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Growth has been the biggest challenge during Ken Seiling’s tenure as chair

The phrase “end of an era” is overused and misused, but is rather applicable in the case of Ken Seiling’s decision to retire from his role as regional chair.

Seiling has held the post since 1985, significant in that the Regional Municipality of Waterloo came into being just 12 years prior in 1973. There were two chairmen before his tenure began. For most of its current incarnation, Seiling has been at the helm.

Though heavily bureaucratic – the bane of municipal governments – the region does seem to reflect Seiling’s low-key, nice-guy sensibilities. In fact, he maintains that the area’s history reflects the pragmatic, class-free ideals of its early Germanic settlers, which accounts for the adaptability and industriousness, but also for the utilitarian – i.e. ugly – built environment. There was little pretence, and that applied to much of what followed the earliest days of settlement.

Since that time, much of the growth in the region has followed that lead, formalized under the first chair in something of a pioneering planning document that set a growth strategy. While there has been plenty of growth during Seiling’s tenure – much of which I’ve critiqued, and will do again below – it’s been on a scale that attempts to avoid both runaway expansion and stagnation, he says.

Countering the effects of growth is the region’s defence of the indefensible, namely dropping billions on an unneeded light rail transit system. For better or worse, the LRT is what will define Seiling’s tenure as regional chair, it having been the largest single expenditure and most top of mind.

In and of itself, growth – i.e. development – is likely the most divisive and galvanizing issue in municipal politics (think of past debates over Walmart and slots, right through to gravel pits). Change almost always fosters resistance. That’s especially true as much of the change is not for the better.

At the regional level, the problems of growth are manifest in the debate over light rail transit, which sets us on a course to waste a whole lot of money and to promote growth – but a different kind of growth, the claim goes – in the future in order to justify the poor decisions made today. The entire rationale for spending more than $2 billion depends on continued growth. Proponents tell us the train is not needed today, but will be when the population increases by half again. Even at that point, buses might still serve us better, but the train will encourage growth – there’s that word again – in the downtown corridor.

And all of it is likely to be superseded by autonomous vehicle technology, which promises cheaper, faster and safer ways to get around.

The LRT is the wrong choice for transit. It’s the wrong choice to get people out of their cars. It’s the wrong choice to curb sprawl. But some people will make money even as the gentrification the region hopes for hurts those who most depend on transit. The idol of growth trumps all those concerns.

This is not an isolated issue. The entire system of government and the economy are both predicated on growth. None of our politicians at any level is talking about reversing that trend, even though constant growth is by definition impossible. Life on a finite planet makes that clear.

The environmental impact of human activity is the clearest indicator of where growth is a problem. We use up non-renewable resources and we spew pollutants into the air, water and soil. That can’t go on forever.

Nor can we continue to pave over land, especially productive farmland, in perpetuity. That, of course, is one of the arguments made in favour of the transit system: the war on suburban sprawl.

We live in a society that is obsessed by growth economics – growth for growth’s sake. It’s an obsession that no longer serves us.

Our current lifestyle has a dramatic impact on the Earth. We consume at a rate beyond sustainability, with each of us putting a claim on an increasingly large chunk of the planet’s surface to make possible our consumerist tendencies.

While we’ve recognized some of the perils, if only in little ways, our efforts have been largely ineffective. Yes, we separate our trash into various recyclable components. Yes, we look at ways to make items with fewer materials. Yes, we try to get greater fuel efficiency out of our vehicles. But the ecological damage of extreme growth continues because there are more of us consuming more goods as increasing numbers of products come to the market. With technology, we see built-in obsolescence and rapid turnover fueled by our desire for the latest and greatest, for instance.

Any movement to counter that trend needs to take aim at what economists have long called externalities: transferring to society the costs of production while the profits go to individuals and companies. If we’re going to change the system, we’re going to have to move away from that practice.

The system depends on society – governments and citizens – to bear the cost of the infrastructure, both hard and soft, without which corporations couldn’t operate. Forced to take that into consideration when making business decisions, companies would likely take a different tack, one more local, decentralized and human in scale.

While the problem is systemic, and real change ultimately depends on reducing the global population, the issues of growth and quality of life are at play even in this year’s municipal election that will bring us Seiling’s replacement (none of the declared candidates to date providing any enthusiasm to voters). Voting for those espousing something other than the status quo is a start.

Perhaps it’s time for some policy-driven agendas, for something that will inject interest into municipal politics. Maybe then we’ll get some politicians prepared to define the real priorities and to make the adjustments needed to bring spending in line while delivering on those basic quality of life issues most of us are concerned with.

That would help restore legitimacy of government in general. There’s been a gradual erosion of the overall respect for democratic and active government because our politicians have lobbed up too many easy targets. Every time they fall down on the job – and there are many ‘every times’ – they provide ammunition to those who would see the entire system pulled down.

That’s why a back-to-basics approach appeals to so many of us: intrinsically, we know government is getting too big, too wasteful and to unaccountable. Leaders who actually get us back in gear– as opposed to talking the talk simply to get elected – will be doing us a much larger favour than leaving us stuck on the same dead-end track. Something would-be replacements for Seiling should keep in mind.

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