Vancouver- and Barcelona-based filmmaker Claudia Medina recently screened the short documentary “Life After Growth” which she co-directed with Leah Temper, at the De-Growth Conference in Vancouver. Medina spoke to Am Johal over the phone from her hometown of Powell River, B.C.
Am Johal: I was at a conference a while back where a few economists were speaking about the economic collapse. After they spoke, I couldn’t believe the anger generated toward them. A lot of people just said, ‘why should we listen to you people anymore?’ There also seems to be a rising chorus of people looking at GDP as an outdated economic indicator in the context of climate change. What’s your take on that?
Claudia Medina: The current economic situation does show the absurdity of it — the system is being questioned by more and more people. I would say there is an increasing awareness of it. The Genuine Progress Indicator is one newer model — and there are many ecological economists who have been working to understand the field of economics in a more holistic way. Economics needs to take nature into account, as well as our impact on nature. Ecological economics does this, whereas classical economics sees pollution as an “externality: Ecological economics goes beyond the definition of environmental economics. It opens up the door from a social sciences perspective — about important questions like ‘quality of life,’ how we deal with problems. The idea of being in a community, participating in public life, exchanges between people that don’t involve monetary exchange. And, of course, the fact that we depend on nature for our survival and well being, and this does not always translate to a monetary value.
Feminist economists look at women’s roles that weren’t given an economic value for so many decades and centuries, but were vital to a functioning economy. It’s important that we have a branch of economics that are looking at these things. The GDP is an extremely inadequate way of evaluating life — but there are models that look at the social, spiritual value, the time you spend with your family, being in community, systems of trade and survival. All of those things are being looked at as viable aspects that make up an economy and are redefining ideas about progress. It’s important to ask questions about who is benefiting, who is being impacted, what gets sacrificed for something else? You start to form a very different picture of what economics could be and should be. It is a much more holistic way of looking at the discipline.
It’s important to ask these questions. What is the economy for, who is it for, what we value and why? For a long time, we actually believed that there is only one system and we don’t need to ask those questions. All of those illusions are being ripped to shreds right now. If the old system was working so well, why then do things seem to be getting worse?
AJ: Here in Vancouver, Vancity has been interested in the Bologna program of social reciprocity, social economy; there’s even times in the 70’s economists from a much wider view of economics than the neo-liberal vision of the past 25 years in Canada. Free trade agreements, perhaps authoritarian regimes are more efficient than some western models which have resulted in loss of the manufacturing sector, a lot of these things were being talked about in the 60s and 70s. There’s been no debate on the issue of climate change since the 70s yet it took 30 years to hit a cultural tipping point. How do we, as activists and cultural workers, have wholesale policy and cultural change?
CM: You touched on, for me, a real motivator to gather this information and put it out there. There is a questioning going on above and beyond the regular circles out there. It has been going on a long time. The Limits to Growth/Club of Rome analysis was happening in the 70s. I do think it’s been going beyond those academic circles slowly and steadily seeping out in to the broader context. One of reasons might be the intensity of the changes in people’s lives.
I have the example of Powell River, this town that I grew up in. It was a typical resource-extraction economy for many, many years — then the pulp and paper industry started to severely downsize. It was the only viable economic reality of this place for a few generations of people. It was kind of the economic father-figure of this place. It created this reality of people having life-long employment and prosperity. For a certain period of time it certainly did that, but at the expense of displacing First Nations communities and having major environmental impacts. It was the undisputed source of good under the prevailing conditions of the time. When I was a teenager, to mention conservation, was considered heretical by some and actually felt like a dangerous notion to bring up at times. Jump forward 20 years. The effects of global economics, neo-liberal economics, international trade deals, depletion of resources — put these things together and this monolith is no longer. Extreme extraction has major problems. I come back after 20 years, I see all of these grassroots initiatives happening — these are things that would never been taken seriously 20 years ago.
This is now officially a ‘transition town’ looking move out of the carbon-based economy. On the surface, that might not be hugely radical but in this context it is. It’s become a food sovereignty hub. These things would not have seemed possible two decades ago — this is quite amazing. Other initiatives, small, but involving a cross-section of people who traditionally had opposing viewpoints, who didn’t see eye to eye on anything, doing work with each other and are talking to each other. There is more awareness and interest. The value now is in the place — what’s left of the environment. That’s something really interesting. I see Powell River as a model or a microcosm of what’s happening in other places around the world that have depended on a way of life, relied on a certain industry, a way of thinking and a worldview — and are coming to new places of understanding.
