The auditorium of St. James United Church on Ste.Catherine Street was packed with an eager crowd of over 300 persons. The title above was the title of the public event, scheduled to be a discussion on environmental policies and practices in Canada. Elizabeth May and I were invited by the organizers of the event, the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy, Concordia University, the Urban Ecology Centre of Montreal and the Montreal chapter of the Council of Canadians. Ms May is the leader of the Green party of Canada. She was asked to identify the major environmental problems facing Canada and to propose solutions. I was asked to comment on her presentation. She was also asked not to refer to this or that part of the Green Party platform but to focus on the issues. The organizers did not want the evening to be a publicity show for the Green party.
The atmosphere was charged with seriousness. The International Panel on Climate Change had issued that morning, January 31st, their second report. The findings were pretty grim and clearly stated, for the first time, that the current upsurge in climate change was the result of human actions. “Message on warming blunt: humans to blame” rang the headlines on the report in the New York Times. A month later, recall the year is 2007, another headline read “Stop Talking, Start Acting, is message behind massive global warming report”. Pious editorials abounded with titles like, “Global Warming – This is no time for panic, denial or cynicism”…. What has followed?
This was the first time such a high caliber report, involving over 3000 scientists across the world, placed the blame on what humans do and do not do. It was also reported in the media that the final statement that accompanied the release of the report was a real tug of war between the scientists and the various government representatives as to how explicit the concluding statement would be.
Ms May arrived late, referring to the late arrival of her train from Ottawa. Once the introductions were over, she proceeded to recount a series of anecdotes that take place daily on Parliament Hill. These amusing mishaps among politicians were entertaining to some but did not speak to the concerns at hand and the subject matter of the evening.
Finally, three-quarters into her allotted time, Ms May spoke clearly about what environmental issues were most pressing to her and what innovative solutions should be enacted without delay.
My contribution began with my asking two fundamental questions. First, is sustainable development possible under market capitalism? Second, do we have the time to revise the current worrisome situation?
The first question can be answered as follows. Real capital is wealth that produces economic growth. The very early forms of capital, say cattle, doubled as an exchange medium. We have a serious problem when capital is currency which serves essentially itself, money making money, producing nothing except more demand for material objects or services that already exist. For example, the World Bank loans capital to a poor country with the International Monetary Fund as debt and interest collector. This debt quickly consumes the surpluses of the country, often further indebting it. This cycle, also driven by the world money markets, has moved the world economy into the cancerous stage of market capitalism which is in a metastasis phase. All the generic characteristics of a carcinogenic invasion which we see at a physiological cellular level are manifested at the social level of life: unregulated multiplication of grotesquely inflated demand-formations with no committed function to the life-hosts they feed on.
Market capitalism unfolding within a global economy driven by some 400-500 transnational corporations is the end-state of public unaccountability. Governments, the mass media, and the academy bear the immune system functions of society by identifying threats to its capacities of life reproduction. But they have failed to flag the multiplying money-demand sequences which increasingly dismantle host economies. Long accepted foreign capital controls and performance requirements have been abolished by transnational ‘free trade’ treaties written by corporate lawyers devoid of all public accountability. Economies are inexorably bled dry by leveraged, quick-flip, financial demands on productive wealth and resources that strip, margin-sell and liquidate them with no productive function required. Their social infrastructures are bled, and their social and ecological life-support capacities are successively looted or despoiled. The advance of this cancerous pattern is not simply metaphorical. A growing number of economists demonstrate that the environmental crisis is affecting the world economy negatively. Nicolas Stern’s Report commissioned by the British Labour government was the most visible. Many economists are very pessimistic. Can this advanced aggressive cancer be reversed? The recognition of this illness is limited. Political and economic recognition is not on the horizon. The gravity of our situation is still widely denied.
Ms May’s response to this analysis was that this analysis of market capitalism is true but we cannot hope to change it. We must simply plow on with solutions for this or that as best we can. In a word we cannot at once work on short-term preventive solutions while also working on medium to longer-term fundamental changes, while clearly stating we are doing both.
As regards the reply to the second question, “Do we have enough time?”, I simply declared that my heart is hopeful but my brain is not. We may be out of time, given a wide-spread death-wish and basic denial of the seriousness of what we are facing. I don’t mean to be alarmist but simply to honestly declare as a social ecologist that unless we work, and in large numbers, at the same time, for fundamental changes to the political and economic system in which we are caught, then we are trapped. Nor will we be taken seriously by all those who are now tripping over each other to be greener than anyone else.
