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Tinkering at the margins won’t solve climate-change challenges

Such as there are issues in the current federal election, Canadians’ top priorities tend to be social ones, the likes of health care, education, unemployment and child poverty. When asked directly, Canadians are more likely to say that “more generous social programs” should be a high priority than ensuring that the government “interferes as little as possible with the free market.”

Most think we should reinvest in social programs ahead of cutting taxes. However, while Canadians have deep commitments to such priorities, there is less commitment to “government” or “the state” in their value structure.

To the list of issues one can certainly add the environment, particularly climate change. We’ve seen a slew of events in recent months, part of a global effort to draw attention to the topic and elicit political action. Just this week, large cities around the world are the scene of Extinction Rebellion-inspired mass movements. The U.K-based group has called for a non-violent rebellion in which the public disrupts commerce in the business centers of their respective cities.

Protest alone isn’t enough, the group says, as the only way to get the attention of those responsible for despoiling the planet – and for buying the politicians who are supposed to regulate the polluters – is to hit them in their wallets.

The protests are also predicated on the notion that almost all social change is spurred by consequential action that shifts public norms and perceptions, thus forcing politicians and corporatists to follow suit. Advances in civil rights, gender equality and societal freedoms all started out as “fringe” movements that gradually became accepted thought before becoming enshrined in law.

Given the huge amount of money made by those profiting from the status quo, particularly in the energy sector, it’s no surprise there’s a huge pushback against any kind of meaningful change. The oil companies, for instance, won’t give any real credence to alternatives until they’ve pulled the last drop out of the ground and pocketed the last available dollar. They’re the principal supporters of disinformation campaigns and political vote-buying (e.g. lobbying, payoffs) that aim to fend off any real changes that might help mitigate climate change.

It’s all about the money, and the 100 companies that have been the source of 70 per cent of the planet’s greenhouse emissions over the past 30 years have no interest in foregoing a dime if it can be helped. A 2017 study entitled the Carbon Majors Report named a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers as the key to reducing emissions. Not surprisingly, they’re not in favour of action, let alone the more urgent kind needed at this stage to avert some of more damaging scenarios.

As they’ve done for decades now with the full support of governments, the corporate interests that benefit from the status quo – i.e. fewer regulations and less collective political action – are keen to promote neoliberal “cures” to the climate crisis. Individual action such as buying LED lightbulbs serve to maintain a consumerist mind-set, disavow large-scale changes and provide a balm to any guilt we may have that could prompt a more collaborative response.

Essentially, we’re free to tinker at the margins, but not to effect any meaningful change.

This week’s Extinction Rebellion protests are focused on raising the bar, a necessity given the existential threat climate change poses, argues Roger Hallam, a cofounder of the group and a researcher at King’s College in London.

“The intelligent people on the political left have woken up to the fact that we’ve got an existential emergency that could destroy human society in the next 10 years. It’s in the cards,” he relates to writer Chris Hedges in a column this week. “A lot of us have already gone through the grief process. But these [newly awakened] people just had that enlightenment. They’re in shock. They’re maintaining a veneer of ‘It’s sort of OK.’ This is what the Green Deal [a United Kingdom government policy initiative] is about. It is an attempt to pretend that industrialization can stay the same. We can all still be wealthy. We can all still have great jobs. It is like Roosevelt’s New Deal. But the New Deal was based on the idea that we can carry on plundering nature and nothing’s going to happen. Maybe that was right in the 1930s, but it’s not right anymore. It’s a matter of physics and biology. We simply cannot maintain these levels of consumption. They haven’t reckoned with that. One of the main reasons the climate debate has not gotten into a serious mode over the last 30 years is because people who are in charge of informing the public are terrified of telling the public that they can’t have the high consumer lifestyle anymore. It’s a taboo. But like any addiction, there comes a moment of truth. We’re there now.”

Instead of action, those with the power to make decisions today are fine with rolling out the neoliberal party line, particularly tropes of rugged individualism, perils of collective action and the economic ruin that would follow any controls on corporate power. They won’t do anything different unless forced to, and if politicians won’t do what’s right – a idea long ago abandoned in the rush to adopt a free-market mantra – it’s up to mass movements/dissent to force the politicians to act in the interest of citizens, not corporate dollars.

Real change won’t come from individual action, despite the growing number of people who are both aware of the dangers and who are prepared to make changes in their own lives. As with the if-you-build-it-they-will-come delusion that has driven public transit and bike lane policy in this neck of the woods, the reality is that people will continue to make choices that best reflect their own needs and pocketbooks.

As it exists in the region, transit is too slow and inconvenient to prompt people to ditch their cars, and no amount of appeals to going green will change that (ironically, the near-empty buses and trains are not environmentally friendly). Likewise, cost and availability will likely trump local and organic when it comes to many people’s food choices. Cheap Chinese crap will continue to fly off the shelves as long as there is cheap Chinese crap on the shelves.

Meaningful changes will come when there are real alternatives that match the needs and budgets of the masses. That’s going to take more than motivated individuals on the margins.

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