It means that people are working together, coming up with survival and thriving options for the future. It’s often a result of the concern for what’s happening on a big level, these large crises we are facing. There are important questions — what does it mean to re-localize? I don’t think it’s a passing fad. It might be opening up the doors. At the community level, there’s more opportunities to be involved in things and more and more people are getting involved. And having fun doing it! It’s always struck me, people are all diverse in their thinking. I’m trying not to over idealize it but I think there’s an opening there that could potentially offer an acceleration of examples that work. When we show a film about solutions it can spark these connections between what is happening. It reinforces and encourages those who are coming up with new approaches and catalyzes ideas and action. As culture workers, media makers, you can gather these examples, to show we’re not alone, we’re not the only crazy people out there. It comes down to a very basic level — this is where the tide shifts. What I think is key and fundamental, is to try to maintain and intensify what’s happening at the local level and be aware of what is happening and do whatever possible to impact the global level as well. To make the connections. When it comes to voting on all levels, or participation in local community, it’s important that the connection between these things are understood.
AJ: Economists would say we have demographic issues around the economy as well. Increasingly retiring people, population growth, deficits and debt in the long term. European economies like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Britain are facing worrying debt levels. The US, on its current course, is about 10 years from a major financial collapse. In the 90s we saw in Canada massive cuts that re-organized the social safety net, increased tuition fees, and further neo-liberalized the economy. How do de-growth supporters plan to maintain support for social programs?
CM: I would answer it in this way — haven’t we been following the growth mantra all these years? Could it that be a great part of the reason why we are where we are? Do we take more of the same medicine to solve the problems we keep having?
The media always makes much of when the GDP is going up. If it’s ‘good for the economy,’ we need to be asking, is it good for me? I’m still in debt and I’m still worried about the future. If we keep pushing the numbers up on the GDP, will the important things be restored? Will we be happier? The important things in life have been withering away despite GDP growth over the past few decades.
There’s no easy answer. De-growth is not a solution — it’s an opportunity to talk about alternative economic models. The alternatives have to be looked at in the appropriate context. If you don’t take in to account the realities of the place, then you’re just imposing these ideas. There is not one model, but many that are playing out.
AJ: Anything else?
CM: Right now, there is still oil gushing out in the Gulf of Mexico. You hear these bills that are passing. Bill C-9 — Economic Growth and Employment Act — the gist of it is supposed to effectively eliminate the environmental assessment process for infrastructure projects like dams and pipelines. The government is arguing that it’s taking up too much time and money and we should just streamline it because we need to grow the economy faster.The more people become aware and understand what this actually means, the more there will be growing opposition. Like the Site C Dam in B.C. to the reclassification of freshwater lakes into tailings ponds for mining projects, these massive industrial projects to grow the economy are undermining quality of life for humans and all species in a big way. The things that people are fighting for, they are linked no matter where they are.They are not separate issues.
There are assumptions built in. They are very much about what this old economic model prioritizes. You’ll have jobs for 10 years and the lake is gone forever. The things that people are doing to fight these intrusions, as more people make these connections between the growth mantra and what doesn’t get counted in the GDP, will be harder to stop.
Also, at the same time, to be able to offer other possibilities of economic independence helps in a lot of ways. If ‘this’ won’t work, then ‘what’ will? I always look at what the financial analysts are thinking — in the papers a few weeks ago investors were in a panic about the “de-globalizers” or relocalization movements. There was a kind of panicked tone to the realization that people weren’t buying into the neo-liberal growth mantra so easily anymore and looking for alternatives. It made me laugh, if these people are starting to freak out and retaliate, there is a real of concern going on. I think in Cambridge recently, George Soros had sponsored a conference, to question the neo-classical economic paradigm to reform capitalism. Nobel Laureates and high level economists were joining forces to deal with the fact that there’s people not buying the mantra of economic growth. There’s enough of a concern that there’s serious threats to it. That’s a really good thing. I’m an eternal optimist. I get angry sometimes that we don’t get things fast enough when we are losing so much, so quickly, but it seems to be getting larger as a conversation — this sense that economics is something larger and more important than the way it is being discussed right now. That it isn’t about numbers, it’s about real life and values and what living well really means.