What is our priority as a society over the next twenty years? What are the biggest problems facing humanity, and how are we going to solve them? Okay, seems like a bit of an ambitious question to answer in a blog post that took two hours to write, but we might as well have a go at it, right?
A recent report of top global think-tanks and policy makers concluded that the top three problems humanity faces are inter-state conflict, intra-state conflict, and terrorism; the global economic system and climate change came in at four and five respectively. So to give a simple answer to my big question posed: we have three major problems to address in the near future: conflict, climate change, and the economy (which I take to mean a system of wealth creation and distribution). Where do we even begin?
Not with conflict. Yes, the report concludes that conflict is the number one issue facing us, which may be true, but it is really, really hard to simply stop conflict. I believe this is fundamentally because many of the global conflicts we are seeing right now are due to 1) climate change and 2) the global economic system. Other’s agree with me on this, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it, but to put it as simply as possible: in a capitalist global system which emphasizes profits, often long-term or human costs are not entered into the calculation. Thus many businesses contribute to massive climate change worldwide in the interest of short term profits; many others directly contribute to conflicts, either by providing arms or other supplies or by encouraging states or intra-state groups to engage in conflict for some sort of profit. Climate change also leads to further conflict, as we are currently seeing in Africa and in Syria/Iraq right now, where higher temperatures leading to droughts and famines are exacerbating tensions in an already very tense atmosphere. If our global economic system thus directly encourages conflict, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly via the resulting climate change, it seems only logical then that our focus for ending conflict must be to change the global economic system.
Okay, let’s focus the problem a little closer to home: what can Canada do in the next twenty years to encourage the best possible future for humanity? The Canadian economy has, for the last twenty years or so, been tied very heavily to the production of oil in the west. Oil extraction provides nation-wide benefits: not only does it provide Albertans with jobs, it also creates much needed revenue for the government which in turn funds projects nation-wide, and the oil industry also creates jobs in the rest of Canada, both in manufacturing products needed for the production of oil and in necessary financial/managerial support – not to mention all the other tertiary sector industries which benefit from these gains, such as restaurants, hotels, telecommunications, entertainment, you name it. The delicate balance of primary, secondary, and tertiary sector industries in Canada is unlike any other across the world, and has allowed us to grow prosperous into the twenty-first century; recently however, energy has been at the fore.
With the collapsing price of oil this year, we are given a taste of what happens when oil is no longer in demand (either because it has been replaced or because we’ve used most of it up – both of which are events coming, I believe, in the next 25 years). Revenue falls for oil companies and for the provincial and federal governments, and jobs are lost not only in Alberta, but across Canada. In the face of this crisis Alberta even elected an NDP government after 40-odd years of the Tories – that should be enough to indicate the severity of the oil shock. Of course oil is slowly rebounding and will continue to do so. But what happens when the oil runs out and collapses for good? Harper’s government, and the invisible hand, have made the tar sands the engine of Canada’s economic engine, which is a model we need to rethink, and fast.
Much of this was said by CBC’s Don Pittis just this week. In a wonderfully well written article, he emphasized that growing the economy can be totally in line with doing our best for the environment, and he’s right. Oil is a dying industry, and Canada needs to wake up and realize that. Today, in 2015, let’s look to the future. But what is the economic future of Canada?
MIT handily supplied us with the answer: solar power. Solar can provide the most amount of power with the smallest investment and lowest harm to the environment. Obviously solar isn’t perfect, and won’t be for a long time, but what it needs right now is investment, emphasis, and further research and development. Some individuals are putting solar panels on the roofs of their homes now, and saving extraordinary amounts of money – some in my neighbourhood are even being paid by Ontario Hydro for the surplus energy they produce. Of course these panels require a pretty big initial investment, which most individual households could not afford (somewhere in the area of $20,000). The federal government at the moment subsidizes this cost, but not nearly so much as to make it affordable to the majority of Canadians.
It seems to me, then, that what we need is an economy based around the production of solar energy, rather than carbon energy. And, to my rather ignorant mind, it doesn’t seem like it would require massive change to do.
The Ontario government (and other provincial governments, I’m sure) already incentivises homeowners to increase the energy efficiency of their homes, including the installation of solar panels, all that we would need to do on this front is subsidize the project even more. If the cost to install solar panels on residential buildings is under $10,000, many more Canadians will see it as a practical investment. Making homes and commercial spaces more energy efficient in general would also go a long way; some have even pointed out the enormous benefits of roof gardens to help regulate the temperature of larger buildings like offices and apartment buildings. This would create more green space for people to enjoy, save money for the building’s owner, and help the environment.
The real focus however should be on new home construction: we need to build all new homes with solar panels. This, again, is subsidized by the government, but they do not go nearly far enough. If law required builders to install solar panels, we would be well on the way to a solar economy. Now imagine if this law also insisted upon using Canadian made solar panels? Our manufacturing and high-tech sectors would be given a massive boost, which would allow them to develop the necessary labour markets and of course to bring down the high cost of production associated with solar energy, which requires investment to alleviate. If the government subsidizes the initial cost to the homebuilder, and the rest of the cost is passed onto the buyer in a slightly higher price for the house, the builder can retain their high profits.
Obviously, there are other things that need to be done. In future blog posts I will discuss the future of transportation and continue to refine my ideas on the potential of an eco-economy – it’s something I’m pretty new to. I thought I should get the ball rolling with this post on solar though – so please, let me know your thoughts!
Is this such a radical proposal? I believe an emphasise on solar, rather than carbon energy, even at a small-scale residential level, would provide badly needed jobs in manufacturing and installation, as well as massively reduce our national carbon footprint and our dependence on finite energy resources. I’m sure there are many arguments against my theoretical law, but frankly, I can’t see one. This course may reduce profits to the oil industry and to other corporate giants, but medium-sized and smaller businesses, as well as individuals, would flourish. We need to find the right balance of helping the environment and helping the economy, or more simply, raise the standard of living for all individuals in that economy, both through increased affluence and a higher quality of live associated with a sustainable environment. Isn’t the purpose of an economy to raise the standard of living for all in the first place?
Also – don’t forget to check out my recommended reading’s every week; includes a lot of the articles I cite here, and others!