Staff outside Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (File photo)

Column: Sustainable society based on foundational services

Services tied to local populations puts sustainability above growth, says columnist


We are easily distracted by needs of the moment and no good at planning to avoid future disasters. Polls show that a majority of people are in favour of scrapping ‘the old normal.’ But will we abandon cheapness and convenience in exchange for the true costs of sustainable life?

I’d like to see a good poster listing the 10 looming crises identified by the Australian Commission for the Human Future – ecological collapse and extinction, global warming, weapons of mass destruction, resource scarcity, global poisoning, food insecurity, pandemic disease, overpoppulation, uncontrolled technology, and self-delusion – to post where we’d see it daily.

We can only reform global trade by paying true costs of goods and services. The Canadian foreign worker program is set up to exploit people who receive no benefits while sending their paltry earnings home.

Did you know that bees are shipped to California to pollinate almond trees and are poisoned by pesticides used by almond growers? Are we incapable of seeing the idiocy of sacrificing priceless pollinators to perpetuate a monoculture for non-essential ersatz milk?

Michael Pollan, in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, writes of the follies of over-specialization by selling basic foodstuffs in two completely separate streams: retail and what we call HRI (hotel restaurant institution). During this pandemic, farmers producing for HRI could not transfer to retail when their market share collapsed because they use different processing equipment. Pollan describes workers in meat-packing plants standing shoulder-to-shoulder working at line speeds which permit no breaks. Meanwhile, local production is hampered by federal and provincial regulations geared more to food quantity than quality.

The University of Toronto has a research program called PROOF which studies food insecurity and releases regular reports. They report that: one-sixth of Canadian children are growing up in food insecure households, food insecurity in Canada is steadily increasing, there is no indication that increasing food skills or budgeting skills will reduce food insecurity, no indication that gardening for food protects households from food insecurity, and there is no evidence that food charity is able to move households out of food insecurity. PROOF research shows that the most reliable way to prevent food insecurity is to “improve the financial circumstances of low-income households.”

READ ALSO: Vulnerability to global disasters is our own making

A recent Tyee article introduced “foundational economy” suggesting that local money is wasted on wooing a high-income high tech sector because all that does is drive up local prices, especially of housing.

Foundational activities would include sectors that “provide universal services (water, sewer, energy, health care, education, etc.) that are tied tightly to local populations and not ‘vagrants’ like high-tech. People like nurses, hairdressers, waiters, public works employees, yoga teachers, bus drivers, food service workers, carpenters, etc.”

The Commission for the Human Future brought together a small student group which reported out that “it is fundamental we shift progress measures from a growth-focused narrative, to one that values a more sustainable approach and challenges the systemic consumer culture that perpetuates social disengagement with existential crises.”

The choices are clear. What are our chances?

Marjorie Stewart is past chairwoman of Nanaimo Foodshare. She can be reached at

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