Balance is one of those words that radiates goodness. We should lead a balanced life. We should avoid extremes and keep everything in balance. A balanced assessment is a good assessment. These statements radiate good common sense. But it is a word that can be abused. Two examples leap out at us in our present world. Examples where the concept of balance becomes a mask for enormously destructive suggestions masquerading as being balanced.
The first is in the discussion of climate change. We are told with grave authority that in responding to climate change we need to balance the health of the economy and business with the health of the planet. If we put in place too many restrictions on carbon emissions we will trigger an economic decline, throw millions of people out of work and trigger immense human suffering. Our daily lives require fossil fuels for cars, public transit and air travel. We are told we need to be very cautious about how we rein in greenhouse gas production. This analysis is false in the short run, disruptive in the medium term, and a long term catastrophe.
If we begin reining in greenhouse gas production as rapidly as possible, phasing out fossil fuel production, and do it stupidly, then there will be negative consequences. Environmentalists are not asking the world to abandon common sense. What they are asking for is a good common sense plan to reduce our use of fossil fuel as quickly as possible. We are not getting such a plan. Instead we are getting stupid statements like Prime Minister Trudeau’s assurance in Texas, to the oil industry, that we are not ‘stupid enough to leave all those valuable fossil fuels in the ground.’ Or the absolute nonsense suggestion from Alberta premier Kenny that we should start a trade war with the United States because President Biden has cancelled a pipeline. What else could he say after he ignorantly invested $1.5 billion of Albertan’s money to ensure he could ramp up production of high pollution tar sands bitumen? Kenny’s words spell out hard reality denial. He talks for big oil. Trudeau’s words are soft denial. He talks for our grandchildren but does what Kenny and big oil want.
A so called balanced appraisal would take a cold analytical look at the mounting daily cost of ramping up greenhouse gas production. Almost daily around the world we see the enormous negative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. Wild fires, floods, droughts, extreme heat waves, super storms, species extinctions, disappearing glaciers, rising ocean levels with declining life in them, and more impacts, are on the increase year after year, just as thousands of scientists predicted. Insured and uninsured losses are climbing. The data from global ‘reinsurance companies’ who insure insurance companies, is very clear. This is not damage a decade from now. This is damage measured over the last decade. It is significantly less than the damage to our economy that will occur over the next decade. It is a fraction of the damage to our economy we can anticipate between 2030 and 2040. Beyond that, runaway climate change will simply lead to complete destruction of the economy as we now know it. That is our grandchildren’s economy.
What will it look like? Imagine, in many areas of the planet, not being able to insure your home, or almost any building, not built to withstand 250km/hr winds. What will it cost to build storm sewers capable of absorbing multiple 150mm rain storms, and what will be the cost of not building them? The sixth massive die off of species will have been dramatically accelerated – that is plant and animals. Food security disruption will be catastrophic. The 2017 UN Ocean Conference, notes “More than 600 million people … live in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters above sea level.” If you want to believe these, and many more frightening consequences will not happen, just go and read what reputable scientists are saying: “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree.”
When political leaders say we need to balance environmental impacts and the economy they have capitulated to those who will lose a lot of money. Not to have a plan with hard targets for 2030 and 2035 and 2040 is to be out of touch or denying reality. This is a misuse of the word “balance” to mask insanity.
And Then There is the Pandemic
The second masquerade of balance also involves the economy. We need to balance the restrictions needed protect health of society with the health of the economy and business. Look at the chaos in the United States. Look at the chaos in Alberta and Ontario and other provinces. Weekly their leaders agonize over restricting freedom and causing economic harm. Some like Premier Kenny have even gone the extra distance of likening COVID 19 to the flu and musing in May 2020 that, “The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I’ll remind the house that the average life expectancy in the province is 82,” he said. “I’m not sure what to make of that, but it suggests that if you make it to 83 before dying of COVID-19 you’ve already beaten the odds, so, congratulations.” This was in defence of easing restrictions on individuals and business.
For the ideological extreme right who do not want to limit their freedom so others may live, this is a logical position. Thankfully most people in society believe in protecting one another including the elderly, indigenous people, Blacks, people of colour, the homeless, those with pre-existing conditions. The people who care are the people who make society livable and civilized. In any ‘civilized’ society, the hopefully very small minority who think their freedom ‘Trumps’ other people’s safety and health, are restrained from irresponsible action. The restraint may be a prohibition from driving over speed limits, not being allowed to yell fire in a crowded theatre for the pure fun of it or holding a super spreader event just because they feel like it. Allowing unbridled personal freedom is out of balance.
The business case for easing restrictions and raising them again and easing them and raising them again simply does not exist. Canada’s billionaires increased their wealth during the pandemic, between March and December 2020. Canada’s top 44 billionaires grew their fortunes by $53 billion from April to October, or by more than 28 per cent. (Tax Fairness Canada) Their businesses thrived with the restrictions. We need a significant increase in their taxes to help the many small and medium businesses, and those whose incomes were lost, get the protection they need to survive. That includes protection from on again off again on again restrictions. Easing restrictions prematurely is not an act of balance, it is the response of weak leaders to the pressure from a minority.
Throughout the pandemic people around the world have been amazed and inspired by those willing to put their lives at risk to make sure society functioned. The courage of health care workers, cleaners, truck drivers, the supermarket workers who go to work even when afraid or exhausted is an expression of the very best of what it means to be human. Caring for the dying is both rewarding and soul destroying. The higher the rates of illness, the more it can be soul destroying especially when you know thousands of others not dying of COVID can be dying from lack of care. Back to balance. Easing restrictions during a pandemic in response to a minority within the business community, and the extreme right minority just because they are part of your political base, is not balance. It is insanity.
The UPC party in Alberta takes the ‘Insane Imbalance’ prize. When should you pick a fight with doctors? The UPC response – during a pandemic. When do you fire thousands of health care workers so they can be paid less? The UPC answer – during a pandemic. Ontario’s Conservative government is the clear runner up.
Let’s stop the insanity of balancing the wellbeing of our people against someone’s misguided idea of the ‘economy’. The purpose of an economy is to provide people with the goods and services they need to live, and a way to contribute to society that provides meaning. The greater the number of our people who are suffering, the weaker our economy and society are and the weaker they will become. The fewer who can contribute to society, the weaker the economy and society.
It is more important that we measure how many people have access to good food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, medicine, child care and other basics of life than to measure how much wealth is produced to be shared increasingly among the richest 1%. We need to move to a people based economy, a co-operative economy and away from a capital based economy whose rules and structures are geared to benefit the very few.