Ten suggestions to lead a better life without growth (part 1)

Two weeks ago the degrowth research group Collectif de recherche interuniversitaire et transdisciplinaire sur les impasses de la croissance (CRITIC) held its first colloquium, entitled “How much should we keep on digging? The limits to growth”, at HEC Montréal. The degrowth movement voiced very relevant critiques concerning the economics of accumulation, always in search of unlimited profits even though the planet’s environmental and social limits are brought ever more sharply into focus.

Fittingly, the French periodical Alternatives économiques published this month a feature entitledA better life without growth” which brought to the fore 10 proposals towards improving our lives now that the end of growth is either desirable, either inevitable. These suggestions are very interesting, easy to implement, and more people should hear about them really. They are meant to decrease individuals’ expenses in order to lessen the urge to accumulate money. We will go over each one and adapt it to the situation in Québec.

A word of warning before we look into these different avenues. The term degrowth is sometimes understood as ‘gross domestic product (GDP) reduction’. We prefer a different understanding, one rather like agnosticism in the face of the ‘growth at all costs’ economic dogma. The point is not to harbour hatred towards an indicator that others celebrate. On the contrary, we suggest rethinking economics beyond the GDP growth imperative. Some of the public policies presented below could very well increase the GDP whilst others could have either a negative or a neutral impact upon it. However, we are not concerned with such calculations here. We wish instead to understand how to lead better lives in a world with finite resources without further destroying it.

1. Decrease accommodation costs

In a context in which the relative revenue is fairly stagnant, we can no longer forge ahead without acting upon expenses. Alternatives économiques reminds us that in France one of the greatest household expenditures is accommodation costs. Québec is no different: according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec (ISQ), home-owners spent 17% of their revenue on their lodgings in 2009 whilst tenants spent 21%. A study authored by IRIS has shown that these expenses are especially consequential for those with the most modest means.

How can these costs be cut in Québec? A number of proposals have been put forward, some of which are detailed in the recently unveiled report of a popular inquiry in which took part one of our researchers. The people at Alternatives économiques suggest expanding the legislative control over rent prices to newly built housing. In Québec, rent increases should first be more tightly regulated. Currently, the Régie du logement’s guidelines are only suggestions carrying no legal weight. Consequently, average rent increases surpassed both inflation and the Régie’s guidelines up to 2012. The upward trend now seems to have slowed down. Is this only temporary? Is this a forewarning of major problems in real estate? It’s hard to tell.

Rental control is not the only means by which the government can reduce the housing expenditure-to-income ratio. For years, there has been talk in Québec of setting up a lease registry. It could reduce rent hikes when apartments change hands. To truly act on rent prices, the government should build social housing and perhaps even convert private rental housing into social housing.

2. Spend less on heating

If house heating is an important issue in France, it is a vital one in Québec. Heating is not just for comfort’s sake, it’s a matter of survival. Does that mean that we need to let heating go out the window, and money with it? How can we make sure that we don’t waste energy?

One solution seems obvious: to favour what the French call “thermal renovations”. In short, we should make sure that each and every house, apartment, office, and institution is well insulated and saves energy. For rental housing, the landlord or landlady has no direct incentive to undertake these renovations, since he or she does not benefit —financially or comfort-wise— from the renovations. It’s up to the state to intervene and encourage these renovations.

Energy waste is not only caused by badly insulated housing. There are also some people who do overconsume energy. They suffer little consequence given the relatively low price of electricity in Québec. IRIS suggested a few years ago to improve on the Hydro-Québec tariff escalation to do a better job at targeting spendthrifts. However, such a measure would be hard to implement without previous thermal renovations. Indeed, without them we face the risk of penalizing the worst off.

3. Transform cities

In Copenhagen, bicycle trips make up half of all transportation, claims Alternatives économiques. It has an effect on the environment, obviously, but also on household budgets and on people’s health. Living a simpler life also means decreasing (or putting an end to) car use.

Of course, initiatives like Montréal’s BIXI are a step in the right direction, but we have to do more and it really isn’t that expensive. Alternatives économiques suggests limiting the maximum speed downtown to 30 km/h and re-organizing zoning to prevent megastores from developing.

Creating new bike lanes and ensuring that they are secure could be added to the list in Montréal. And while we’re at it, why not develop a coherent system throughout the cycle network? It should well-built, well-marked, and well-indicated. And why not throw in a website and a smartphone app to make the whole thing even easier to use? There are many bike paths in Montréal that remain completely unknown to a number of cyclists. Dare we add that the snow could be cleared from the lanes and paths in the wintertime? But we should be mindful that it could lead to rows.

Recently a one-way electric carsharing pilot project was launched. It’s probably another step in the right direction. Yet wouldn’t it be nice to transform more streets into pedestrian malls (Saint-Denis between René-Lévesque and Sherbrooke or Sainte-Catherine between Berri and Papineau — both arteries are already closed off for most of the summer)?

In Québec’s other cities, is there no way to intelligently develop and encourage both public transit and active commuting? If there are no viable alternatives to the car, people certainly won’t voluntarily forsake it. We’ll also need to look into how inter-city transport networks —currently in the hands of regional oligopolies— can be cheaper and more functional, but that’s a debate for the longer term.

4. Curb healthcare expenses

If we’re gonna leave growth behind, we also need to forsake state revenue growth. If that’s going to be the case, we can’t allow health costs to explode. Yet it’s happening worldwide: in Québec, in Canada, in France, and in the US. How can we reduce those costs?

In Québec, IRIS and others have been suggesting for a long time that we should tackle the cost of prescription drugs, which are the highest-increasing healthcare costs. Is a universal drug plan a good idea? Probably. What about a public entity in the drug sector like the one called for by Québec solidaire and Option nationale? Probably another good idea: it should certainly be researched more extensively.

Yet let’s be clear: even if drug costs increase rapidly, they’re not the most significant expenditure in healthcare. Doctors and hospitals, now that’s what’s most expensive. The people at Alternatives économiques face an important taboo: physicians’ pay. Isn’t it time for Québec to tackle it as well? The fee-for-service pros and cons should certainly be thoroughly outweighed and alternatives considered further.

Unsurprisingly, Alternatives économiques brings up the topic of prevention. But everyone is in favour of motherhood and apple pie, that’s the problem. In Québec, how many governments have already announced that they were allegedly shifting to health prevention? To truly prevent diseases, the government has to take action in areas in which it generally refuses to take up too much space: the production of goods, industrial agriculture and its harmful effects, housing quality matters, etc.

5. Break down monopolies and oligopolies

Alternatives économiques denounces the way major players can impose their prices onto consumers through lack of competition. The authors speak of a monopoly in distribution in France. In Québec, the same applies, particularly in the food sector.

However, the truly damaging oligopolies in Québec are probably those in telecommunications and in banking. A few big players bring in big bucks at the expense of small consumers. With regard to telephony, Canada is one of the most expensive countries worldwide for cellphone plans. When it comes to the cable sector, Québec is home to private regional monopolies (Cogeco and Vidéotron), the worst combination ever: a single player, with the sole goal of making money, and captive customers.

On the banking side, listing all the disadvantages of the sector’s oligopoly would be too long: let’s just mention constantly increasing banking fees, interbank ATM service fee agreements, constant pressure to increase credit, a decisive influence on economic policies, prohibitive credit card interest rates, etc. That being said, the alternatives to the banking oligopoly are not easily found nor implemented in the short run.

This article was written by Simon Tremblay-Pepin and Bertrand Schepper, researchers with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

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