By Jim Harding
Sustainability challenges us to change our ways but also to change how we understand ourselves as a species within the biosphere. This is a big shift in mind-set, for the dominant industrial society evolved without any fundamental grasp of its cumulative ecological impacts, and it’s only been since the 1970s that “environmental impacts” have been added into the political-economic mix. That’s only 40 years ago and we are still in the infancy of learning to live sustainably. After centuries of colonialism and exploitation there however remains well-funded resistance to the necessary shift. In Canada we see this most clearly with Harper’s minority government.
As the pressure to protect the environment has grown, corporations and supporting governments have countered with neo-liberal policies of free trade, deregulation and privatization. While this helped spur on profitable global corporate markets, it dislocated millions of people from their local economies, increased urban squalor and civil strife. Deregulation also set the stage for the recent financial meltdown and larger scale ecological disasters such as in the Gulf of Mexico. Collusion between government and corporations in the name of unfettered economic growth has consistently undermined proactive measures to address the global ecological crisis. The most compelling example is the undercutting of policies to reduce the carbon emissions that are increasing extreme and erratic weather events. Recent flooding in the normally semi-arid Maple Creek and Medicine Hat areas may be a sign of things to come.
OUR POLITICAL PURGATORY
Canada’s international standing has recently slipped from being a middle power which pioneered peacekeeping, to being the greatest obstructionist to the changes required for sustainability. Though Harper’s government lacks majority support, the opposition parties – both Liberal and NDP – have failed to muster a credible campaign for alternatives. The first-past-the-post voting works in Harper’s favour, and aristocratic Leader of the Opposition, Ignatieff, just doesn’t “ring true” with Canada’s grass roots. We are thus caught in a political purgatory. While the Harper government edges towards a more mean-spirited, authoritarian society, the alternative vision that could help us move in a more positive direction lacks political critical mass.
Though Harper came to power promising transparency and accountability, in just a few years his government has done more to undermine parliamentary democracy than any previous government. The proroguing of parliament prior to the Olympics, to avoid accountability over the Afghan mission didn’t go over well with the broader public. But Harper persisted, risking being found in contempt of parliament for keeping information from elected members. Harper’s undermining of parliamentary democracy also goes on under the radar screen, for we now find that the latest omnibus bill going to the Senate “hid” legislation that would no longer require parliament to be consulted about government borrowing. The opposition parties seem to have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Such assaults on democracy usually involve diversion or creating scapegoats. While our Parliamentary democracy is whittled away, the Harper government tries to keep public attention on “fighting crime”. Recruiting for the armed forces is done in the name of “fighting chaos”, while the very policies being pursued by Harper will surely increase international and environmental chaos. During the Winter Olympics Harper joined the bandwagon of hockey nationalism to try to gain mainstream support. After the G20 protests, he will try to use “law and order” for the same purpose. None of this is based on a vision that highlights sustainability; just the opposite. The centralizing of political control is in the defense of the unsustainable. Harper’s father worked for Imperial Oil, and with this oil background he has used government to undercut international attempts to curb the catastrophic impacts of the oil industry. We are now known internationally for Alberta’s mammoth toxic tar sands.
THE ECOLOGY GOSPEL
With the squandering of a $10 billion federal surplus and the $1 billion bill for the G8 and G20 meetings, the Harper government has pretty much abandoned fiscal conservatism. With Harper’s rhetoric of accountability so discrepant with his actions, the government is returning to old-style politics, trying to buy our votes with our own money. Local MPs try to get credit for expenditures made under the Action Canada stimulus package. A recent pamphlet put in my mail box on behalf of Andrew Sheer, MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle, says the “Conservatives have increased total annual federal funding for Saskatchewan by over 33% since 2005”. As proof it shows expenditures of $.99 billion by the Liberals in 2005 compared to $1.18 billion by Harper’s government in 2010-11. This is “apples and oranges”, for the 2010-11 figures include the massive federal stimulus package, and there is no mention that this has contributed to a $56 billion dollar federal deficit. Taking figures out of context is something every introductory student of statistics is warned about.
It was during a somewhat analogous time, during the ravages of the great depression when conventional politics also failed the public, that religion and politics joined force to become the social gospel. This inspired the CCF, for which all Canadians are indebted for Medicare. But since the 1970s the link between religion and politics has taken a turn towards fundamentalism. Religion is often used as a pseudo-justification for a more authoritarian, retributive government which goes hand-in-hand with corporate-promoted neo-liberal policies. And the environment always gets sacrificed in this alliance. George Bush’s militaristic, debt-ridden administration most reflects this convergence of power and fear, though a similar ideology continues on in Canada within sectors of the Harper-controlled Conservatives.
Pseudo-religious justifications for the right to exploit people and nature don’t stand up theologically, but they can nevertheless be influential. However, facing the imperatives of sustainability and our huge political vacuum, there are “rumblings” of a new spiritual convergence. Religion and politics may yet find a new creative interplay which can help us get our values and priorities right-side up again, and place both economics and politics within the broader context of ecology and creation. Will the Harper legacy ironically see the “ecology gospel” emerge as a new historical force?
Next time I’ll report on Saskatchewan’s First Solar Tour.