Decolonizing nature, the academy, and Europe

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by Aaron Vansintjan

In one article, Zoe Todd tells a story of how she, as a small child, used to go fishing. Whenever her line got caught on a weed, she would shout out to her parents in the cabin, exclaiming that she had caught a fish. An adult would then come down and untangle her line. But one day, she had actually caught one—and no one came to help her reel it in. Finally, when the adults looked out at the lake and saw the little girl trying to wrestle with the fishing rod, they ran down and her father helped her reel in a giant northern pike. Her father calls this story “Zoe and the Big Fish”, and after telling it, Todd remarks “Ever since I caught that fish I have been obsessed with prairie fish and their hidden lives in the rivers and lakes of my homeland. The way that their bodies narrate stories we, collectively, have forgotten to listen to.”

This summer, I found myself on a canoe on the Georgian Bay, Canada—Go Home Bay to be precise—with a fishing rod. I’ve heard a story that “Go Home Bay” is so-called because when European settlers arrived, the Anishinaabe people there told them to “go home.”

Go to Go Home Bay and you’ll see the raw, exposed rocks, the crooked pines bent by the hard winds and the heavy snow, clamoring for space on the rocks. You can’t help but imagine what this landscape might have looked like in its pristine form, unsullied by humans. The untouched trees, the clear water heavy with life, the rocks shot through with veins of marble and granite—they seem to carry stories that have little to do with the cumbersome wooden chalets that line the water.

Another story telling the origin of Go Home Bay is that loggers, after floating freshly-cut timber down the Musquash River, would deliver them to steamers who would then chug their way to the timber mills around the Great Lakes. After this, the loggers could finally “go home.”

These two stories might be conflicting—but they both indicate that this landscape is far from pristine. The primary forest has long been cut down—the timber industry left barely any trees standing. The fish stocks have long been depleted by colonial fishers, robbing the Indigenous people from a major source of subsistence. And there were people living here before the picturesque chalets were erected: the Anishinaabeg. This land carries their stories, stories that are still being told. There is no “pristine” nature without humans, not even here.

I have little experience fishing. But on my second cast—the first cast I caught nothing but weeds—I caught an enormous pike. I was obviously elated—it’s rare to be that lucky. But I couldn’t help thinking back to Todd’s article about her own relationship with fish and their importance to Indigenous people. In it, she describes how a history of colonialism in Canada is literally inscribed on the bodies of fish—the depletion of their populations and the toxins in their bones. As she tells it, “Fish bodies betray the damage to their habitats. Their bodies tell stories of our negligence and silence.”

Todd’s writing led me to wonder what stories that pike had carried, and what stories the Anishinaabeg had for it. I felt like an intruder—this catch wasn’t really a victory; it was more like a symbol of loss.

For Indigenous people in North America, colonialism is not a force of the past. It violently affects them on a daily basis. And they are constantly resisting and developing new ways of asserting their culture and governance systems.

I have often wondered how to carry home what I’ve learned from the struggles of indigenous people in North America. How can Europeans, who have learned to remove themselves in time and place from the horrors of colonization, learn to take responsibility and start a process of decolonization? These questions inevitably leaked in to my own research—how can I do field research, keeping in mind that colonization continues today, both in my “field” (neighborhoods facing gentrification) and within the academy?

Todd’s work offers crucial contributions to these questions. Todd is a Métis scholar who has just become a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and is also completing her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. Her main research revolves around human-fish relations, colonialism, and Indigenous governance and legal orders in Canada. Some of her other interests include decolonizing anthropology as a discipline, urban planning, and non-academic writing.

What first drew me to Todd’s evocative writing was her article on the Scottish independence movement. In it, she suggests that since the Scots and Irish were colonized, their struggles for self-determination should be seen from a decolonial perspective. In her own research on human-fish relationships and the legal orders that Indigenous people put in place to maintain those relationships, she helps inform the nature-culture debate. And in several other articles she suggests ways that anthropology, as an academic discipline can engage in a process of decolonization. One such article—a critique of the “ontological turn”—went viral in anthropology circles last year.

Through all this, Todd remains giving and forgiving in her writing. She writes lucidly and poetically, noting injustice while stressing accountability. And she is not content with just telling stories of oppression: she consistently offers stories of resistance and paths for transformation.

I was grateful to be able to interview Zoe Todd to further explore these topics. After a discussion that was cut short by poor Internet service on my end, we continued the conversation via email. I’ve put together these two conversations in a shortened, more legible, format.

 

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Colonialism, past and present

Could you explain a bit how your work challenges this idea that colonization is “a thing of the past”? 

Colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada. In recent years, I have worked with people who experienced the horrific impacts of Canada’s Indian Residential School System. The Residential School that many of the people I worked with attended didn’t close until 1996. There are residential school survivors in Canada who are only a bit older than me. In my own family, the impacts of colonialism are also visceral. I am two generations removed from my grandfather’s lifetime, when he and his parents were kicked off their land in northern Alberta at the St Paul des Métis settlement. But the stories, the trauma of that? Real and present. Not as direct as they were for my grandfather’s generation, but still present. In May, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an executive summary of its forthcoming six-volume report on its inquiry into the experiences of Residential School survivors. Reading that summary, which lays out the awfulness and violence of the Residential School System, and hearing Justice Murray Sinclair declare that Canada is guilty of perpetuating cultural genocide? That really makes it clear that colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada.  (It’s also why my colleagues Joseph Paul Murdoch-Flowers and Erica Violet Lee and I started a video project called #ReadTheTRCReport in which people have uploaded videos of themselves reading sections of the report—there is a visceral, embodied experience in reading it aloud that makes it impossible to ignore the stories and findings within the report).

 

How does your own research go beyond depicting Indigenous people as victims, but rather as actively struggling against colonization?

I work in the Canadian Arctic, in a small village or hamlet in an Inuvialuit community named Paulatuuq. I’m looking at how Inuvialuit people in this community have negotiated their reciprocal and ongoing duties to the land and to fish while contending with state-imposed ideas about the appropriate ways to define animals, define the land, define how to engage with exploitative industry. People in Paulatuuq are asserting their laws, but doing it in a way that negotiates a simultaneous but contradictory sameness and difference between their legal orders and their relationship to place (and to the State). Engaging with those aspects of state law that they absolutely have to. So the word I used to describe it is they’re “refracting” colonial forces by asserting their laws in the ways that they can. It may appear that people are being co-opted into co-management but when you’re sitting in those meetings and you’re talking to people it is apparent that they are engaging actively with the scientists and the bureaucrats in a really creative way.

What’s so amazing about Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination is that people are finding these really creative ways to continue to assert their cosmologies or world-views or laws in the face of all of these competing left-leaning, right-leaning, neoliberal, socialist definitions of how people should behave.

 

Could the formalization of Indigenous law by a settler state contribute to the continued colonization of Indigenous people? Some people have argued that this was the case in Bolivia, where sumak kawsay (Buen Vivir), an Indigenous concept, was put into law.

