Pick up any new condo ad and you get the sense that Vancouver is perpetually stuck in summer. Sun-drenched landscapes open up to lush green fields counterposed with calm waterfront scenes. Condo towers reflect on the water like huge unimposing spaceships. The North Shore Mountains complete the frame. In this reflective landscape, nature merges with its setting. At nightfall, the reflective gleam of condo towers shimmer on the Burrard Inlet, always delivering a garish constellation.
In this great real estate fiction, Vancouver comes into being as an Elysian idyll. Leisure is aplenty in this vision of the afterlife: cycling, kayaking, jogging, wine-drinking, yoga — whatever your heart contents. Weekends extend into the weekday as a waking-dream outside the day-to-day drudgery of the wage-relation. The city is endowed with a sense of grace and visual impunity. The wish-images of the future merge with death mask of its afterlife, perpetuating a present without history. Nature is imparted to the people as an unencumbered fiction.
It is difficult to overstate the way in which this utopic idyll displaces the real experience of living in Vancouver. Compare the sublime beauty of the North Shore mountains to the empty ruins that litter Eastside tower blocks. Counterpose the flavour of the salty sea air that wafts into a Yaletown balcony to the pestilential stench of a mould-infested Eastside basement suite. When summer does arrive it never seems to last long enough, or you can never get enough time off work to enjoy it. Throughout the year, if you happen to cross glances with any unlucky soul on the 99 B-Line, you will be greeted by the personification of overwork — a visage of lethargy, loneliness and depression. In Vancouver, leisure is not easily at hand or attainable. It is coldly administered and strictly enforced. You only get a few statutory holidays during the year: “We’re too busy for you to take time off work right now,” the manager bemoans. And so, the jovial farce of a ‘Vancouver Summer,’ a figment of gentrified imagination, eclipses the reality of our bleak condition: subjects of capital in a somber, wet, and denatured ghost town colonized by development and profit.
This is not to say that Nature does not exist. Nature finds its ideal material expression through the fantastical lives of the rich. This distortion finds its clear articulation through the logic of an enclosure. At the entrance to Nature lies the sign: “Private Property | No Trespassing.”
Often, to profess a love for nature is to declare your allegiance to private property. In Vancouver and beyond, property owners build sound climate-defense fortifications called “green enclosures.” Surrounded by rambling countryside, the enclosure best resembles an artillery compound, replete with the most up-to-date sustainability gadgets and an unlimited supply of organic tempeh, gluten free bread and lulu-lemon yoga wear. In the inner-city, these enclosures actually have a name, “Low-Carbon Economic Development Zones” (A Bright Green Future, 21). Areas of segregation, magnets for the development of low-carbon businesses, technologies, products, and services. Outside the inner-city the rich are able parachute to their summer vacation retreats on Cortes Island or Hawaii, away from the beach-going plebs, gouging stomach and soul on the latest health food fad. For those who are unable to foot the bill, the seething polluted swamp of the city’s streets await you, as do $2 pizza slices, steamed buns or over-priced burritos. Day to day, week to week, you wander the city streets, burrito in hand awaiting the coming collapse. The collapse never arrives. It is just another day in Vancouver.
It has now become common to speak of a coming environmental collapse. On the surface, words and reality appear not to add up. The collapse never feels like it is arriving. Life just goes on. This is probably because the crisis is already here. In British Columbia alone, the symptoms of the present crisis are numerous as they are baffling. A short list is sufficient: slum conditions and overcrowding across the Eastside, massive territories of deforestation, the threat of irreparable oil spills on the BC Coast (Gateway Pipeline) and in the inlet (Kinder Morgan Pipeline), ever-changing environments, widespread hunger, ocean acidification, disappearing farmland — this is just to name a few of the symptoms. If we take Vancouver’s real estate image of itself as litmus test, however, the city appears immune to crisis.
The same holds for the current economic crisis. When financial markets collapsed in 2008, real estate insiders went on to say that the downturn was a “crisis for sissies.” By late 2008, condo sales and construction slumped to record lows. Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs declared that it was “the worst financial setback in [our] history.” Canadian banks were bailed out a total of $125 billion in 2008 alone, with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) massive purchase of unstable mortgages and other toxic paper held by private banks. When Vancouver’s Olympic Village project entered financial tumult, Vision councillors deployed fear and a rhetoric of crisis to win the public over to an austerity agenda. The 2008 crash has precipitated a global recession that has now turned into a great slump. Certainly Vancouver is not immune.
GREEN CAPITAL PLAN
In this fragile environment, political elites around the globe are re-mobilizing to capitalize on popular sentiment and its accompanying fear. In 2009, Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson launched the “Green Capital” plan as a means to cash in on the two crises. Its goals were set for the long-term. In a perfect correspondence with marketer’s image of reality, the city-state jumps at the ability to utilize nature. In effect, the “Green Capital” plan operates as the marketer’s mirror image. According to Mayor Robertson, the city was set to become “the greenest city in the world by 2020” (A Bright Green Future, 4).
