We had a booth at Summer in the City. Our theme was Envisioning a Solar Future. We drew attention to the many opportunities we have to harness solar power: solar for electricity – to light our houses and to pump water in off-grid situations; solar to heat water – for domestic use and to heat our homes; solar to bake our food and solar to dry and preserve our food. We had some excellent conversations.
Many people wondered what price they would pay for the various solar systems. We did have the answer that question and advised them to check with suppliers.
However there is another answer to the question of cost, that suppliers can’t answer. I recently spoke with a friend who has covered most of his south facing roof with solar electric panels. On a sunny day he generates more electricity than he can use, and sells the surplus to Manitoba Hydro. When the sun goes down, he purchases electricity from Manitoba Hydro. It all looks impressive.
I challenged my friend and suggested it would take him twenty years to recover his investment. He told me that, by his calculations, cost recovery will take seventeen years without considering interest; perhaps thirty years considering interest. But, he challenged me, why should the rate of return on an investment be considered the most important criteria when making an investment.
“Were I seeking the highest financial return on an investment I am making,” he continued, “I should invest in the Alberta tar sands. Were I to do that, I believe my investment would be bad for my children on the long run. With these solar panels, I am investing in something I believe will be good for them.”
As I have reflected on what he said, I come to realize there is something very profound in that way of thinking.
Capitalist thinking has had a profound effect on all of us. It has taught us that the most important, perhaps only, consideration when making an investment is the financial return on that investment. I dare say those of us who have our savings in the Credit Union, have them there primarily because the return there is higher than at the bank. The fact that the Credit Union is built on not-for-profit principles is incidental to our investment choice. This is capitalism at its best, but not humanity at its best.
Capitalism does not ask whether an investment contributes to the creation of beauty or the destruction of beauty. It does not ask whether an investment contributes to the taking of life or the giving of life. It is concerned only with the financial return.
This does not mean capitalism is bad. It becomes bad, however, when the investor is not conscious of capitalism’s limitations. Unfortunately, all too often we are so enamored with the allure of capitalism that we forget this limitation. If more of us would apply ethical criteria to our investments, there is little doubt that the world would be a better place.