My work is really so small and nascent compared to the incredibly nuanced and ongoing work on Indigenous legal orders and legal pluralities that Indigenous scholars John Borrows, Val Napoleon and Tracey Lindberg (among others) are doing here in Canada. I think their work really demonstrates why it’s important for States like Canada to acknowledge their duties to the legal orders of the people whose ancestry and knowledge and stories of this place stretch to Time Immemorial. I think that the legal pluralistic approach that Borrows advocates for is really important. It demonstrates that Indigenous legal orders that incorporate reciprocal relationships between people, the land, the non-human constituents of the land, water and sky are incredibly important for this country as it contends with increasing pressures to extract oil and gas, mine ore, and dam more waterways.

 

On cities

Why would an anthropologist have a blog called “Zoe and the City?”

I started my blog in 2010 when I was wrapping up my MSc at the University of Alberta. My passion is Indigenous issues and decolonization in urban prairie contexts. (Having grown up as a Métis woman in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I had done a pecha kucha talk on ‘Edmonton as an Aboriginal City’ at a city sponsored event in June 2010 that garnered quite a bit of positive response, so I started the blog to keep writing about my observations and thoughts about how Edmonton had so thoroughly erased evidence of Indigenous peoples and history in its built form. Though my interests have expanded to other issues, I keep the name of the blog because everything for me still comes back to the land I grew up in: urban Edmonton—amiskwaciwâskahikan, pêhonan, home.

Whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen Coulthard argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’.

Many people might be surprised that Indigenous issues and urban issues are so linked. But having lived in Canada I’ve seen this play out quite directly—even just the fact that there’s such large Indigenous populations living in Canadian cities. In fact often urban spaces were designed specifically to keep out ‘loitering’ and ‘homeless’ First Nations or Northern Indigenous people. Do you think it is possible for cities to be spaces for Indigenous people, and what practical urban planning strategies could make that a reality? 

Well, every city in Canada is on Indigenous land! So, by necessity, we have to address this fundamental relationship between land, Indigenous nations and urbanism in Canada. My mentor, Dr. Frank Tough, was the first to really point that out to me. He pointed out that many non-Indigenous folks were framing urban Indigeneity as a ‘recent phenomenon’, but in fact, every city in the country is built on Indigenous land. And cities like Edmonton are built in a very very old gathering place, known in nehiyawewin (Plains Cree) as pêhonan. My friend and colleague Sara Breitkreutz, an anthropology PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote her master’s dissertation on the ‘revitalization’ of Cabot Square in Montreal, wherein I understand that a lot of anxieties about race and Indigeneity came to the fore in discussions about re-designing the space. In Edmonton, there are a lot of tensions around the presence of urban Indigenous people in spaces that urban planners, architects, developers, politicians want to ‘revitalise’. Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard argues that one of the fundamental issues at play in urban gentrification in Canada is that it is an extension of settler colonialism. So, whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’. So, I totally agree with you that urban planning continues to marginalize Indigenous people. I think that in order to change that we have to re-frame cities in Canada as what they are: urban communities built on Indigenous land. And in that, we must centre the reciprocal relationships between non-Indigenous people to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous lands, Indigenous legal orders, language, and community.

 

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Decolonizing academia

Currently there is a lot of work being done, partly inspired by Bruno Latour, challenging this idea that there is a nature-culture divide, which anthropologists now call the ‘ontological turn.’ How do you criticize this from an Indigenous perspective? 

The real crux of my critique of the ontological turn is not that it is wrong. They’re on the right track by acknowledging the nature-culture divide. They are absolutely correct, as an Indigenous feminist I read that as a hopeful moment. But we have to acknowledge that any movement is embedded in institutions and structures and the ontological turn itself has been developed by really wonderful Indigenous thinkers as well as non-Indigenous thinkers. However, as Sara Ahmed points out, it seems that white male scholars are often those that are cited within philosophy and the broader academy, and other people are ignored.

I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not.

My real critique is that Indigenous thinkers all over the world have been making exactly this point for decades, if not centuries (if you read or listen to the accounts of how the Historic Numbered Treaties in Canada were settled, Indigenous thinkers were asserting a view of the world that inherently disputes the Euro-Western nature-culture divide). But they aren’t often credited—for example, Val Napoleon and her colleague Hadley Friedland argue that Indigenous legal orders are not fragile, but in fact very robust. I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not. So for me, I think that the danger with the ontological turn is that it’s still coming from a Eurocentric perspective and doesn’t acknowledge, not just ideas but the laws that Indigenous people form that hold people accountable and that place the environment as a sentient thing. And so, I think we need to re-examine how we as scholars are also enacting legal governance and ethical duties toward our work.

 

Do you see that conversation happening in anthropology?

In Canada, with the work of Indigenous scholars, there is a direct acknowledgement that when Indigenous people are talking about their works, they’re not just talking about ontologies, they’re talking about concrete laws and ways of resolving conflict and engaging with the world. To be brutally honest, my experience in the UK really didn’t give me hope that scholars can be held directly accountable to the people that they’re speaking for.

People make claims about how they’re speaking with people, and I want to see us actually ask: how do you assess that? Why are there no Indigenous people on the panels? There were very few Indigenous anthropology students in the UK that I’ve met. For me, the proof will be in how the diversity of a department actually reflects the diversity of the people that we say we work with. The academy itself has to make a change. There are concrete ways that can happen and there are people that are already talking about how that can happen.

 

A new breed of environmentalists, calling themselves eco-modernists, seem to have run with ‘the ontological turn’, arguing that since ‘there is no nature’, conservationism actually won’t help, it is totally up to us to manage, maintain, and design the Earth. What would you say about these “ecomodernists” who take Latour’s argument to another level, using it to justify apolitical, technological solutions? 

Frankly, that whole idea of technology saving us from our own capitalist exploitation of the environment is just wishful thinking. What Indigenous legal orders (ontologies if you must) bring to the table is an acknowledgement that we have reciprocal duties to the land, to the other-than-human. And in those duties, there are responsibilities not to destroy entire watersheds, pollute whole lakes, raze mountains for ore. Because there are real legal-governance, social, cultural, living consequences to those actions. I’m hopeful that maybe some technological solutions can help us with the immediate crises we find ourselves in. But we cannot continue to relate to one another, to the land, to the fish, the birds, the bears, the plants in the way that we have been doing since the beginning of the Industrial revolution. Indigenous legal orders, the little bit that I can claim to understand of them, orient us to a much more accountable legal-governance relationship between all things/people/beings.

 

 

On Scottish independence

How do you see Scottish independence from an Indigenous and decolonial perspective?

I was studying at Aberdeen in the Department of Anthropology. Since October 2010, I’ve been splitting my time between Canada and Scotland. I had a front seat to the independence debate and the referendum. For me as a Métis woman with Scotch-Irish roots on my Métis side of the family, it was really really fascinating and kind of amazing to be there to witness that. Particularly because of the entanglement of histories between Scottish people and Indigenous people in Canada.

