I could almost hear some of you saying after my last article, “Really? Collaboration, decency, respect and love? After all these articles, that bullshit is all you have to offer?”
I spoke about decency and respect, because all societies and civilizations are built on a set of explicit and implicit rules for formal interaction, which often seem inauthentic, but which cover for the fact that most of us will never concretely care about, or genuinely get along with each other. These formalities are not about bullshitting each other. While bullshit denies that there is any truth at all, polite formalities exist precisely because of the truths contained in what Sigmund Freud called the id (the site of our unconscious drives), which always threaten to throw us into the kind of murderous frenzy we saw in the Balkans during the 1990s.
These formalities of interaction only become oppressive (and bullshit) when, as individuals, we remain within them at all times, avoiding the terrifying encounter with the unbearable truths of our own unconscious drives. Within the Christian narrative, the arrival of Christ is a deeply disturbing event, because he challenges us to do the work of moving beyond these formalities (which is required for the very endurance of these formalities of decency and respect) to the terrifying task of removing the beam from each of our own eyes. How else are we to understand how Christ can at once defend the prostitute without condoning or encouraging the act of prostitution? That passage is not —as it is often interpreted —simply about hypocrisy, but about the much deeper tension between the letter and the spirit of the law. How else are we to understand how the Prince of Peace could come bearing a sword that threatens our most fundamental formal ways of relating unless this destabilizing act is somehow required in order to fulfil the law that establishes the very possibility and contours of those relations?
I have no intent to bullshit in these articles. The main reason for these articles is that we can’t bullshit our way out of climate change. It has been said that we live in a post-truth era, the time of fake news.
I would say that we live in a time of conspiracy theories: a time when —over a century after the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche declared that God was dead in the hearts of the people —we are all seeking a keystone that can hold together an arch that would provide meaning to our existences. When politicians do not take the threat of climate change seriously, it further undermines public trust in science, and pushes people towards these mystifying, scapegoating, and superstitious narratives.
Collectively, we have moved from the important realization that scientists are also human beings engaged in the world, and not just disinterested observers, to the cynical view that scientists are just another interest group, motivated only by funding dollars. We believe this even as we rely increasingly on technology made possible by the work of scientists.
That is feedback that emerges from government greenwashing. It was over a decade ago that one of the world’s leading climatologists, Dr. James Hansen, wrote about greenwashing:
“There is a social matter that contributes equally to the [climate] crisis: government greenwash. I was startled, while plotting data, to see the vast disparity between government words and reality. Greenwashing, expressing concern about global warming and the environment while taking no actions to actually stabilize climate or preserve the environment, is prevalent in the United States and other countries, even those presumed to be the ‘greenest’” (Storms of My Grandchildren).
It is prudent to see opportunity in climate change, however, it is imprudent to be opportunistic. Opportunism is driven by cynicism; it denies that there is the possibility of a reality beyond that of the basest self-interest, and desire for economic growth: it reduces all value to market value (monetary wealth), and in doing so eliminates the possibility of ethics. It also gives the market a divine status: things will transition as required, right on time if we simply allow the market (nature) to take its course.
As mentioned, greenwashing on climate change is devastating for our trust in public institutions (what is known as social capital). I was quite impressed with the Liberal’s recent announcement on single-use plastics. I was much less impressed with the decision to declare a climate emergency and then the next day to approve the Trans-Mountain pipeline. This would be like declaring a state of emergency due to war with a foreign nation on one day, and then signing a weapons contract with that same nation on the following day, and justifying it by saying that the money from the sale of weapons to our enemy would be spent on the war effort!
In essence greenwashing is just one version of a common sort of corruption. It is the kind of corruption that relies on the coffers being opened up in response to a legitimate problem, only to be spent in a way that does little or nothing to fix the problem. While we most certainly need to take care of our people, and that may require a program like universal minimum basic income, having a good quality of life requires more than just money. It means actually maintaining the way things work when they work well, and changing them where we must, or where they can be made to work better.