I contend that Ms. May and the Greens are essentially environmentalists and not ecologists. That is they propose a series of measures, a series of technical solutions for the various environmental problems we are facing. Caught in the grip of the parliamentary system of government, without questioning the basic premise of our economy, they move along hoping for the best. Ecologists, on the other hand, and social ecologists in particular, work on innovative practices and on policies that seek to radically democratize society so that our war-like and parasitic relationship with Nature is reversed.
During the question period, a long line of citizens waited for the microphone. The Greens drew Ms May into her party’s programme so that a political advantage could be gained. Others tried to sort out whether running candidates for parliament was useful.
To the shock of the Greens present, I replied that working to elect Greens to the House of Commons was not only a waste of time given the nature of market capitalism, but also because, without a political system of proportional representation, not much can be hoped for. I argued that what Greens should do is constitute a green wing within the New Democratic Party given the proclivities of its leader Jack Layton, and that the most serious political ecology work can be done at the local level. I reminded all that at the conclusion of Al Gore’s memorable film he stated that cities are the most likely to be the important actors in reversing climate change. And indications are that the Greens are most likely to damage the NDP. Who would this serve, other than those American right-wingers in power south of the 49th parallel?
Everyone is talking green, but what does this mean?
To begin with, it should mean that a biologically diverse and intact environment must be preserved. That a total rethinking is required. That the destruction of nature by a policy of reckless industrial growth must be stopped.
We must act in large numbers to protest when:
- 1. soil,water,and air are treated irresponsibly, as if these were disposable products,
- 2. the natural vegetation of a region is appraised, marketed, and destroyed for commercial interests,
- 3. the number of exterminated and threatened plant and animal species continuously increases because of the destruction of their natural habitats,
- 4. air, water and soil are contaminated by radioactivity and by the concentration of the chemical industries,
A prerequisite of an ecologically oriented political view is the recognition of the interdependence between nature and all life cycles, and an awareness of the consequences of human ongoing interference in nature.
We must oppose an economic system in which the economically elite control the process of production, products, and the living conditions of the vast majority. A fundamental change in the short-sighted economic way of thinking must take place, along with decisive changes in the economic, political and cultural arenas, if a truly ecological and social economy is to be achieved. We must support all those who want to develop smaller, more manageable and decentralized modes of production as well as those who favor the democratically determined utilization of technology. Large corporations should be broken up into smaller units and administered democratically by people who favor social growth and by the people who work in these economic organisations and who are accountable to the communities where they are located.
A political perspective which is based on grass roots democracy is required, which calls for a more active realization of decentralized, direct democracy beginning with participatory democracy. Our fundamental belief must be that decisions at the community level must be given top priority. The smaller, more manageable and decentralized communal organisations at local and regional levels should be far more autonomous. This kind of decentralization requires, to be sure, comprehensive organization and coordination, if ecologically minded policies are to be successful.
Thus, ecological politics is the politics of community and the politics of cities. As 2007 represents a turning point in that the majority of human kind for the first time now live in cities on our planet, cities are currently responsible for a great deal of environmental damage. Therefore our first priority above all others must be to move towards ecological and democratic cities. We raise the demand of ‘The Right to the City’ which is the right of all citizens to participate in the city. The decision-making process and the accompanying political institutions must all be opened to citizens who will together set the political, economic and ecological priorities of the city. A new citizen agenda, a grass roots agenda is emerging in this city and others in Canada. The recent 4th Citizens Summit which drew together hundreds of people from across Montreal is one indication of this phenomenon.
The city of Montreal recently made public a radical public transportation policy. When implemented, it will begin to alter our whole way of daily life. It is up to us to make it happen. Paris is also gearing up for a transportation revolution next month when a fleet of 10,000 self-service bikes roll out across the city, as part of an ambitious bid to coax urbanites from their cars. Beginning on July 15, Parisians and tourists will be able to use credit cards 24 hours a day to rent bikes for short trips around the city, dropping them off at any of 750 bike points, to be picked up by a new user. ‘We want to shake up people’s mentalities,’ Celine Lepault, who runs the programme for Paris City Hall, said this week.
City hall in Paris is socialist. In London’s leftwing and green city hall, another radical central city plan was put into effect several years ago, taxing cars that come into the central core as a means to reduce traffic. The plan was mocked by all and sundry, but it has worked. Now, New York City is getting ready to implement something similar. The list of important changes from the ground up is long. Meanwhile Elizabeth May’s Greens are hoping for a few seats in the national parliament. Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society summed up what we face: “It’s not a question of passing laws; we have all we need, but they’re ignored because of institutional incompetence, bribery and fear…” While working hard on the need for new policies we have to press even harder on the need to change the political and economic system, and this challenge starts with what is closest at hand, our neighbourhoods and cities.