As an Indigenous person from North America I think that we need to have robust conversations about how, in the case of Scotland, at least, as a group of people that were internally colonized, or who had their self-determination violated by the Enlgish, they also, in turn, came in very large numbers to what is now Canada and participated actively in the dispossession and colonization of Indigenous peoples here. So I’m a bit weary of making direct comparisons between Scottish independence and Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty in North America, just because I think we also need to deconstruct that relationship between people re-visiting or re-creating their colonization or oppression upon another group. I call it the circulation of colonial violence. But I do think there’s a lot to be learned from these movements where people are pushing back against capitalist nation-state violation of people’s relationships to their own legal order and self-determination. Speaking as an Indigenous person from Canada, I do think there’s a lot that we can learn from Indigenous thinkers, activists, and philosophers.

 

Did you see those conversations happening in Scotland, where they link their own movements for autonomy in solidarity with Indigenous autonomy movements?

I have a complicated answer to that question. There was a lot of discourse in the Canadian media and the British media making a comparison between Quebec and Scotland, saying that Quebec independence and Scottish independence are the same thing. Or, sort of, learning from one another. But the thing with the Quebec independence movement is that it often involves a denial of Indigenous sovereignty in the province. And so I actually didn’t think the comparison in Scotland is really analogous (or helpful—because it erases or glosses over this egregious problem with the way Quebec sovereignty discourses can deny that Quebec exists because the French occupied sovereign Indigenous lands. That’s a conversation for another day, though).

The analogue, I think, for me, is that the Scots did manage to assert their own nationhood in a way by legislating and administering Canada into existence. Our first Prime Minister was a Scottish person, John A. MacDonald. This discourse of the English saying that the Scots don’t have what it takes to run a country I find really amusing. If we’re going to make really simple analogies, I think that an under-recognized discourse is how the Scots played such a heavy role in administering Canada into existence. So, in that sense, the Scots have already proven they can govern—they helped bring a whole nation state into existence! However, it’s very difficult to talk about the Scottish role or complicity in British colonialism within Scotland. I got the sense that it is a very taboo topic—it disrupts the framing of Scots as victims of the English.

I acknowledge that it’s a big ask for me as an Indigenous person to demand that 5 million Scottish people admit their complicity in the ongoing colonial realities of British Empire. But there were moments where I did have conversations with people. And people were amenable to, kind of, discussing those complicated relationships. And I found that really hopeful because colonialism is so paradoxical and complicated.

One thing I’m very weary of is when Scottish people talk about themselves as an ‘Indigenous’ people. The problem, as I learned through my time living there, is that this is a co-optation of the meaning of the word “Indigenous”, as it is defined by the United Nations. I was speaking to someone who said that some of the politicians promoting a pro-independence discourse deliberately strayed away from acknowledging Indigenous peoples (like me and other people from around the globe) who live in Scotland. This was deliberate because in Europe, Indigeneity has been co-opted by white supremacists, who talk about indigeneity as, you know, ‘Indigenous white people’ being impacted by non-white people moving in to their country. My understanding is that Pro-independence politicians didn’t want to invoke that scary xenophobic discourse, and I appreciate that. It’s so dangerous to conflate that white supremacist narrative so dominant in Europe at the moment with indigeneity of people who were moved out of the way and whose lands were taken and who were brutally oppressed to enable Europeans to colonize their nation. However, I hope we can some day talk about how Scots do have a reciprocal relationship to the peoples that were colonized by them—including Indigenous peoples around the globe.

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Decolonization in Europe

As a Métis scholar who has lived in Europe, what was your experience of attitudes toward Indigenous people? How would you like to see those conversations going forward?

I think that some people really truly do care about the impacts that European colonialism has had on the world. I think that there are care-full and accountable people everywhere, and I don’t want to paint with too-broad brush strokes. However, in my time in Europe I had a keen experience of the disconnect between the visceral issues I see and experience and bear witness to at home—such as the direct and painful impacts of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Two Spirit People and Girls on Indigenous communities in Canada— and the way these issues are abstract, intellectual, distant in Europe. In Europe, I feel that the direct and visceral [ongoing!] colonial experiences of Indigenous peoples are attenuated by space and time. It’s so hard to convey what these violent, painful issues lived and experienced by Indigenous peoples mean, in an embodied and lived sense, to Europeans when people in Europe are not physically present in our diverse and dynamic Indigenous territories in North America to see the impacts for themselves. In that sense, I think it becomes easy to romanticize and distort the ongoing colonial experience of Indigenous peoples, to not see the harm in appropriating Indigenous material culture or legal orders or stories. Whereas in Canada there is an ongoing legal-governance conversation about Indigenous nationhood and peoplehood, about the ‘nation to nation’ relationship that was acknowledged in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples—in Europe there is none of this understanding of direct legal-governance accountability, reciprocity or indeed a very robust conversation about reconciliation (in all its nuances and complexities and problematics). So, I think that at the very least, the conversation needs to start with: colonialism is an ongoing imperative. We have ties that bind us across the ocean. Indigenous peoples are very much alive, to reference Thomas King’s (2013) work in his book The Inconvenient Indian. I get the sense that many Europeans simply assume Indigenous peoples are what King calls ‘dead Indians’ (King 2013:53) and I think that many Europeans only want to deal with the idea of Indigeneity. But, the reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.

The reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.

 

What could ‘decolonizing’ European activism look like? 

I think it starts with dealing with the deeply rooted ideologies that Europe exported in its colonial work. In the UK, I see the suffering and class hierarchies and exploitation of the downtrodden as a harmful series of ideologies forced onto other peoples/nations/societies around the globe. I see the logics that Canada’s First Prime Minister, Glasgow-born John A. MacDonald, employed to send Indigenous children to residential school echoed in the ‘welfare’ (and that is really too generous a word for what the UK government is doing to the poor) policies of the UK government. So, for me, a ‘decolonizing’ European activism tackles the very intellectual and political and social theories and beliefs that were used to justify violence and dispossession around the world. It requires a conversation about what a generous, kind, caring governance and societal model would look like. It means stopping the needless suffering I saw in Europe—tackling the vicious anti-immigration rhetoric that pervades many European jurisdictions, tackling the angry anti-poor rhetoric used by the government. And dealing with ongoing racism in European institutions. Stuff like that. Loving accountability, if you will.

 

On writing

You are a prolific writer as well as an academic. How does your writing fit in with your academic pursuits? How do they compliment each other?  

Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life. I also use my blog to write about things that do not directly relate to my research, so that I have a place to hold those thoughts while I work on other academic projects.

Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life.

How do ideas form that you want to write about? How do you start writing a piece, and what drives you when you write?

One of my friends noted in awe when something I wrote went viral—’you wrote that darn thing in an hour, didn’t you?’. And it’s true. I usually formulate ideas over an extended period of time, usually while I’m walking around. Walking is really important to me—it is when I sort out ideas and narratives. When I sit down to write something it’s usually already roughly planned out in my head and then I just put it to paper (or blog). I write because I want to contribute to conversations about issues that matter. I write because I want there to be a place for divergent voices. I know that quite often what I am writing wouldn’t make it through the regular channels. I love that blogs and social media are such a powerful medium for those not broadly represented in the physical make-up of the academy.

