The End of Growth

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a book on here. Probably because I don’t have a helluva lot of time for reading these days.

I’m about half way through “The End of Growth” by Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC and author of “Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller”, and interested enough to blog about it prior to finishing it. He’s painting a pretty dire picture of the state of the world’s economy, with very compelling arguments. The combinations of triple digit prices on oil, the quadrupling of coal prices in recent years, combined with a general anti-nuclear stance around the world (particularly after the Fukushima incident), are flatlining growth in Europe and North America. Add to this mix a voracious appetite from China and India for fossil fuels, and it’s pretty apparent that the era of cheap energy is over.

And without cheap energy, our current system of globalization falls apart. It no longer makes sense to build cheap widgets in China, if the fuel for the boat costs more than the cargo is worth.

Why are we drilling in the arctic? Levelling the boreal forest in northern Alberta and boiling sand to extract bitumen? Because “conventional oil” (the kind that erupts out of a hole in the ground in Texas) is basically tapped out. As oil companies run out of cheap oil, we have to turn to oil that’s harder and harder to find, extract, refine and ship. Which means it’s never going to be cheaper. The price will fluctuate of course, but the days of using cheap energy to shock our economies out of recession are over.

So if growth is dependant on cheap energy (which Jeff makes a pretty clear argument for), and we no longer have access to cheap energy (also pretty evident)….it’s pretty safe to assume that no-growth or very slow growth is our new reality.

There are some pretty big consequences for society, if that’s indeed the new reality. From sovereign debt loads to youth unemployment, to the performance of my RRSP…a world with no growth looks very different than the one we currently inhabit, the one that’s been propped up by cheap energy for the last 200 years. Of course, we know that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) doesn’t influence the happiness and satisfaction of society…so maybe a “no-growth” economy might actually do us some good? I’m pretty sure that’s where the book’s headed.

Either way, it’s looking like it might be time to lock down some more grease suppliers for the ol’ veggie truck

Hyper-Individualism and the loss of Empathy

I threw these two ideas out there in the last post (There’s no such thing as a senseless shooting). Empathy is what we need….individualism on overdrive seems to be what we’re getting.

What’s empathy? And why is it so important?

Empathy is defined in many different ways, but the common definition is “the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another being”. Being empathetic is not the same as being nice. It’s not sympathy. It’s not compassion (although to be compassionate, you need to have empathy). It’s simply the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes, and understand (and feel) their emotional state.

I believe that empathy is a critical component of a healthy and functioning society. Thankfully it’s rooted in our biology. Children as young as two years old display empathy, and “children between the ages of 7 and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain”. What happens to our natural empathic tendencies?

We become individuals. And not in the rugged, western movie-star kind of way. We start playing video games. And surfing the internet. And going home after school to an empty house. We no longer live in a village, or even a town. We live in suburbs full of high fences, surrounded by neighbours that we never meet, let alone invite over for dinner. We teach our kids to fear strangers, and our schools practice lockdowns as often as fire drills. We sit in restaurants with our friends and spend the evening texting or tweeting everyone else. We have our natural empathic tendencies repressed by the systems we’ve created, systems created under the false assumption that we’re all endlessly materialistic, narcissistic and pleasure-seeking people.

We’re actively creating hyper-individuals, all the while lamenting the loss of our communities.

Of course, this isn’t a universal truth. There are people actively engaged in community building, in driving forward an empathic civilization. Online and offline, people are gathering together, in small groups and large, in a beautifully unstructured and chaotic movement towards a society built on empathy and love.

Here’s one of my favorite animated talks from the Royal Society for the Arts;

As I wrote this post, my Dad forwarded me an email. A rant, really, about creating the future we want. In it was a line that caught me.

Our humanity is our power.

It’s probably time to use it.