Total eclipse of an election


It’s astonishing to see how out of touch our politicians actually are. Here we are, in the middle of a total economic eclipse—and in the middle of two major North American elections—and not one of the leaders has a real solution to the problem. They’re not even pretending to have a solution.

And it shows. Last week CBC’s Peter Mansbridge asked his political panelists whether this election was resonating with Canadian voters. Only one of them said it was—the others strongly disagreed. They know what we know, that this as another lame election. Not that it matters, because by the time you read this we’ll all be living with the results.

Nevertheless, the question caught me. I mean, an interesting Canadian election? Here we are in the final throes of the US presidential election that has overshadowed every other political story during the past year. First we had the struggle between Obama and Clinton with the outright dismissal of Hillary as a Vice Presidential candidate, and on the other side the choice of Palin and her unlikely resurrection of the McCain campaign. It was great media theatre—until the financial crisis eclipsed the elections on both sides of the border.

The effects were immediate. In the States Obama’s ratings began to rise as did Stéphane Dion’s here in Canada, which is no surprise as both leaders are seen as more in touch with domestic issues. The media got into the show. Commentator Rex Murphy identified Prime Minister Harper as a brilliant tactician but not a particularly a visionary leader. Which is true.

Murphy’s underlying point is clear, the times are crying out for vision, which seems to be in short supply. This recent turn of economic events and lack of real leadership means we now have the possibility of another minority government in Canada. Or stranger yet, having a new coalition government on the left with the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Greens sharing a common agenda, which would most certainly revolve around the ailing economy.

Meanwhile the economy remains in darkness. The credit crunch has broken the trust between institutions and brought inter-bank lending to a standstill. As a result business loans are drying up around the world. Consumer confidence is falling like a stone as they watch housing prices fall and their savings evaporate in stock market mutual fund meltdowns. We’re seeing oil prices drop and commodity prices fall, which directly impacts the Canadian resource-based economy. The demand for our resources to feed the manufacturing engine aimed at the US consumer has gone south. And now the Canadian dollar is starting to plummet. In spite of what our prime minister has been saying, we’re not exactly in good shape.

We’re feeling the effects close to home too. The Icelandic banks like Glitner are a key part of the financial backbone of the East Coast fishery. As a result of the global commercial credit crisis these banks are now in ruins. That does not bode well for us. John Risley, the head of Clearwater Foods in Nova Scotia, said in an interview last week that, without a secure source of operating funds, companies like his are facing a serious threat to their survival.

How many of our other businesses depend on secure lines of credit for their operating loans? Probably all of them. No loans, no paycheques for workers. And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that most of our businesses are resource-based. For example Flakeboard makes panels for the construction industry and furniture market. Paturel exports lobsters to the upscale restaurant trade. Even our tourism industry is based on consumers having the confidence to spend their money.

When national and foreign banks abandon fundamental Canadian industries, we may need our government to get creative. One option may be to have our government step in to provide backstop guarantees for bank loans, or in certain cases to become the banker to keep the machinery moving. This is time for governments to lead us out of crisis, not simply to “manage” the crisis as usual.

Of course the actual global financial situation is a lot more complex, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. But all that complexity is the main part of the problem. I listened to the head of a very successful Spanish bank on the radio the other day. His take on the crisis? There were just too many complex financial instruments, and too little real financial accountability—which boils down to a simple premise: don’t lend money to people who can’t afford to pay it back. How complicated is that?

All that said, we seem to be collectively unable to deal with the other eclipse, call it the eclipse of the moon, which is the global environmental crisis. The irony here is profound. As we’re making human processes ever more complex, we’re reducing the diversity in our environment at an incredible rate. We’re genetically engineered mono-cultural agricultural practices, wiping out other species in the exchange, and strip mining our natural resources. We’re still expanding urban sprawl based on a wildly fuel-inefficient and polluting transportation system, which is now clogging the atmosphere. Seen from the outside, we’re entirely out of control.

So how do we readjust? Do we hit the “reset” button and force ourselves back into another Great Depression or worse? It all comes down to a single question? How do we rein in over-consumption?

Because this is an unpopular and perhaps impossible question, no leader has made a visionary case for Canada’s future. But it’s time we all faced facts. It’s not the environment. It’s not energy. It’s not the economy. It’s all three together. That this is not fully recognized and communicated to the Canadian public is the real total eclipse—of leadership.

Everything we have done in the past and in the future depends on the environment. Food, shelter, transportation and manufacturing all depend on the environment. During the last 100 years we’ve seen the most dramatic acceleration of human development in history—entirely fuelled by gasoline and fossil fuels. With oil production peaking and about to decline, the end of that acceleration is now in sight.

Unless we get moving in a new direction quickly, only darkness lies ahead.


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