Hope amid the gloom

I’m a worrier. For most of my life, I’ve fretted over my children like many mothers do. Their health, their grades, their social development. The last few years I’ve been worried at a whole new level. When I was a young woman, analysts predicted a clean future powered by the sun and wind. They pointed out the urgency of starting this great transformation because a few decades later it would be too late. For multiple reasons including climate change, the imminent decline of oil and the stress on vulnerable but critical water and other resources, delay would bring on miserable results. That was a now a few decades ago. We are more dependent than ever on oil, our emissions keep rising, water tables are declining all over the world and food stresses are leading to riots in countries all over the world. Governments in North Africa are tumbling to populations that demand to be fed.

I remain hopeful that by investing in a green economy, we may still turn things around in time and deliver a future not too unlike the present for our children. That is what I’m working for, that is what I want to see – a Canada much like the Canada we all know, but moving boldly into a transitional economy from which we will emerge into a more permanent economy that’s more efficient and respectful of our limits.

But what if we can’t? What if food production globally is already in permanent decline? We might have better and worse years, but what if the trend is downhill from now on? What if reducing emissions at the rate required for our children’s survival will not leave enough energy for us to continue doing a lot of the things we take for granted? What if oil is already in decline and whether we like it or not from now on we will have less energy because we haven’t adequately prepared? What if even the best governments doing all the right things must still preside over populations under stress? I am increasingly of the opinion that this may be very possible.

There are two potential paths forward which I see if this is the case. One is dreadful, the other hopeful and inspiring.

The bad path would be a descent into finger-pointing and denial and hoarding. The most powerful would secure as much as they could of a shrinking pie while protecting the existing power structures which are at the root of the problem. They would support movements within the populace that placed the blame for scarcity on anyone but themselves. History has many examples of this as regional economies decline or collapse: the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization, and more recent examples like Rwanda, Darfur, and the club of failed petro-states like Nigeria and Indonesia, a club which Venezuela appears to be about to join.

What emerges after this approach is a society that is permanently poorer, and which no longer has the organizational capacity to rebuild the structures we have that ensure adequate nutrition, health services, education and access to information – things which I put great value in. It is a descent into a Mad Max world.

The alternative is to galvanize the population to work together. History has a fair number of these examples as well, but most of them occur in times of war or sudden disasters. During the Second World War, the Allied nations experienced a shift to greater equality, better health and reduced crime as everyone pulled together to plant war gardens, knit socks and ration everything from oil to shoes to staple foods. One recent non-war example is the unnatural Cuban disaster of being denied subsidized oil from Russia which itself was collapsing. Whatever the pros and cons of Fidel Castro, he pulled his population through this crisis to become leaner, more efficient, more resilient and more independent than before.

I have devoted considerable time fussing about which direction we appear to be taking. Europe seems to be taking the pull together approach to some degree. However, our neighbour to the south is descending into madness. Powerful corporate lobbies support rabidly biased media and join with opportunistic demagogues to belligerently deny basic science and common sense. Obama’s modest improvements to the country’s health care are proclaimed to be socialist, Nazi or Satanic. Decades of progress in women’s and workers rights are in the process of being overturned in the name of stimulating a dying economy, while industry leaders pocket more cash than ever. The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of corporate political funding. Bankers who are in no small way responsible for the financial crisis were rewarded with bailouts and million dollar bonuses. Four hundred ultra-rich American individuals jointly own as much as the entire lower half of the American population combined.

This year, a lot of things really seem to be unraveling. Oil and food prices are rising globally just as they did in the 2008 run-up to economic collapse. Food riots have moved from Bangladesh, Haiti and Cameroon to North Africa this time, where governments are falling like so many dominos. In North America, we grumble about gas prices and blame the oil companies, the government, the unions, corporations… anything but resource limits. And some of these accusations make sense. But all of them are ignoring the long-term problem. I worry.

Today, a friend sent me a video of Michael Moore speaking to the crowd of tens of thousands who have been camped out at the Wisconsin state legislature for weeks, staying overnight in the cold. They are nonviolent but persistent and clear in their opposition. And in spite of threats of mass arrests, they remain unbowed.

Not only is the state governor Scott Walker demanding that pay and benefits to state employees like teachers be cut, but that the teachers lose their rights to collective bargaining as well. He started out sounding almost reasonable as he called for reason in a time of fiscal crisis. But now it has been revealed that he has deep ties to the Koch brothers, who have a sordid history of underhandedly funding political spin campaigns that ignore reality. He has also now been shown to be planning duplicitous tricks on his Democratic opponents.

Some people don’t like Michael Moore. He is a showman, and a lot of his way of driving a point home is to harass people to a point where they say silly things. But in Wisconsin, he delivered an inspirational speech that just might help to kick start a truly grassroots movement of people who have had enough. And this movement won’t be finger-pointing at gays and teachers and Muslims like the industry-funded tea party movement that Rob Ford is threatening to bring to Canada. Their anger is directed at the right targets – the people who are in control who brought about the mess we’re in, and now cling to power and privilege while desperately defending the further entrenchment of the system that is burning opportunities for everyone else.

I do not know what will happen in Wisconsin. I worry even more about what will happen in Libya. But Wisconsin in particular gives me hope that there are enough informed and active people who can turn things around and demand that we all share in the shrinking pie and pull together so that all of humanity can emerge through this crisis with some measure of dignity and enduring optimism.

And there is something else that gives me some hope that even if times get really hard, if we allow sanity to prevail, we have an important ace up our sleeve. The war in Iraq alone consumed as much energy as would have been required to secure a fully renewable energy grid to power the whole world. The monetary cost of the Iraq war has also been in line with what could have built a complete renewable energy grid instead. And there is little secret that this war was fought in large part to secure energy supplies. By simply recognizing that the smartest route to energy security is to transfer investment and resources from military exploits to building a post-carbon future, we can still secure a bright future for the next generation, even if times get bleaker. But even that opportunity will not remain forever. We must grasp it while we can.

Leave a comment

To weed out spam, your comment will not appear right away.