The Dollarama here, there and everywhere.


The brand new Dollarama store just opened in the local mall. The shelves must be seven feet high, dark corridors stacked with merchandise all priced at a buck to two bucks, almost all of it made in China.

Years ago I might have felt a twinge of guilt about shopping in such a place. That was when ‘Made in Canada’ and ‘shop local’ were still common slogans. But times sure have changed. Attention Wal-Mart shoppers: we now live in a global retail marketplace. So instead of shelling out $20 at Canadian Tire, I spent $9 at the Dollarama. For that I got a paintbrush, roller and tray, a big, industrial-sized dustpan and a 9’ x 12’ plastic drop sheet.

Gone is the shopper’s morality about supporting local shops, or at the very least Canadian producers. But morality, says political philosopher John Gray, is itself a scarcity. He goes much further. In Straw Dogs Gray asserts:

“Humans thrive in conditions that morality condemns. The peace and prosperity of one generation stand on the injustices of earlier generations; the delicate sensibilities of liberal societies are fruits of war and empire.”

Gray is an ardent critic of progressive materialism. He is also defender of classic, common-sense liberalism, and in some respects common-sense conservatism as well. In the best of liberalism, Gray finds a tolerance for many different value systems coming together in a shared, single system of governance. And like many of us, he’s struggling with the philosophy of global governance, trying to determine whether such a thing is practicable or even possible.

The danger, warns Gray, is that our present system and the affluence it brings, is fragile. Given the complexity of the modern economy and the very real prospect of resource scarcity—notably in rapidly depleting supplies of fossil fuel—we may inevitably be led into resource wars beyond anything we’ve seen to date in the Middle East. If that happens, Gray fears that our liberal society will disappear as oligarchs and despots take control of their local resources.

Pretty depressing stuff, I agree. So I skipped ahead to the last chapter of his latest book of essays, “Gray’s Anatomy,” for final solutions. Surprisingly, he doesn’t offer much. Gray concludes that maybe, instead of rationally thinking through everything, we might just begin by merely seeing the world.

Seeing? Gray doesn’t even get as far as the Buddhists in their quest to simply be. And the thing is, simply being may be a better starting point. Which brings me to the four kinds of people in the world. Those who want to change it. Those who want to run it. Those who just want to live (or be) in it. And those who want to escape it.

Individually, we may be too small to change things. Even on the national level, our politicians have lost the ability to tune into the entire global organism—if they ever had that ability in the first place. The only rational answer, of course, is to live in this world, as it is. And that was John Gray’s point.

At a fundamental level of thinking, our greatest thinkers are concluding that we’re going to hell in a hand basket. They are beyond trying to stop the inevitable. And in fact what’s to change? At the level we’re operating on planet Earth, humans have coalesced into a single organism with billions of moving parts. Viewed from above our conflicts are like red cells vs. white cells acting out in a kind of cancerous outbreak across the globe.

Of course we can and do make changes by our very nature. But we seem to have lost the ability to make intelligent collective choices that might matter over, say, seven generations as our Native forefathers taught. The Dollarama tells the story. Or rather its Chinese connection does.

China is poised to become the world’s leading economy over the next few years, replacing the U.S., which currently produces about 20% of the world’s goods. China today produces some 500 million tonnes of grain, another 500 million tonnes of steel (making it by far the world’s biggest steel producer), nearly 30 million tonnes of textiles (world’s largest producer-exporter). It mines 6.5 million tonnes of gold, 2.5 billion tones of coal and produces 189 million tonnes of crude oil (5th among world’s oil producing nations). While I couldn’t find a total on the total output, a rough estimate puts it at about 6 billion tonnes of production a year. That’s about a tonne for every person on Earth.

And that’s just China. The world economy produces a mass of goods equalling about 25 billion tonnes every year. That’s about 4 tonnes per person, or put another way, over 50 times the living mass of humans on the planet.

Let’s take a closer look. The total biomass on Earth is “only” about between 75 billion and 1.9 trillion tonnes, depending on who’s calculating. For argument’s sake, let’s just say the planet’s total biomass is 2 trillion tonnes.

Let’s extend the math just a little. At an economic-production growth rate of just 7% a year—which is what it takes to double an economy in 10 years—human beings will be manufacturing and extracting more than the entire biomass of the planet within a little over 60 years (by 2070).

That’s awesome. Really. That’s totally awe-some. But that’s the load we’ll be putting on the planet’s ecosystem in just 3 short generations. That is, if the current production model holds.

That presupposes that we’ll find enough alternative energy to replace the equivalent of 220 million barrels of oil—each and every day. (We should note here that more than 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels—and coal, which is one of the dirtiest sources of energy, was the fastest growing fossil fuel from 2003 to 2008, according to Wikipedia.) The odds are, and the world’s best thinkers currently agree, that we’re not going to make the transition from fossil fuels quickly enough. And that spells s-c-a-r-c-i-t-y ahead.

So I guess we shouldn’t get too used to the Dollarama version of modern life, though we should enjoy it while it lasts. Like the shabby bearded guy in the cartoon says, “The end is near.”

The best advice? Start banking seeds and learning how to grow a good garden. Who cares whether doomsday prophets are right or wrong, at least you’ll have tasty vegetables on your plate. But I suspect our future will be a bit more complicated than that.


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