Semantically, Vancouver’s new “Green Capital” plan was intended to operate as a double entendre. The stress, however, was on the money-capital of “capital accumulation” while firmly situating this new form of monopoly capitalism at the territorial centre of the new green global economy.
The primary goal of the policy was to champion Vancouver as “The Switzerland of the New Green Economy” (Vancouver Business 2010, 1). In this formulation, the city sets out to ground capital in the most imaginary manner, against the internal crises of capitalism. Compared to the 10 other goals stated in the “Green Capital” document, none are particularly novel or ambitious. Included in the plan are goals to increase ‘green’ mobility, amplify access to nature, encourage a ‘lighter’ ecological footprint, produce clean air and water, harvest local food, green buildings, create zero waste, and most importantly, secure Vancouver’s “international reputation” as a “mecca” for green jobs (A Bright Green Future, 14). The choice of words demonstrates the clear branding exercise at play.
‘Sustainability’ and ‘environmentalism’ are re-framed, as Andy Longhurst pointed to in a recent article on The Mainlander, through a post-political lens that displaces traditional political disputes. Old ideological division between left and right are thrown out the window in place of compromise, consensus, and “technical-rational remedies” to the environmental crisis. But the only solution here is capitalist expansion and competition. This zero-sum game takes an illogical tinge. To quote the Green Capital plan again: “in this highly competitive, highly mobile modern world, the elements that make a community healthy also make it wealthy” (A Bright Green Future, 6)
Proceeding in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, Vancouver was not alone in its objective to become the greenest city in the world (the policy-doc even goes to great lengths to admit this). In July 2009, London Mayor Boris Johnson promised to transform London, word for word, into the “cleanest and greenest city in the world.” In and amidst these two crises — financial and environmental — other cities explored similar strategies. Traditional industrial quagmires, like New York, Toronto, Seattle, Berlin, and others, all launched similar campaigns and policies. To quote the Green Capital plan, the greenest city “is more than an environmental objective: it’s also a savvy economic strategy, for it will offer a competitive advantage in attracting highly mobile investment dollars, business entrepreneurs, and talented workers” (A Bright Green Future, 11). On two separate occasions, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Boris Johnson were to claim that the London 2012 Olympic Games and Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Games were the greenest games ever.
Imaginatively conceived as its European double, Vancouver was also positioned in-and-against Switzerland. By rebranding Vancouver as “The Switzerland of the New Green Economy,” Vancouver was fictitiously conceived as a safe place to park capital. In media tours and press conferences, Gregor would continually boast that the city was not hindered by a restrictive tax system: “Vancouver has the lowest corporate taxes in the G8.” The primary goal of Vancouver’s “Green Capital” plan was thus to consign the entirety of the environment to throes of capitalism’s value-form. By privatizing all of nature and relying on technological patents, the city-state is able to extract profit through aggressive rent-seeking mechanisms.
In its attempt to attract venture capitalists, Gregor’s Green Capital Plan sides with ‘rent seeking’ commodities to accrue capital accumulation. A rent seeking economy solicites venture capitalists (investment capital) to invest in patentable technological projects and monopolizable goods. The turn to a rent-seeking economy is crucial for grasping the current social and ecological predicament.
In a rent seeking economy, those who possess patent rights as their own exclusive private property are given the power to set monopoly prices, as well as constrict and administer the public use of a given technology. For a thing to be sold, in this case ‘Nature’ or its ‘technological fix,’ it must contain the capacity to be transformed into a monopolized and alienated good. The Green Capital plan proposes that Nature take on this monopolizable form, mimicking the common form of landed property.
But what is landed property and what is its relationship to monopoly? To quote Volume 3 of Capital,
Landed property presupposes that certain persons enjoy the monopoly of disposing of particular portions of the globe as exclusive sphere of their private will to the exclusion of all others. Once this is given, it is a question of developing the economic value of this monopoly, i.e. valorizing it, on the basis of capitalist production. (Capital, 752)
Landed property and rent play a coordinating role within the capitalist mode of production and reproduction. Rent, in the most simple sense, is the payment made to landlords for the right to use their land and its resources. In this case, rent seeking mechanisms act to monopolize nature.
This form of rent is entirely reliant upon an entrepreneurial logic that fetishizes the relationship between technology and nature. The fetish posits that there is a technological fix to every problem. By relying on a technological super-fix and green businesses to alleviate the crisis, policy documents like the Green Capital plan are blind to the historically specific conditions of capitalist reproduction, failing to understand that capitalism perpetuates crisis. Neoliberal economic policies rely exclusively upon the fickle powers of competition to propel the creation of new green products and services.
