16 September 2011

Paradise lost


Opinion by Tim Murray,
January 15/09

The fate of Westbank resident Jorden Martz did not surprise me. I have seen it coming for five decades. Martz was the young man who was cut down by a hit-and-run driver at 3am in mid January while he was riding his bike to work at a Tim Horton’s outlet. As he staggered for help suffering the agony of fractured ribs and a broken leg, not one of the half dozen cars he tried to flag down stopped to assist him. Not one driver even bothered to roll down his window an inch to ask if there was a problem. Martz’s sister, reflecting upon his experience, confessed that her perception of the city and its people was henceforth changed. She had once thought of Kelowna as the home of friendly people with a strong sense of community, but that particular incident indicated otherwise. Kelowna had arrived. It was now an urban paradise. The city that developers, businessmen and politicians across Canada aim for. A growing, “vibrant” , “community” with an array of amenities that human beings allegedly can’t live without. Fine restaurants, expansive malls, sports complexes, big box stores and a college. The drugs, the gangs, the violent and petty crime, well , those are the expected growing pains along the road to greatness. A little “planning” will take care of that.

Call me old-fashioned– a charge which I quite eagerly admit to—but I prefer the Kelowna I knew in 1958. That was a paradise. No one locked their homes or their cars. The beaches were relatively empty and the orchards were unmolested by bulldozers. The mood was friendly and the pace of life relaxed. No wonder— there were 10,000 residents then. Today there are more than 106,000. And the current OCP (Official Community Plan) growth strategy projects the “City” population to be 153, 222 in 2020, with the addition of another 22,666 people in the following ten years. But as a discussion paper revealed, “With a revised growth strategy, the City would see an additional 22,666 people during the 2011 to 2020 time period and an additional 17,887 people from2021 to 2030, for a total population of 161,701.” http://www.kelowna2030.ca/spaw2/uploads/files/Population%20and%20Housing%20Projections%20Discussion%20Paper.pdf Compound growth rates will decline from 2.13% presently to 1.22% in two decades. But this is meaningless when it is remembered that a lower growth rate for a larger population base will add more people to a region than a larger growth rate would for a smaller population. The environment cares little for percentages. It is the total impact that counts, and the absolute number of consumers and the rate of their consumption and waste is what factors in.

Naturally the quest for more profits and more business will be couched in the deceptive language of trendy growth “management” and “sustainability” principles. Residents will continue to be told that the city can have its cake and eat it too. Those on the left will be recruited to this cause by the tired old arguments of growthism. They will be told that more employment will be needed to uplift those with lower incomes. That more tax revenue will be needed to provide the social services that they will require. That economic growth will allow for the provision of that most Holy of left-wing Grails, “affordable” housing. And the “left” will buy it as they always have, for two reasons. One is that many in the so-called “progressive” coalition have a vested interest in growth. Growth allows the number of dues-paying members in unions to grow, growth increases the number of students and classrooms for teachers and college administrators, growth generates work for the social workers and psychologists who feed off the social problems that come with growth—more cases, more case workers. Growth and the taxes it yields can improve the job security and benefits of public sector workers, a pillar of the progressive constituency. As NDP leader Carol James declared at the party’s convention in November of 2009, “We need to grow the revenues.” And growing that revenue for modern social democrats cannot be done by raising corporate taxes or killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It must be accomplished by creating a “business-friendly” environment. By encouraging economic growth. And only through continued growth, or “prosperity” as it is termed, can we “afford” a clean environment. Notice that the rhetoric of the left has now become almost indistinguishable from that of the right. Both want to “grow the pie” but merely quibble about how it is to be sliced. Growth is good, according to NDP leader Jack Layton, so long its ‘benefits’ are “shared”. So not only do progressives have a mercenary stake in growth, they have an ideological commitment to it as well. That is the second reason for their membership in the growth lobby.
Both left and right want growth, and both attempt to dress it up with assurances about sustainability, now a buzz word devoid of any meaningful sense. The aforementioned discussion paper for the Kelowna OCP stated that “Several growth allocation/land use scenarios will..be developed and tested for impacts on various sustainability criteria (financial, environmental, social and cultural). Hello? There is no such thing as “financial”, “social” or “cultural” sustainability outside the context of “environmental” sustainability. As one grows tired of reminding growth advocates, the economy and the society and culture which it supports itself is a subset of the environment. We make our living in an “economy”, but we live in a biosphere. Without clean air, productive soils, replenished aquifers—without biodiversity services, any economy will collapse. Once the environment is trashed, try using your “robust” economy and growing tax revenues to buy a new one.

Of course, growth-managers will tell us that it is not “whether” we grow but “how” we grow. There is no need to document the failure of smart-growth snake oil nostrums. There is no need to talk about failures in Portland, Oregon or Los Angeles to maintain growth boundaries in the face of unrelenting population growth, or the failure of densification to contain this pressure, or the fallacy that densification reduces ecological footprints. Or that the tax revenues of urban growth are consumed by the costs of supplying new infrastructure to growing subdivisions. Or that more growth may create more jobs but it does not reduce the unemployment rate or catch up with homelessness by creating “affordable” housing. Trying to grow enough revenue to cure poverty through more growth is, to use a recent metaphor, like trying to cure Type 2 diabetes with twinkies. Or a morning hangover with another six-pack. The NDP governments in BC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba presided over some of the highest rates of child poverty in Canada. Growth never closed income gaps—it widened them. And wealth became even more unevenly distributed.

But the most compelling indictment of growth is not found in statistics, but in the intangibles, in the more subjective measurement of “quality of life”. We do not need to refer to studies like those of Professor James White of UBC who documented that people in more densely populated areas have about one-third fewer close friends than people who live in less populated areas. We can observe that big city folk are more lonely. And Jordan Martz and his sister can observe that a city of Kelowna’s scale has a much compromised sense of community. I for one noticed the change as early as 1970, when Kelowna’s population was already twice the size it had been a decade before when I saw it first. For the first time, I felt uncomfortable in one section of the city core. The drug scene then was intimidating. Imagine it now when the population is now five times larger than that.

Let’s be fair. Even with its current problems, Kelowna is, relative to most cities, an attractive destination. Eight inches of rain a year, sunny summers and tolerably cold winters, in conjunction with its lake and mountain setting, have ensured that. But nevertheless, Kelowna is a victim of a global malaise—the addiction to growth. Ironically, those few who have attempted to fight it have been labelled as “extremists” despite the fact that it is the pace of growth that is extreme, not those who oppose it.

Perhaps the most cogent argument against growth will be waged not by civic reformers, but by the return of triple-digit oil prices, which will escalate to strangle the best laid plans and projections of mice and planners. Big box stores will be empty warehouses and many cities will resemble Barkerville or Detroit. Urban centres in post-carbon Canada will suffer a demographic crash diet. That’s not my vision, or the hallucinations of a crank. It is the scenario of Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler, Michael Ruppert, Richard Embleton, Jeff Rubin, Christopher Steiner, Chris Clugston and dozens of analysts. It is the forecast of anyone who can see the writing on the wall. Oil production has peaked. And while the world will demand more and more, the cost of extracting accessible quantities will grow to exceed their value. The math is indisputable. Either deal with that reality or have that reality deal with you.

Kelowna, B.C., like countless other localities across the globe, is Paradise Lost. But after a tribulation of untold duration and misery, it may one day become Paradise Recovered. Pity I will not live to see it.#

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