Rethinking Vancouver’s role in the climate crisis

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Photo credit: Murray Bush for VMC

This past week, several local environmental groups asked us to reassess Vancouver’s role in the climate crisis. On Sunday morning, Rising Tide-Vancouver Coast Salish Territories set up a 15-foot mock fracking rig on Premier Christy Clark’s lawn. “How does she justify going on other people’s property and doing the same thing?” said Teresa Diewert. “If you look at the hydraulic fracturing all over North America it’s destroying the water and B.C. is one of the last places that good water is still available and we feel like we can stop it.”

It’s one of many examples of direct action organized by Rising Tide. What weaves their disparate demonstrations together is a commitment to the root causes of the ecological crisis. “We ground our work in decolonizing principles,” Rising Tide notes on its website, “recognizing that environmental injustice stems from discrimination, domination, and violence through colonial occupation and expansion with the help of capitalist and imperialist institutions.”

There are other environmental organizations underscoring such root causes. On Saturday, we attended the World Peace Forum Society teach-in, entitled “If Capitalism Doesn’t work, What Does?” One of the lectures we took in was entitled “Cracked Pipes – Energy Challenges from Enbridge to Lac Megantic”, with co-presenters Roger Annis and Brad Hornick, both members of the newly-formed Vancouver Ecosocialist group.

“We have a capitalist economic system in which the imperative for growth prevails over everything,” said Annis in a conversation after the lecture. “So it’s not possible to rein in this system to have an economy that is consistent with the limits and the capacities of what our ecology allows us to do.”

Annis is equally pessimistic about the City of Vancouver’s environmental record and is suspicious of its claim to being the greenest city. There’s a community garden at City Hall, we have a mayor who rides his bike, and Vision Vancouver has an initiative entitled Greenest City 2020: A Bright Green Future, but these measures are simply not enough. Worse, these measures may reassure us that something’s being done, curbing our willingness to take more meaningful action.

According to Annis, the drive for real estate development facilitated by the city is at odds with our environmental goals. “Urban development in a capitalist society simply serves the profit motive and the drive for growth,” he said. “We happen to live in a very geographically beautiful part of the world which tends to have people forget that our city is as polluting as all the others. Look at the great expansion of the port of Vancouver, or the fact that we’re a city which dumps its raw sewage into the the Strait of Georgia. And Vancouver may now be the largest coal exporting port in North America. So, despite the pretense, this is a city which is involved in the rush for money making, doing so at the expense of our immediate surroundings.”

“Even the things which we can point to as accomplishments for social planning are flawed,” he continued. “Public transit is still woefully inadequate in the region and far more resources have been given over to expanding highways and bridges. Even the skytrain is fundamentally there in order to serve the interests of the real estate industry and they make a great deal of money building high rise condos around the new skytrain stations.”

Fred Bass, former Coalition of Progressive Electors councillor, was on the City of Vancouver Task Force on Atmospheric Change, a group which produced the 1990 Clouds of Change Report that forms the foundation of Vancouver’s environmental policy. It advanced 35 recommendations, from setting up a Regional Air Quality Management Agency to making it easier for City of Vancouver employees to telecommute.

The report emphasized the need for social sustainability. One of the concrete recommendations made by the Task Force was to create a community full of social and affordable housing in South East False Creek — land eventually used for the Olympic Village where social housing promises were betrayed.

According to Bass, many of the easier short-term recommendations have been completed, but the more difficult and fundamental ones haven’t been adopted and no recommendation addressed that our consumptive society distributes its wealth unjustly.

“Instead of the poor getting poorer and the wealthy getting wealthier, we need to see to it that there’s a redistribution of wealth because ecosystems can’t be healthy without a healthy distribution of wealth,” he said during an interview. “We need to recognize that the current economic system drives infinite growth on a finite planet. We are behaving insanely. You can’t have a green city that doesn’t address the lemming-like economic system that we have in this city.”

Over the past ten years, the number of low-income individuals living in Vancouver has decreased by almost 20%. Stopping the loss of the low-income earners who work in Vancouver’s service sector was an important environmental initiative for the city in the 1990s. But instead of housing people, “green” condos — buildings with expensive environmental fixtures like those at the Olympic Village — are pushing people out of the city. We’re essentially displacing the climate crisis to the suburbs, forcing people to move to neighbourhoods where transit doesn’t meet their needs and is becoming almost as costly as driving.

Rather than continually trying to plug one hole after another in a leaking boat, we should take seriously these critiques of a system which, among countless other problems, has brought about the ecological crisis. And we need to take measures we have at our disposal in this city — measures which reflect an understanding of why our way of life is so unsustainable. “People on city council can do a lot,” said Annis. “A great example was the vote at Surrey city council recently to say no to the Surrey docks coal terminal. Social housing and transit in particular point to a different kind of urban architecture which is the result of what a society needs and not of money making. Will a future progressive society be building 30-storey condos to solve housing needs? Maybe, but not at the rate we’re seeing in Vancouver.”