It’s been suggested that, if I’m so eager for good development, I should run for mayor of our small town. As the joke goes, “I already gave at the office.” In other words, I’ve already tried putting together a free town development function, which met with less than marginal cooperation.
But I still think about sustainable development. The town in which I live needs 3.2 million calories of food a day to keep its population fed. To do that we use 32 million kilocalories of fossil fuel every day, or over 360,000 gallons of fuel a year to produce and deliver our food.
We all know that two things are happening. One: burning fossil fuel is leading to dangerous climate change. Two: we’re beginning to run out of fossil fuel, especially light crude oil, the easiest stuff to extract and burn. Which leads to the third: we won’t be leaving our children the same opportunities we inherited.
So why aren’t we innovating as if the world is on fire? (Because it clearly is.) Why aren’t we passing legislation to restrict the use of fossil fuel and developing energy alternatives as rapidly as we can?
Because “we” are no longer a production economy. We’re a service sector economy. Over the past four decades we’ve handed off real production to “developing” nations in Asia and South America. Our country is primarily a management and consumer society. We’re maintenance people, not producers. For the most part we run distribution systems.
Our modern global economy runs on three principals: centralization, management and risk aversion. All three of these driving forces are based on a shift away from national policies and toward maximizing risk-free international profits. And this has created a fourth dynamic: finance-as-industry, which is now seen as its own independent economic force.
Where finance was once a mechanism for transactions, it’s now a profit generator…independent of production. Over the past 30 years new financial “instruments” such as derivatives have been invented to create cash. What, in fact, has been happening (although most of us don’t seem capable of understanding this) is that monetary wealth is being created directly from concept. Financial institutions have become magical entities that create digital cash out of thin air and then loan and trade this digital cash for even more cash. If it seems crazy, it is.
And our schools are filling up with business students who plainly see where the future lies. Science and innovation are for nerds and losers. Besides, if the nerds do come up with something, the new generation of managers will simply buy it and put it to work. In theory, anyway.
But clearly the system is not working. Unemployment in North America is at an all time high. Canadian manufacturing businesses are struggling to keep ahead of the high Canadian dollar, which is making their products less competitive internationally. Meanwhile, the Canadian resource sector, most notably the Canadian tar sands, is booming; in effect turning us back into a nation of hewers of wood and haulers of oil. This is not exactly the path to innovation.
In fact, since the 1970s the world’s economy has been operating in crisis management mode as corporations and governments strain to maintain the fossil fuel economy. It’s been recession following recession as bubbles form and burst. There was the OPEC oil embargo followed by the inflationary bubble followed by the Japanese asset bubble, followed by the Asian financial crisis followed by the dot.com bubble followed by the sub-prime lending bubble which finally led to the current financial collapse.
I won’t even touch on the military interventions over the past 50 years, most of which have direct connections to either nationalized central banking systems, nationalized oil reserves or other nationalized resources which, coincidentally, Western-based corporations seek to control. Now that Libya is done, it looks like Iran will be next.
But was has this got to do with our little town in our little corner of the province? Well, everything as it turns out. All of our food and manufactured goods come from somewhere else. We are totally dependent on a very complex global system that is becoming increasingly unstable and unsustainable. We are, all of us, operating without an insurance policy. We don’t produce enough of our own energy locally. We can’t grow enough of our own food locally. And at every level our governments are in “management” mode, rather than innovation mode.
If ever there were a time to reevaluate our governments, now’s the time. For starters, I’d suggest that New Brunswick set a new direction for itself: as the leading model for sustainability, both environmental and economic.
But first one would have to ask: “where’s the leadership?” We certainly seem to have a lot of managers but very few visionaries. Well, we’re not about to find them. Why? Trust me on this. The last thing risk-adverse managers want are creative, risk-taking innovators.
It seems we’d rather go on managing crises than envisioning a bright new future.
By "visionaries, leadership and innovators" I don't mean to suggest that we look toward heroes. As John Ralston Saul correctly points out, the rush to heroic leadership is an error equal to or exceeding technical management as an ultimate solution.
Visionary leadership lies somewhere between the hero and the technocrat, or in actual fact outside those two frames altogether. Visionary leadership embraces the actual situation of ordinary citizens, consults with them and others on what the present situation may mean for the future, and builds both a vision and a consensus on what should be done.
Where Barack Obama represents a manifestation of the hero and technocrat combined, examples of Canadian visionaries would include Lester Pearson who correctly interpreted the Canadian sensibility and envisioned Canada as one of the world's true peace-keepers, or C.D. Howe who envisioned a Canada united through public works such as the St. Lawrence Seaway. Both Jefferson and FDR in the States also characterized visionary leadership noticeably devoid of heroic ego or self-serving behaviour.
These are the kind of leaders who seem to be in such short supply in an ever more managerial-technocratic power structure. Yet this is a time in which we need visionary leadership more than ever.