest further in yesterday’s economy.

“There is no single theory that is used in economics that considers the finite nature of resources. It’s shocking.” – Jeremy Grantham

ESG stands for “environment, social and governance” criteria. “Environmental criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. Social criteria examine how it manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. Governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, auditsinternal controls, and shareholder rights,” as defined in Investopedia.

“The crisis right now is accelerating all the thinking about how companies affect people and families and communities and the environment,” JUST Capital CEO Martin Whittaker said in an interview with Barron’s. “There will be a backlash potentially against companies that didn’t step up and look after their stakeholders.”

“Global warming is the most notable penalty that has been levied against our way of life in recent history.” – Lawrence Gonzales

Groups like the International Monetary Fund and the International Energy Association are calling for stimulus plans to be rooted in clean energy growth and other green solutions.

The European Union is proposing a €750 billion ($2 trillion US) recovery plan to pull EU economies out of the downturn, not harm climate goals, and to help fund greener transport, cleaner industry and renovated homes. 

At the heart of the plan, the EU proposes to more than quadruple to €40 billion a “just transition fund” aimed at moving coal-dependent regions away from fossil fuels, The Guardian reported.

In Australia, a briefing paper by Beyond Zero Emissions, a climate change think tank, says a rapid expansion of renewable energy over the next five years could establish Australia as a home for new zero-emissions industries, cut electricity costs and create more than 100,000 jobs in the electricity industry alone.

Beyond Zero Emissions (which produces innovative and independent research solutions demonstrating that a zero emissions Australia is achievable and affordable now) is finalizing a post-COVID economic recovery ‘The Million Jobs Plan’ that will pave the way for Australia to become an International economic powerhouse and a renewable energy superpower in the decades to come.

“When the recovery begins, Canada can build a stronger and more resilient economy by investing in a cleaner and healthier future for everyone.” – Moira Kelly, spokeswoman for Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

Here in Canada, some of the Liberal government’s stimulus money is also coming with green strings attached such as the cleanup of abandoned oil and gas wells.

A Task Force For a Resilient Recoveryhas been formed with the stated long-term goal of “building back better” and keeping Canada “competitive in the clean economy of the 21st century.”

Bruce Lourie, the environmentalist and author who is now president of the Ivey Foundation, which helped organize the group, told CBC Newsthe federal government could focus on plans to retrofit homes and buildings – which account for 12 per cent of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions – to increase the energy efficiency of Canada’s physical structures. Such an initiative would create work for tradespeople across the country while reducing both energy costs and emissions.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

A paper recently published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policyfound the best policies for both climate action and economic returnsinclude clean physical infrastructure (such as renewable energy generation, storage, and grid modernization); building efficiency retrofits; investment in education and training to help people transition to green jobs; and natural capital investment (such as climate-friendly agriculture and restoration of carbon-rich habitats).

“The shape of COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages put in place in the coming months, once lockdowns are eased, will have a significant impact on whether globally agreed climate goals are met,” the paper’s authors state.

An article by the global management consulting company McKinseystates that $10 million of government spending could create 77 jobs in energy efficiency, 75 jobs in renewable technologies, but only 27 jobs in fossil fuels.

The article went on to highlight 12 low-carbon stimulus measures with strong socioeconomic and decarbonization benefits.

“A climate-smart approach to economic recovery could do much to put the world on an emissions pathway that would hold the average temperature increase to a relatively safe 1.5°C.,” the article’s authors stated.  

“We are using nature’s goods and life-support services faster than ecosystems can regenerate. There are simply too many people consuming too much stuff.” – William E. Rees

Ecological economist Herman Daly, in his foreword to the book Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources writes: Enough should be the central concept in economics. Enough means “sufficient for a good life.”

Evidence has been mounting for some time that the pursuit of a bigger economy is undermining the life-support systems of the planet and failing to make us better off, write authors Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill in Enough Is Enough.

There are many New Economyideas such as natural capitalism, sustainable capitalism, conscious capitalism, doughnut economics, circular economies, sharing economies, steady-state economies, degrowth, etc., with which we can replace our flawed theory of capitalism.

Unchecked climate change will kill millions more humans than COVID-19 but very few of them will die this afternoon.

And so we are mired in a quandary as well as a pandemic. The severity of the virus spread and number of the epidemic deaths is lessened by a shutdown that forces people to stop consuming and working but it exacerbates the size of the resulting recession.

Economist Sergio Rebelo’s initial modeling efforts show that even a yearlong lockdown makes economic sense, to allow time for a vaccine to be developed.

But a more prolonged shutdown of our current economy is not sustainable as bankruptcies and poverty proliferates, and another crisis looms on the horizon.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It makes unthinkable changes suddenly possible. – Book review of Melvyn Leffler’s “For the Soul of Mankind”

The coronavirus crisis has given us a precious few weeks, months or maybe a year to institute a financial system that recognizes the limits to growth and enshrines finance in service to life.

Time is running out to ensure a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy, and to mitigate climate change impacts on the world’s economy and the global financial system.

If we start now, we can bring in a better, more regenerative capitalism for future generations.  The trick is to choose an economic order that is worth having and reaching it without epic human suffering.

We are the authors of our own fate. In order to safeguard our future, we have to make changes in the present.

Individual action is contagious. When enough motivated individuals take visible action, progress snowballs into collective action, in turn putting pressure on politicians and companies in charge of otherwise unresponsive structures.

Isn’t it time we create an economy that cares – really cares – for people and the planet?

Isn’t it time that we prove that we can be healers and that there are more things to admire in humans than to despise?

“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.” – From Albert Camus’ speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1957

Michael Jessen is an ecowriter living at Longbeach near Balfour, British Columbia. He is the author of more than 800 articles on climate change, sustainability, waste reduction, and simple living. He can be reached by email at

Categories: GeneralOp/Ed


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