 

Looking to the future, what projects are you working on? Is there anything you’ve recently read that has inspired you?

I just started a tenure-track position so my current focus is on wrapping on the PhD and really digging my feet into my new role. I’m incredibly excited to start teaching. As for my work—I’m starting to plan out a new research project. I will be returning back to Alberta, to my home territory, to examine human-fish relationships there. To apply what I’ve learned to experiences and stories in my own homeland. So I am incredibly excited.

And the most recent thing I read that inspired me is Dr. Tracey Lindberg’s debut novel Birdie. It is about Indigenous women’s strength, power and resurgence. It left me awestruck.

 

Zoe Todd (@ZoeSTodd) (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. She is a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

All photos in this article are by Aaron Vansintjan, photographed in Go Home Bay on Anishinaabe territory. 

Should we force supermarkets to send food waste to charities?

Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan
Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

I’ve been seeing a lot of news about food waste recently. In February, a report revealed that governments could save up to US$300 billion per year by cutting food waste. In March, it was announced that Loblaw’s, one of Canada’s major food retailers and supermarket chains, will start selling ‘ugly fruit’ at a discount. Then came the stories about start-ups in the US who are trying to source discarded vegetables from farmers, re-using them for other products.

And last week, many people excitedly posted the news from France: the government will force supermarket chains to send their food waste to charities. This announcement led several to suggest that the UK, and even the whole world, which tops EU in food waste, should follow France’s example. And now, I’m reading stories about a new ‘social movement’ in Germany, where people volunteer to pick up and redistribute food from grocery stores, food retailers, bakeries, and restaurants.

I recently completed a three-year research project where I studied the food waste system in Canada. Specifically, I interviewed food bank directors and researchers, trying to piece together the history of how food banks evolved. Knowing this, friends and family enthusiastically send me articles describing these new ‘solutions’ to food waste, thinking I’d also be excited. However, having studied the food waste system, I find it difficult to respond without being too much of a downer: it won’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these are all promising developments. Sending surplus food to charities will mean that supermarkets will bear part of the costs of the food waste they produce, and that the poor get access to more food. Selling ugly vegetables will mean landfills don’t get filled with perfectly good produce. In short, they mean that we are in part succeeding at making our food system smarter. However, I don’t think this is really a cause to celebrate.

“If you care about changing the food system, then selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities is not the answer.”

A story might help explain why I don’t think such efforts will address the food waste problem. Any discussion around food brings up a lot of feelings, so I’ll use a proxy. Say you own a major retail company, selling toys. You sell toys at really cheap prices, allowing as many kids as possible all over the world to get them. But some kids, because their parents don’t have any money, don’t get the toys. Meanwhile, because you try to produce as many toys as possible, for as many different kids (and parents) as possible, you will make a lot of toys that no one wants to buy. Also, accidents happen, and often. A pallett of dolls falls to the ground, breaking the boxes. A whole line of toys gets mislabeled. Because toys are quite cheap to make, it’s actually less expensive to dump these toys in the landfill than to pay someone to unbox them, sort them, re-label them, and so on.

But say a bunch of concerned citizens realize all these toys are being thrown out. This is ridiculous–kids all over the world are crying because they don’t get toys (and for many other reasons too, but let’s put that aside). So they approach one of your store managers and ask, can we take your broken toys and give them away for charity?

At first, your store manager isn’t into it. It will be annoying to let these people into the warehouse and rummage around. But they say they’ll make it easy for her: volunteers will drive in, pick up all the toys really fast, and drive out. She also concedes that, actually, it is a real shame that all these toys are being thrown out. So she agrees.

Pretty soon store managers at different locations are telling you the same thing. People are picking up toys and giving them away… all for free! You didn’t have to lift a finger. What’s more, they’re minimizing the costs of sending more things to the landfill–which often is calculated by weight. So you call in a bunch of these benevolent citizens and you tell them, “Listen, what you’re doing is great. We want to help you. We’ll give you funding, and all the broken toys you want. We’ll make it easier for you, so you don’t even have to ask a store manager anymore. We’ll also organize country-wide advertising so that consumers can give away their toys and know about all the good work you–and my company–are doing.”

This is an offer they can’t refuse–the toy-charities were quite expensive to maintain, since the amount of refused toys just seemed to keep increasing. Volunteers, many of whom take the toys home themselves, are tired, and any less work is appreciated. They are glad to get the extra support.

In order to cut costs even further, you put some of the broken and ugly toys in your store–advertising them as a new, smarter way to cut waste. You might also send some of your new designs to the charities as test products, to see if any of them catch on–a cheap way to do consumer product testing.

Eventually, your efforts are rewarded. The ugly toys campaign turns out to be an excellent public relations strategy, at very small costs to you. Soon enough, the government mandates that all toys should make their way to charities, which you helped create in the first place. While this will incur some costs–you’d have to make it easier for charities to pick up the toys, which will mean hiring more staff–you still benefit from the publicity you receive from the charity efforts, and you won’t really need to change your production line. So in the long run, not a big deal.

But what’s the problem here?

  1. Even if you sponsor these charities, the financial support they receive doesn’t nearly compare to the amount of labor involved. Essentially, you’re shifting toy-waste-processing costs onto volunteers, who are doing the work that your company really ought to do. In the field of ecological economics, this is called cost-shifting, and it is one of the primary tools corporations use to increase their profit margin at the expense of society.
  2. Many of these volunteers are there because they themselves can’t get access to toys. Or they need to fulfill community service hours because of a sentence. Or they don’t have anything else to do–they live lives of isolation. While you’re making the profits, these (mostly marginalized) people are paying the price of sorting your toys.
  3. It’s not the waste that’s the root of the problem. It’s the production line. You’re producing cheap toys that break easily (endangering children), paying your workers minimum wage, and you constantly produce new toy designs that may not be bought but fill up the shelves nonetheless–guaranteeing a satisfied customer who’ll keep coming back for more.
  4. While the government may mandate that you send your toys to charities, they do nothing to support the charities–already over-worked and under-budget–that have to process the toys. At the same time, the government gets to cut costs on its welfare programs, since it is argued that the poor now have access to the food they need from charities.
  5. Even if you were to send the toys to charities, and if you were to pay the charities to process these toys, would it make things better? We’d just be making an extremely wasteful system more cost-effective, essentially subsidizing the production of crappy and wasteful toys.

“Forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system — where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack.”

Extend this situation to the food retail industry, and it gets much worse. Because of the highly efficient production line, the agricultural process is incredibly environmentally hazardous, relying both on high inputs of fossil fuels and the use of toxic pesticides. The food industry relies on unjust migrant labor to drive production costs lower. This industry makes most of its new products from all the same ingredients, just packaged and shaped differently. For this reason, most food donated to food banks is highly processed, and quite unhealthy. Unlike with toys, volunteers often rely on the food they hand out. Food rots, so it is incredibly difficult to store and sort. With little funding and no municipal support, food banks rely more and more on volunteer service, while being increasingly bound to the continued existence of the industrial food system.

Because of these combined problems, forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system–where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack, leading to the privatization of social safety nets through the establishment of food charities.

