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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

B.C. can help point the way to a democratic eco-socialist future

It is clear, looking at the present election results, that the majority of British Columbia residents wanted a radical change from the status quo. They clearly do not want more of the same indifference to poverty, homelessness, affordable housing, rising healthcare costs and money in politics. In fact, it is not tax breaks for corporations and the rich that B.C. residents think is important but social justice and environmental issues.

Young people, working people with children and retired people operate much more from a principle of care and compassion for others than is reflected in Christy Clark’s fixation with pipelines, coal exports and fracking. Yes, young people want good-paying jobs, but even more than this they, like all Canadians, want their children and grandchildren to live in a healthy, abundant and green world. In the present day we are much more environmentally aware of what is going on, and much less likely to buy into the rhetoric of endless growth that enriches only the very few.

Moreover, B.C. residents, like the rest of the world, are in revolt against “politics as usual” because all that the latter has brought them is a hollowed-out democracy, economic misery and rank political corruption. If one thing has become clear in the present world of economic doubt, threatening climate disaster and massive wealth disparities, it is that voters are desperately searching for a politics that is meaningful, ethical, justice-oriented, energetic and hopeful — a politics that strives to articulate a broad ethical perspective, but at the same time is responsive to on-the-ground realities and refuses to allow party politics or ideological bias to immunize it from new ideas or creative approaches. However, there is a rather laissez-faire attitude, here as elsewhere in Canada.

Transitioning to sustainability

First, there is a prevailing fiction that we must either choose sound and sustainable environmental practices and alternatives or good jobs in the coal, oil, gas or forestry industries. The problem is that this fiction actually becomes a fact when there is no effort to look creatively at what it would take for the province to begin the process of transitioning the economy and infrastructure towards more environmentally sustainable alternatives. Such transitioning is fully underway in Germany, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, none of which are suffering any sort of grave economic fallout as a result — in fact, quite the opposite.

Secondly, there is a deeply ingrained attitude that issues around social and economic justice are unrelated or in competition with questions about environmental sustainability. This bifurcated perspective is visible at the political level in a “social justice” NDP competing for votes against an “environmental” Green Party.

However, as the example of Germany, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark clearly demonstrate, social justice, equality and environmentalism are deeply connected, and in fact mutually reinforcing practices. It is not that the people in these countries are somehow better or less selfish than Canadians. It is that they have built their educational, political and developmental priorities around a democratic, socially just and more sustainable paradigm. In other words, through their principles and practices, they have cultivated an ethos of environmental care, social justice and democratic participation in their communities and citizens. What about us?

The voter turnout in the recent election was just over half the province at 57 per cent. That is not an all-time low, but it does reflect a continuous downward trend in voter interest from a high in 1983 of around 70 per cent. There are no doubt many reasons for this spiraling apathy, but at least one significant factor comes immediately to mind: a lack of faith in establishment politics. There are reasons for this that become all too obvious once we understand the degree to which modern politics has been hijacked by very elite interests — elite interests that would have us believe in the myth that we must now live under continuous austerity and put aside notions of public good because we can no longer afford to care for each other or our environment.

Return of the public good

When Aristotle said 2,350 odd years ago that “man is a political animal,” he assumed that the political and the ethical were inextricably intermeshed — that politics was the space of possibility where citizens freely decided what public goods should be funded that would not only allow the state to flourish, but enable the virtues of friendship, justice, practical wisdom and moderation to thrive in each citizen. Behind the ancient Greek notion of koinōnia politikē or political community was the idea that citizen commitment to and involvement in the decision-making process not only enabled a community to flourish, but made possible the establishment of friendship and other kinds of community relationships that would be beneficial to all. It was a politics of care, not just for others, but also for the cultivation of a kind of individual and collective ethical agency that could help citizens realize the aim of living well together.

In the modern world, where individual preference and private interest often prevail over common good, the political has come to mean the useful, the efficient, the strategic and the expedient. Moreover, the notion of public good has been largely reduced to three P’s. No, not the sham of public-private partnerships, but the really existing world of private profit priorities, which valorize greed, endless waste and destructive economic growth. There is neither inevitability nor necessity in this latter state of affairs. The fact is that we have always been able to opt for a different kind of politics that in many ways shares the ideas of community, justice and solidarity that both the Nordic countries and the ancient Greeks believe are essential for human flourishing.

The question we need to ask then is which of the three political parties comes closest to making possible a richer, more meaningful notion of politics that would help us to build flourishing, dynamic and participatory communities.

