There is no environmental crisis, and global warming is just “a socialist plot” – at least according to Prime Minister Harper, when he was denouncing the Kyoto Accord.
But while Harper’s many sins are serious – ignoring child poverty, sending Canadians to fight in Afghanistan, attacking women’s rights – the worst one is his minority government’s efforts to block any meaningful action to protect nature from the ravages of capitalist greed.
Not only have the Conservatives done everything in their power to block environmental action in Canada, but they have also put up roadblocks against all international efforts to protect the earth. Their actions at the Bali conference and at last year’s summit in Copenhagen, for instance, were so obstructionist that Canada “won” several Fossil of the Day Awards, announced by Climate Action Network International, a group that includes more than 400 non-governmental organizations.
Prominent Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver (UVIC) stated that these Conservative anti-environmental actions were even worse than that of the Bush regime.
George Monbiot agreed, writing that Canada was, “the nation that has done most to sabotage a new climate change agreement.”
While the Copenhagen talks failed, no one knows if there is enough time to transform the global economy into one that is democratic, just, and sustainable. But as Noam Chomsky has noted, while we can’t be sure that our efforts will prevent disaster, we can be sure that inaction will guarantee a nightmarish future.
Even if there is enough time, this window will not last long. Both Lester Brown and James Hansen, for instance, argue that, we only have months, not years, to save civilization from climate change.
In such a dire situation, what we do in the immediate future could make all the difference. We must develop strategies that will have the greatest impact as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that citizens in Canada or around the world will rise up and take their future in their own hands, creating truly democratic societies that are based on ecological economics. Susan George put it this way:
I do not see how even the most convinced, most determined people could replace, much less overthrow capitalism fast enough to carry out the necessary systemic change before a runaway climate effect takes hold.
It seems more likely, given the power of the corporate class and their influence in government and the mass media, that it will take a major catastrophe (or several) before any meaningful progress becomes possible – if it’s not already too late by then.
There is a third possibility, however – a growing environmental movement that puts pressure on governments by using a multitude of tactics – including the ballot box – to demand an immediate Second World War-type mobilization to deal with the systemic crises.
Working within global capitalism is the option that is (probably) most likely to buy enough time now to allow for more significant actions later. This “ecological Keynesianism” – massive government programs to protect the natural world – would create employment in sustainable industries and promote a plethora of ecological initiatives (local food production, public transportation, energy conservation, green technology, and so on).
Much of the funding for these initiatives could come from reductions in harmful government spending, like the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan, subsidies to oil companies, the purchase of F-35 fighter jets, and the US-style “war on drugs.”
Such changes will not take place unless Canadians demand it.
However, even people who understand the seriousness of our dilemma often do nothing about it. This is partly due to distractions (“Keep you doped with religion, sex and TV” – John Lennon), the demands of busy lives, a sense of confusion, or feeling hopeless.
Above all, the corporate media, like most political “leaders” (Harper), give the impression that there is no crisis and that life-styles in North America can continue in more or less the same fashion. It will be “business-as-usual”. Don’t worry, be happy. Above all, keep consuming more stuff!
But all the talk about the need to get the economy growing again is exactly the wrong approach to take.
A major challenge, then, is to get people to understand that life as we have known it in the last century is over; it is unsustainable, and one way or another, our societies and our way of living will have to change dramatically.
We must appeal to parents and grandparents to think about the kind of lives that their children will have in the decades to come.
It is crucial to explain that creating a democratic and ecological society will not only let us avoid a horrific future, but that life can actually be much more satisfying than what we have experienced.
Given how few people are politically active, however, it is vital to make democratic participation both more attractive as well as easier.
For most citizens, the easiest action is voting.
Just because Canada and British Columbia have a very limited form of “democracy” (think “HST”), it doesn’t mean that elections are irrelevant. For instance, the fear of electoral defeat was a major factor in the refusal of the Liberal government to participate in both the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. “Star Wars” program. Even the militaristic Tories have said that Canadian troops will not fight in Afghanistan after next year, primarily because they would certainly lose the next election if Canada did not end its combat role.
The lesson is clear. Politicians who continue to ignore the threat of global warming should be made to understand that their irresponsibility will not be tolerated.
