December 19, 2014

The future of an affluent society – the case of Canada (Part Three)

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This article examines in depth how even Canada, a vast country blessed with abundant resources and with a realtively small population, is far from immune to the problems arising from industrialism and its associated social and economic disruption. It was published in The Ecologist vol. 7 no. 5, June 1977.

See also Part One and Part Two.


The conserver society

Clearly if Canada is to avoid major discontinuities of a type capable of bringing its economy – and hence its society, which has increasingly become an appendage to it – to its knees, it must make itself less dependent on the use of resources which will become ever less available and increasingly more expensive. Canada, must, in fact, learn to conserve rather than to consume.

Such a policy is all the more necessary if we consider what a massive proportion of world resources is consumed by the industrial nations at the expense of the non-industrial ones. It is possible that it was this consideration which above all prompted the Science Council to recommend in January 1973 that Canada became a conserver society:

“We cannot continue to endorse continental or global resource policies which will contribute only to the disparity between the rich nations and the poor. A small number of nations now consume a large proportion of the earth’s resources. Within this global context, the Science Council recommends that Canadians as individuals, and their governments, institutions and industries begin the transition from a consumer society, preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours. Ideally, Canada could provide the leadership necessary to work toward more equitable distribution of the benefits of natural resources to all mankind.” [134]

This is indeed an historical decision, one that has given Canada a considerable lead over other industrial countries, in the task which all will soon have to undertake, that of adapting for the new era that dawns before us.

The establishment of the Advanced Concepts Centre at Environment Canada * (This body has now been merged with the Science Adviser’s office at Environment Canada) is a further step in this direction. This body is free to study all the possible implications of the conserver society.

Yet a further step has been taken with the appointment of a team under Professor Cimon Velaskakis, whose members are drawn from McGill and Montreal Universities to study the details of a plan for the establishment of a conserver society for Canada – the Gamma Project.

It is undoubtedly the case that a very considerable saving in energy and resources can be achieved without radically altering lifestyles; even in Canada, where the climate is particularly cold and where as a result the high level of energy consumption simply for heating purposes is often regarded as essential. However Wood points out that the Swedes with a similar climate to the Canadian one also enjoy a very high standard of living yet their per capita consumption of energy is only 60 percent of that of the Canadian people. [135]

The potential for energy saving is also greater than most people think in the case of housing. In this field, techniques for energy saving as McCallum [136] points out, include minimising surface area to reduce heat loss, building houses of local materials to avoid transport costs and the use of energy intensive materials, orientating the house in an east-west direction and on a south slope in the northern hemisphere, putting windows on the south side only, building a greenhouse on the south side to trap the heat, planting deciduous trees around the house to regulate temperature, and using conifers as windbreaks, since wind-speed is related to heat loss.

It is probable that the most effective of all these measures is to ensure careful insulation. [137] It is considered that in Scandinavia, if one has $1,000 to spend on heating a house, $900 should be spent on insulation. In the UK, it has been estimated that it would suffice to double insulation standards in the home in order to reduce the energy used for heating by 50 percent. [138]

The potential for reducing energy and resources used in industry is even greater. Thus, Wood (139) refers to studies in the USA by Makhijni and others at the University of California, which estimate that if the automobile industry used recycled materials and made smaller cars (2,000 lbs instead of 3,000 lbs) the saving in energy by the year 2000 would be equal to the output of 9 large nuclear power stations. [140] In general, recycling offers a great potential as according to Wood,

“the energy required to extract and process virgin materials is in almost every case very much greater than that needed to recycle discarded materials. For example, making aluminium from bauxite requires approx. 55,000 kWh/ton while recycling discarded aluminium to the same state requires less than 5 percent of that – between 1,300 and 2,000 kwh/ton.” [141]

The idea that such a programme would reduce employment in the period in which the unemployment level is already very high is without basis. Considerable employment would be provided by manufacturing and installing the new technological infrastructure for a decentralised low energy society. For instance Wood reports that Senator Hart’s calculation

“that if one-fifth of ground traffic were shifted to public transport, 1.5 million new jobs would be created by 1985, including 51,000 in the construction industry, 134,000 in repairing road beds and electrifying lines, and 450,000 manufacturing for which an estimated 225,000 workers annually could be drawn from the ranks of unemployed auto workers.” [142]

However, it is undoubtedly true that as this programme got under way and the capital intensiveness of employment were systematically reduced, the material standard of living would fall, as indeed it must do if the QOL is to increase.

In any case it will soon be realised throughout the world, that the provision of jobs at the present level of capital intensiveness will no longer be possible on anything like the scale required. It will, in fact, only be by reducing the capital intensiveness of employment and thereby the cost of providing a job that there could be any hope of reducing unemployment. [143]

What reduction in the use of energy and resources is possible without radically affecting the Canadian lifestyles and at what rate can it be achieved? According to Amyot, an economy of 10 to 20 percent is possible by 1985. By the year 2000 he considers that this could be increased by 15 to 30 percent. He suggests that it would be more realistic to aim for a 15 percent reduction by 1980 and a 25 percent one by the beginning of the next century. [144]

My personal feeling, based on conversations with MacKillop and others, is that a saving of between 40 and 50 percent could, in fact, be achieved without bringing about a transformation of the Canadian way of life.

