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Trevor Hancock: We need to get over our obsession with the economy

The economy is — or should be — a tool used to achieve the things that really matter. It should not be the central focus of government, of public policy and public discussion.
pale-blue-dot-revisited
The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken Feb. 14, 1990, by NASA’s Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles (six billion kilometres) from the Sun. This new version of the image was released in 2019.

I recently came across an eloquent and powerful passage by Carl Sagan, the famed cosmologist, written in response to an image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990, from beyond the planet Neptune.

The Earth was just a pale blue dot, which inspired the title of his 1994 book from which the following passage is quoted.

Sagan wrote: “You see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us… . The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena … Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

And he ended with this powerful statement: “To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

This was in my mind as I considered the issues of population and economic growth that I have discussed in the last couple of columns.

This week, I turn to one of the key drivers of the global ecological crisis we are creating: our focus on the economy. This is often to the exclusion of the natural world and social conditions — especially for people who are disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Here and in my next column I explore the problems that result from our focus on the economy and — next week — the problem of growth and the inequity that results.

We see our preoccupation with the economy in the focus on economic reports in the news, whole sections of newspapers devoted to business, the centrality of the Department of Finance and the minister of finance in government, the almost fetishistic attention paid to the budget.

It is particularly well-illustrated by the slogan in former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s campaign office: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Yet the economy is — or should be — a tool used to achieve the things that really matter. It should not be the central focus of government, of public policy and public discussion.

As the World Wide Fund for Nature observed in its 2014 Living Planet report, “Ecosystems sustain societies that create economies. It does not work the other way round.” And yet we act as if it did, by making the economy the central focus.

We need to flip this around. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the people and the planet!

The central focus of government should be to ensure the highest possible level of human and social development for everyone — not just some, or many, or most, but all — within the ecological limits of the one small planet that is our home. Then we need to design an economy that delivers that outcome.

So the most important people in government after the First Minister should be the ministers of Sustainable Development, Human Development and Social Development, while the minister of Finance should be in service to them, not the other way around.

Yet a quick Google search finds only one Ministry of Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, in the Central American country of Belize, while in Canada, Québec has a Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife, and Parks.

Similarly, I can find only one ministry of Human Development, Families & Indigenous People’s Affairs, also in Belize — maybe we should take a few lessons from Belize? — although South Africa has a minister of social development.

In Canada, the federal government has a minister of Employment and Social Development, making social development a secondary concern, with the focus on employment, which is just one part of social development.

Here in B.C. we do have a Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. Yet clearly, they are not the most important ministries in government, although they should be.

We need governments and economies that are strongly focused, as Sagan wrote, on how we can “deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and … preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

That should be the business of government, with the economy as servant, not master.

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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