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Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

Lots of talk about growth, but few people acting to curb the harm it does

Municipal elections have long been plagued by low voter turnout. Don’t expect this year to be any different. And that’s a shame, and not only for the obvious reasons. Looking ahead, it just might be that small local democracies play a big role in preserving our way of life.

Small and local are already buzzwords in farming: we’re catching on to the fact food produced close to home on family farms provides widespread benefits.

In the bigger picture, a return to localized activities and small-scale farming represent something of an antidote to the growth mantra that permeates our culture – go big or go home doesn’t benefit us, something deluded amalgamation advocates should keep in mind, no matter what the rumblings from Doug Ford (do consider the source).

Growth-related issues have been on display in the townships of late, and a topic of discussion – or what little discussion there’s been – during the election campaign.

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 still-not-functional light rail transit scheme that will serve few and burden the region and its citizens for years to come. On top of its other woes, the system sets us on a course to waste a whole lot of money and to promote harmful growth in the future in order to justify the poor decisions made yesterday and 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.

Though less of an issue in this election – it’s really too late to turn back now –  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. (Less talk this time, unlike the disingenuous discussions four years ago, but the issue is another good reason to vote for anyone other than the incumbents.)

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 take 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 the upcoming municipal election. 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 too unaccountable. Leaders who actually get us back on track – 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.

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