Okay. So I suspect that few of my readers are paying very close attention to the Canadian Federal budget that came out on Thursday. And, truthfully, with a Conservative government in power at the moment, whose values and basic ideological premises are very far from my own, I have been somewhat disengaged from Canadian politics these days. My own political views are pretty entrenched, and I’m just hoping that the Conservatives don’t do too much damage in the short term.
But I’ve been reading a recent series on the history and concept of Empires by John Michael Greer over at the Archdruid Report, and I couldn’t help but be struck and saddened by the pattern that is emerging.
Greer has spent the last few weeks outlining what characterizes an empire, whether British, Roman, or American. To greatly oversimplify, an empire is defined by its desire for expansion and growth, which of course means that the raw materials feeding that growth disappear quickly from the local area. New territories are needed, and usually conquered through military action, to provide the natural resources that will continue to feed the growth at home.
The plantation model of colonialism, where a small, elite group of colonists oversee the exploitation of large numbers of locals in service of massive cash crops for export (think cotton, tea, chocolate, coffee, bananas), Greer defines as the “‘wealth pump.” The wealth pump sucks all the wealth OUT of the local area and funnels it back to the motherland.
The archetypal examples of this model, like Africa today, or Latin America at the end of the 19th century, are easy to see. What’s less obvious at times is the way this has played out in countries that are not usually categorized as “developing” (such an ugly word when we look through this lens!). Greer points out that, really, any country that is not the current superpower has to align itself along the wealth pump in one way or another. Canada, for instance, in NAFTA, sucks wealth out of Mexico to be funnelled home, but then in turn exports its natural resources at a great rate of knots out to the US and China.
Greer sets all of this up to make a significant point about the current environmental unsustainability of empires. He calls it the “empire of time.” America’s expansion, you see, has relied not only on a spatial consumption of resources (from territorial expansion), but also on fossil fuels, which are, of course, ancient deposits of carbon from life gone by. The wealth pump has been sucking up resources not just from places, but from the past.
These images of the wealth pump and the empire of time were in the forefront of my consciousness when I listened to the details of the Canadian budget being handed down. I can’t help but think that the political elite in this country, as elsewhere, is simply focused on its own current wealth pump, which is sucking out the resources of the future for the gain of those in power at the present.
A couple of examples stand out for me: the focus on oil and gas extraction over environmental protection, and the move to delay access to government retirement benefits from age 65 to age 67.
It’s no secret that this government’s values are based in “The West”, which is a euphemism for allied with resource-based economies (as opposed to the manufacturing economies of central Canada, which have been devastated by the economic transformations of the last few years). Among the goodies for resource businesses in the budget: a shortened and “streamlined” environmental review process and a time limit of 24 months for that process to take place and a decision to be made. This is in direct response to the more than 4000 people who signed up to voice their position on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline; if all those were to be heard, the process would take significantly longer than those in charge would like. But the government is also continuing to gut their ministries of environment and other scientific agencies who simply research and report on environmental impacts and the climate changes being currently charted–they are eliminating the pools of data that could be used to argue against their policies.
This is the wealth pump unconcerned with the future, and focused only on what produces the most wealth for the present. I’ve had young people point out to me recently how short-sighted this is: by definition, these jobs in the non-renewable resource industry are NOT renewable! So in 20, 30, 40 years, we will have a generation of young men (mostly), who have spent the most active years of their lives in jobs that will disappear just before they would be ready to retire from them, with little to retrain for, and with no other local economy to keep viable communties intact. For anyone living in BC, this is a familiar picture–the devastation of communities left behind when logging or fishing economies disappear isn’t pretty.
To make matters worse, the government has also decided to move the age of access to retirement benefits (Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, both introduced decades ago to alleviate desperate poverty levels among seniors, particularly women) from 65 to 67. Now, on the surface, this doesn’t seem unreasonable; after all, we are living longer and healthier lives than we were back in the day when these programs were introduced. And of course, “financial times have changed” and we need to make sure that the system remains “sustainable for future generations.”
Can you say bullsh*t?
While Greece and other nations may well be in financial crisis that require desperate measures to stave off short-term bankruptcy, Canada is not. In fact, the reason for the current “challenging economic landscape” is the Conservatives themselves. One of the first things they did when they took office was cut the Goods and Services tax by 1 and then 2 %. Then they cut corporate taxes and income taxes. One economist months ago pointed out that if the GST went up 1%, THERE WOULDN’T BE A DEFICIT.
But under the rhetoric of “keeping money in the pockets of the individual to make the best choices for themselves and their families,” the government made sure that the wealth pump kept churning out the cash for big business and the most wealthy. Sorry, but by keeping the extra $300 or so dollars a year in my pocket? I can’t improve my healthcare options, send children to a national subsidized daycare system, or retrofit my home with solar panels to relieve pressure on the hydro grid. But now, of course, the Conservatives have an excuse to shrink government in order to “grow the economy”.
So the problem here is twofold. One, the shift to the later retirement benefits dates kicks in for those 54 years old today and younger. So that generation with non-renewable jobs that will disappear? They will be the same ones who are struggling and in need of benefits down the line. And if the federal benefits aren’t there, the provinces will be shouldering the burden in the healthcare, retraining, mental health and conmunity support expenses down the line. My future earnings are being pumped into the present gaping hungry maw.
But it’s the bigger picture that’s most disturbing for me. Once the oil is gone, you see, what will we have left to rely on? Imagine if infrastructure of all kinds continues to crumble, or simply becomes too expensive for you to access. Look to Greece or Ireland for contemporary examples. Political instability, food and gas that’s too expensive to afford, high inflation, no jobs. What would you do? Well, young people in both of those countries are either leaving to go elsewhere to work (if that’s an option, which is by no means certain) or going back to the family land to try to eke out a living. In Europe, the second is an option only because families still have traditional lands to go back to. In North America, that tradition doesn’t exist.
My point is that when the empire of time and territory ceases to support us–and that day is looking precariously close to my eyes at the moment--all we have left is nature. When we can’t buy food or water, we will need nature to provide it for us. And all the reskilling in the world isn’t going to help us if hydro-fracking has poisoned the water, or if all the arable land has been paved over for housing. It’s all very well for the wealth pump to be sucking Northern Alberta dry now, but when the oil is gone and the landscape is uninhabitable, then what?
So I am heartbroken, considering my future, as my government chooses short-term gain. And though I believe that these examples that civilization will not sustain itself do open opportunities to reinvent the system, they also means that I am looking at the localization movement and its economics in a whole new light–as the only thing that might sustain us by the time I need to retire.