In late February of this year we learned that there was a virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. I remember feeling uneasy, but somehow reassured because it was over ‘there’. Like so many, I had forgotten that the distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ has decreased over the past two or three decades. On January 28, 2020, British Columbia became the second province to confirm a case of COVID-19 in Canada. The first case of infection involved a patient who had recently returned from Wuhan. ‘There’ had collapsed into ‘near’. On March 7 Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Teresa Tam told us that the situation was still ‘low risk’. That was two days before Italy locked down. Two days later on March 11, WHO declared that COVID-19 was a global pandemic.
BC’s government responded proactively guided by its Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who had previous experience in managing the SARS outbreak.(See Footnote 1) The government took a series of measured steps to curtail the spread of COVID-19, many of which substantially dialled down BC’s economy.
On March 13 the Green Technology Education Centre closed its community based programs and very soon after formed the Council for a Green New Economy. The Council’s major premise was that COVID-19 is a prelude to the havoc that will be wrought by the climate crisis should we continue to delay responding vigorously, including making some fundamental changes in economic and social policy. Our initial sense was that before the ‘shock’ of COVID-19 wore off and in the context of imagining what a recovery would look like, there might be a moment when some fresh ideas could find a receptive hearing by governments. In envisioning BC’s recovery the Council was in agreement with many others in asserting that a return to ‘normal’ under socio-economic conditions that are abnormal was not an option. What we had come to accept as ‘normal’ was destroying the delicate conditions that support life on earth, filling the oceans with plastics and extinguishing countless species.
As well as being a human tragedy on a large scale, we felt COVID-19 was a wake-up call from the phenomenal world with many lessons to teach:
- we are fundamentally interconnected with one another
- denial and minimizing are critical errors in governance and leadership
- corporate ideas such as ‘just in time’ do not work in social contexts such as health care
- private interests are incapable of fulfilling a primary role in addressing the public good
- social justice, sustainability and resilience are three sides of one coin
I asked Jody Wilson-Raybould in a recent conversation what she saw as the primary connection between Indigenous reconciliation and responding to the climate crisis.(See Footnote 2) She said that Indigenous teachings emphasize the centrality of interconnection of people and their environments. I take it that a fundamental re-set in our thinking is required that encourages understanding the society and economy’s integral interconnection with the natural world – a return to stewardship of the environment and a concern for the public good as opposed to exploitation and a focus on realizing self-interest. We need to recover from the trance induced by the idea of unlimited growth and material progress and its corollary that we have no responsibility for the direction of events. We need to slow down economic activity, reduce international trade, re-localize economies and limit travel.
While making a table I realized a further dimension of interconnectedness, a connection to the future. Whenever I pick up my tools I remember my father who taught me how to use them. His instructions were an investment in the future. I was reminded that we have a responsibility to care about the future. As the Chinese sages suggest, we need to think in terms of 100 years. This is opposite to the Miami developers who are building on land that they know will likely be under water within 30 years.(See Footnote 3)
Denial and Minimizing
The COVID-19 crisis has also taught us that denial, whether personal or institutional, is a disaster. The governments that have pretended that their countries were invincible or that minimized the urgency of the situation have placed their people in jeopardy. Countries that relied on incremental responses based on a play-it-as-you-go philosophy have risked the health of their populations. We have also learned that governments can be decisive and that they have enormous resources at their disposal.
To a greater or lesser extent most nations were initially hesitant. Macron was still walking the streets of Paris with his wife touting the prowess of the French economy two days before nearby Italy shut down. The stakes were high and the consequences far-reaching however the leadership responded.
In identifying a phenomenon called ‘situational awareness’ cognitive neuroscience is helpful in understanding this hesitancy. Situational awareness describes our capacity to accurately notice and interpret what is going on around us. The behaviour, and especially the unresponsiveness of people in our immediate environment can impair this capacity. This form of impairment called ‘social proof’ is often at play in critical situations where hesitancy or poor decisions prove lethal, such as airline disasters. The antidote is careful attention to the present moment and as objective as possible interpretation of its import.
Just in Time
In its analysis of its manufacturing, marketing, sales and distribution processes Toyota ran across a very compelling observation. In the traditional way of doing things cars were made, shipped out to distribution centres near major markets until local dealers called for them. Using advertising and the wiles of local dealers, already manufactured cars were ‘pushed’ out to the market. The company noticed it had millions of dollars tied up storing vehicles. Toyota also realized that this mentality permeated the whole supply chain. For example, parts were ordered in anticipation of manufacturing demands and stored.
Why not make the market ‘pull’ the whole supply chain rather than make cars and ‘push’ them out to market? This could reduce the need for storage up and down the supply chain. Parts would not be ordered until manufacturing quotas had been established and manufacturing quotas would respond to actual sales rather than projected sales. An initial fly in the ointment took place when a couple of parts manufacturers were shut down by natural disasters. Toyota manufacturing was left without critical components to build vehicles that had already been sold. Notwithstanding, ‘just in time’ caught on widely, even in the health care sector.
