For over half a century, we have been conditioned by the assumption that ‘more is better!’ More money, more employment, more fitness, more health, more cookies, more information! But is ‘more’ really ‘better’?
In 1973, a British economist named E.F. Schumacher published Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. This collection of essays championed small technologies that empowered individuals, arguing that work should be meaningful, efficient, and congruent with natural processes. As such, its suggestions created a sharp contrast to most industrial work: repetitive, boring, environmentally destructive, designed to flow most benefits to managerial élites.
Further to Schumacher’s theories, growth per se is not necessarily good, and use of natural resources should be accounted for as liquidation of capital, not income, a distinction that takes into consideration the unsustainable processes of using up natural resources and turning them into waste.
Recently, our MP Nathan Cullen hosted a useful public discussion of the implications of energy development projects planned for the northwest. Panel members included three women representing local perspectives, an environmentalist, and a representative of Shell Oil, one of the companies promoting the construction of a liquefied natural gas export facility nearby. Members of the audience questioned these people regarding various concerns.
A most interesting question was put to the Shell representative, a woman who made clear to the meeting that Shell felt ultimately responsible to its shareholders. (Loosely paraphrased, she said the company owed shareholders responsible use of their money to earn a return; however, she acknowledged that some shareholders expressed anxiety regarding the climate change implications of oil and gas development.)
The man at the microphone asked her, “Is there any point at which Shell would say that they’ve made enough now—a hundred billion, a trillion?” Though she was a smooth spokesperson, she appeared momentarily flummoxed. She shrugged, then repeated her earlier explanation.
A friend recently returned from Africa, where, he said, people living on a dollar a day appeared happier than most North Americans. To me, having only a dollar a day would be terrifying, but his observation is instructive. Humans don’t always need more to be happy.
Smallness (as efficiency) has more recently been emphasized in the field of architecture. In the 1990’s in Europe, the CEPHEUS project (Cost Efficient Passive Houses as European Standards) was a demonstration of how houses could apply modern technology and design to use less than 10 Watts of energy per square metre of living space.
Designs usually feature passive solar gain—hence the term ‘Passivhaus.’ Thermal bridging (conductive elements in the walls that move heat from a house’s interior to the exterior) is largely eliminated through careful construction, and windows and frames are crafted to lose very little heat. Ventilation systems steal heat from the exiting air to heat the incoming air, limiting heat loss.
Simple human metabolism has been shown to contribute significantly to the ambient temperature in these passive structures; with fewer people in the house, the temperature declines. One such house built in Saskatchewan was heated in winter with a hair dryer! What an energy footprint!
If economics is meant to represent something real, that is, the values of real transfers of energy and material among producers and consumers, it’s obvious that economic growth must end sooner or later. Resources all have various limitations in supply; the planet is finite. How do we transition smoothly to a sustainable economy in which we all have enough? Industrial growth produces abundance, but it does so extremely unevenly and causes enormous natural destruction in the process.
The political paradigms of left and right may have outlived their usefulness. Now, and in future, we must focus on large and small, and on green and brown.
Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.