Downward spiral not inevitable

Quality of Life 1

If things are goingbadly for a municipality — if jobs are scarce, if social assistance costs are rising, plants are closing, and the tax base iseroding — whatiscouncillikely to do?

« Why, increaseits efforts to keepold industries and attract new, of course.


And whatcanthat translate into?


Well, itcanmeanopening land to development, even if itmeansdestroying prime agricultural land, eliminating green corridors, and creatingurbansprawl. It canalsomeanbeingkind to polluting industries — such as a nuclear power plant in Pickering, or an incinerator for toxicwastes in Alberta, or a dangerous recycler of plastics in Hamilton.


It canmeanKirkland Lake turningitsold mines intogarbage dumps, soTorontonianswon’t have to cut down on theirgarbage, and corporations won’t have to reducetheir packaging.


It canmeansmallcommunities in northern Ontario supporting a handover of about a third of Ontario’s land to loggingcompaniesunder provincial leasesthatwillnever end. Coastalcommunitiessupportingfishfarming practices that infect wildfishwithdiseases. A federalgovernmentthatwon’t go beyond a snail’s pace in combatting global warming for fear of offendingcommunitiesthatdepend on oilcompanies for theirwelfare.


The idea of sustainabilityismeant to stop thiskind of madnessbecause the madnesssnowballs.


As economicdecisionsdegrade the environment, social conditions deteriorate. There is more sickness — breast cancer, birthdefects, asthma, damage to immune systems, skin cancers and otherdiseasescaused by sun damage; the listgoes on and on. There is more absenteeism. More stress. More upsetfromnaturaldisasters and changingweather patterns. More families at risk.liTheworse the social conditions, the greateris the economic impact. Healthcostsescalate, as do costs of the social safety net. The costs of pollution preventionrise. Natural disasterswreakeconomichavoc. Governments are impelled to raise taxes to fulfiltheir obligations. Companies face highercosts and lesscertainty.


And sothereis a slow spiral downwards.


In scenarios such as this, praisebe for Malcolm Shookner and the social planning councils of Ontario municipalities.


Shooknerisexecutivedirector of the Ontario Social Development Council and the driving force behinddevelopment of a quality of life index for the province. The provincial index, in turn, has served as a model for municipal social planning councils to createtheirown indexes.


The indexes are tools for action, hesays, becausetheycan focus response. Theywillbe an early warning system that identifies impacts of the major changes that are underway — the fundingcuts by senior governments, the downloading of responsibilities, the restructuring of municipalities, the corporate downsizing, the merger mania.


Eachquality of life index is a single number, calculatedfrom 12 indicatorsbased on social, health, economic, and environmentstatistics. Whether the numbergoes up or down indicateswhether the quality of life isimproving or declining. And each of the 12 the indicatorstatistics tells why.


The indexes willbepublishedevery six months, sothat trends canbeidentified and remedial action takenquickly. The provincial index was first published last fall. Now, social planning councils in Toronto and 11 othermunicipalities are planning to publishindexesthisyear.


« Wewant to raise public awareness,’’ Shooknersays. « To stimulate discussion.


« Wewant to give people atoolthattheycan use to holdgovernmentsaccountable. So thattheycanbe more likecitizens, instead of consumers and taxpayerswhichseems to be the onlywaythey’rereferred to now.


« Wewant people to be able to counteract the dominance of the global marketplace,’’ and to regain control of society from the bottom up.


Those are prettyloftyaims, and a heavyload for simple indexes to carry. But let the complacentbeware. Never underestimate an informedelectorate.


NEXT WEEK: What the indexes say

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