Island Voices: Banking on the human capacity for transformation

Re: “Hard to be optimistic about 2019,” column, Jan. 20.

So, what was the biggest business news story of 2018? The legalization of cannabis, as voted by Canadian Press?

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For retired fossil-fuel executive Gwyn Morgan, it seems “the giveaway of Canadian oil to Americans at tens of billions of dollars below world prices, caused by a lack of pipelines from Alberta” is the winner.

In order for business to continue, we need to be alive, so for me, increasingly dire warnings about the need to prevent ecological collapse, and the youth #climatestrike movement constitute the major business story for 2018.

It’s hard to find hope when our collective response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning us that we must cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 sometimes feels like a big yawn. Worse, often it feels like an intense cat fight over who’s to blame for not getting export pipelines built.

Maybe it’s already “too late.” But at some level, it can never be “too late.”

We are human beings, after all, which means we have choices to make. I choose to take the lead of activist and general systems theory scholar Joanna Macy, who said: “The very fact that there’s no guarantee of success is what will draw forth our greatest courage and creativity. … We could wait around forever before we act, trying to compute our chances of success. But our time to come alive is right now, on this edge of possibility.”

Earth-systems scientist Michael Mann puts it this way: “It’s not binary. It is not effed or not-effed. It’s a matter of how effed.”

Macy warned: “In the breakdown of the industrial-growth society, things will get a lot harder and scarier for a while. And when we get scared, we get mean. … I think our greatest danger is fear and the blaming and scapegoating that fear arouses.”

When we learn that big fossil-fuel companies knew about the dangers of climate change in the 1980s, when so much could have been done to prevent disaster, and worked to sow doubt about the validity of climate-chaos concerns, it’s easy to feel angry. More recently, there’s the news that the Alberta government has been spending $23 million on a campaign aimed at convincing “the less engaged,” also people speaking “Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Filipino, Punjabi” and anyone else who will listen, that the pipeline issue “is not B.C. vs. Alberta, this is B.C. vs. Canada.”

To protect my mental health, I practise gratitude. I feel some anger, sure. But then I think of what I can appreciate. For instance, I’m grateful that Morgan’s article does not stoop to incite hatred or death threats toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as some over-the-top pro-pipeline rhetoric does. Morgan uses arguments and statistics; credible analyses showing them to be questionable or wrong are not hard to find.

For instance, Morgan claims there have been “layoffs of 100,000 Alberta oil workers.” A CBC article suggests: “The number of job losses connected to the oil-price downturn” would be 43,000 between December 2014 and May 2016. “The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) [uses] a multiplier of 2.5” to calculate the number of indirect jobs lost, coming up with overall losses of 110,000, “more than twice the number of total jobs lost in Alberta in the past 17 months.” My hunch is that Morgan got his figures from CAPP.

And it’s clear that Morgan and CAPP have an axe to grind. They do not cite figures comparing how many jobs can be created by investing in conservation and renewables and comparing those with how many can be created by investing in nonrenewable energy; the figures aren’t even close. We get about three times more jobs per dollar invested in “the green economy.”

They ignore the fact that even as jobs have been lost in the petroleum sector, production hasn’t fallen. What’s at stake with pipeline expansion is accommodating more growth in oilsands exploitation, something that is ecologically irresponsible. The oil companies have not even set aside enough funds to clean up their current toxic legacy. Why on Earth would we spend billions to allow them to create even more?

Besides cultivating gratitude, I remind myself of the human capacity for transformation. People who once were “high rollers” in unsustainable industries have become leaders in efforts designed to bring about what Macy calls “the great turning.” Even if Morgan never changes his position, others will. They will need the support of less wealthy activists, just as the people in the trenches need their example, their support.

Could B.C. help provide a vision for how people everywhere can work together for survival and a better world? Quite possibly. I remember the thrill of seeing something I thought was impossible come to pass: In 2011 federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was elected to Parliament.

People inspired by her and other green visionaries are connecting, often across “old party” lines. We strive to live in harmony with nature’s cycles. We try to keep abreast of hopeful trends and research. We encourage each other through the inevitable disappointments and grief.

We share May’s vision, that “it is our job to work tirelessly for justice, for peace and for a planet that can survive with a human civilization that thrives.”

Jan Slakov is a longtime peace and environmental activist and teacher and volunteers with Restorative Justice Salt Spring.

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