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Synthesis/Regeneration 43   (Spring 2007)

Responding to Climate Change and Peak Oil

Reclaiming the Commons

by David Orton

We must live at a level that we seriously can wish others to attain, not at a level that requires the bulk of humanity not to reach.
—Arne Naess, Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy, p. 224.

The Greens have become a party of timorous environmentalists attempting to bring in a few petty environmental reforms, and the majority of them have become adherents of eco-capitalism. Their programs and policies are full of inner contradictions, which arise from the fact that they are afraid of telling voters hard ecological truths.

—Saral Sarkar, witing about the German Green Party in Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism? 1999, p.200.

I believe the understanding that the climate is changing, and that this is for the worse, is starting to penetrate the consciousness of many people. We seem to be in an era when many also understand that “peak oil” and “peak natural gas” have arrived or are about to arrive. What this will mean for a global production and distribution economy, totally addicted to fossil fuels, and for the economic, social, political, cultural, and military relationships built around this, is now being argued.

… voting Green means less industrial consumer goods for those in the so-called developed industrial societies …

Yet deeper electoral Greens, while believing that we must try to change industrial society’s and our own destructive obsessions, remain unsure whether or not this is possible. This message, not that of optimism, should be part of any truthful message to the electorate. Greens, as a social movement and as a political party, need to make it clear that one of their basic messages, which sets them apart from all other parties, is that voting Green means less industrial consumer goods for those in the so-called developed industrial societies, and a greatly increased living space for other species. As this may not be a vote-getting message, it is absent from the federal Green Party electoral platform in Canada.

Revolutionary or reformist ideas?

Talking about climate change and peak oil is an opportunity for those in support of deeper green thinking to take part in a discussion which can be truly revolutionary in its implications for ecological and social change. But on what basis do we as Greens enter these discussions? Is the basis one of timorous reformism — limiting ourselves to what amounts to incrementalism (within a taken-for-granted market fundamentalism), which is the eco-capitalism referred to in Saral Sarkar’s quotation? Do we present the view, as given in Tim Flannery’s recent, much praised book, The Weather Makers, that “we can all make a difference and help combat climate change at almost no cost to our lifestyle” (p. 6). Or do we truthfully elaborate what the actual problems are and have discussions about the seismic changes which are called for within us and within Canadian society and in other countries?

Is the path forward for the federal Green Party that articulated by leadership aspirant Elizabeth May (as expressed in a Montreal Gazette article of May 12, 2006): “In a movement known for its share of tree-huggers and wingnuts, May has always been mainstream, working from the inside rather than shouting from the barricades.” (I identify myself with the tree-huggers and alleged wingnuts.)

Can industrial capitalism, rooted in incessant economic growth, conspicuous consumerism, and defying any sense of ecological limits, essentially reform itself?

Will Canada change in some fundamental way if the Green Party finally has access to the leadership debates in federal elections or elects a handful of Green MPs, if these MPs are self-muzzled within their own thinking as to what is possible? Can industrial capitalism, rooted in incessant economic growth, conspicuous consumerism, and defying any sense of ecological limits, essentially reform itself?

We need to get the climate change/peak oil issue right in our own minds — although there are great uncertainties — otherwise we can betray ourselves and those we seek to influence. Complicating the internal struggle within the federal Green Party over policy differences is the presence of a number of people who are basically members for opportunist, self-advancement reasons. Such people see the Greens (rightly) as an ascending political vehicle within Canadian society, but they search us out for opportunities for personal upward mobility. Such people seem often to lack any actual history of environmental or social justice struggles before joining the party and dumb down policy discussions in order, allegedly, not to “alienate” the public.

Following the deep ecology path

The above quotation by Arne Naess, the Norwegian founder of deep ecology, about how our own lifestyles must be realistically attainable by the dispossessed of the globe, offers some guidance for those who aspire to a deeper green consciousness on climate change and the coming end of unbridled fossil fuel consumption. Naess’s quote has had a profound impact upon me because of its social justice connotations. It means that it is total selfishness and discrimination on our part, against those who have no access to our kind of lifestyle, to advance so-called solutions to climate change which do not take into account the poverty and living standard of all the people on Earth.

Deeper greens must not take part in climate change discussions which focus on soft energy paths to replace fossil fuels, but which keep the existing high energy consumption lifestyle in our country, thus basically turning our backs on the world’s dispossessed. This does not mean that we are unconcerned about softer technologies like solar or wind power, but it does mean that electoral Greens cannot replace the larger issue of the basic unsustainability of industrial capitalist society with the pretense that, by some kind of retrofitting agenda led by electoral Greens, we can painlessly evolve in some fundamentally new direction.