A rent-seeking economy is a hinderance to the public good. It disarms analysis. We become unable to address the true root of the environmental crisis. In other words, Gregor Robertson’s Green Capital Plan is nothing more than an Al Gore solution to the environmental crisis. Gregor wants to create a “sustainable capitalism” while being completely blind to the present system as a system of unrestrained inequality and relentless consumption.
The promotional clips exhibited online by the City present short vignettes on the “green” element of Vancouver’s business community. “Green capital means business,” but as Gregor Robertson stresses “not business as usual.” In the films themselves, a series of adjectives proceed in pulsating staccato: “profit,” “growth,” “money,” “culture,” “innovative,” “sustainable,” “informed,” “diverse.” In this sustainable-green-world, adjectives stick to nouns as easy as insects to tickitape. The message of this campaign becomes clear: market forces are the singular means by which to drive and shape the entirety of the environment, city-state and everything in between. Like the consummate capitalist who has expanded his private riches by founding a non-organic organic juice company, Gregor Robertson wants to put a price on the environment. As mayor, the object is to expand the market and maintain the circulation of green commodities.
Here, a crisis-induced marketing solution comes with the presumption that an imaginary marketing campaign can do the work of necessary social change. It assumes that one may successfully wade through the muck of any calamity, overcome the contradictions of capitalist economy, and eventually ascend to the glorious heights of a new golden-green-dawn, whose new sustainable economy can be reached through a sound, rational, and reasonable combination of reform and photoshopped images. The simple fallacy of this solution is transparent: an image alone cannot precipitate the reversal of the present crisis.
On a deeper critical level, Vancouver’s Green Capital plan avoids defining the current crisis (both environmental and economic). Mystified as an issue that can be fixed by policy solutions that foster green businesses, the current crisis is not contextualized in its full conjunctural weight. The dimensions of the internal crises of capitalism — driven by the internal contradictions between labour, capital and the environment — are steadily skated over. The green capital paradigm is unable to understand the fact that the current environmental crisis is matched in scale, scope and severity to the contemporary economic slump.
The environmental crisis should be understood as a direct result of capitalist expansion. Due to its own internal conditions of reproduction, capitalism must lay waste to the earth, as well as to the labour power that “sustains” its growth. In order to reproduce the material conditions for its continued sustenance, capital renders both labour and the environment useless, or just unemployed as the case may be.
- the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the corresponding growth in poverty;
- the contradiction between the limited capacity of the environment and unquenchable desire for market expansion;
- the conflict between social production and private appropriation (green enclosures);
- the strong tendency for overproduction and limited capacity for consumption;
- the contradiction between free sustainable competition and the increase in monopoly powers and vicious destruction of everything that stands in the way of the profit motive (including nature);
- ‘interventionist’ governments that actually deregulate and dismantle our ability to respond to the crises (Vision Vancouver).
The conclusion becomes unequivocal: capital exploits the environment to the same degree that it exploits its workers. Exploitation should be framed as the crisis currently besetting both situations. By viewing the two crises as one we are able to see that marketing campaigns — masquerading as a policy solutions in themselves — are unable to frame the two crises as dynamic, perdurable and impossible to overcome within the constraints of weak-ideological politics and short-term technological fixes.
The most pressing point to stress when speaking to these two crises is this: the primary characteristic of any crisis — economic, environmental or otherwise — is its reliance on the unabated perseverance of mass and systematically produced social suffering. Poverty, disease, degradation are just some of their symptoms. Yet unlike other urban centres structured by the principles of inequality and impoverishment, Vancouver is able to mystify social suffering through recourse to the natural sublime: the pure air of the forests, the natural beauty of the ocean and mountains, the grandeur of the North Shore mountains. To quote the Green Capital plan, nature is the “second paycheque” (A Bright Green Future, 17). With Gregor Robertson leading at the helm, everyone is supposed to cash in.
Throughout the glossy pages of Vision Vancouver’s Green Capital plan, the market is taken as the primary means to shape the economy, assuming no other political or economic alternative. Operating today at the level of a commercial brand, similar to any condo ad, the plan is not committed or determined to address the current environmental crisis. Nor are city leaders and other groups willing to ask the tough questions of why the earth is currently confronted with such crises. Policies like these ultimately prolong the status quo of capitalist governmentality, in order for Vancouver to maintain a competitive advantage and monopolize the profits from the gradual destruction, warming and degradation of the earth. In other words, as long as there is an environmental crisis, there will be profits to extract for those who are competitive enough to make a buck.
Clothed in the language of ‘sustainability,’ ‘design,’ ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation,’ the city’s Green Capital campaign sits tirelessly on the side of branding and green-washing. It is an apologia for the existing order of things. The present solution on offer appears short-sighted, insignificant, and completely perilous.