If you care about changing the food system, then a ‘smart’ approach to food waste, such as selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities, is not the answer. In addition to forcing supermarkets to send food to charities, there are several things that would be much smarter.

  1. Fine the corporations for the amount of food waste they produce. This will disincentivize a system that relies on charities to bear the costs of food waste processing. It will also ensure that the industry no longer makes most of its profit from endless lines of new products, which is one of the key drivers of food waste.
  2. Clarify governmental rules and regulations around food waste, in favor of community groups. This might involve legalizing dumpster-diving, encouraging networks of citizens who wish to harvest food waste, and allowing the safe and hygienic processing and sale of food waste by non-profit community organizations.
  3. This may sound crazy, but not only have food banks developed incredibly complex and efficient systems of dealing with food waste, they also aren’t just charities. They often are crucial spaces for poor, isolated people to meet others and break their loneliness, while learning how to cook food. But even though food banks have the will to run more community-oriented activities, they often don’t have enough funding, staff, or time. So create a fund that encourages food banks to start collective kitchens, cooking workshops for single mothers and migrants, urban gardens, compost programs, and community food events. This will generate local food systems and more inclusive, safe neighborhoods. It will give those who otherwise couldn’t buy at the supermarket support structures so that they too can access acceptable food. It will help shift food banks from disempowering, demeaning, top-down, bureaucratic organizations to ones that are engaged in their community, empowering, and fun. Furthermore, it may help deal with the other 95% of food waste not created by supermarkets.
  4. A bit more challenging: align the goals and activities of governmental departments. Why does one arm of the government fund employment in the community food sector for marginalized residents, when another agrees to free trade deals, leading to a food industry that relies on cheap migrant labor? Why does one department fund research on carcinogenic food, or ban toxic chemicals, when another turns a blind eye to destructive farming practices? In most countries, health, sanitation, agriculture, trade, and municipal policies are often misaligned and should be joined up, otherwise food waste–and injustices–will just keep piling up.

These policies–most of them quite simple to implement–would ensure a safer, efficient, more just, and smarter food system. They wouldn’t only force supermarkets to limit their food waste. They would allow for a transformation from a food system oriented towards the bottom line to one that responds to people’s needs.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

Could Energy East become just?

Source: Flickr Leadnow https://www.flickr.com/photos/leadnow/10896436383
Source: Flickr Leadnow
https://www.flickr.com/photos/leadnow/10896436383

TransCanada’ Energy East is a proposed pipeline for Alberta diluted bitumen that would be the biggest such pipeline on the continent, bigger than Keystone XL. Today, October 30th, 2014, TransCanada submits the Energy East proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.

In Part 1 of this essay, the answer to the question “Is Energy East just?” was found to be no, not as currently proposed. In Part 2 of 2, David Gray-Donald explores the question, “could it become just?”

 

For TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline project to be considered just it would have to:

1. Decolonize relations with indigenous peoples and First Nations

2. Be part of a climate change plan (mitigation and adaptation) that is comprehensive and mutually agreed to around the planet

3. Share wealth to undo the continuing unfair burdens and benefits

These steps are difficult but necesssary. The players pushing for Energy East –TransCanada, Irving, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Steven Harper – are powerful and could affect change in this direction.

These steps are necessary but not sufficient to to balance the scales of justice. Seeing as it is hard to imagine these basic necessary steps will be taken in the current political climate, one must conclude that the chances the Energy East project will be just are nearly nil.

The rest of this text expands on the three basic conditions and concludes with a discussion about how energy projects can be designed with justice front of mind.

 

1. Decolonize relations with indigenous peoples and First Nations

Background

Canada, and the corporations that operate with its permission like TransCanada, do not respect the treaties that exist with First Nations groups. Not in spirit nor by what was written in English words. Many treaties call for non-interference between the parties but Canada and its corporations continue to violate this basic agreement. This is unjust.

To start moving to justice

TransCanada must push for indigenous societies to be allowed to form their own governments, reversing the Government of Canada imposition of band council elections. This basic sovereignty is in the spirit of the treaties. While communities could choose to alter their governance from that of traditional ways (eg. Longhouse), it is unjust for Canada to impose a governance system on people where it has no such legitimate jurisdiction. TransCanada must work to undo this colonial interference before claiming it has free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities.

When speaking of indigenous communities it is necessary to speak of Indian Status. This sexist and racist Canadian legislation must be changed in order for First Nations communities to form as per the spirit of the treaties and in cases where no treaties exist. TransCanada must work to this end before it can claim Energy East is being agreed to in a just fashion.

Energy East, proposed to be the biggest such pipeline on the continent and designed primarily to allow bitumen extraction to expand greatly, directly affects peoples in nine provinces (mega-tankers will be travelling along the maritime coasts). Governance of land and waters in Canada is, as per the spirit of the treaties, to be a matter of shared responsibility between indigenous and settler communities. TransCanada would need to insist on this basic change in governance being made.

If the spirit of the treaties has changed for either side, they can be renegotiated in good faith.

Breaking treaties and using violence to control people is war. That is what has been happening across Canada for hundreds of years. Continuing this long war of broken promises and physical force in order to build a pipeline puts TransCanada on the wrong side of justice. To work toward peace, TransCanada must insist on Canada honouring its treaties or renegotiating them in good faith.

 

2. Be part of a climate change plan (mitigation and adaptation) that is comprehensive and mutually agreed to around the planet

Background

The current plan of TransCanada, CAPP, and the Canadian government is to get bitumen dug up, sold, and consumed as quickly as possible on the free capital market. This is a disaster for the planet’s climate.

To start moving to justice

TransCanada and CAPP would need to make a compelling and binding case that Energy East is part of the transition off of fossil fuels. As it is an expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure designed to expand the tar sands, this is a difficult case to make (expanded in step 3).

That being the case, TransCanada would need to hold off on the infrastructure expansion until a binding international plan is in place. TransCanada and CAPP are already lobbying governments around the world for specific goals. It is the nature of the goals that need to change. TransCanada and CAPP are in well-connected positions of authority to call for a just global climate plan. This may involve becoming B Corps or other types of organization where duty is to stakeholders, the citizens of the world, and not to a small number of shareholders.

This binding international plan may call for profits made on greenhouse gas-emitting activities to be used for mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Mitigation, reducing the impacts of climate change by reducing emissions, could involve dispersed efforts of a Manhattan Project scale. The Manhattan Project used public resources during Word War Two to put minds together with the goal of making major technological breakthroughs. What is needed now are many concerted efforts around the planet to reduce emissions (not make bombs). Support is needed to make major changes in energy efficiency, energy reduction through lifestyle change, new energy technologies, stopping release of non-combustion gases (eg. methane in agriculture), etc. Proposals in this vein are numerous. If CAPP sincerely focused on these solution strategies they could be a force for climate justice.

Adaptation would require supporting massive projects as well. TransCanada, CAPP, and Canada have the ability to make such supports available. These may include ensuring communities around the world are prepared for flooding, storms and drought (including good public facilities and services for during crises), and are resilient in terms of soil health and other ecosystem services.

