Songs of the Doomed

There is a lot of talk on this blog and elsewhere about how best to get the economy going again, but it seems that the environment is missing in action from the debate. At best, climate change is a concern mentioned in passing, only to move on to the real action of boosting GDP growth rates and employment (will corporate tax cuts do the trick or increases in public spending?). I’ve been guilty of playing this game myself in the past, but these days I’m not particularly interested in blanket policies for “growth” that do not make any distinction about growth of which sectors and to whose benefit. In Canada, our efforts to improve competitiveness (whatever that means), increase exports and so forth have only contributed to a growing environmental disaster (I’m looking at you, tar sands).

Meanwhile, the latest salvos from scientists tell us we need to be freaking out and overthrowing this old order. Here is quote from the summary of a new paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows that looks at probabilities of global temperature increase of 2â—¦C, widely believed to be the point where runaway climate change takes the keys away from human decision-making on the issue:

Building on previous studies, this paper uses a cumulative emissions framing … to understand the implications of rapid emission growth in nations such as China and India, for mitigation rates elsewhere. The analysis suggests that despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2â—¦C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2â—¦C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2â—¦C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change.

In other words, we are in deep do-do. Bill McKibben calls it Eaarth, a fundamentally different planet than the one we have known throughout our history. McKibben does not spend much time reviewing models of what may come. Instead, he writes about what has already happened or is happening: disappearing glaciers leading to shriveling water supplies; shrinking arctic sea ice; extreme weather events, droughts and floods; increasing ocean acidity; methane emissions from melting permafrost; declining agricultural yields; and so forth. I recently saw a visually compelling documentary, called Home, that nicely complements McKibben’s prose, while making the connection to other unsustainable practices (depleting aquifers, destroying forests, extracting raw materials) that leave us in even worse shape looking forward.

And yet the chasm between the science and the politics seems to be growing. Just a few years ago there seemed to be a debate about whether we needed a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, or debate about the nuances of policy design. In 2011, Obama did not even mention climate change in his State of the Union address, trying to backdoor change through the energy security frame. In BC, both major parties are holding leadership conventions, but climate change is not even a minor issue (no one is saying no to more oil and gas extraction). Federally, there may be an election this spring but at this point no one seems to want to break the political silence on climate for fear of alienating voters.

So where to look for hope amidst the doom? My optimistic side says there are some very interesting developments on which a decent future could be built. These do not make the overarching crisis go away, but they speak to how we slow down the process enough that we have a shot – should the political will arise, of course.

First, there is a growing movement around food: local food, sustainable agriculture, ending hunger, better nutrition. Will Allen, a former basketball player turned urban farmer came to Vancouver last week to talk about what his group, Growing Power, has done to grow food, create jobs and address hunger through urban agriculture projects. The room was packed with 600-700 people of all ages and backgrounds. There is a growing movement there, but one that provincial and federal politicians are not tapping (instead favouring an export-oriented strategy for agriculture) Local governments in Vancouver get it, but they often lack the financial might and jurisdiction to make the really big changes. (CCPA’s Climate Justice Project did a BC analysis of and vision for the food system here.)

Second, the potential of renewable energy is huge if we can overcome the political inertia of fossil fuel interests. Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucci published a new paper assessing the world’s energy mix and how it can be shifted to wind, water and solar technologies over the next couple of decades. This builds on research that made it the cover story of Scientific American in Fall 2009.

There is some debate about what a renewable energy system should look like. The two Marks argue for renewable sources supplying the big electricity grid we already know and love, whereas McKibben argues this is like buying organic food at the supermarket – an improvement but not a game-changer. McKibben argues for smaller-scale, distributed and community energy systems based on renewables. Overall, McKibben limits his solutions agenda to food and energy in a way that strikes me as nostalgic, rural and distinctly American in its distrust of government. Still, this is the kind of debate I’d rather be having.

Third, the field of urban planning is increasingly articulating a hopeful vision of more compact and complete communities, where people live much closer to jobs, public services, stores and amenities like parks. The Danish urban guru, Jan Gehl, came to town last week, and described his vision of “cities for people” where walking and biking comprise a large share of trips, supplemented by good transit systems, with the private automobile in last place. Add in a new generation of green buildings built to standards like passivhaus (see a great Tyee series here), and you have an agenda for jobs, sustainability and social inclusion in rebuilding our cities.