But maybe our politicians also deserve some empathy. On the one hand, we expect them to be flawless, almost saintlike. At the same time, we are extremely cynical about them, because they appear fake (as a result of their efforts to live up to the very expectations we have for them). We have turned them into bullshitters by not allowing them the space to make (or have made) mistakes (to encounter their own ids). We have expected them to provide endless economic growth everywhere, and yet have increasingly felt alienated by the rapid demographic shift in our country due to immigration (a growing population is required for a growing economy, as we hear over and over).
How do we find a way out of this bind? I have suggested that collaboration is necessary. Let me make that slightly less vague. Collaboration is, at the most immediate level, taking advantage of our ability to communicate and dialogue, the advantage that is denied to the prisoners within the prisoner’s dilemma, and also to the coyotes gobbling up the snowshoe hares. We should not remain silent. Collaboration is also required to work locally between jurisdictions: for example, between First Nations and Municipalities, so that we can prepare the people and the lands that we cohabit for the coming changes, and increase the quality of life for all of us. Collaboration is required (i.e. through voting and lobbying) to make politicians take climate change seriously, and not just greenwash. Collaboration is required by politicians to implement the required changes at the federal and provincial levels to make the rapid overhaul of our infrastructure possible. And collaboration is required by governments at the international level, where nations are caught, like individuals, in another version of the prisoner’s dilemma. On this last front, Canada should be an international leader, as we were in the past.
What does some of this look like? There has been increasing talk of a Green New Deal (which has appeared under other names, such as the NDP’s New Deal for People) in Canada, the U.S., the UK and even small countries like Costa Rica. In Canada, this movement recognizes that our economy, built on debt-fuelled consumption, market speculation, and waning industries, needs an overhaul. It recognizes that we will be hard pressed to solve the problem of climate change without providing new jobs for those people who currently work in the industries that will be affected. In other words, to make it clear that this is not an attack on some segment of our population, but rather a necessary transition. But we can no longer be directing our dollars towards subsidizing infrastructure that undermines our effort to rapidly bring down emissions. If we are still shipping oil from the tar sands in twenty years, our chances of averting catastrophe are almost nil. And yet there are billions of dollars in subsidies going annually to the oil and gas sector in Canada that could be spent transitioning us to a new economy.
As far as assessing these proposed new deals, everything depends on whether what is proposed amounts to greenwashing (money for votes), or whether there is a genuine aim at making the necessary changes. Much also depends on the timelines in these deals. Relying on pathways from the Paris agreement, or previous reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expose us to unacceptable risk. These pathways simply do not account for many causes of destabilization within the earth’s systems, as well as within our political systems. Even within the climate —which it is the objective of IPCC reports to model and advise upon —processes are now initiating sometimes 70 years ahead of what was projected in worst case scenarios, (as was detailed last week in a report on Canada’s thawing permafrost). Moreover, there are very few people who are considering not only the consequences of climate change, but of species loss, population growth, industrial agriculture, stress on freshwater resources, and the rise of disgruntled populaces turning away from international cooperation to isolationism, nationalism and other ways of dividing into ever smaller groups. Many of these are directly relevant to us here in Canada, and more specifically in Wawa.
In order to assess the new deals proposed we can also judge them by the standard a“war-effort.”Given the urgency, an increasing number of very seasoned and intelligent climate scientists are agreeing that if we are going to avoid the worst, we need to mobilize a countrywide (and, in fact, a worldwide) war-effort on climate change. This would result in a large number of jobs being created almost immediately, simply by doing what we must. It would also get us beyond the prisoner’s dilemma. During the Second World War, the focus was to build what was required (munitions, ships, uniforms, etc), not to provide jobs. The jobs came about because the work had to be done. Electric vehicles, new trains, new roads, new forms of energy generation, carbon capture technology, ecological restoration, are just a few of the areas where work must be done, and where we are mostly falling behind other nations. Be comforted: there is a great opportunity in the climate crisis, but the crisis will become a catastrophe if we only see the economic opportunity, and not the severity of the crisis, and the momentous amount of work required to avert it.
Leo is a former editor of the JargOnline (Student Newspaper of Jarvis Collegiate).
Latest posts by Leo Lepiano (see all)
- Debt, Credit and Value: Could we Pay for a New Economy? - July 12, 2019
- Use value, exchange value, and the carbon tax - July 4, 2019
- Climate change is national emergency, so let’s build the TMX! - June 21, 2019