‘Just in time’ thinking resulted in hospitals keeping very low inventories of Personal Protective Equipment and ventilators. In ordinary times highly tuned global supply chains responded instantaneously to orders. No need for hospitals of health care systems to maintain inventories of equipment. But an international pandemic is no ordinary time. Demand fired up and international supply chains were disrupted leaving hospitals flatfooted.
Private Interests and the Public Good
Before the new year broke and before the early news of COVID-19 was on the wire, I had been in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Mary and I were taking a break from the dreary west coast winter, enjoying some time to hang out together and do some writing. I had been struggling with a very simple question for some time:
How is that oil companies apply for permits to explore and drill for more oil when there is already enough fossil fuel in reserve to destroy the planet?
Is it that we have generated an economic system which prioritizes profit over life itself? What is wrong with this picture I kept wondering.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Why not conflate the very human inclination to self-interest with the commercial world as a kind of motivational force? Perhaps, as E.F. Schumacher suggested in Small Is Beautiful,it worked on a small scale.(See Footnote 4) If the town baker made poor bread, people would buy their bread from the baker in a nearby town. If his bread was good, but he was ill-tempered, people would buy their bread from the baker in a nearby town.
Perhaps….. but by the mid-nineteenth century we were already well beyond ‘the baker, the butcher and the candlestick maker.’ Industrialization put this local accountability beyond reach and globalization beyond comprehension. Mass advertising acted as a further catalyst. All of this has been mapped out. Paul Hawken(See Footnote 5) is informative in this respect and his Ecology of Commerce still well worth reading.
Suffice it to say at this point, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in capitalism or, at the very least, the current ramped up version of capitalism that renders it incapable of acting as a major driver of public good. It is based on a focus on realizing self-interest, now translated as corporate interest. It appears as I read in works such as Piketty’s Capital and Ideology(See Footnote 6) that the ‘west’ has evolved an elaborate legal and governance infrastructure that enshrines this contradiction. It remains to be seen if this infrastructure will unravel during COVID-19 or prove to be resilient as it has been through the financial crises of the late 20th century and, more recently, 2008.
It’s a three-sided coin – social justice, sustainability and resilience. Look at any one of these phenomena and the other two come into view. Look at COVID-19 and you see black, brown and indigenous people disproportionately affected. Examine the effects of the climate crisis and the most vulnerable are in for it first and to a greater extent. When you look at colonialism and its racist aftermath, you see blacks murdered by police, jails stuffed with black and brown people in the US and, in Canada, a disproportionate number of Indigenous people locked up. George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide response to it brought the issue of social justice to the fore as the pandemic continued to unfold.
What is keeping this show on the road and how does it relate to the environment? I found the following paragraph in Piketty’s new book illuminating:
“Slaveowners in many countries also insisted that since free labour was more costly but no more productive than slave labour, switching would straightaway make it impossible to compete with rivals in other colonial empires. No one would buy their sugar, cotton, or tobacco and the nation’s output would plummet along with its greatness if somehow the anti-economic and antipatriotic fantasies of the abolitionists were put into practice.”
Pg. 212Capital and Ideology
And particularly illuminating with the following transposition:
Fossil fuel producers in many countries also insist that since alternative sources of power such as solar and wind are more costly but no more productive than fossil fuels, switching would straightaway make it impossible to compete with other countries. No one would buy our coal, oil and gas and the nation’s output would plummet along with its greatness if somehow the anti-economic and antipatriotic fantasies of these idealists were put into practice.
It’s a familiar refrain and goes to the heart of the question – consequences be damned, should we just have to keep pushing on in the way we have been for 200 years even if we blow away our precious planet?
Rebuilding BC: A Portfolio of Possibilities
Rebuilding BCis the GTEC Council for a Green New Economy’s roadmap to new reality that incorporates what we have been learning from COVID-19 along with how we need to respond to the climate crisis. It represents a set of well thought out, concrete and doable strategies.(See Footnote 7) In many cases, Rebuilding BC’s recommendations are based on proven best practices from other jurisdictions. This roadmap suggests that it is possible for BC to create a social and economic renaissance in our time rather than attempting to return to ‘business as usual’.
