Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Economic “Growth” Not the Answer for Global Majority 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, April 1 / 13

Zack Gross

I was struck recently by two statements that I had read about our consumer habits. 

One was about the level of debt that Canadian families carry – and our family is no different – mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card debt and more.  Even though the Greek and Cypriot economies have been attracting major media attention for their dire situations, the Globe & Mail has just reported that in the last quarter of 2012, Canadian debt grew to a record of $1.65 owed per family for every after-tax dollar earned.

The second statement that hit home was that while there are approximately 1.7 hectares of ecologically productive land available per person on Earth, the consumption level of each person in the “rich world” currently stands at four to six hectares.  Someone has to pay for this deficit, and it is the people living in the “poor world,” which hosts extractive industries, production factories, export agriculture and resource-based conflicts, who are the losers.

 Our society is based on perpetual growth – in simplistic form, the production and consumption of goods and services that drive up our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Our need to get, spend, use and throw away leads to destruction of the environment, loss of the rights of people in areas where we need to access resources (food, oil, diamonds, coltan for cell phones), and continued impoverishment of Third World peoples (aside from their elites) as our relationships with them, even taking into consideration our meager aid programs, are based on doing what is in OUR best interests.

 Our desire to live in relative luxury condemns others around the world to live in poverty.  Some might say that it is the older generation that continues to strive for “the good life,” but statistics show otherwise. 

Despite the recession, Canadians’ spending on luxuries has grown since 2009.  Young Canadians, says the financial web site, have increased their spending by 33% on high fashion, 74% on travel and 102% on fine dining.  I am certainly one who is struck by the passion and conviction that twenty- and thirty-somethings display when discussing where to shop or eat!

 Middle-aged Canadians’ spending in these categories has increased to a lesser extent and seniors by marginal amounts, but all have increased despite “tight financial times.”  This spending boom during bust times has been exacerbated by the growth of on-line shopping, wherein young people now do up to 53% of their shopping via the Internet.  While we cannot deny people the right to buy (none of us wants to live under authoritarian restrictions), it is instructive to understand where people’s disposable income goes.  A friend who does people’s taxes just shakes his head when thinking about the tiny minority of people who make charitable donations.  Meanwhile, sales in the pet food and accessories industry in Canada have now reached $4.5 billion per year.

Another financial web site,, looks at the rest of our current decade and calls it the $12 Trillion Opportunity.  It predicts that there will be that much new consumer spending between now and 2020.  In part, this will be fueled by consumption growth in the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – which are emerging from Third World status in financial might and political influence, even though they still harbor large pockets of poverty. 

Along with other “emerging” countries – including Bahrain, Bolivia, Ecuador, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Taiwan – there will be a spending boom, but it will still encompass only 25% of the world’s population.  One can see by many of the countries listed that they are the scene of on-going or brewing conflict, and of native and environmental movements against mining and other extractive industries. 

An interesting aspect of this new global spending growth is the estimate by financial people that only 10% will put toward food.  Yet we count hunger as a major concern in today’s world!  Thus the question:  economic growth for whom?

 Looking deeply into our economic system, how it operates and whom it benefits is not easily done.  Often, an economic discussion causes an audience’s collective eyes to glaze over as it is something people don’t expect to understand.  We hear the mantra of growth and think that it will be good, at least in some small measure, for everyone.  In fact, the “trickle down” theory hasn’t worked for the majority of humanity.  And, indications are that our wealth will continue to be based on what we can take away from other people and on how much we can challenge the health of our planet.

On April Fool’s Day, we have to say that we won’t be fooled again!

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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