As Bill McKibben recently wrote:
We need to be able to explain to them that continuing in their ways will end something that they care about: their careers. And because we’ll never have the cash to compete with Exxon, we better work in the currencies we can muster: bodies, spirit, passion.
Electing people who are actually serious about protecting the environment is, of course, even better than having to constantly pressure political opportunists.
But even those already on side will need lots of support to counter the power of the oil industry and other corporations which benefit from lax environmental regulations. That is why other forms of action – organizing, letters to the editor, demonstrations, media reform, and above all, public education – must continue and even intensify. Still, none of these tactics provide such a direct – and easy – route to those in power as voting does.
In many ridings, even a small increase in “environmental” voters would be enough to throw out many of the deniers and other dinosaurs.
When it comes to political parties and the environment, it is clear to me that the New Democrats are clearly the most progressive in English Canada, even “greener” than the Green Party. That’s one reason why I ran twice as an NDP candidate.
For those who say that the NDP is not green enough, one approach would be to join the party and work within it to make the New Democrats an even stronger advocate for an ecological economy.
As sincere and intelligent as Elizabeth May is, her Green party has no chance of playing a significant role in government. Worse, the more people who vote Green, the more the environmental vote will be split, and the easier it will be for Harper to form a majority government.
As for the federal Liberals, they sometimes talk the talk, but their environmental record, from Chretien to Martin to Ignatieff, has been mostly rhetoric.
Here in British Columbia, the situation is somewhat different. The Campbell government has taken a few environmental measures, but they are completely inadequate.
For its part, the NDP in B.C. must provide real leadership by coming up with a very dynamic, fair, and visionary platform to make the province a leader in North America and around the world. New Democrats must make strong alliances with environmental groups, progressive businesses, and the trade unions to ensure that the transformation will be grounded in democratic processes.
The most important thing that Canadians can do is to work, both inside and outside of the political system, to make all parties realize that they have to be serious about showing leadership on the environment and protecting the public if they want to have any chance of winning elections.
To those who reject all “bourgeois” elections, consider Chomsky’s discussion about the need to balance ideals and reality:
Even…anarchists who regard the state as totally illegitimate, as I do…realize that it is necessary to protect the public arena, which means state power. The reason is, when you eliminate the public arena and the one institutional structure in which people can, to some extent, participate, namely the state, you’re just handing over power to unaccountable private tyrannies that are much worse. So you protect the public arena, recognizing that it’s illegitimate in its current form, and that you ultimately want to eliminate it.
When I interviewed Murray Bookchin in 2001, I asked the founder of Social Ecology if participation in elections might be justified if it made a vital difference, e.g. had Al Gore been President, Iraq would not have been invaded – and perhaps a million people would not have been killed.
Bookchin’s response to this question, regarding a system that he once called, “the cesspool of bourgeois parliamentarianism” was simple and undogmatic: “You do what you have to do.”
Again, it is important to stress that the present crisis is also a great opportunity, and that life in an ecological society would actually be much better than it is now.
As Bookchin understood back as the 1960s, we already have enough wealth, knowledge, and technology to solve the environmental crises, create a more humane society, end war, and to eliminate global poverty once and for all – IF we decide to take democracy seriously, get organized and take control of our own lives.
It is therefore essential to also present realistic reasons for hope and practical actions that one can take, individually and in groups, in order to prevent people from feeling helpless and overwhelmed by the severe and immediate challenges that we face.
Obviously, voting is not enough. The key to a successful ecological movement is Bookchin’s concept of “unity in diversity”. In this moment of extreme peril, people need to organize movements that focus on common values and work together in principled ways if we are to have any chance of avoiding ecological apocalypse.
As Miriam Palacios of Oxfam succinctly put it: “We must fight on all fronts.”
Elites never “gave” people the right to vote. Because voting has the potential to empower citizens, it had to be fought for. So whatever else you do to prevent environmental catastrophe, don’t forget the power of your vote.
After all, that’s what Harper would like you to do.
Peter G. Prontzos teaches Political Science at Langara College in Vancouver. He has three children. A version of this piece appeared in the Georgia Straight on August 13, 2010.