Our Power: Battling Austerity with a Bold Green Vision

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Our Power: Battling Austerity with a Bold Green Vision

'Yes, solar installation and wind turbine manufacture, and all the many skilled trades—they can all be green jobs,' says Lewis. 'But it’s time to drastically expand this category.' (Screenshot: Trade Unions for Energy Democracy)

Avi Lewis delivered the opening keynote at the 9th annual Advocacy Conference of Public Interest Alberta, entitled “A Just and Fair Alberta: Making It Happen,” on April 9 in Edmonton. PIA “exists to foster an understanding of the importance of public spaces, services and institutions in Albertans’ lives, and to build a network of people and organizations committed to advancing the public interest.”  Here’s the (lightly condensed) text of Avi’s rousing, wide-ranging speech.

I want to start by acknowledging the Treaty 6 First Nations, on whose land we gather tonight. In this historic period of resurgent and inspiring indigenous activism, I think it’s all the more important that we settlers remind ourselves constantly that we are guests here.

The utility of this humility is that it helps us remember that in fact, all humans are guests on this earth—and taking better care of the place is not just the polite thing to do: it’s a matter of our collective survival.

"Had we gotten serious about shifting away from a fossil-fuelled economy in the early 90s, we probably could have achieved it all through incremental change. We didn’t. And so now, only radical change will give us a chance of avoiding a dystopian future."

Let me also say how delighted I am to be back in Alberta, and at what a time! To be here, at the epicenter of the country’s politics and economy, with a group of unapologetic progressives and public sector champions, in the first news cycle of an historic election campaign….it is nothing short of exhilarating.

I mean it when I say that Alberta is the epicenter of Canadian public life today. Since the ascent of Stephen Harper (a former denizen of the Imperial Oil mailroom) to the highest office in the land, the province has become the very heart of the New Conservative Canada. You are the richest province, that is well known. You still have no sales tax, and you still have the lowest personal and corporate taxes in the country. And some of the lowest royalty rates of any petro-state on earth. Not coincidentally—in fact, as you all know, precisely because of these business-pandering braggables—you have a whole slew of other Alberta superlatives. Shameful ones.

Just about the lowest childcare spending in Canada, the lowest participation rate in post-secondary education, the lowest minimum wage, the fastest-growing income inequality, and women still making 60 cents on the male dollar. In 2015. And then there is the small matter of greenhouse gas emissions, far and away the highest and fastest-growing in the country.

Now I may well be just the latest Easterner in a long line to descend on Alberta and denigrate your province’s accomplishments. But to be fair, I extracted that litany of factoids from PIA’s own election primer, “A Fair and Just Alberta For All: Priorities For Change.” It is an excellent document. Its recommendations amount to nothing less than a roadmap to restoring decency to Alberta’s public sphere. It presents a positive vision of public reinvestment, rather than just opposition to cuts.

I also believe that while necessary, the proposals contained in these pages are insufficient—they only scratch the surface of the transformation this province is capable of.

I think Alberta is ripe for massive change. A process that you can drive, if you can find the audacity and the ambition that matches the true turning point at which we find ourselves. Not the turning point that your premier Jim Prentice talks about. The one our planet is telling us about.

The odds are steep, and the window is short. But this province could be a leader in a grand transition that takes us so far from today’s unjust and unsustainable status quo that it is nothing less than revolutionary. Canadians—and particularly Albertans—are living through a once-in-a-generation political moment, where all the elements necessary for truly historic social change are already at hand. If we can recognize them, connect the dots among them, infuse them with passionate solidarity and incendiary organizing, I think we could have a game-changer on our hands.

An epic opportunity for progressive change

The project I’m working on has the very modest title of This Changes Everything. And it has certainly changed everything for me.

My partner Naomi Klein and I planned this from the outset as both a book and film project—though it is sobering that she has been able to complete one of her door-stopping blockbusters a full year earlier than I hope to finish the film.

