Economics as if people and the planet mattered

By Leslie Campbell, November 2013

Two initiatives aim to give a more values-based direction to our economy.

As I watched the news the other night, wildfires raged in Australia. In Alberta, a derailed train full of propane and crude oil was also burning out of control. Later I listened to a report about Hurricane Sandy, and learned that its damages have been pegged at close to $70 billion.

Cameron Fenton

Fossil fuels, climate change and costly disasters go hand in hand. Yet we, as a society, seem largely inert—stuck in tarsands and pipedreams.

It’s not so much that the public is in denial about the risks we’re taking with continued, increasing carbon emissions. It’s more a problem of political will. Of course, political will is somewhat dependent on what politicians think we citizens want. They know we have—at least under the present economic set-up—seemingly contradictory wants: We desire a sustainable, healthy environment for generations to come. But, we also demand jobs and prosperity. 

Too often, the political solution is to pay lip service to the former and going all out for the latter—including subsidizing the industries that pollute and deplete our resources. Guardian environmental writer George Monbiot expressed this in a recent column: “all governments collaborate in the [climate change] disaster they publicly bemoan. They claim to accept the science and to support the intergovernmental panel. They sagely agree with the need to do something to avert the catastrophe it foresees, while promoting the industries that cause it.” (See David Broadland’s article on LNG in this edition for the dominant BC example.).

Our economic system discourages a proper accounting of our values beyond short-term money, so we end up in nonsensical, unsustainable, even tragic situations—for example, losing 99 percent of cod stocks and about half of all commercial fish stocks overall since the 1970s. Or seeing BC’s forests clearcut and raw logs exported for manufacture elsewhere while virtually all our own mills are shut down. And now the rush to mine finite fossil fuels and export them as fast as possible, and never mind their massive carbon emissions, the looming tipping point to the world’s climate systems, or real risks of spills.

Theoretically we can change our government every few years, but in practice, as Monbiot notes, once in power governments don’t seem too keen to tackle climate change and other environmental issues in a meaningful way.

So it’s no wonder people are trying to figure out new ways to make positive change happen, with or without government involvement.

Young people seem especially energetic and imaginative on this front. One group, for instance, is attempting to inject values—besides profit—into the economic system through a “divestiture” campaign. Working with, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition is urging Canadian universities and municipalities and other public institutions to divest themselves of oil and gas stocks, arguing: “The math is simple. We have a global carbon budget of 565 gigatonnes left in our atmosphere to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees celsius, the red line that even the Canadian government has adopted. On the other side of the equation, the global fossil fuel industry has plans to burn over five times that amount.”

Cameron Fenton, national director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, notes that “Canada has plans to expand the tarsands to more than three times the size that the International Energy Agency regards as the limit for a 2ºC world.” And Canada is already one of the world’s largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases.

Fenton characterizes the divestiture campaign as a moral one, comparable to those in the 1980s when universities and others pulled their investments from companies engaged in apartheid-era South Africa.

There are hundreds of fossil-free divestiture campaigns world-wide. Fenton’s group plans to train 1000 activists across the country this spring to further the initiative in Canada. Meanwhile it’s already caused Vancouver City Council to look at that city’s investment portfolio—they found that, like most governments in BC, their pension funds are managed by British Columbia Investment Management Corporation and they include several coal, oil and gas companies, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge among them. The council is still at the encouraging-the-fund-to-change-course stage, so it could take awhile to see results, but a Financial Post article implies the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is taking it seriously.

“Divestment alone will not stop climate change,” says Fenton, “but by going after the economic power and social licence of the industry that is fuelling the climate crisis, we might have a chance to build a more just and sustainable future.” 

The City of Victoria is also a subject of the campaign, as is the University of Victoria. (See petitions at


Another group of people who are determined to create a new economy in which people and the planet come first will be out in force during an upcoming festival of ideas called “Living the New Economy.” Hosted by the Healing Cities Institute, it will run November 29 to December 5 at the Roundhouse at Bayview Place.

I met organizers Nicole Moen and Geoff Gosson for an early morning coffee in James Bay recently. Full of energy and excitement, they told me of their ambitious plan, six months in development. Their program features a seven-day series of 20 interactive workshops led by dynamic thinkers who are actively engaged in shifting our communities to a new economic paradigm. 

Geoff told me, “People want to repatriate the economy, and not feel victimized by economic forces. They want to find ways to create a successful economy that puts people and the planet before profit.” Geoff and Nicole have discovered a host of people, many of them young, brilliant, and right here on Vancouver Island, working on such goals.

“People also want to know about local opportunities to solve ecological and social problems,” said Geoff. So Living the New Economy will also serve to introduce us to what is happening here on the Island—from things like the Island Chefs Collaborative and their plan to create a regional food hub, as well as local projects involving such alternative housing solutions as cooperatives, co-housing, land trusts, and ecovillages. Other initiatives include collective lending systems (known as “collaborative consumption,” utilizing mobile tech and addressing such questions as how many lawn mower’s does one neighbourhood really need?), microlending, and the new Community Investment Fund.

“The forums,” says Nicole, “are all designed to move something forward—real projects that are incubating.” The other thing I notice is they all seem to involve some form of sensible sharing or collaboration—a hallmark of the new economy. 

Focus’ Rob Wipond will be involved in a panel on “Lessons from Transition Towns” focused on how we can engage a whole city in building a new, low carbon economy. In another forum, a charrette will aim at mapping out a model for a rejuvenated, resilient downtown.

One of the sessions, and a theme woven through the symposium, is “indigenomics”: What can we learn from indigenous economies that prospered for thousands of years that we can apply in solving modern crises? Coined by Carol Anne Hilton, a First Nations person of Nuu-chah-nulth heritage, indigenomics helps inform emerging ecological business models. Which brings us to another recurring theme—permanomics, the application of ecological principles to economics. Ethan Roland, the author of Regenerative Enterprise and an international expert on sustainable agriculture and permaculture design, will lead that discussion. (See


WHEN I LISTEN TO PEOPLE LIKE Nicole and Geoff—or hear about the youth coalition’s divestiture initiative—I feel hopeful. It’s a great antidote to listening to the news! Given government dysfunction—and overly cozy relationships with industry—it’s great to have alternative ways for people to make positive changes on a personal or community level, and to help them connect with each other and collaborate on their dreams.

But we also can’t ignore the need for political change.

I’ll give the last word, a cautionary one, to elder enviro-statesman Lester Brown who defines an “eco-economy” as one that satisfies our needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations to meet their needs:

“Converting our economy into an eco-economy is a monumental undertaking. There is no precedent for transforming an economy shaped largely by market forces into one shaped by the principles of ecology. So we can see pieces of the eco-economy emerging, but systemic change requires a fundamental shift in market signals, signals that respect the principles of ecological sustainability. Unless we are prepared to shift taxes from income to environmentally destructive activities, such as carbon emissions and the wasteful use of water, we will not succeed in building an eco-economy.” (Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, 2001)

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