A party for the 99 per cent

The closest thing we have to a political party that might have the potential to continuously reinvent the political as the place where public goods are enabled and where community can flourish in order to realize the aim of living well under environmentally sustainable practices and just institutions is the NDP. I do not say that this is the NDP of today, or even of the recent past. But I do say that if there is any hope of reinvigorating a truly environmentally sound, social and community-oriented politics, it must lie with the NDP, a party that originated and defined itself as a socialist party representing the interests of the 99 per cent.

From its very beginnings the NDP has fought for universal health care, living wages, economic justice and the furthering of human solidarity and a healthy environment. It is true that they have not always lived up to these principles. Indeed, like all Canada’s major political parties the NDP can be accused of moving rightward, disavowing their more radical socialist origins. In the face of ubiquitous and aggressive neoliberal economic priorities, and a corporatized media highly deferential to elite interests, perhaps they believed they had little choice.

However, it has lately become very clear that they do, in fact, have a choice. In the recent U.S. presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders not only demonstrated that the word socialismstill has traction, but also that socialism is the one remaining political ethos that looks to the future and embraces both environmentalism and the need to protect and expand the public good. Democratic socialism in the 21st century stands for economic justice, the values of solidarity and empathy towards those not lucky enough to have been born into wealth. It stands against those who would destroy nature or pollute the environment for the sake of individual enrichment. It is very likely that if one took a worldwide poll today, it would not just be young people and millennials, but the majority of human beings who would opt for some form of democratic socialism. In other words, they would agree that the kind of justice-oriented worldview that socialism advances is rather better for the health and welfare of their families, their children, their communities and their environment.

21st-century democratic socialism

Given this, it is rather clear that if the NDP are to move forward, they must stand up and stand out as the only real alternative to the present status quo — as the only social democratic party that can actually bring together the priorities of social and economic justice without sacrificing the health and sustainability of our precious environment. Their first order of business must be to immediately and aggressively press forward on those political and environmental campaign planks that are shared by the B.C. Greens.

On this account has does us a great favor by issuing a report card that compares the environmental initiatives shared by both the B.C. NDP and Green Party. In B.C. NDP leader John Horgan’s own words, one of the primary goals of the NDP is to “make B.C. a leader in climate action” by pushing for stronger climate regulations, defeating Kinder Morgan, Petronus LNG, the Site C Dam, energy-efficiency retrofits to public buildings and residential homes and coal exports. These are also initiatives putatively shared by Andrew Weaver’s Green Party. I say “putative” because in his late campaign rhetoric Weaver showed deeper personal and perhaps even ideological affinities with Christy Clark’s Liberals than he did with the NDP and John Horgan.

At the same time, there is some understandable skepticism among green supporters about whether the NDP can be depended upon to stop Kinder Morgan. Horgan does not really want to incur the wrath of Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP, nor for that matter potential union support. Thus, at least on Kinder Morgan, he has sometimes appeared ambivalent.

That is why this is the right time for John Horgan to courageously articulate a 21st-century democratic socialism, one that is unafraid of showing its deep commitment to environmental and ecological initiatives, to protecting and preserving B.C.’s natural beauty and ecological integrity, its rivers, lakes, streams, ocean habitat and magnificent forests.

As the documentary film To The Ends of the Earth starkly illustrates, all of the latter will be existentially threatened as the province moves towards more extreme forms of non-renewable energy extraction. But it is not just environmental issues that the NDP has to aggressively and courageously pursue.

It is also the right time for Horgan and the NDP to stand uncompromisingly for economic justice, which means creating a poverty reduction plan, ending homelessness, fighting for affordable housing, living wages, public transportation and a first-class public health system. Finally, it is the right time for Horgan to stand firmly against big money in politics, and for a proportional electoral system that is truly democratic. In so doing he will, in fact, expose the profound extent to which environmental concerns and social justice issues must be thought of as inextricably conjoined in the 21st century — something that both the Liberals and Andrew Weaver’s Green party have yet to figure out.

A wake-up call

The NDP should interpret the results of this election as a wake-up call — one that shows them who they really need to be: a future-oriented democratic socialist party that is quite capable of out-greening the Greens on environmental issues while standing solidly for social and economic justice.

If they can demonstrate that they can be creative and forward thinking on environmental issues, and also be relied upon to fight for those who have been left behind by Liberal Party opportunists and careerists who cater only to corporate and elite interests, then the NDP have a real chance of forming the next government. At the very least they should take this opportunity to test the environmental and progressive mettle of the Green Party by challenging them on both fronts.

(This article originally appeared in Ricochet

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Jun 10, 2022

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