Now the “this” in This Changes Everything is not the book, or the film, or anything that we do or say. What changes everything is climate change, and the faster we recognize that, the sooner we can break free of our everyday denial and avoidance and get to work building the world that this crisis demands.

A more just and stable world. A saner system.

As a species, we have been negotiating global greenhouse gas emissions reductions since the year NAFTA was signed, Bill Clinton was elected president, and “I’m Too Sexy” (for my shirt) was on the radio. And since global climate talks began in 1992, global emissions have increased more than 60%. We’re hurtling in the wrong direction.

In this same period, climate science has established a carbon budget for earth—a set amount of carbon that we can release into the atmosphere and still give ourselves a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic warming. That budget is incredibly small now, and if we are to get emissions under control, we are going to have to start reducing them in rich countries like Canada by something approaching 10% per year. Year after year. Starting yesterday.

Had we gotten serious about shifting away from a fossil-fuelled economy in the early 90s, we probably could have achieved it all through incremental change. We didn’t. And so now, only radical change will give us a chance of avoiding a dystopian future.

Since the industrial revolution, we have not yet created even 1 degree of warming, and we are already seeing historic flooding, drought, fire, storms, migration, and food emergencies around the world. Describing a 4 to 6 degree world, climate scientists resort to constructions like, “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community.”

Getting off the roller coaster, kicking oil when it’s down

So: massive change is coming, one way or another. If we want to see what this terrifying future looks like, all we have to do is nothing. Take the kids to school. Canvass our poll in the provincial election. Take out the recycling. If we want to avoid that future, we will have to embrace radical change.

And that, I submit to you with all the passion I can muster, could be very good news indeed!

Who knows it better than Albertans? Here you are in the very heart of the carbon economy, watching raging torrents of wealth leave the province year after year, flooding into the coffers of the richest industry in history, leaving behind waiting lists for surgery, crumbling public infrastructure, 143,000 children living in poverty, more than 170 square kilometers of toxic lakes, and a 7 billion dollar budget hole!

People in this province know that the current system is broken. But nothing illuminates how unfair, short-sighted, and destructive that system is like climate change. And this is a huge opportunity for progressives who have already been working for decades to change our unequal and unjust status quo. A climate lens brings our struggles for social justice into sharp focus. It lends them existential urgency. It gives them a scientific basis. It puts us all on a very hard deadline.

Here’s the next piece—one that, on the surface, even the Alberta Progressive Conservatives understand. Your finance minister has said it repeatedly in recent days. Hell, Jim Prentice said it when he dropped the writ for this election. We’ve heard it from Conservatives in this province for years: “We have to get off the roller coaster. We have to get off oil.”

Finally something we agree on.

Of course, the PCs don’t mean what I mean when I say the same words. In fact, as we know, they don’t even mean it at all—they just say it because they know that the majority of people in this province know that a boom and bust economy leaves nothing behind but waste, pollution, and a ravaged public sphere. What I’m saying—what science is saying—is that our society needs to get off fossil fuels. Period. And this particular political moment gives us a golden opportunity to make their fake words mean the real thing.

When oil prices plunge 50 percent in a matter of months, it is indeed a shock. And throughout history, great shocks have led to great shifts. Usually for the worse. But not always. In the same way that the crash of 1929 and WWII opened the door to the regulation of banks and the building of the welfare state, this price shock can be harnessed to advance the vision of a new economy and energy system beyond fossil fuels.

"It’s time to truly kick oil…while it’s down."

Let’s face it—the industry has temporarily lost its swagger. It’s a little more difficult to cast yourself as an engine of the global economy when you’re laying off tens of thousands of workers around the world. And in the harsh light of the price crash, the servants of industry—those Tory politicians in both Edmonton and Ottawa—stand exposed as the fossils that they are, mindlessly gambling not only our provincial and national finances, but our very future on the same old dirty and volatile forms of energy.

