if this is the pulse of the movement we are DOA

This is a highly interesting piece about the Power Shift conference in Ottawa last month and the so-called blue-green alliance between labour unions and environmentalists.

It should be noted that it was published in a labour magazine and was therefore written through a union lens – or, at least, for a union audience. Still, if this is the state of the renewable energy movement in the country – Power Shift was “the largest environmental convergence in Canada, ever” – no wonder we’re screwed. Look at what an official conference spokesperson said:

At the end of the day, we want to be able to go to work, to make a good wage,and come home. If that can mean making the environment better, that’s the best outcome we can hope for.

Granted, she’s an auto worker and activist for the Canadian Auto Workers. And, granted, environmental activists sometimes consider jobs and workers’ rights only as an afterthought. I guess the point of the conference was to make each side more aware of what the other is fighting for and to join forces in order to fight together.

But my understanding is that the grave challenges humanity faces today are so great that their solutions require a fundamental rejection of current systems. Ad hoc tweaks to business-as-usual are not gonna cut it simply because business-as-usual is what got us in these messes in the first place. What we can do is to overhaul our current operations and introduce new ones that ensure we can go to work, make a good wage, and come home in a sustainable physical environment and a just and democratic society.

In Obama’s press conference the day after re-election he was asked about climate change. His answer was criticised by environmental groups for placing climate change behind the economy, jobs and growth. I don’t have to point to Hurricane Sandy for you to see the basis for this criticism.

I don’t think the climate change mitigation and environmental protection we so urgently need are going to come about as some kind of byproduct of economic growth. What governments need to do is ask how we can protect the planet we live on with the goal of furthering individual and societal wellbeing. But the challenge reaches further than that. We are dealing with an existential question here: how do we avoid wiping out our own species by destroying our own habitat?

At the risk of sounding elitist and burning  bridges that are barely built, I am sceptical – after reading this story – of the viability of a blue-green alliance. Apparently, “less economic growth, and less consumption, were not on the table for discussion” at the conference. After environmental activists finish arguing with sceptics that renewable energy (as one example) does indeed create jobs – it created 380,000 new jobs in Germany – and it’s good for the economy and workers, I do think we have to at some point draw the line and say, right, I’ve made sound arguments on your terms and using your language – ie. the economy, material comfort – and now I’ll make the real argument of why we advocate renewable energy transition: because the alternative of a continual burning of fossil fuels to feed our energy needs will exacerbate unnatural changes in the climate and ecosystems of our planet on which we depend for our very survival. In other words, if we don’t transition – or better yet, revolutionise – we are going to make ourselves extinct. And we have an ethical obligation to future generations not to hand over to them a barren, wartorn and uninhabitable planet.

Which is why I disagreed with NDP support for a pipeline from the energy-intensive oil sands to the Maritimes, because its focus and priority is too much on jobs without asking what kind of jobs. Some unions are definitely greenwashing themselves. The regional vice president of Public Service Alliance of Canada was asked how such a pipeline might affect the blue-green alliance. I found his response disappointing and quite telling, if it represents the union position:

Labour is here in solidarity and we will continue to be here in solidarity, even if we have conflicting aims at times. We have workers in the oil sands, in the pipelines. But even if we do build those pipelines, I think everyone agrees that should lead to enhanced Canadian refining capacities. Most people agree that if we are going to have pipelines, we shouldn’t be exporting our natural resources overseas.


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