Carbon emissions trading is just a continuation of the ongoing enclosure movement, the attempt to assert so-called private property rights over the commons …

One such example, advocated in the 2006 Election Platform, was carbon emissions trading. As Greens, we must see the atmosphere as part of the global commons. Carbon emissions trading is just a continuation of the ongoing enclosure movement, the attempt to assert so-called private property rights over the commons by the rich and the powerful. The solutions do not lie in “free” market manipulations or in new technologies, or worshipping, as Jan Lundberg of the magazine Culture Change has said, at the feet of the “Triumvirate of Technofixers:” Amory Lovins, Jeremy Rifkin and Lester Brown.

A new economics

There have been quite a number of “ecological footprint” writers, usually quite human-centered and linking this concept to the mythology of sustainable development. They have presented the data that how we live in Canada or the United States cannot be used as a model for the 4 to 5 billion people who do not have this “developed” lifestyle, otherwise several planets will be required. For those who orient to deeper green thinking, part of any realistic climate change discussion in Canada must include a world social justice perspective. This presupposes that the excessive consumption patterns of the have countries like Canada must be drastically reduced.

We need a new kind of economics, a Right Livelihood, what Schumacher in Small is Beautiful called “Buddhist economics.” As well as stressing economic localism, as opposed to the current globalism, Schumacher points out a very important point, applicable to Canada’s energy policy: “Non-renewable goods (e.g. coal, oil, natural gas), must be used only if they are indispensable, and then only with the greatest care and the most meticulous concern for conservation. To use them heedlessly or extravagantly is an act of violence...” (p. 50)

The new sustainable lifestyle we aspire to must also be possible, with our assistance, for the have-nots of this world. This is what Naess is referring to. Obviously this means a redistribution of wealth on a global scale (communism is not dead in the water) and some considerable reduction in population numbers — including in the high consumption countries like Canada, with social, political and cultural policies which encourage this. This has to be boldly said by all Greens and not kept as some very minor current in internal party discussion lists, to let deeper Greens blow off some steam. It is the responsibility of all Greens in Canada to foster such public discussions around the climate change issue.

Other species are important for the Greens

The above discussion only relates to humans and does not take into account, as we must, the life requirements of all the other species which share this planet with us, plus their habitat needs. As deep ecology supporters know, we humans are not only totally befouling our own nest, but we have given ourselves the right to do this for all other species. I have no idea what a sustainable human population would be for this world — a world where poverty is eliminated — but the discussion about the requirements for a sustainable world population has to begin now, as the Earth’s life-support systems start to unravel around us.

Canadian Greens need to look at the ecological carrying capacity of Canada, considering the habitat needs for all species, as well as humans, before we can form positions on emotion-laden topics like immigration and population. Tim Flannery’s 1994 book The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, which I highly recommend, does this kind of population capacity study for Australia. He comes up with “an optimum, long-term population target of 6–12 million” (p. 369), meaning that country is already overpopulated. Here in Canada we need to do similar work about what an optimum human population would be and situate immigration discussions within this.

As Naess and Sessions note in the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform: “The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.” If electoral Greens do not raise such topics, they betray the cause of being Earth and social justice defenders, the causes for which they claim a legitimacy to speak.

Reclaiming the energy commons

Schumacher, if he were alive, would agree that in Canada today we use oil and natural gas heedlessly and extravagantly. We do not have an energy policy, except to supply fossil fuels to the United States. Two-thirds of Canada’s oil and gas production goes to the United States, and because of NAFTA our country is now required to do this. The runaway Alberta tar sands exploitation is destroying the ecology of huge sections of that province, as well as producing large amounts of greenhouse gases. If we want to seek a new, more localized economy within Nature’s balance in the era of climate change and peak oil, then Canada must terminate pumping fossil fuels into the US — the ultimate gas guzzler and world greenhouse gas emitter.

Two-thirds of Canada’s oil and gas production goes to the United States, and because of NAFTA our country is now required to do this.

Greens must advocate taking back into communal ownership the energy sector of our economy. As greenhouse gas emissions must be cut 50–70% if the atmosphere of our planet is to remain hospitable to all life forms, including humans, then boldness is called for from those who call themselves Greens. Diane Cole, an anti-forest-spraying activist then living in Nova Scotia, pointed out in 1983, “Poor leadership is worse than no leadership at all because it lures the people to defeat in a dead end, making the failure appear as victory — stifling dreams, ideals, and creative possibilities.”

Greens must convey the electoral message that climate change and peak oil are calling the fossil fuel-based industrial capitalist society into question and that a new ecological consciousness and socially just society is on the agenda for all of us.

David Orton is affiliated with Green Web, an independent environmental research group with a biocentric perspective.

[2 apr 07]

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