TransCanada would need to demand that most of the profit from Energy East, and among CAPP members, are used to build this transition away from an increasingly high-carbon economy. Currently, without any hint of such a plan, TransCanada cannot move forward with a just Energy East project.

 

3. Share wealth to undo the continuing unfair burdens and benefits

Background

Those with least access to money and oil who benefit least from the project are often those most affected by climate change. Those who will make money from Energy East are those who already have wealth and use disproportionately more oil than the rest of the world.

To start moving to justice

Energy in the bitumen moved through Energy East could be for use by those who have traditionally benefited least from use of refined petroleum products. This would require a large shift in who has access to wealth and where it becomes concentrated. It is not as if the shipping of bitumen to India will mean quality of life improvements for India’s poorest. (Clean-oil rich Saudi Arabia does not see its poorest benefitting from major extractive projects, and neither does Canada.) TransCanada and CAPP can be a force for demanding that those who have the most to gain from access to oil get that access. They have the power to fight to ensure it is not used unjustly to uphold lifestyles of the rich around the world.

To break apart extreme wealth concentrations, profits from Energy East could be used to support dispersed mitigation and adaptation strategies. Step 2 describes some such efforts. These would need to not be led only by the elites of communities around the world, but ensure that the people are empowered everywhere. CAPP has the political energy and chemical energy to contribute to this massive transition.

 

 

Putting justice at the forefront of energy projects

Energy projects usually play with fire. Literally. Fire can inflict damage in many ways, and it is therefore a force with which we need to be very careful. As with fires in a community, it is impossible to know how damaging climate catastrophes will be.The earth’s reactions to change are unpredictable. Fire departments demand strong plans for preventing and putting out fires. In the same way, we need to collectively build strategies to get away from our current planet-disrupting ways of burning fossil energies. We need to talk about what is socially acceptable to do on – and to – this planet. Instead, a group of people who organize themselves under the name TransCanada Corporation have 26 lobbyists registered in the province of Quebec alone, many of them working on convincing people of the social acceptability of their project. In place of honest conversations as a human community, we hear from those paid to manufacture consent by whatever means necessary.

Energy projects can be designed with justice as their guiding principle. But TransCanada has not embraced that thinking with Energy East. It is indistinguishable from older energy projects, remarkable only in its size. The basics of justice are not to be found.

 

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

Is Energy East just?

Energy East is a project by TransCanada Corporation that will  extend existing pipeline infrastructure for Canada´s fossil fuel industry. Source: http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/TransCanada_Energy_East_Pipeline_Project.gif
Energy East is a project by TransCanada Corporation that will extend existing pipeline infrastructure for Canada´s fossil fuel industry.

TransCanada’ Energy East is a proposed pipeline for Alberta diluted bitumen that would be the biggest such pipeline on the continent, bigger than Keystone XL. Today, October 30th, 2014, TransCanada submits the Energy East proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.

In this essay, part 1 of 2, David Gray-Donald asks, is Energy East a just project? If yes, why? If no, why, and what is stopping it from being so? 

This essay argues that because Energy East does nothing to undo the causes leading to its burdens and benefits being unfairly distributed at multiple scales it cannot be seen as just. TransCanada Corporation’s pipeline is proposed energy infrastructure that relies on and strengthens existing institutions of power. Proponents of projects like Energy East argue that oil is necessary or profitable or that we cannot live without it. However, a justice perspective [1] shows that the project is indistinguishable from extractive activities of the past and driven forward by the same root causes. Part I (this text) answers whether the project is just and Part II (forthcoming) will explore whether there are ways it could be made more just.

Oil sands crude production in 2012 was 1.9 million barrels per day. The Energy East pipeline, bigger than Keystone XL, would be able to transport 1.1 million barrels per day. The expansion of oil extraction in Alberta is constricted by lack of transportation infrastructure. The over 4400 km long Energy East, at 42” (1.07 m) diameter, would widen the neck of the bottle allowing bitumen to flow out faster. With official plans to triple the extraction of the oil sands[2] in coming years, there is little indication that oil traffic by rail would decrease as a result of this pipeline being built. The current plan is to get the oil out, fast. The analysis in this essay builds from the factual basis that (a) there are currently no plans beyond extracting and selling the oil as quickly as possible and (b) that Energy East is a centerpiece of that plan.

Extracting, transporting, altering, and burning matter from the oil sands has effects at many scales of time and space on Earth. Benefits and burdens of projects like Energy East are here first considered at an immediate time-scale looking at the whole planet. Analyzing the long-term effects with particular attention to climate change follows.

In the short term, there are people who receive money to work to physically make this work possible, to plan it, to advertise it, and to manage the operations. Some of these people, mostly in roles related to management and ownership, will acquire enough capital (i.e. wealth, money) to use is to accumulate more capital (i.e. capitalism) to such a degree that they reach a level of wealth far above the median and continue to accumulate more. For most workers and their families, the inflow of money they receive is temporary and insufficient for significant accumulation. Those with sufficient money, however obtained, can use the end product of this industrial process, oil, a versatile and concentrated mobile energy source, in vast amounts.

Those lacking wealth, including people living in Alberta, are less able to use such quantities of oil and often feel the effects of the industrial process in other ways. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that 94% of economic benefits from oil sands activities will be felt in Alberta. This leaves the vast majority of the world out. Those without wealth often find industrial sites located near them, like the Chemical Valley around Aamjiwnaang (Sarnia, ON) at a terminal of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, or the oil refineries in the east of Montreal, or downstream of coal mines in the Appalachians or of a Canadian gold mine in El Salvador. Poor folks often work at these sites doing the most dangerous jobs, like working on the rig floor on BP’s oil wells in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or cleaning up TransCanada’s pipeline spills all over North America.

A similar pattern appears with people of colour. It is often the dark-skinned people of the world who are outside the circles of wealth and power, and are pushed to take the least safe and least rewarding industrial jobs. This is true from deconstructing ocean-liners by hand in coastal Bangladesh to building oil tanks in northern Alberta in deadly conditions as temporary foreign workers.

Along the proposed Energy East route, TransCanada is asking communities to support the project. Consent is sought out from indigenous communities in ways nearly indistinguishable from the past. Historically, the British, the churches and the Canadian government explicitly sought to destroy native governance systems. As of now Canada continues to force indigenous peoples to be represented by elected governments. When this started, positions could only be held and elected by men. Women, in many communities, had long held much of the decision-making power in their traditional governments. The Canadian-mandated system is the only one Canada acknowledges as legitimate, though in many communities the traditional governments still exist and this situation causes internal conflicts. Importantly from a justice perspective, it is an exercise in control over another based on the Canadian state’s ideology that indigenous forms of governance are inferior, that indigenous people can’t govern themselves, and that European ideas of democracy must be imposed and upheld though they may interfere with treaty obligations. The elected councils, who are given their salaries and money for the community[3]via Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, have had money withheld or cut back when making decisions the Canadian government does not like. This puts the elected band in a conflict of interest type situation where they cannot easily say no to what the Canadian government wants nor can they act in the way their community would want a government to act.  TransCanada’s project continues this way of relating with indigenous communities. It is an approach that does not deviate from colonial Canada’s institutionalized racist past and present.[4]

In addition to women being pushed out of their roles in their communities, extraction projects are often sites of high rates of gendered violence, due to the combined factors of large numbers of male workers who move in without ties to the community, high rates of substance and alcohol use in isolated environments, and inflated housing prices that mean that women who are present in those communities have a harder time leaving abusive relationships,. In places like northern Alberta, there are often few supportive resources for these survivors of unfair violence.

