the Commonwealth of Life

Over today’s lunch of cold leftover pizza (vegetarian, hold the pineapple, but argh the pineapple came anyway) I browsed through the fall 2012 issue of Finding Solutions, the newsletter of the David Suzuki Foundation. Dr. Suzuki himself always writes a piece for the last page in his “last word” column. In this issue his headline is “We need a new economic paradigm”. I read this with more interest than usual because that thought echoes my own thoughts for the past 20 years.

In my old blog, Genesis of a Historical Novel, I wrote that I have been an environmentalist since at least 1971, when I was 12 and a nuclear bomb was tested off the Aleutian island of Amchitka. My feelings of environmental concern took a new twist in August 1991 when I saw, and bought, a paperback called Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy, edited by David Pearce. It was a compilation of essays by economists on how to apply the principles of economics to the problems of environmental degradation. I read this rather technical book avidly, excited by the idea that new, incentive-based methods could be used to prompt people to behave in more environmentally responsible ways, instead of relying on the clumsy, compromised, and ineffective methods of regulation and punishment.

This idea still excites me, but in the last 21 years I have come to see how difficult it is to implement even the most rational ideas, such as a carbon tax. British Columbia in 2008 was the first jurisdiction in North America to implement one of these, and even though the rate has been creeping up, it still amounts to only 6.67 cents per liter of gasoline—not enough to change behavior at today’s prices. And despite the proper, revenue-neutral way in which it was implemented, the tax generated much fuss and resistance. Indeed, our current federal government is spending our tax dollars on a ferocious ad campaign to frighten us with the idea that the leader of the opposition has plans to bring in a carbon tax if elected in 2015—an allegation for which there is no evidence.

So much for Canada. Most of planet Earth is more enlightened, but still not enough so. The forces of reaction are successfully frightening us into delaying steps that might alleviate various ecological catastrophes that are already under way. Avoiding planetary disaster is just too expensive; let’s spend those dollars on things that matter.

Cut to Dr. Suzuki, with his need for a new economic paradigm. In his piece he talks about joining with Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce former chief economist Jeff Rubin on a combined book tour (the books are Rubin’s The End of Growth and Suzuki’s Everything Under the Sun), discusses the inadequacy of gross domestic product as a measure of prosperity, and notes the novelty of an environmentalist teaming up with a mainstream economist. He mentions with approval Bhutan’s adoption of “gross national happiness” as a social metric over 30 years ago, and says “We need a development paradigm that takes into account well-being and happiness, and that accounts for nature’s services.”

I’m sure he’s right. But my thought is that the intractability of the problem arises from its being not fundamentally an economic one after all, but a philosophical one, or even a spiritual one.

The next milestone in my own environmentalist pilgrimage was in January 2008, when I saw at a Chapters bookstore another paperback, this time marked with an approval sticker by no other than David Suzuki. It was called The Commonwealth of Life: Economics for a Flourishing Earth by Peter G. Brown, a political scientist teaching at McGill University. I snapped up that book too and started reading.

The author launches a bold program to rethink political philosophy in a way that can serve as a foundation for an environmentally friendly politics and economics. The overarching idea is encapsulated by his title, the Commonwealth of Life, which I loved as soon as I saw it. The basic idea, as I understand it, is the notion of acknowledging the rights of those other than human beings alive today: that is, other living things, and future living things, including future humans.

Excited about pursuing various ideas leading off from the points that Brown raises, I have not actually finished reading the book yet. But I will. Much of my thinking and of my search for liberal education in the past few years has been in aid of trying to think through this thing called the Commonwealth of Life. If this is properly worked out, we will have the basis of the politics and the economics of tomorrow. And we will have a principled reply to the reactionaries’ charge that “it’s too expensive.”

I expect to have more to say about this—much more. Earth is our mother, and we can still reverse our unfolding matricide.

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