The End of Growth? Existential Narratives and the New Normal

08/05/2011 07:59 EDT | Updated 10/05/2011 05:12 EDT

What if the debt crisis in Europe and the U.S., and the general economic unease is the product not of ignorance, ideology, or ineptitude? What if, instead, the crisis of credibility within so many of our social and political institutions is the product of a broader failure to acknowledge that the pursuit of growth at any cost has been a short-term success but has sown the seeds of a longer-term failure?

Consider population growth and the added stress on the limited planetary resources as billions more people will inhabit the Earth over the next few decades. According to the Global Footprint Network, we surpassed our capacity in 1988, and today, we needed the resources of 1.5 planets to sustain our economy. The problem is not only more people but western affluence and the consumption-based economy we have exported around the world. There are some practical realities that underpin our economy and must be faced.

Today 80 per cent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, clearly linked to climate change. Petroleum is part of so many of the products we take from granted everything from milk, soap, and beer and our addiction to cheap, industrially-produced meat. While the rising cost of food has gotten some attention recently, the challenge of access to fresh, clean water -- called the "silent emergency" goes largely ignored.

According to Paul Gilding the idea of infinite growth on a finite planet is nonsense. The challenge is to change the narrative from the never-ending pursuit of growth to one focused on how to maximize happiness, community, and meaningful interactions. He argues in the short-term, we will deny our problems until we are faced with large scale calamities. The recognition of the existential threat will provide the general political will that is required to address this collective emergency over the long term. While optimism is to be appreciated in this time of malaise, it may misplaced without considering in more detail competing meta-narratives that at present appear to be incommensurable.

The first is the liberal notion that science and reason can guide dialogue and deliberation, and that inclusiveness and an open mind can result in positive policy outcomes. This view is on the ropes almost everywhere. In my opinion, we do not live in an era in which facts, reason, and understanding are what drive decision-making. Unless liberals uncover what it is they believe and articulate it clearly and compellingly, it is the second narrative that will remain in ascension. This view is rooted in the belief that egoism is a political virtue, that compromise is for weaklings, and that the Earth has been provided for us to use and abuse. Against the realities of climate science, this second view cannot make room for the implications that result from accepting existing research. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt. In recent years, this view has gained a political foothold in Canada as ideology over evidence is guiding everything from (in)justice policies to environmental indifference.

Perhaps the real crisis is that the embarrassing debt ceiling deal has supplanted discussion on the real calamities that we all face with a debate that has been manufactured, manipulated, and uncritically presented. The disgust is palpable, but the solutions are far more complex. What is the new narrative to guide progressives?