Some unequal benefits and burdens of the pipeline project at a small time scale have been described. There is an absence of plans in the Energy East project to remedy any of these unfair dynamics. This is troubling, and the scales of justice would remain unbalanced if the project proceeded.

 

Now bringing the long-term into view we find that climate change brings new complex multitudes of concern around justice. The unequal burdens of climate change are unconsidered in the National Energy Board review process of pipeline projects, but are essential to investigate in discussing Energy East and justice.

Neither TransCanada, nor the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, nor the Albertan nor Canadian governments have a strategy to address climate change. Nor does the world. It could be argued Canada has a strategy as most recently formalized in the 1994 NAFTA (section 6), which is, to paraphrase, “get the USA as much oil as it wants”. Now, as American President Obama continues to block cross-border pipeline construction, transport transport, the oil industry strategy has changed slightly to getting the oil out of the ground and sold as fast as possible by whatever means. There is a curious economic calculation being made. It goes that if alternatives to oil or a high price on carbon are coming soon, the most profitable thing to do is sell the oil as quickly as possible before changes come. It is a “use it or lose it” situation. We are in free-for-all mode with no thought to saving the resource (which is a potent source of energy) for when it may be needed and not working towards a major transition away from oil dependence.

Who benefits and who is burdened by this approach of government and investors working together to facilitate a quick dig and burn of the resource? As mentioned earlier, the main beneficiaries are those who own and operate the oil industry. There is some trickle-down of money from this small group, but relying on a trickle-down theory of economics in part led us to the famous 1% and 99% division of wealth (as partially explained by Piketty’s r > g). The economic marketing of the oil industry corporations may at times hide from view that they are legally obliged to act in the best interests of their shareholders, i.e. owners, and no one else. The investors who own most of these corporations, and those they entrust to manage and direct the corporations they own, are wealthy people in the global north. They are the best prepared with physical and monetary resources to face the effects of climate change. They (and me among them) are the most responsible for emissions causing climate change.

Those who feel the heaviest burdens of climate change (which Energy East will accelerate by pushing open the sell!-sell!-sell! plan for carbon-intensive Alberta oil) are those least responsible for creating emissions and who benefit least from the use of fossil fuels. This includes women, people of the global south, migrants, people of colour, and the young & unborn.

While men are also affected by climate change, women, in their positions as caregivers, heads of households, farmers and water-fetchers must take on the extra work when necessities become more difficult to access.

Displacement and migration are well-documented effects of climate change. From fishermen on beaches of Sri Lanka displaced after floods by land prospectors setting up hotels to those whose productive lands have been become absorbed into the expanding Gobi Desert, there are millions of climate refugees per year and many end up in urban slums.

Looking at benefits and burdens from a race perspective, a trend similar to that of colonial times appears. Take, for example, the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony and then, until 1946, a territory of the USA. While some American investors benefit from oil sands transportation, people of colour in the Philippines suffered during Typhoon Haiyan which wreaked havoc on the south Asian nation in 2013. Americans of colour at home also bear the brunt of climate-related disasters, as seen by the treatment of various peoples during and after Hurricane Katrina around New Orleans in 2005.

Future generations of all demographics, but especially those described here, will bear the burdens of climate change. To put this in economics jargon, as Mark Carney did recently, we have had a high discount rate, meaning we are valuing the present very highly to the great detriment of the future. Ideas with more consideration for inter-generational justice are not new. For example, Kanien’keha:ka scholar Kahente Horn-Miller reminds us of the seven generations philosophy, popular on Turtle Island, “as inherently about accountability and respect for oneself and the future seven generations.” [5]

Energy East is not accompanied by any plan to undo these unfair allocations of benefits and burdens. Not on an immediate time scale, not at an international level, and not on the scale of climate change. The oil industry and the governments of Canada also entirely lack such a strategy. There is no semblance of a serious conversation to that end from the corporations or governments invested in the project. There is no effort being planned on the scale of a Manhattan Project of our time, one for a conscious, just, fossil-fuel free future instead of bombs. The Energy East project, like nearly all extractive projects to date, digs us deeper into the path we are on.

Lacking any change of direction and noticing the continued systematically lopsided allocation of benefits and burdens, Energy East as proposed would only continue and strengthen the systems that allow unfairness to persist. In conclusion, Energy East must be considered unjust.

Part 2 of this article, which will discuss how Energy East could be more just,  is forthcoming. 

With files from Justice Climatique Montreal / Climate Justice Montreal. Check out their analysis and call to action regarding Energy East (et version francaise)

 

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

 

A note about justice

There is one way that Energy East could be considered just. That would be if one considers justice to be doing good for one’s friends and doing harm to their enemies. In the case of Energy East, that would mean doing good for wealthy white people living in or able to live in safety, and the enemies who bad is done to are everyone else in the world. This is a thoroughly rejected and inadequate definition of justice. A strong definition of justice is based around fairness, a concept innately well-understood by primates. It is this sense of fairness and of remedying situations where unfairness persists that has resulted in the widely understood image of scales of justice (often held by Lady Justice) to be balanced.

 


 

[1] A discussion about what is in the best interests of Canadians can be found elsewhere, such as the Council of Canadians siteabout the project. TransCanada’s marketing on the subject cannot yet be categorized as a discussion.

[2] The term “oil sands” is used as there are many people in Canada who will not engage with content if they see it contains the word “tar sands”. This capitulates to the brainwashing of citizens that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and various levels of government have engaged it, but it is important to try to communicate with the humans working in and actively supporting the fossil fuel industry.

[3] As per many treaty agreements, this money was to come from trust funds set up when indigenous nations agreed to allow Canadians to use their lands. Most of these treaty agreements have been broken by Canada, such as the elimination of many such trust funds. This investigative piece looks at one example.

[4] Browse through this document for more information about settler-indigenous relations in Canada with a particular focus on seeing and understanding the treaties as non-native peoples.

[5] From “What Does Indigenous Participatory Democracy Look Like? Kahnawà:ke’s Decision Making Process” by Kahente Horn-Miller in Review of Constitutional Studies. Page 115. Available at http://www.trudeaufoundation.ca/sites/default/files/u5/05_horn-miller.pdf

 

 

Does The Climate Movement Have A Leader?

Bill McKibben during his "Do the Math" tour
Bill McKibben during his “Do the Math” tour.                 Source: rollingstone.com

by David Gray-Donald

Climate change is big. As is the climate movement seeking to confront the issue, though it is not yet as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. People all over the world are standing up in very different ways, as evidenced by a quick glance at the over-800 partner organizations for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21. It’s a real challenge to bring together these very different groups.