And it’s not just the industry and its political pawns that have been captured and compromised by the boom times. Let’s be honest. When 19 year olds can make $300,000 a year, it warps the culture of a whole society. I’ve spent time in the bars and camps of Fort Mac. I’ve met many perfectly decent young men whose extreme behaviour merely reflects the insanity of the boomtown culture around them.

Albertans know the collective delusion and decadence of the high times. It is very hard to get anyone to listen to sense in those periods. It’s a helluva lot easier right now at less than 50 bucks a barrel.

So I submit to you tonight that it’s time to truly kick oil…while it’s down.

And there’s more. Historic low interest rates mean that our economy is giving us two gifts at the same time. Public sector borrowing for infrastructure has never been cheaper. Even Jim Prentice knows this, which is why infrastructure is about the only thing he’s not cutting in this province. But let’s apply the climate test. What infrastructure should we invest in? Or more pointedly, why on earth would we build out the fossil fuel economy at this point in history?

I’m going to continue to challenge you here, and I do it with sincere respect for Public Interest Alberta and its excellent members. But I think the Alberta Federation of Labour should go back to the drawing board on calling for public money to build new oil refineries in this province. We absolutely cannot lock in more 50-year infrastructure for the industry that is imperiling the planet. It’s just suicide.

Does that mean I’m against public infrastructure spending? Hell no! We need repairs and new buildings for schools, hospitals, arts and community centres. We need 21st century electricity grids, energy-saving retrofits, and public transit investments on a scale that puts those vast capital investments in oil to shame. And we need unprecedented public spending to roll out renewable energy of all kinds in a breathtakingly rapid and ambitious fashion.

So: we have the implications of the climate crisis creating a clarion mandate for transformative change. We have a window of opportunity opened by low oil prices and low interest rates and a general recognition in Alberta that it’s time to get off oil…and really get off it, if we take the argument to its logical conclusion.

But there are other, even more profound opportunities in this political moment: this great transition can also build on a global weariness with austerity, and a simultaneous deep hunger for a positive direction for society.

A grand transition

First: the austerity trap. Since 2008, we have all been paying for the institutionalized insanity of financial speculation. When the banks were bailed out to the tune of trillions, without any requirement that they actually change their 1 percent ways, the jig was up for most people. The system stood naked in its shamelessness and inequality before the eyes of the world. And since then, the very same players have been rewarded—while the vast majority of hardworking people in every country have paid a terrible price.

Even in a privileged country like ours, the aftermath of 2008 has been deeply, darkly dramatic. It goes beyond the stealth austerity of the Harper government, with its relentless and effective campaign to shrink the role of government incrementally. The cynical sale of its shares in the auto industry it bailed out, with billions in losses absorbed by the public. It goes beyond the short-sighted squandering of the last oil boom the PCs presided over here in Alberta and the 7 billion dollar hole left in the richest piece of the Canadian fabric.

Our whole economy is on a deeply dangerous trajectory. Just consider this one juxtaposition, courtesy of Statistics Canada and CIBC World Markets. Canadian wages have not recovered since 2008, and job quality in Canada is at a record low. In January, the Canadian economy actually shrank. And at the exact same time, Canadian corporate profits are at a 27-year high, and according to a CIBC economist, and I quote, “by all measures, higher corporate profit margins are here to stay.”

You are not surprised. And that is precisely my point. After 35 years of privatization, de-regulation, austerity and corporate triumphalism, there is a wider and deeper recognition of the injustice of our economic system than we have seen since the 1930s.

The flipside of this deep weariness and discontent is hunger for something better. We can take advantage of this inspiration gap. A craving among people across the spectrum for a positive vision, a bold and ambitious plan to regain our sense of the collective, a common purpose, a shared feeling that we are going somewhere…other than slowly, or not so slowly, down the drain.

I’ve spent the last 25 years as a journalist, talking to people at every level of society in countries around the world. I have never seen such an appetite for radical and progressive solutions as I see today.

"A great economic and energy transition—away from fossil fuels, endless extraction, and consumption, and towards a restored public sphere, a sane and stable economy and environment—answers the political moment perfectly."