There are a number of unique conditions present, in BC in particular and Canada in general, that predispose BC to effect the kind of social and economic renaissance that the world so desperately needs during these transitional times. Central to these conditions is the presence of a government that has demonstrated a concern for the public good and willingness to engage directly with its electorate. An additional condition is the widespread expression of environmentally attuned and socially progressive values in BC over a period of 60 years. There are communities throughout the province that exemplify the cultural shifts required to regenerate a lasting society and economy in the face of the changing circumstances that we now face. A further condition is a respect for multiculturalism, adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the appreciation of widely diversified spiritual traditions, all of which are important resources for imagining society anew. In the broader Canadian context, conditions favourable to a renaissance include universal health care, high calibre education from day care to post-secondary institutions and a commitment to Indigenous reconciliation.
The complexion of the situation in BC and everywhere has changed since we released Rebuilding BC. It has become clear that we will be responding to COVID-19, including regional hotspots and eventually, the enormous task of widespread distribution of a vaccine for at least a year more. Though most economies are re-starting to some degree there will be set-backs and overall, unaccustomed limitations. In the big picture, the challenge is that climate change continues unabated while a great deal of the available attention and resources are taken up in adjusting to the pandemic. It is also now clear that COVID is inadvertently accentuating income disparity as minorities including youth suffer disproportionate effects while the upper centile of the economy rocks on.(See Footnote 8)
Taking into consideration the protracted nature of the pandemic crisis it is particularly important to see COVID-19 as a precursor to the impacts of climate change rather than a separate and discrete phenomenon. The pandemic is chapter 1 of a longer story and a larger challenge. The moment to lay the foundations for cultural, socio-political and economic renaissance has arrived. As Rebuilding BC suggests, the architecture of our response needs to be multi-dimensional and thorough-going, reflecting much needed transformations of how we live together from how we heat the buildings in which we live and work to how our food is grown and distributed.
So the question is, how to go about creating a renaissance? In beginning to answer this question, I am borrowing liberally from an article in the Sunday New York Times Review of Books by gardener, Emma Marris.(See Footnote 9) Marris is the author of “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.”
Marris begins with a really important point: It is true that each and every one of us contributes to the climate crisis and that there are steps we can take to help out. However, our economic systems require most adults to work in and commute to work in cities intentionally designed to favour the use of fossil fuels. Unsustainable food, clothes and other goods remain cheaper than sustainable alternatives.
Marris goes on to quote the climate essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar, “The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous.” It misleads us into thinking that we have agency only by dint of our consumption habits — that buying correctly and recycling diligently are the only ways we can fight climate change. The fact of the matter is that compared to the carbon emissions of the US military, for example, not to speak of industry and office buildings, collectively, our emissions are minimal. Marris’ point is that becoming individual eco-saints alone will not get the job done. Institutional change on a large scale is required. So step one is to ditch the shame we all feel about the saran wrap on the sandwich which we just bought at Whole Foods and the flight to Italy last summer. Eventually, shame will make us miserable and immobilize us.
The next step is to work with others. What widespread community based change can contribute is an upsurge of energy, awareness and pressure on politicians at all levels of government to get with the program. Community based change amplifies individual efforts while it restores connection to others, another victim of the economic system that needs overhauling.
In conclusion, the first prescription is this: ditch the shame and, while contributing as an individual the best you can, work with others to change the institutions of the society and finally, a key point, ‘know what you are fighting for.’ We are not trying to throw civilization back into the Dark Ages or to an idealized hunting and gathering past. We want to create a beautiful, harmonious, just and equitable world.
Here is my vision:
On a good day I see the Vancouver of the future with most streets as community gardens, bike lanes weaving their way through the city, a few automated electric vehicle corridors linking widely separated neighbourhoods, an expanded Skytrain system, food hubs in each neighbourhood, ‘packageless’ stores and cottage industries dotted throughout an increasingly treed urban landscape.
Neighbourhood Houses and Community Centres have become the focus of a reviving community feeling and there is music, dance, poetry and visual arts happening everywhere.
‘You may say I’m dreamer, but I’m not the only one’
Footnote 1 – In an excellent article in Rolling Stone, anthropologist Wade Davis notes: “For every person who has died in British Columbia, 44 have perished in Massachusetts, a state with a comparable population that has reported more COVID cases than all of Canada. As of July 30th, even as rates of COVID infection and death soared across much of the United States, with 59,629 new cases reported on that day alone, hospitals in British Columbia registered a total of just five COVID patients.(Back)
Footnote 2 – Personal communication. July, 2020. (Back)
Footnote 3 – Goddell, J. (2019). The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World. New York: Hachette. (Back)
Footnote 4 – Schumacher, E,F. (1973). Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper Collins (Back)
Footnote 5 – Hawken, P. (1993). The ecology of commerce. New York: Harper Collins (Back)
Footnote 6 – Piketty, T. (2019) Capital and Ideology. New York: Belknap (Back)
Footnote 7 – GTEC wishes to acknowledge the prodigious research and writing of Rebuilding BC, lead co-author, Guy Dauncey in the development of this roadmap – http://www.earthfuture.com/guydauncey/ (Back)