Still, what the science says is necessary and what the technology tells us is possible are still running up against the conventional wisdom of politics and economics. I long for the day when economic commentary puts the ecological at its core. Instead of calls for GDP growth, let’s improve life satisfaction by building stronger communities, more democratic participation, better heath, education and so forth. I want to see social movements emerge that get big enough to push politicians into more courageous territory that what passes for acceptable today. In other words, I want my cynicism to be replaced by hope that we can build robust communities that can not only weather the storms to come but provide a better quality of life for people.


  • Hi Marc: Responding to your ‘Instead of calls for GDP growth, let’s improve life satisfaction by building stronger communities, more democratic participation, better heath, education and so forth.’

    All kinds of VERY ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY things could be done that would expand aggregate demand, investment and prosperity. You note a number of them. There are lots more. And of course a newly prosperous economy would also need regulation to protect the environment and reduce pollution in the broad sense.

    But we face several problems, of which two serious ones are:
    1- our political system has produced a stable situation for the Conservatives who can get away with spending $16 billion on totally useless fighter jets rather than on public intra and inter city transportation systems (for example). They also want to cut corporate taxes. As an aside, this is the US republican party program – high military spending and lower taxes. Canadian business is OK with this program since it will reap the fall-out of the military sales and, especially, lower taxes to the oil and gas industry and the banks.
    2-The belief that the federal government must run its finances like a corner store or a household and cannot run persistent deficits. This idea is intuitively appealing and constantly reinforced by the Conservatives and Liberals. It is however incorrect and displays a lack of understanding of the nature of monetary operations – convenient if you’re a conservative, unfortunate if you’re not. It hamstrings those of us who would like to increase prosperity in an environmentally friendly way since it makes increasing the role of the federal government almost impossible.

  • Great post Marc. The disjunction between fundamental global challenges and day to day political discourse is indeed remarkable and deeply depressing. Unfortunately I lack your optimism that scaling up local initiatives will make much of a difference.

  • Andrew, you are more pessimistic than me. That’s not good.

    Keith, point well taken. I typically like to talk more about material and energy throughput as opposed to growth generically. But calls for growth without such context do indeed push us faster to more fossil fuel extraction and consumption.

    Interestingly, last night on The National, the economic news was that “GDP grew by 0.4% in November … led by growth in the oil and gas sector.”

  • Hey Marc, a nice depressing post, poor you, it is a tough job you have. I think Canadian voters do care about the environment, and with captain tar sands as prime minister, one could have a field day with an election campaign. You should try and press the economic and social green issues for progressives in the upcoming election. They need to frame these a whole lot better for voters.

  • As someone just turning my attention to the fair tax issue (and this forum), I found Marc’s post very interesting and disturbing…but also lacking attention to a key issue.

    Why don’t we have people in Parliament who are prepared to pass the laws that will address environmental as well as social needs?

    Having spent the past 10 years working on electoral reform, I find it interesting that relatively few progressives stop and think about why we usually have Parliaments dominated by Conservatives (or conservatives) who are so out of line with majority thnking in Canada. They have that power because Canada is one of the few developed democracies using a voting system that routinely distorts what voters say with their ballots.

    As political scientist Arendt Lijphart documented in Patterns of Democracy, countries with fair and proportional voting systems tend to have lower levels of economic disparities, stronger environmental policies and stronger social welfare programs (mind you, his research is now 10+ years out of date, but I’m guessing the conclusions still hold.)

    While it’s not a panacea, having a fair and proportional voting system would create one thing we have never experienced in Canada: a representative Parilament where all voices are at the table.

    When every voice is represented, you have different policy outcomes. In terms of Marc’s concerns, think about a Parliament elected with PR. Using voting patterns in the last election, the Greens would have about 24 MPs, the NDP about 50. The NDP and Liberals would have to strengthen their green credentials, due to the Greens on their flank. In sum, about 60-65% of MPs would be from parties with strong green positions…more in line with Canadian public opinion.

    Having said all that, winning the fight for PR is as tough as winning the fight for a fair tax system. But it’s a fight all progressives should move up their list of priorities.

  • GDP includes government spending on public services, which could be the major part of GDP. Increased spending does not need to be done by borrowing from private finance. The debt:GDP ratio can be kept low.

    If Harper is not willing, then the rest of Parliament, holding the majority of seats, can create credit according to the Constitution and pay for green public energy, building retrofits, local organic food production, public health and education, welfare, and other domestic job creators. Ecology and economy would be well-served.

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