A great economic and energy transition—away from fossil fuels, endless extraction, and consumption, and towards a restored public sphere, a sane and stable economy and environment—answers the political moment perfectly.

Here’s the thing. Our politicians don’t have the courage or vision to articulate it. Our utterly disappointing and predictable media class is too busy live blogging, tweeting and shooting video in between filing stories to even consider it. Even we as defenders of the public sphere are spending too much time fighting rearguard actions to hang on to what we’ve got, which is less and less as time goes on.

But I believe, passionately, that now is the time to embrace a vision of sweeping change—one that responds to the clear message of the science and the already unfolding crisis of the climate.

And while this spirit has not yet entered the mainstream, my research and travels of the last 5 years have convinced me that it is growing. At the grassroots, among social movements, we’re seeing a surge of activism and organizing around the world. We’re seeing it particularly among indigenous struggles, local struggles against extraction, and within the global climate justice movement more broadly.

But we’re also seeing it in movements against evictions, poverty and austerity—both in North America and Europe. And most exciting, we are starting to see connections forged among these various social justice struggles.

Building movement power outside of the electoral sphere

It’s a spirit of connecting the dots. Of seeing beyond local bad actors to the system and logic that they serve. An openness to an alternative world view—one that rejects growth for its own sake, that values well-being more than being well-off, one that recognizes that we are slamming up against the hard limits of our natural world. That we need a system that encourages us to live within limits, rather than acting like we are masters of the universe.

Here’s one example – a short video that just happened to cross my Inbox. It’s produced by a wonderful, fast-growing global alliance called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. And it is a fantastic summary of the argument I have been accosting you with tonight, with particular resonance for Alberta and the overlapping challenges—especially the democracy deficit—that you face here.

So: can we do it? Can we reach 100% renewable energy? Could we actually build energy democracy in Canada? Even right here in Alberta?

I have here a report released just 3 weeks ago, the work of more than 70 Canadian scientists, engineers and economists. It’s called “Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars.” It is peer-reviewed, meticulously detailed, and utterly convincing.

It says that a 100% renewable energy system is possible in Canada in just 20 years time.

"The technology is ready for prime time. The price of solar energy globally has been cut in half in just 5 years. It is now competitive with coal in some areas even without subsidies."

The technology is ready for prime time. The price of solar energy globally has been cut in half in just 5 years. It is now competitive with coal in some areas even without subsidies.

The policy levers are well-known, field-tested, ready to deploy.

As for the community control piece, we needn’t look far for a living example: Germany.

The Energiewende—the famous German energy transition—has boosted renewables to 30% of the country’s energy supply in just a decade. In the process, it has created 400 thousand jobs. 900 new energy cooperatives. It is replacing private power monopolies with community-controlled non-profit utilities that invest massively in solar and wind and keep profits in the community to fund local services.

There is a genuine energy democracy emerging in the most powerful economy in Europe.

What will it take to replicate this success and improve on its failings?

Well, I don’t think we’re going to see leadership from the political class. Certainly not in this province. We are seeing leadership from a small but significant sector of the global trade union movement, as the growing strength of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy proves.

But I think the real power that will drive this transition is social movement power. In Germany, the Energiewende was really propelled by the country’s longstanding and powerful anti-nuclear movement, making common cause with other progressive forces in different communities.

And the reason I’ve spent much of my time tonight in trying to connect the dots between economic and environmental systems and approaches is because I think cross-sectoral organizing is the only thing that’s going to get us there in time. We are after all, trying to change everything. To quote the slogan from the People’s Climate March in New York City last fall, “To change everything, we need everyone.”

The way I see it, climate change doesn’t demand that all progressives drop what they are doing and rush over to the climate tent. That would be a disaster. When we can see the roots of the crisis in the very logic of our economic system, it means that the fight for social justice and the fight for climate justice are one and the same. The existential urgency and scientific basis of climate activism can be harnessed to supercharge existing movements across the progressive spectrum.

