Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 14, 2001
A changing quality of life
Alberta's Pembina Institute has punctured conventional thinking with its new report that concludes that Albertans had a better quality of life in 1961 than they have today. Instead of just examining economic indicators like the gross domestic product and average family income, the Pembina Institute examined a whole array of factors including the suicide rate, divorce rate, obesity and rate of car crashes.
Predictably, economics professors were unanimous in trashing the conclusion of the report. Some of their objections boiled down to the contention expressed by one business professor: "I can't really believe . . . that we're worse off now than in the '60s."
Well, of course, whether some individual or family is "better off" now than in some half-remembered past can itself be a highly subjective, easily flawed judgment. To make such a judgment about an entire society is something so open to error that it's hard to see how one might reach a reasoned and objective conclusion.
What is valuable in the Pembina Institute study - Alberta Sustainability Trends 2000 - is that it might force a serious look at the fact that the quality of life is comprised partly, maybe even primarily, of factors that are non-economic. "What does it profit a person if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?" one might ask.
The same issue is raised by the UN Human Development Index, which for several years has ranked Canada as the top country in the world in terms of quality of life. Applying that index to Canadian provinces, the Pembina Institute found that Alberta would have the best quality of life in the so-called best country in the world.
However, the institute concludes that the HDI is "a narrow measure of well-being." Nor does the index deal with the issue of whether the current quality of life is sustainable over the long haul.
The Pembina Institute's much broader measure finds many good points and many troublesome areas in our quality of life. Economically, Albertans are better off than we were 40 years ago. We spend fewer hours at work, have more free time and even do more volunteering now. However, there is also more unemployment, higher consumer debt and a less equitable sharing of the wealth. Further, disposable income and real weekly wages have remained stagnant over the past 20 years. Even in the area of economics alone, there is cause for concern.
In non-economic aspects of life, the institute found that the suicide rate has increased 30 per cent since 1961, the rate of car crashes has gone up 47 per cent, the divorce rate rose from 10 to 41 per cent of marriages, and the percentage of obese Albertans has increased from 14 to 32 per cent since 1985. Today, almost five per cent of Albertans are problem gamblers, a situation virtually unknown here 40 years ago.
Greenhouse gas emissions increased 123 per cent between 1990 and 1998, wildlife populations have decreased, and 60 per cent of the province's original wetlands had disappeared by 1996.
Is our quality of life better now than 40 years ago? For many people, it probably is. But for large numbers of people, the quality of life has been severely compromised by factors as wide-ranging as unemployment, family breakdown, suicide by a loved one, or injuries brought on by a car crash.
These are situations and trends that are not easily brushed aside. Their effects can ripple into the future, causing further heartache and economic dislocation for people not yet born.
The Christian mission is to help rebuild the broken egg whether through prayer, acts of charity or political action. Indeed, one key measure of the spiritual health of a society is how it responds to those who lay crumpled by the side of the road. Life is about much more than money. Alberta society cannot afford to be self-satisfied with its economic prosperity while ignoring some worrisome social and environmental trends.
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