Canada’s Green party recently revealed a climate change plan that it styles as a big idea. And indeed there are several big ideas contained therein, for which the Greens ought to be lauded — not so much for the ideas themselves but for the fact that, at last, voters are being given at least an inkling of the magnitude of change that is going to be required in the era of climate-change catastrophe.
One hopes that having at least one of our political parties openly discussing radical change might lure the two front-runners into the conversation.
Admittedly, the Green party is clothing its departure from the norm in conventional garb, promising to tell us just how much removing fossil fuels from our economic equation will cost. It should not require a great deal of thought, given that the resource sector (oil and natural gas being the largest component) remains the mainstay of our economy, and the rest of the world continues to be fossil-fuelled, that arriving at any realistic cost estimate is impossible.
This is one of the reasons we don’t encounter big ideas during election campaigns. Big ideas are transformative, visionary. U.S. president John F. Kennedy did not check with the General Accountability Office before presenting the American people with the vision of reaching the moon.
Although having a big idea ought to be part and parcel of political party agendas, it’s also necessary to have a good big idea, one that captures the imagination, enthusiasm and support of the voters, and is achievable. If either test fails, the big idea fails.
It’s not that the Greens’ idea of rapidly eliminating fossil fuels from our economy, both as a raw material and an exported commodity, is a bad idea. We will get there eventually, either by plan or force of nature. But it’s an idea that requires a foundation we don’t yet have. Aggressive de-carbonizing while the rest of the world continues to function under the grow-or-die paradigm of current economic philosophy may well result in big economic trouble.
With Canadians owing $1.75 for every dollar they earn, we are unable and, therefore, unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to reach the goal. Most Canadians view an increase of a few cents’ per litre in the price of gasoline as calamity and don’t see themselves tooling around in electric cars any time soon.
The big idea we ought to be talking about — not just at election time, but all the time — is the transformations necessary to enable the transition to a world economy that runs on renewable energy and is carbon-neutral (zero net emission of greenhouse gases); the essential precursor to the Green party’s big idea.
Party leader Elizabeth May is far too savvy to engage in this kind of transformative change rhetoric. It would be seen as an attack on the universally accepted measure of economic success — at least in the financial sector — growth. It would be a challenge to the reigning economic philosophy so successfully promoted by the Chicago School of Economics and its acolytes — deregulated free-market capitalism.
The Green party has called for a war on climate change, but of course you don’t wage war against a phenomenon; you wage it against the causes or, in this case, the economic and social paradigms that are the cause of climate change and the interests vested in those paradigms. Such talk is not likely to win too many seats in Parliament, at least not yet.
The philosophical underpinnings of society change with the times. Prior to the Reformation of the 16th century, religion was our philosophy. Over the succeeding centuries, philosophy increasingly dealt with the secular and took on more and more of the trappings of science. The economic philosophy articulated by Adam Smith in the 18th century reflected the times in which he lived; nonetheless, some of his basic postulates relating to such things as markets and incentives remain valid.
What we require is an adjustment to, not an abandonment of, our current economic thinking. We need a Chicago School-style philosophical revolution that articulates an economic philosophy appropriate for our time, a time in which we are facing the existential threat of climate change. We need to decouple economic health and growth, leading to a system that generates profit without growth.
What we are talking about here is material growth. A low-growth economy also implies that we will be consuming far less non-essential material goods and energy in the future, a major and difficult social transformation. So when we talk in these terms, rather than the vague generalities of emission targets and the appealing but impossible goal of replacing all of the world’s current fossil energy demand with renewables, we are entering a realm where there is little public discourse.
The awakening of our young people to this existential threat will prove to be the turning point of the epoch in which we live, producing a "reformation" every bit as profound as the 16th-century religious Reformation. The youth who took to the streets around the world last month have not yet articulated, or perhaps even grasped, the massive changes they are setting in motion, but they will.
The Green party may not have the right big idea, although its time will come much sooner than most realize. But they have set a marker for our public dialogue on climate change that goes well beyond the fantasy-speak we have heard from most politicians and comes closest to the as-yet inchoate demands of our youth.
Whether the Greens get our vote or not, they at least deserve our gratitude.
Norman Brandson was deputy minister of the former Manitoba departments of environment, water stewardship and conservation from 1990 to 2006.