Author and environmentalist Naomi Klein published a feature article in the Globe and Mail‘s edition of Saturday, Sept 24 in which she defends against its detractors the Leap Manifesto issued in Canada in April 2016. Her unique argument in this essay explains that Canada’s “founding economic myth” has been that of the ‘good’ created by the vast pillaging of the country’s natural resources following the arrival of settlers from Europe. She argues that the myth’s endurance helps to explain the failure of Canada’s contemporary capitalist elite to making the necessary political and economic changes in the face of the global warming emergency.
Klein explains that Canada is on course to blow past the already risible greenhouse gas emission targets it assumed at the international climate change conference in Paris in December 2015, including an industry-planned increase of Alberta tar sands production of 43 per cent. The tar sands industry wants to see four new bitumen pipelines built to carry their raw product to foreign markets.
Klein asks, “Why is it so hard for Canadian political leaders, across the political spectrum, to design climate policies that are guided by climate science?”
She explains that to the European mercantilists driving settlement of the Americas, “the so-called New World was imagined as a sort of spare continent, to use for parts. And what parts: Here seemed to be a bottomless treasure trove – fish, fowl, fur, giant trees, and later metals and fossil fuels. And in Canada, these riches covered a territory so vast, it seemed impossible to fathom its boundaries.”
“Again and again in the early accounts, the words “inexhaustible” and “infinite” come up – to describe old growth forests, beavers, great auks, and of course cod (so many, they ‘stayed the passage’ of John Cabot’s ships).” (Cabot was an early British explorer of the North Atlantic.)
Klein makes an unconvincing comparison between settlement of the U.S. and Canada, saying that the absence in Canada of a slave-powered agricultural economy gave an especially acute dimension to natural resource pillaging compared to what occurred in the United States. But her main point stands–that the ideology of “unlimited” natural resources available for plunder is deeply rooted in Canada’s dominant historical narrative. It’s a useful insight for educating today’s population about the dangerous consequences of such an abiding myth.
That said, Klein’s essay regretfully provides little hint of an alternative to the founding myth she deftly critiques. She makes a characteristic argument that happens to be inaccurate and also misleading when she writes:
“… Other countries are moving ahead with policies that begin to reflect the scientific realities. Germany and France have both banned fracking.
“Even in the United States, there is a wider spectrum of debate. The new platform of the Democratic Party, for instance, states that no new infrastructure projects should be built if they substantively contribute to climate change – essentially the same position that caused all the outrage around The Leap Manifesto…”
Any comparison to the Leap Manifesto, a genuinely radical critique of the environmental status quo, and lofty but empty words by the U.S. Democratic Party is quite misplaced. The comparison illustrates that the higher up the media chain where Naomi Klein speaks, the farther she detaches herself from any critique of capitalism as being the root cause of the global warming emergency. In fact, notwithstanding the sub-title–‘Capitalism Vs. The Climate’—of her 2014 best-selling book, there is very little hard, anti-capitalist critique in her writings and speeches.
That is also true of the many uncritical reviews of the book which have been published and of the manifesto itself.. The manifesto was issued in April 2016 in an effort to spark serious discussion in the moribund New Democratic Party (Canada’s party of the soft left) and in Canadian society more broadly concerning the global warming emergency. (Read the manifesto here: The Leap Manifesto: A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another.)
Avi Lewis expounds on the Leap Manifesto
A co-author to Klein of the Leap Manifesto, Avi Lewis, engaged in a two-hour debate about the document in Ottawa on Sept 15, 2016 together with Thomas Homer-Dixon. The debate is broadcast on the CPAC cable television channel and website. Lewis’ contributions to the debate provide insight into the strengths as well as weaknesses of the political outlook of the manifesto and its authors.
Lewis’ debating adversary authored a Globe and Mail op-ed in April 22, 2016 opposing the central tenets of the Leap Manifesto. It was titled ‘Start the Leap revolution without me‘. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the CIGI chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.
Homer-Dixon argued in the debate that while he appreciates the sentiments underlying the Leap Manifesto and even acknowledges that the economic system of “capitalism” is a contributing cause of the global warming emergency, he says there are many more causes at play. He calls the Leap Manifesto “divisive” and says it is “muddled” due to the excessive breadth of the issues it addresses. He also says the focus of the manifesto on “capitalism” as the source of global warming is misdirected; there are many additional sources unrelated to capitalism.
