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The Globe and Mail

David Suzuki: An economy is a means, not an end

Environmentalist David Suzuki.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

I'm not an economist. That's no surprise. It's why I'm happy to be joining former CIBC World Markets chief economist Jeff Rubin on a tour for his new book, The End of Growth, and mine, Everything Under the Sun.

You can see from the titles that Jeff's book has a more specific focus. I may be trained in a real science rather than what has been termed "the dismal science," but a few things about our economic thinking are clear to me.

One is that you can't keep burning through finite resources faster than the Earth's ability to replenish them without suffering consequences. Another is that if our recently devised economic system puts at risk the air, water, land and biodiversity that we rely on for our health and very survival, we must come up with something better.

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Our relationship with the planet has changed profoundly in my lifetime. The human population has exploded from two billion to seven billion. We're living longer and having a greater impact on the environment than ever before.

Some scientists refer to our current era as the Anthropocene, because we are altering the physical, chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale. Climate change, species extinction, resource depletion, food security, urbanization all continue to increase as we rely on economies that must keep growing to be called "healthy." But endless growth is the creed of cancer.

It doesn't make sense. We measure our well-being by tracking gross domestic product. But spending money on things that anyone would see as negative, or even horrendous, contributes to positive GDP growth – including disastrous oil spill cleanups, car accidents, and products that we discard and replace every year.

People are innovative, though. When a system isn't working, we change it – sometimes through violent upheaval and revolution, sometimes through calm discussion and co-operation, sometimes when Mother Nature intervenes and we have no choice.

From the abolition of slavery to the Bretton Woods system of monetary management, we have found ways to tailor the economy to our needs, not the other way around. Our current economic systems and thinking are not in tune with today's reality. It's time to find ways to change, before we're forced into it.

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