First published in the June/July issue of North Simcoe Community News.

I wrote the story, Jack and the Tree, shortly before I went to Lakehead University in Orillia to hear Mike Nickerson, author of Life, Money and Illusion, and contributor to the Canada Well Being Measurement Act of 2003, give a speech on the state of the world economy. His speech was riveting, and I was struck by the congruency of our messages.  What bothers Jack, Mike and me is the disappearance of natural spaces in the name of progress. As the old mighty tree said, we really have only two choices: to protect a vibrant natural world and our own long-term well being, or to continue down the path of material expansion and speculation. Why are we so locked into this latter destructive path?

Mike’s book, chock full of wonderful historical stories, gives an explanation of how capitalism has come to rule our lives. In a nutshell, we have developed a monetary system that depends on exponential economic growth in order for debts to be repaid. Only 3% of our money supply is actual cash; the rest was loaned into existence by the banks. In 1994, fractional reserve requirements in Canadian banks were reduced to almost nothing.

Exponential growth of the economy should scare us. It scares me. When talking about his granddaughter, Mike said that by the time she is a grandmother herself, the economy would have to growth four times, FOUR TIMES, to keep the game going. Industry has already maxed out its ability to provide for what we need and what we want, yet still more economic growth is needed. Speculation in the stock market has become the answer. Since 1971, the real economy has little more than doubled, but the volume of speculative trading has increased 15-fold. The amount of money now used for speculation in the stock market now dwarfs the amount used for trading goods and services in the “real economy”. Where is the sense of mutual provision in that? This strikes me as dangerous and wrong.

And who benefits from this game of exponential economic growth, financed by debt and largely based on speculation? It’s not the vast majority of us. Using the United States as an example, in 2000 the top one percent received 62 percent of all the new wealth being created, and had a net worth equal to that of the bottom 90 percent. The mega rich are getting richer and the desperately poor are getting poorer. The banks, backed by governments who won’t let them fail, are the biggest winners of all. They get a piece of everyone’s business with virtually no downside. (At the time of writing this, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives stated that during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, our largest financial institutions borrowed nearly $75 billion from the Bank of Canada and the U.S. Federal Reserve and sold $69 billion worth of insured mortgage-backed securities to the government. It also stated that “had the rapid and enormous deployment of public funds not been available, most, if not all, Canadian banks would have encountered serious difficulty.”)

For those of us who choose sustainability, we must acknowledge two things. First, we need to accept that any attempt to move away from our consumptive way of life will be met with intense resistance from those who have a vested interest in the status quo. And they have incredible power, influence and money. Secondly, we need to understand that a decrease in economic activity will be extremely painful for the majority of us. There would be cuts to social services, massive job cuts, and drastic devaluation of stock market assets and housing prices. But we can have long-term well being if we develop local resiliency, use energy and materials in a way that protects our vital natural systems, and governments take back control of currency and credit.

Around the time the Bank of Canada was created, Prime Minister Mackenzie King said, “Once a nation parts with the control of its currency and credit, it matters not who makes the nation’s laws. Usury, once in control, will wreck any nation. Until the control of the issue of currency and credit is restored to government and recognized as its most sacred responsibility, all talk of the sovereignty of parliament and of democracy is idle and futile.” Smart man. He would be disturbed to know how much power we have handed over to the private banks.

Now, those who choose exponential economic growth have a list of things to acknowledge too: that every year the gains are harder to come by, that much of our current wealth is speculative, that eventually, maybe even soon, we will run out of options, that wealth and power is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands and that democracy is now subjugated to capitalism. In addition, the natural systems that provide for our most basic requirements are being increasingly compromised through destruction and pollution. Sorry, I have nothing to say about hope.

Mike’s hope, and mine too, is that mankind will enter adulthood and accept the responsibility and discipline needed to ensure our shared story does not become a cautionary tale. We might end up with a lot less stuff, but like the kid who opens his last gift at Christmas, we all know that stuff doesn’t bring lasting happiness – the qualities of being human (like creativity, communication, movement, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development) do.