However, even if such a programme were achieved, the Canadian economy would still be dependent on non-renewable resources, and economic activity would still be of a nature capable of causing continued and ever less tolerable biological, social and ecological disruption.

For this reason, as McCallum writes,

“we must gradually move through a period of mixed renewable and non-renewable energy usage to a future period in which renewable sources of energy supply all our energy needs. It is only in this way that we can achieve a healthy relationship between human beings and the environment and also solve the problem of resource depletion.” [145]

The advantage of renewable resources, apart from their renew-ability and hence their sustain-ability, is that their use gives rise to the minimum number of problems – or externalities. Wind-power and solar energy do not cause pollution. Wood burning has fewer detrimental effects than coal burning. As McCallum points out: it does not give rise to SO2 pollution and the wood ashes unlike coal ashes can be directly recycled and used as fertiliser. [146]

What would be the implications of this from the energetic point of view? In Canada 45 percent of the energy used comes from oil, 20 percent from gas, 10 percent from coal, 1 percent from nuclear generators, 1 percent from wood, and 23 percent from hydro power. [147] Broadly speaking about 25 percent of the energy used in Canada is from renewable resources, but this is very much higher than in most other countries. It must also be remembered that the potential for increasing energy from wood is very considerable in Canada as are the possibilities offered by wind and solar energy.

These have been looked into very carefully by specialist consultants to the Advanced Concepts Center and one need not go into the details here. What is essential to rea1ise, however, is that even in Canada the exploitation of renewable energy resources alone would not suffice to assure the maintenance, let alone the continued growth of an industrial society of the type we have known in the last decades.

To begin with it would be limited by the availability and cost of resources required for the appropriate installations. Chapman (148) has done some of the basic calculations for the UK. He writes:

“to convert all 18 million houses to solar heating requires some 3.25 million tons of aluminium. Even allowing the conversion to be spread over a long period produces problems. At the peak of the conversion programme, corresponding to 700,000 houses per year, the material demands would use up half the UK produced aluminium, almost three quarters of the UK sheet-glass production and more than twice the UK copper production.”

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The ecological society

The implementation of a programme to achieve a real conserver society should be the Canadian Government’s top priority and in view of the high degree of awareness of the problems involved among top Canadian civil servants both at a Federal and at a Provincial level, this should not be too daunting a challenge. But would this be enough? Would this enable Canada to achieve a sustainable society? The answer is unfortunately no, as should be clear to any reader of this report.

Even after all the apparent wastage in the Canadian economy has been removed, and after all possible technological expedients have been exploited within the framework of a conserver society, the Canadian people’s consumption of non-renewable resources and, in general, their impact on their natural environment will remain very considerably higher than can be sustained for more than a generation or so.

This would be so even if a regime of zero-population and zero-economic growth be achieved, for this impact is cumulative (over and above the rate of natural biospheric recovery). It is not just further demographic and economic growth that is intolerable, but the maintenance of the present impact of human activities on the Canadian natural environment. In other words, it is not zero growth, but negative growth, that must be achieved. It may be argued that the Canadian economy is heading in that direction in any case. However, it must be realised that economic contraction would be a very different thing, on the one hand, in a society that has been specifically organised to negotiate it as smoothly as possible, and on the other, in one that has remained geared to the ever less achievable objective of economic growth.

For negative growth to be possible without causing socio-economic discontinuities, it must involve a planned change in lifestyles.

The goal of the second phase of our programme, that which will lead us to an ecological society, is thus very different from the goal of our first phase, which gave rise to a conserver society. If the goal of the latter is to conserve resources so that present lifestyles might be sustained as long as possible, that of the former is, on the contrary, to change lifestyles so as to reduce the need for these resources.

There are two reasons why an ecological society cannot be brought about immediately. The first is that the principles that underlie it are incompatible with current values and with modern science, which faithfully reflects them. The second is that the physical infrastructure of our highly urbanised industrial society is totally unsuitable for a de-urbanised and largely de-industrialised ecological society.

It must follow that during the conserver society phase, a determined effort must be made to modify our current values and reformulate the knowledge taught in our schools and universities so that they may provide the rationale for the policies Canada must embark upon to ensure its survival, while at the same time, the foundations of the physical infrastructure of an ecological society must be laid.

It is probably the former task that is the most daunting problem, and it is worth examining some of its implications.

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The ecological approach

If we were persuaded to embark on the adventure of economic growth on such a scale and with such enthusiasm, it was that we were imbued with a view of the world which led us to regard it as the only means of achieving our own welfare as well as that of mankind in general. The history we learned at school was viewed as a linear process from our original state of barbarity to one of civilization, from being the slaves of nature at the mercy of its every caprice, to becoming its masters, subject only to laws of our own making.

The economics we were taught assumed that the benefits available to us were of a material nature: it attributed no value whatsoever to non-material benefits, those that satisfied the needs of our ancestors for millions of years before the coming of industry – clean air, sweet water, fresh foods, beautiful landscapes, wild animals, a festive and convivial life – which means that it was possible systematically to suppress them without incurring any costs.