And that is already beginning to happen.

It’s worth pausing for just a moment and reviewing some of this extraordinary momentum in the climate movement. 6 years ago the Keystone XL pipeline was considered such a slam dunk that TransCanada bought the pipe! They’ve had to store hundreds of kilometers of it—at the cost of many millions of dollars—through all these years of delay.

The North American climate movement has been accelerated by the battles against the whole web of proposed pipelines, and this wave crested in the unprecedented People’s Climate March where 400,000 people came to the streets.

I was there, and it was unlike any rally I’ve ever attended. It was certainly unlike any environmental event this continent has ever seen. It was diverse, it was led by indigenous people. At the very front of the march were two of Alberta’s great young indigenous leaders—Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Crystal Lameman.

There was a strong union presence. It was filled with people from local struggles across the region—highlighting everything from the environmental racism of dirty industries in communities of colour to the solidarity and social cohesion of Hurricane Sandy survivors.

There was far more talk of economic justice than polar bears. It was a movement moment of connecting dots across the widest possible spectrum.

And the fossil fuel divestment movement has sprung into being in these same few years. Around the world now, towns and cities, universities and foundations are committing to divesting from dirty energy. It is the fastest-growing divestment movement ever seen. The day after the People’s Climate March, members of the Rockefeller family and one of the Rockefeller foundations announced their intention to divest from fossil fuels. Just think about that: the heirs of the Standard Oil fortune declaring that fossil fuel investments are immoral. Talk about a sea change.

The Alberta Advantage

Now I cite that particular example because I know that in oil-saturated Alberta this climate momentum seems pretty far away. I know it seems like a hard sell to translate it here. I know that everyone in here knows someone—for many of you family members—who rely on the oil and gas industry to put food on the table.

But here in Alberta, as citizens who live with the largest industrial project on earth, the most controversial energy source anywhere—you have an exceptional moral advantage.

For every Albertan who speaks up in favour of a just transition to renewables, we’d need 100 Ontarians to match your persuasive power. That moral authority you have—students, seniors, union members, environmentalists—exceeds anything that exists anywhere else in Canada.

I believe it is time you took a deep breath and used it.

Because here in this one-party state, particularly at election time, couldn’t you use a cause that unites all the others and transcends the gridlocked sphere of party politics? A movement that addresses the economic deficit, the environmental deficit, and most importantly, the democracy deficit all at the same time?

Imagine a rising Alberta climate justice movement, with a radical transformative vision of making this province a true energy superpower—one that worked in concert with the earth, instead of ripping it up. Imagine how the national media would flip if you staged a huge climate justice rally here in Alberta in the run up to the global climate talks in Paris at the end of the year.

If First Nations who have been living on the frontlines of fossil fuel crimes for generations were to lead, followed by oil sands workers committed to using their many skills in the service of energy democracy.

If health care workers who are treating historic levels of respiratory diseases came together with students who are calling on their universities to divest from fossil fuels and their governments to invest in post-secondary education.

Friends, we are on the cusp of historic change, whether inspiring or terrifying. Some sectors of our economy will have to be wound down. And this province will be more affected by that process than anywhere else.

But there are huge parts of our economy and social fabric that need desperately to grow. The sectors of the economy that have always been low-carbon. The same ones that have been so devalued, de-funded and disrespected throughout the last decades of triumphant, fossil-fueled capitalism.

And so I leave you with this: Yes, solar installation and wind turbine manufacture, and all the many skilled trades—they can all be green jobs. But it’s time to drastically expand this category. And if we do, we can see the movement we need already right here in this room.

Nursing is a green job. Civil service is a green job. Teaching is a green job. Child and senior care is a green job. Anti-poverty activism is a green job. All of us battling for the revival of the commons—we are all, already, climate warriors.

It’s time we started acting like it.

Thank you for having me.

Avi Lewis

Avi Lewis is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who, alongside the book written by his wife Naomi Klein, is working on the feature-length film of their joint project, This Changes Everything.

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