In Canada alone examples abound of the diversity of people and range of strategies being used to address the problem. Many people at the Unist’ot’en camp are returning to their lands and effectively blocking pipelines. At universities, people like McGill Environment student & Divest McGill organizer Kristen Perry are demanding endowment funds become fossil fuel free. Shaina Agbayani and others are focusing on the relationship between migrant justice and climate change. In Toronto’s Bay Street offices people like Toby Heaps are selling low-carbon investment strategies. Amanda Lickers, a Haudenasaunee environmental organizer, is working to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure (including pipeline) projects destroying native communities. The scale of the challenge has been responded to with many strategies from diverse groups that together are sometimes called the climate movement.

In this movement, there is no central leadership, no intelligentsia behind closed doors like in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s protagonist, an unnamed young black man who becomes a spokesperson for what could be called the civil rights movement, is told what to do and what to say by a small group of white men using supposedly scientific formulas that perfectly guide the movement. Thankfully this is not how the climate movement works: it is more decentralized and people have more autonomy to act as they see fit. This comes with its own set of challenges, as seen recently during Occupy and a few decades ago with the leaderless women’s liberation movement.

But wait, interacting with climate activism may give you the feeling that there is a centralized organization and a mastermind leader.

When someone hears “350” mentioned and asks what it is, I’ve often heard the response that 350.org is the climate movement and Bill McKibben its leader. This is easy to believe when articles on environmental news sites like Grist and RTCC announcing the Peoples’ Climate March include only McKibben and 350.org by name as leaders and planners. The RTCC article begins “Led by Bill McKibben…”, and it is his thoughtful articles that appear in youth-targeted Rolling Stone. The 350.org “Do The Math” tour description reads “In November 2012, Bill McKibben and 350.org hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” The notion that McKibben is the leader and 350.org the movement is in large part due to the way the organization has framed itself from the start.

The story of 350.org is similar to that of many NGOs in that it began with a core dedicated group and a compelling call to action. As McKibben himself likes to point out, it started out at a college in Vermont with 7 people, and they decided to each take a continent and build a movement.

The organization has been acting out that global narrative ever since. They’ve gained prominence and power that most grassroots groups would never dream of through a combination of millions of dollars of support from the Rockefellers and others and a persistent mentality that they lead the worldwide movement-building process. Following a notable lack of discussion with other groups, 350.org called out for and selected 500 people to gather in June 2013 in Turkey for a Global Power Shift and claimed it as “the starting point for a new phase in the international climate movement.”

The well-intentioned Americans of 350.org venturing overseas to be the global umbrella for the movement have created an organization that has unfortunately bulldozed over other voices in the climate movement and has come to be seen by many as the movement itself. So while the movement is bigger and more complex than 350.org, having this unofficial and unaccountable focal point limits how we think about and interact with climate activism.

Take, for example, the problem that those who have the least wealth will likely face the worst of climate change-caused catastrophes including drought, flooding and storms. This means that those who already face deep injustices will have very different demands from those who simply want to preserve the earth as it is. We need spokespeople who can be accountable to these groups. Unfortunately, 350.org’s insistence that they represent the movement while they don’t actually respond to these diverse demands ultimately hurts the movement.

In fairness, considerable credit is due to 350.org and to Bill McKibben for building momentum. McKibbon is a good writer, if over-simplifying, as seen in his very widely read July 2012 Rolling Stone article. Recently he has been sitting down to have serious conversations with powerful people like university presidents to push the divestment agenda. As a celebrity in the climate world he is drawing big crowds to the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC, and at hype talks in recent months 350.org has used his draw to put the spotlight on some local groups and individuals. The staff of 350.org seem very motivated, with their hearts in the right place, and the problems of being a big international NGO are not unique to 350.org.

That said, constructive criticism is what will help the movement learn and improve. At a September 2 event in Montreal organized by 350.org and local campus groups, some issues were clearly visible. First, there were two lines of French spoken by all the speakers combined, a shame for an event happening in French-speaking Quebec, a hotbed of radicalism in North America. Thankfully the audience did hear some Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the language native to the area, from Ellen Gabriel. At one point McKibben attributed the initiation of the fossil fuels divestment campaign one half to journalist and 350.org board member Naomi Klein and one half to Nelson Mandela. Hopefully Klein, a thorough researcher, would dismiss such a claim outright as disinvestment is not a particularly new tactic for showing disapproval of an activity, even in the climate world. Throughout his talk, McKibben perpetuated the idea that 350.org was the movement, that it was the umbrella organization connecting everyone, that the 7 people from Vermont who went out build a worldwide movement had been more or less successful.

Near the end of his presentation, while he has talking about getting things right, Amanda Lickers, mentioned above, interrupted McKibben. He at no point tried to cut her off. She brought up the lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of indigenous contributions to the front-lines struggle to resist extraction and pipelines, the erasure of indigenous history in the planning of the upcoming much-hyped Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, concerns about inclusion of people most affected by climate change, and more. This drew many cheers of support from the audience. After she spoke, McKibben did not responded to her comments directly. He was visibly uncomfortable and while he briefly and generally mentioned the importance of front-line communities he unfortunately treated Amanda Lickers and everything she said as an interesting aside that was easy to ignore. In a place like North America, indigenous groups have been expressing and acting on their understanding of the earth for many centuries longer than the 25 years since McKibben’s first big book came out. In many ways, indigenous groups are at the front of the struggle here and in much of the rest of the world. They are more central than to the side, but they keep being pushed out, which is part of the injustice of worldwide colonialism. And if justice is not the goal in this movement, what is? A spokesperson better understanding the movement and the forces at play in our society, and conscious of the way they themselves perpetuate those forces, may have been able to better address Lickers’ comments and build a constructive dialogue with the audience.

It’s not that McKibben is a bad guy. It’s that he is currently not a good spokesperson for the climate movement, which is effectively what he is now given how he and 350.org project themselves and are seen by the media and general public. Naomi Klein will fully share the spotlight once her book is released. As with most of us (myself included), McKibben needs to undo his colonial mindset. As evidenced by Lickers’ interruption, when he speaks it is not on behalf of the whole movement and not on behalf of the most affected nor those fighting the hardest like the Unist’ot’en. The lack of confidence and imagination within the movement to put forward spokespeople intentionally but instead allow McKibben to remain at the front limits what it can do.

McKibben writes uncomplicated articles and speaks in ways comfortably relatable to American liberal-arts college audiences. While it is important to talk to those people, we need a movement with broader scope bringing forth dialogues about justice from different perspectives. We need to think hard about how the movement is represented, we need to listen to the voices in it, and to identify leaders intentionally. Being seen as spokespeople, McKibben and Klein could stress that they don’t represent anybody, that the main resistance is being done by others often completely separate from 350.org, and they can point to some of those struggles. 350.org can choose to stop over-extending itself in trying to be the movement and to not play the role of selecting who gets put forward as a leader. While not perfect, the Peoples’ Climate March appears to be a good collaboration between groups, and there are exciting possibilities for where the movement can go from here.

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.