Our sociology, rather than see a human society as a self-regulating natural system governed by the same basic laws to which all natural systems are subjected, as has been true of well over 90 percent of all the societies developed by man – has seen it as a heterogeneous mass of people who happen to live in the same area and be governed by the same institutions.

In this way, mass society, of today, instead of being regarded as the cancerous aberration that it is, has come to be regarded as the norm, its obvious failings being attributed to technical deficiencies in the institutions that control it.

In such conditions we have no alternative but to rewrite economics, history, sociology, and all other disciplines which are implicitly based on the world view of industrialism. The knowledge imparted in our schools and universities would then come to provide a rationale for the programme of change which must undoubtedly be adopted and which could not be justified on the basis of academic knowledge as it is organised at present.

A new economics would concentrate on measuring real costs and benefits as opposed to immediate economic ones. The goal of government would then be to maximise real benefits and minimise real costs. This would be perfectly achievable economically, since it would mean reducing both immediate economic benefits and costs.

Already, attitudes on this subject are changing very fast indeed. The quality of life in the working place, for instance, is becoming of much greater concern. The simple expedient of paying people more money is likely to prove even less sufficient to induce them to work in uranium mines, steel works, nuclear power stations or vast urban factories. They will want a more meaningful existence, and to do work which is more relevant to their welfare and survival – as was that of our ancestors who lived by hunting and gathering, or those who lived by subsistence agriculture, or plied some self-fulfilling craft within the socially satisfying environment provided by the traditional family and small community.

As is pointed out in Environment Canada’s Perspective on the Next Decade,

“What does seem likely is that the period ahead will witness mounting resistance to mechanistic work carried on in environments not conducive to current perceptions of human dignity and personal fulfilment.” [149]

And again,

“Many people are no longer prepared to accept unquestioningly or to live within the distinctions which economists and others have traditionally made between work and leisure -that work is socially useful but often personally distasteful while leisure is personally satisfying but often socially unproductive.” [150]

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A new view of costs and benefits

Already it is being realised by many influential people in Canada, that in many cases, the most important costs and benefits to be taken into account in determining the advisability of any given action are ‘external’ to the economic system as seen by modern economists.

As is pointed out in the Final Report of the Prince Edward Island Royal Commission on Land Ownership and Land Use, this is almost certainly the case with forestry which often comes out badly in a conventional cost-benefit analysis. The authors write:

“It may be, in fact, that the productive benefits of proper use of forest soils is more largely in externalities than in the forest crop itself. Consider the water storage function of forests in municipal watersheds. Or the function of forestry in preventing floods and controlling soil erosion through control of rapid run-off. Or the effects of the forest in sheltering of houses and fields from the winds. What are the costs of alternative methods of water storage, run-off control, soil protection, and wind shelters? What are the costs of recovering healthy stability in the landscape when forests have been destroyed? We cheat the forests if we accept cost-benefit analyses that fail to calculate these costs for they are enormous.” [151]

As Pollution Probe put it,

“The time has come to begin performing broader cost-benefit analyses which take these ‘hidden’ costs into account and to arrive at more meaningful and equitable decisions.” [152]

They illustrate this point by examining what would be the cost of the increased air pollution that would be caused if Ontario Hydros’ application for increased power export in October 1973 were to be accepted. When this is taken into account, they calculate that

“the cost of the increased power export will far outweigh projected benefits.” [153]

As is noted too, in A Perspective on the Next Decade for Environment Canada, a transport policy based on a cost-benefit analysis which took into account real costs and benefits would heavily favour rail transport as opposed to airways. Railways, this report points out, “the least environmentally damaging form of mass transport”, are subsidised to perhaps 25 percent of cost. In contrast, airline travel, which is highly energy intensive and exhibits gross local, environmental disruption because major airports must of necessity be in areas of intensive competing land use, is highly subsidised with the traveller paying less than one quarter of the cost of airport construction, navigation aids, weather service and so on. [154]

Among other things, on the basis of such calculations, the Canadian Government could have avoided the error of allowing the development of many small towns that depended for their sustenance on the exploitation of non-renewable resources, or one that could not renew itself fast enough for commercial purposes. This has inevitably led to social and consequently economic problems, involving the resettlement of the inhabitants, and the abandonment of valuable installations whose cost is unlikely to have been amortised in the accounts of the enterprises involved.

According to Dixon Thompson, this has happened with asbestos in the Yukon, copper in North Central BC, and with many small towns such as Elliott Lake, Ontario (uranium) Ocean Falls, BC, and Temiscaming, Quebec (pulp and paper), Sheridon, Lynn Lake, Manitoba (nickel) etc. [155]

It is suggested by Storrs McCall, consultant to Environment Canada, that the key concept is quality of life (QOL). It is by seeking to maximise whatever quantity is used to measure it, that Governments can best serve the interests of their electors. This, he illustrates with reference to the case of the resettlement of the inhabitants of the Newfoundland outports. [156]

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