A new standard of living

As a society, are we really that fixated on whether total sales will surpass previous years, whether Cyber Monday will “beat out” Black Friday? This ...

I have no idea if it’s actually possible to boil a frog without a struggle. But as a cautionary tale, the boiled frog gets a lot of mileage these days.

You likely know it: toss a frog into hot water and he’ll jump right out. But supposedly, if you heat the water slowly, he will just sit, not noticing, until it’s too late and his proverbial goose is cooked.

Of course, we don’t want to be that frog. (He’s boiled, yes, but worse: he’s stupid.) But in all the hand-wringing about what’s wrong these days – from peak everything to carbon catastrophe to social divide to just plain disappointment – although we are feeling the heat, it’s sometimes hard to see the water.

That’s why a simple statement hung in the air for me at a recent presentation: “We need to define a new standard of living, apart from a growth paradigm.”

The speaker was Jeff Rubin, former CIBC chief economist, author of Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller and The End of Growth. It was one of the most succinct prescriptions for what is wrong, and what we need to do about it, that I’ve heard.

Consider the breathless sports-game reportage during the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday cycle. Coming out in the black at the end of the year is, yes, critical for an individual business.

But as a society, are we really that fixated on whether total sales will surpass previous years, whether Cyber Monday will “beat out” Black Friday? This is shopping, not an indicator of actual well-being. But we don’t notice the steam rising.

Consider the sorry performance of Canada in the eighth annual Climate Change Performance Index, released recently. Of 61 countries ranked, we have fallen to 58 in terms of climate performance, above only Kazakhstan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and well behind EU countries and the U.S. Meanwhile, Ottawa is turning us into a petro-state, because apparently our economy will suffer if we don’t.

Sounds like it’s going to suffer anyway. Rubin’s message is that we need to prepare for a permanent gear-down in the rate at which our economies grow. He says economic growth is not available in a world of $100-per-barrel oil, and we’ve reached a point where it will not be cheaper – consistently – again. It is uneconomic to produce: “To get the oil that is now available,” Rubin said, “oil prices have to be beyond the capacity of our economy to grow.”

If we use the frog analogy, it’s time to make a move. In the way we envision our lifestyles, in the story we tell ourselves about what makes us happy, in the way we measure our (economic) “health” – we have no replacement for cheap fuel. But we are so accustomed to this cheap energy high that we’re driving harder and harder to get at lower and lower quality oil, with poorer and poorer environmental and economic outcomes. Is it getting hot in here? Nah.

That’s why defining a new standard of living apart from a growth paradigm makes so much sense. We don’t need to jump out of this pot, exactly.

Think of our successes: Penicillin. The UN Declaration of Human Rights. Our social safety net, despite its challenges. Amazing global communications. Improved cross-cultural relations. Our human enterprise is not perfect, but many of our achievements are truly important.

So why sweat in the grip of an antiquated measure of progress? Why gasp about the ups and downs of GDP when we know it tallies everything, whether benefit or blight, as positive? Why tell ourselves a story about the importance of shopping, when we’re buying twice as much stuff as 50 years ago – and we score lower on happiness?

Why not embrace the idea of a world defined by well-being, instead of growth?

Sure, change is a challenge. Rubin says we must adopt a much more local economy, and no growth will mean fewer jobs. But strong local economies build resilient communities, and Germany’s job-sharing program, which kept people working and productivity high through the recession, proved there’s nothing sacred about our five-day, 40-hour week.

We have to face what’s truly boiling: tackling climate change is paramount. But we’re focusing on the wrong stuff if we keep crying about growth – and viewing a stable economy as pain and sacrifice.

That’s a boiling pot we don’t need to be in; it’s a frame of our own creation. What we really need, personally and globally, is to be clear on what truly matters. If we recognize that (given adequate means), happiness does not lie in material stuff, then we have to stop framing our standard of living with the terminology of growth.

We can turn down the heat, because we switched it on in the first place. •

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