Lewis’ lead-off in the debate is a sharp critique of what he describes as the excesses of “capitalism”. His explicit use of the term is in contrast to the speeches and interviews of Naomi Klein as well as the texts of ‘This Changes Everything’ and the Leap Manifesto itself.
Lewis says that nothing short of a frontal challenge to the expansion dynamic of capitalism is required if rising greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming are to be slowed and eventually reversed. But later in the exchange, Lewis steps back from this central argument. He says the heart of the problem with capitalism is the variant he calls “extractivism”.
Lewis considers “extractivism” to be a distinct phase and element of the capitalist system, saying that capitalism and extractivism emerged in parallel at the outset of the industrial revolution. He calls the surge of human economic pillaging emanating from Europe in the early stages of mercantile expansion “extractivism” and “colonialism”. These were then “turbocharged” by “industrialism”.
This method of analyzing the parts of a social phenomenon distinct from one another leads to a failure to properly understand the whole. While Lewis acknowledged in his talk that the expansion dynamic of industrial capitalism is why the global warming emergency is upon us and is proving so intractable to solve, his division of the constituent whole–capitalism–into seemingly distinct parts–extractivism, colonialism, etc–confuses the subject.
What is the alternative?
The reader can listen to Avi Lewis in the debate with Thomas Homer-Dixon and then judge for himself or herself his proposed political response to the global warming crisis.
He begins rather well. He says there must be a “systematic challenge to every major pillar of our current economic order” if the world is to successfully confront the global warming challenge. He says a victory on the “ideological level” over capitalism is required to create the political conditions to overcome the crisis. He suggests six necessary themes to that ideological challenge:
* Governments must lead the fight against global warming. No other entity in society commands the necessary resources and authority to do so. (Lewis then provides another misleading tangent, saying that what is needed today is a societal mobilization similar to the one sparked by the fight against German Nazism in World War Two. The problem here is that the outcome of WW2—the victory of the U.S.-led imperialist alliance–laid the foundation for the vast expansion of consumerist capitalism which today threatens the planet.)
* There should be higher taxes on the wealthy and carbon taxes which discourage Environmentally damaging consumer and industrial purchasing choices.
* Market mechanisms to lower greenhouse gas emissions have failed, Lewis argues, citing the example of the European carbon emissions trading-credit system.
* “We have to smash the austerity mindset once and for all.”
* The ‘free trade’ investment and trade deals of recent decades be torn up.
* Finally, Lewis argued for ending the global consumerism treadmill that impoverishes the global south. “Over-consumption” must be lowered across the board, he says.
Lewis added that transition to a society burning fewer fossil fuels is not a barrier to progress. It is “the wind beneath our wings”.
As refreshing as are Lewis words and proposals, they beg two large sets of action that are required to meet the global warming challenge.
Nothing short of an emergency retrenchment of all the waste and destructive excess of capitalist production is required today. That means taking radical political and social measure to curb the relentless capitalist expansion dynamic. Without this corollary to action, all the dire warnings of the dreadful consequences of rising average global temperatures merely sow fear and uncertainty. Yet, Lewis and the Leap Manifesto say far too little on this score.
Last month, the CBC reported:
The Leap Manifesto… calls for Canada to be “powered entirely by just renewable energy” within 20 years, to end trade deals that don’t benefit local economies and pitches the idea of a national childcare program and universal basic annual income.
“It’s actually about giving power to those who have been disempowered and it’s about taking some power away from people who have too much,” said [Avi] Lewis.
Taking “some power” away from those who have too much hardly meets the political challenge.
A centrepiece of the Leap Manifesto vision is this: “We could live in a country powered entirely by renewable energy.” But if the production and consumption of “things” were powered by “renewables” instead of fossil fuels, then human society would still be headed for the precipice.
