This article was published in Vue Weekly on April 1, 2010
By Laura Collison
Worth Fighting For: Public Solutions and our Common Future is the name of the 2010 Public Interest Alberta conference, and it's a timely theme considering the public sector in Alberta is facing immense cuts to funding. The sector saw nearly 800 jobs cut in February alone, with Service Alberta losing a quarter of its workforce. Though the cuts are aimed at administration, it is difficult to imagine services will not be affected, and Public Interest Alberta is aiming to get citizens talking about those impacts on Albertans and the alternative economic models the government could be looking at.
"The Government of Alberta should be investing, rather than cutting the public service," says PIA executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon. "Investment in these areas improves quality of life for everyone and strengthens the whole community."Alberta has turned to the non-profit sector to deliver many services that were once delivered publicly, and while Moore-Kilgannon praised the work of non-profits, he doesn't believe they can do the job without proper government support."If we're going to work with a community-based non-profit model," he says, "it has to be properly resourced and it has to be developed with long-term commitments."
Moore-Kilgannon fears that when government fails to provide services and funding, corporations often step in, and he worries that delivering services privately will bring new problems."The costs are higher and the quality is lower because the priority is on profits, not service delivery," he explains. "This is seen in everything from childcare to long-term care."The move to private delivery is also part of what keynote speaker David Korten, who left the world of Harvard Business to write his book When Corporations Rule the World, will be speaking on."The basic problem we face is that we have an economic system that is global in scale that is designed to convert living wealth into financial wealth," says Korten. "It does that very well. It is essentially turning life into money to make rich people richer."
Korten's new book, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, explains how to move to a community-based economy from a corporate one."What we desperately need is a new economy that is designed to provide adequate and satisfying livelihoods for all people in balanced relationship to Earth's biosphere for generations to come. The two have very little in common."Korten says that across North America, wages have not kept pace with inflation and Alberta is no exception. He believes the move to for-profit delivery is yet another cost-of-living increase."The larger dynamic is so insidious: the economy puts people in a situation where their actual costs of keeping body and soul together keep going up while their income from work goes down," says Korten. "Cutting back on public services is also part of this process. Part of the answer is to restore the things we do based on family and community relationships, and the structure of paid work needs to be such that the benefits of market place activity are properly shared among all of those who contribute to that production.
"When asked how to go about this, Korten points to the importance of the local, calling for rebuilding local economies through supporting local businesses, rebuilding local food-supply and production systems, and through local financial institutions. All things that he says "operate to serve their members and their communities, rather than to extract as much money as possible from the community."He does not believe making these changes has to involve sacrifice."The changes that we need to make in order to restore the social and environmental health of society are exactly the same changes that are necessary to achieve what most of the world's people would consider to be the ideal way of living."Though it can be easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of the challenges, Korten points to the dramatic historical changes he has seen in his lifetime. While there is still work to be done, he says, "They are powerful shifts in the direction we need to move. The amount of progress within the last 50 or so years, from a historical perspective, is happening with blinding speed."
Here in Alberta, PIA's advocacy is attempting to inform citizens and empower them to fight to keep Alberta socially healthy. Join Together Alberta has organized people from across the province to take on the cuts and demand support for public services. The recent formation and success of the Greater Edmonton Alliance has made local food a political issue in this city, and just this past month University of Alberta students stood up and marched against a proposed $550 fee, on top of tuition levels over $5000 a year, which was then cut by 52 percent.
In the end, the fight is worth it, says Korten, because it isn't about making sacrifices—it's about living well."The work that's involved in creating a new economy and a new human civilization calls us to be our most creative and innovative and it puts us in contact with the world's most wonderful people," he says. "And it is a whole lot more fun and satisfying than allowing oneself to sink into the depths of despair and cynicism. I don't know of any more fun or attractive way to live than doing this work."