Reclaiming the Commons: Responding to Climate Change and Peak Oil    

                                                                                                                                                             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, in 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
                programmes and policies are full of inner contradictions, which arise from the fact that they are afraid
                of telling voters hard ecological truths." 
                Saral Sarkar, speaking of the German Green Party in his 1999 book Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism?
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 in Canada and in other countries. 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 over by those willing to admit that climate change and diminishing oil and natural
            gas supplies are upon us. (The figure for world consumption of oil products is usually given as about
            84 million barrels per day.)

                "We can solve the climate crisis" stated Elizabeth May, Green Party leadership candidate, in a recent
            CBC radio phone-in program in the Maritimes. 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.


                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 this will not happen, unless ideas which present the actual ecological and
            social problems which we must confront, become part of the public discourse. For it to happen, these
            ideas have to gain an expression within the green and environmental movements and in political
            vehicles like the federal and provincial Green Parties in Canada. It is to such parties, whatever their
            internal contradictions - and there are many - to which the public in Canada at the present time
             looks to for some political direction in matters environmental.

                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 quote above? 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.) 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, ontologically rooted in incessant economic
            growth, conspicuous consumerism, and defying any sense of ecological limits here in Canada and
            elsewhere, essentially reform itself? Can it do all this, keeping in place existing social structures, while
            combatting climate change and ending our basic dependence on fossil fuels? How we answer this question
            is quite fundamental for the federal and provincial Green Parties in Canada. Answering this will determine
            the kind of politics we proclaim for ourselves, and for others who we ask to follow us.

                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, which are
            usually genuinely held, is, I believe, 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.

                The above quote 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. One such example, advocated in
            the 2006 Election Platform, were the tax shift on fossil fuels and 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, and 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 four to five 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.

                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.

                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 run-away 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. Greens must advocate taking back into communal
            ownership the energy sector of our economy. As greenhouse gas emissions must be cut 50-70 percent,
            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 spray 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.

                June 2006

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