The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Our inheritance: environmental degradation and crippling debt

By in Opinions

Opinions Writer

Given that most of you reading this are in the process of attaining post-secondary degrees, I am sure you will succeed as individuals. As a generation, however, our parents have burdened us with a number of challenges.

The most obvious burden that has been bestowed upon us is our national debt. While the Liberals managed to cease deficit spending in the ’90s, they were unable to pay down the growing debt. Even more disconcerting is the fact that, since the recession, the Harper government has been operating in deficit territory and will likely do so until at least 2015.

As it stands, the government of Canada’s total debt is over $522 billion, or over $16,000 per person. Unfortunately, this does not even include individual debts accrued by each province.

Adding to our future debt problems is the need to pay off our parents’ pensions. Baby boomers have listened to countless government promises to allocate money to public pension funds — and none have followed through. And so the private sector is left to provide these generous pension packages itself. In spite of this ill-contrived practice, our parents seemed happy as long as their own funds remained unscathed. The attitude towards spending seemed to be “why be fiscally prudent when our kids can pay it off?” And so, we will have to.

One solution to debt is long-term austerity. Unfortunately, the fat-cats of Bay Street and bleeding-heart unions seem united in preventing this from happening, claiming the economy is at stake. They may be right. But that still leaves our generation with a hefty debt to pay and no real room for dealing with other public policies we may need. Rest assured, over the next couple decades if exorbitant mortgages and car payments fail to empty our wallets, our governments will.

A less conspicuous burden is health care. Previous generations established the principles which ensure universal coverage and comparable service across Canada. But during the last several decades, health care costs have spiraled to unsustainable levels. In the midst of growing obesity rates and diabetes, not to mention statistics suggesting that we will not even live to be as old as our parents, Canada and its provinces are barely able to scrape together enough cash to fund our current, inadequate system.

We will need new programs and funding initiatives aimed at preventive medicine, promoting fitness and healthy eating, as well as subsidies for emerging pharmaceutical treatments.Unfortunately, there is no extra cash on hand for many of these necessary ventures. Instead, baby-boomers seem content with maintaining a system which their own failing health could eventually sink — unless considerable action is taken.

The final burden imposed upon us concerns the state of the environment. For a generation of hippies, it’s remarkable how fast our parents “sold out” and tossed their espoused ideals aside. Baby boomers have become the quintessential consumers and judging by all the SUVs on the road, they don’t seem to care much at all about the size of their ecological footprint. Although they should be lauded for their contribution to Canada’s once robust economy, our parents also built damaging industries that the atmosphere may not recover from for millennia, if ever. They then signed onto international agreements to lower emissions — like the Kyoto Protocol — and showed absolutely no leadership in actually meeting the environmental targets set out in the agreements.

Now with little funding, public attention, or political will, our generation is going to have to pay the price, in both economic and social terms. In order to mitigate the effects of climate change, our generation will need to continue the cultural shift toward individual ecological responsibility and make some serious sacrifices. Had we started in decades prior, the steps toward such changes would be easier. Now, the looming reality of an environmental crisis leaves us few choices.

I apologize if I come across as a doomsdayish harbinger of pessimism. I am, in fact, very excited about the future and all the opportunities that it presents to us. Nevertheless, I do not think I am being unrealistic in suggesting that our generation will have some serious public policy choices to make in order to maintain the qualities which make Canada such a great nation.

To this end, addressing Canada’s fiscal woes, health care issues and environmental impact will be our generation’s main challenges. How we address these issues will define our generation, just as our parents’ successes and failures defines theirs.

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image: Crestock Photos

  • Eric M

    The last sentence of my first paragraph no longer makes sense. Please edit this better :-D

    • It's a bit of a choppy sentence, but still gets your point across. Do you know what it said originally?

  • Eric M

    The last two sentences of my first paragraph originally read:

    "Given that most of you reading this are in the process of attaining post-secondary degrees, I am sure you will succeed as individuals. As a generation, however, our parents have burdened us with a number of hurdles."

    Feel free to fix it any way you see fit.


  • Eric M

    A couple more re-edits :-D. This one is my fault because the original should have read clearer. In the fourth paragraph your edit added to the confusion. The federal government has a very expensive public pension plan, it just doesn't contribute the resources at the same time as Canadian workers. Therefore, the problem is that we will have to pay for these plans since governments don't pay for them as they grow.

    paragraph eight: The phrase is "Canada's once robust economy." I wrote "Canada's robust economy." I resolutely stand by my original phrase. Even amidst the recession the country's economy performed well relative to other advanced countries. Anyone who thinks Canada's economy is suffering or does not have a bright future has their head in the sand.

  • Dylon Martin

    While I'd agree that environmental degradation is a real problem, I'm much more skeptical of your demographic/debt time-bomb. The annual debts recently incurred by governments are due to falling tax revenues, when the economy is out of the reccession (after the second dip has occurred) Canada should be back into an annual surplus position, freeing resources for paying off past government debts and financing crucial programs.

    Furthermore, the demographic timebomb argument is rubbish. Worker productivity has been growing faster than longevity in the developed world*.
    * Yes, I know productivity growth is less in Canada than in the US. But the point remains.

    • Eric M

      Thanks for the comment Dylon. Keep in mind Kevin Page, Parliament's Budget Officer, acknowledges Canada is in a structural deficit. This means a full economic recovery will not land is in surplus zone. Is he right? I don't know for sure and nobody should know yet. The point remains that irresponsible choices in regards to spending and taxation have been made and we'll have to do more than our fair share of paying down the deficits and the debt.

  • public debate

    How do you see the role of universities in the public debates that will be needed to come up with new policies to address these issues? Given the recent Law Dean appointment issue and how that exposes the centralization of power and information in the President's Office and the neoliberalism ideology that prevails in universities, can universities be looked to spark social change? Why do more students not get involved in addressingnshotcomings of university admin andthe USSU.

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