Fort McMurray fire shows what the economy is about

The following article was published in the Globe & Mail on May 5, 2016. We wanted to share it with you.

Words: Todd Hirsch, ATB's chief economist

The residents of Fort McMurray are accustomed to their community being in the news. As the centre of Canada’s oil sands industry, it’s usually in the business pages because of its economy – be it boom or bust. But now the Alberta city finds itself front and centre for a very different, and more tragic, reason.

The fire that has destroyed hundreds of buildings and displaced more than 88,000 residents has reminded us about what “the economy” is really all about. It’s not about stock valuations or oil prices. It’s not about global trade deals or government debt. It’s about one thing that matters: home.

Even its Greek roots speak to this. The first part of the word “economics” is derived from the ancient Greek word oikos, which refers to the household or family estate. And that is what all eyes in Alberta, and Canada, are glued to at the moment – homes being burned, homes being lost, and the homes of strangers being opened.

The recession currently choking Alberta’s economy has been book ended by two natural disasters – one of too much water (the 2013 flood) and one of too little (the 2016 Fort McMurray fire).

In both cases, it is the loss of people’s homes that made the events so tragic; in flood and fire, we are reminded of the insignificance of our human achievements in construction and architecture. We don’t stand a chance against nature when she conspires against us.

Over the coming weeks, there will be the inevitable calculations of the economic costs of the Fort McMurray fire, just as there were the predictable tallying of costs around the Calgary flood, the 1998 ice storm in Eastern Canada, or the endless other natural disasters that have befallen us.

But for now, compassion – not calculation – wins the day. Even politics have been set aside, at least for a while. Brian Jean, leader of the Wildrose Party, the official opposition, lost his own home in the fire. And though he and his party have been targets of political jabs in the past, there is not a single Albertan whose heart does not go out to him. Aside from the loss of a loved one, the loss of a physical home is perhaps the most devastating loss of all.

Fort McMurray is also no stranger to controversy – and for some the city itself has come to represent the environmental battle ground about carbon. Some would like to see the entire oil sands industry and the city of Fort McMurray shut down (the nastiest of these people might even suggest that the community “had it coming” in some way – that the forest wildfire is somehow the result of the carbon extracted from bitumen).

Today, such opinions are shamefully trivial. The only concern is the economics of shelter, of home. Canadians have proudly and promptly rallied around Fort McMurray, donating cash, food and water.

Residents of nearby towns and cities throughout northern Alberta have opened their homes, their mosques, their churches and their recreation centres to provide shelter. Because without a home, we are as vulnerable as kittens.

Home. It is at the root of all our policy debates and theoretical constructs as economists. We want the economy to grow to create jobs and income, with which we can provide ourselves shelter. We save and invest our money for retirement, and while we like the idea of travel or philanthropy in our senior years, it is security of home that is top of mind. Without a home to go to, surviving this world is nearly impossible – a fact with which our homeless are cruelly well acquainted.

Home. It is the one thing that grounds us as humans. Our family structure depends on it. The story of the Fort McMurray family interviewed on CBC Radio – the parents of a two-year-old and a 14-week-old baby – was so heartbreaking because they were forced to flee their home. They were together and safe, but without a home they had lost their centre of gravity.

Published
May 5th, 2016



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