The very notion of “renewable” energy is a dangerous and reckless idea which far too many environmentalists give credence. Basic science tells us that every energy source requires inputs and it has emissions consequences. Hydroelectric dams ruin rivers, lands and forests and are damaging sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Solar panels are made from metals and fossil fuels; vast numbers of them are required if the goal is to replicate the vast quantities of fossil fuel-produced electricity. Electric engines (in vehicles, wind turbines, etc) consume vast quantities of metals and rare earth minerals. Wind energies require storage and back-up systems. All large-scale forms of “renewable” energy production require large-scale transmission systems. And so on.
Any form of large-scale energy production gives rise to large, centralized production and distribution systems, the opposite of the “democratically run” management of energy production called for by the manifesto.
The manifesto does speak, importantly, of “Moving to a far more localized and ecologically-based agricultural system would reduce reliance on fossil fuels, capture carbon in the soil, and absorb sudden shocks in the global supply – as well as produce healthier and more affordable food for everyone.” But this is a lot more radical and difficult than it sounds, as can also be said about the total re-casting of urban design with which capitalism has saddled the planet for many generations to come.
What form of government is needed to meet the climate challenge?
Lewis correctly states that government action is required to lead society out of the looming emissions calamity on the planet. But what kind of government is he talking about and on what scale? A lesser-evil variant such as the present Liberal government in Ottawa or a Hillary Clinton-led Democratic Party government in the United States?
What social classes have the interest and organizing capacity to lead the formation of governments that would act in the interest of society as a whole and not simply on behalf of the tiny, capitalist elite? What kind of political parties are required to achieve such a government?
These and other such important questions go unanswered in the world of Leap. We get a certain hint of an answer in this CBC Radio report on Sept 17:
Lewis compared the Leap movement to the Indignados, Spain’s anti-austerity movement that became a political party, and Bernie Sanders supporters in the United States, who are still trying to figure out what to do after his concession.
“It’s a critical question… I think the social forces in Canada need to be more than movements but less than parties,” Lewis said. “We have to be careful to not denigrate the power of grassroots action.”
“Less than parties”? Lewis’ statement came around the same time of his announcement that he would not run for the leadership of the NDP, disappointing many left-wing and environmental activists. So where does that leave us? Protest, and protest some more, all the while hoping that some people in high places are listening? But they are not listening; we know that for a fact.
Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein make an important contribution to thought and action on the global warming crisis. They are popular for good reasons. But their vision of the full scope of the global warming crisis and their proposals for what to do are inadequate.
That by itself is not a problem. They are who they are. The problem begins when more radical environmental thinkers and activists, including would-be Marxists, choose not to rock the Leap Manifesto consensus. They opt to limit their vision to the limited outlook of Klein, Lewis and the proposals in the Leap Manifesto.
Complicating matters further in Canada is that leftists and environmentalists are standing around waiting for a Jeremy Corby-type leadership miracle to take place in the NDP or something similar to take place in the conservative, pro-private enterprise Green Party. The urgently needed task of building a broad party of the political left gets left on hold.
This is the subject I addressed in my article six months ago reporting on the outcome of the national convention of the New Democratic Party. Delegates there voted to oust the right-wing party leader, Thomas Mulcair, which was most welcome. But this was mistakenly interpreted by leftists as opening a stage of wholesale renewal of the party. This has not taken place, nor can a deep renewal of the NDP be anticipated so long as there is no independent pressure operating on the party from the left.
My article was titled, ‘Climate change emergency shakes Canada’s corporate establishment and fractures the country’s social democratic party‘. It argued: “The socialist left in Canada has been without effective political voices since the 1970s. Only in Quebec has a partial break been made towards a strong and effective party of the political left, with the formation of Québec solidaire in 2006. Canada and Quebec need a party of the political left which can speak out and organize for socialism.”
Alas, no progress towards a party of the left has been made. The wait for a miracle in the NDP miracle is still on. Yet not a single leadership candidate has come forward to lead the moribund party. It is looking for all the world that the right-wing leadership in the NDP may seek to sse aside the April 2016 convention vote and draft Mulcair to stay on as party leader. NDP members of Parliament voted unanimously in August that he stay on as interim leader until a party leadership convention in 2017.
So the gauntlet is still laying there on the ground. Who will pick it up?
 One of the few substantive analyses of Naomi Klein’s 2014 best-selling book This Changes Everything was published in January 2015 by a writing collective calling itself ‘Out of the Woods’. Their review was titled ‘Klein vs Klein’ and can be read here.