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I have two seemingly unrelated things on my mind today -- two things, in fact, that I have been obsessing over for several days now. First, a recent report in the journal Nature, and, second, the passing of the Harper government's omnibus Bill C-38.
Both are more than a little depressing, but both also point in directions that could help us get out of this mess and past these, let's call them, threshold moments.
State shift in the Earth's biosphere
Let me start with the Nature article - the less upbeat of these news items, if you can believe it. The article, "Approaching a state shift in the Earth's biosphere," is authored by some 20 scientists from a broad range of related fields.
The argument goes something like this: just as local ecosystems are known to shift abruptly from one state to another when forced over certain thresholds, it is increasingly looking like the entire planetary biosphere may also be capable of being forced into a more or less sudden state shift. And here's the real exciting part: there is mounting evidence that we are within 10-15 years of such a tipping point. That sounds like fun! The report states:
"Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased... widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result."
The factors leading to potential state shift include "human population growth with attendant resource consumption, habitat transformation and fragmentation, energy production and consumption, and climate change."
If we are paying any attention at all, this story is becoming more and more familiar (studies like this latest in Nature are simply adding detail to the picture through high quality research).
Extinction rates are now on par with those during the era the dinosaurs disappeared. Human generated climate change is reaching a point beyond which the planet may not be able to recover. This is not an opinion or theory anymore. It's the more or less unanimous position of the entire scientific community, based on an ever-increasing body of research. We need to start thinking seriously about how we are going to live in a drastically changed and changing world.
The frozen state
Now, place beside this the other piece of news: the passage of Bill C-38, which, while attacking the social safety net from almost every angle with a host of austerity measures, arguably does the most damage to the environment by watering down or eliminating much of Canada's environmental protection laws and generally speeding up, centralizing and removing oversight mechanisms for the approval of large resource-based development projects (pipelines, mines, tar sands).
The fact that reports like the one printed in Nature -- as well as the growing chorus of other voices from the scientific community -- do not appear to faze the Harper government is no real surprise. This is a government that's been pretty upfront about its "disagreement" with science, which increasingly sounds like "disagreeing" that today is in fact Friday, or that the sun will in fact rise again on Saturday.
Nevertheless, the shortsightedness of this government -- and other governments which everywhere are failing to heed the dire warnings of the scientific community -- continues to baffle, defying both logic and empathy. How is such shortsightedness possible? How, when it's clear that we need to rapidly wean ourselves from fossil fuels, can a government stake all its plans and priorities on expanding fossil fuel production and dependence?
Someday I'm going to write a book on the demented psychology of state government that helps explain this problem. It must have something to do with the way modern electoral politics has become inseparable from crass calculations of the metric needed to win an election, which largely involves rallying a party's "base" and completely ignoring the rest of the unnecessary-to-winning-the-election electorate.
The complete absorption of electoral politics in "winning the next election" is comparable to the absorption of the market in the next quarter's (or even next day's) performance. As David Graeber argues in Debt: The First 5000 Years, "capitalism seems to be uniquely incapable of conceiving of its own eternity." For both state governments and capitalism, the stakes are high, you are only as good as your last win, and tomorrow may very well bring about your downfall. So walk the tightrope as long and far as you can.
Handy, when the gambler's mentality rules our world. Add to this the fact that privilege, quite simply, always defends and justifies itself, just as it always feels the effects of conditions that might force it to change long after the "less privileged" rest of us feel the same, and we are a long way towards understanding why our government's don't change when it's crystal clear that change is upon us, whether we want it or not. There's also the whole problem of corporate influence (ie. our governments largely do what their biggest donors and class allies want them to do). But let's save that discussion for another day.
I think a government's inability to act in the best interest of future society is equal to, and perhaps the direct result of, its inability to care for the commons -- to think beyond its "base," and beyond its ability to "get away with" an agenda that serves only a small elite.
The language of the commons that hovers around the political sphere -- "house of commons," "commonwealth" -- registers as largely ironic. There is nothing much common about our political system now: it is in the service of capital accumulation and the few who benefit the most from this process, and what we're told is -- be happy with the few crumbs falling from the table.
The Harper government's inability to take heed of the warnings of science, combined with (and embodied in!) the passage of destructive legislation like Bill C-38, tells us something about what our strategy needs to be now.
The various attempts to organize against Bill C-38 -- Leadnow's "13 Heroes to Defend Democracy," the various on-line petitions -- though well intentioned and organized, had little hope in light of Harper's majority. Sadly, there's not much that can be done, through the established political channels, between now and the next election.
But that just means we have to organize outside of the established channels.
If government's like Harper's won't respond to the coming state shift, then we have to shift the state -- by shifting outside the state's institutional structures. Which is exactly what has been happening this past year, first with the Occupy movement, and now with the Quebec solidarity "casseroles" across the country (and in fact, like Occupy, around the world).
What we need is movement building: a movement grounded in the commons (in care for the commons, which is simultaneously a care for the future we will share); a movement against the damage legislation like Bill C-38 participates in (damage to the natural environment and the commons, damage to First Nations' territories and traditional ways of life, damage to citizens' rights and freedoms, damage to workers' opportunities and well-being); and a movement that-when the next election does come around -- will allow us to genuinely use the electoral system to reverse some of the damage currently being done, and in turn reform that electoral system so the sorts of abuses we are now suffering are not possible in the future.
For now, we need the streets, and we need pots and pans. But even this must be little more than a prelude and means to deeper organization. We cannot simply hope to increase the numbers of willing casseroles participants week by week, until we somehow overwhelm the government. We, too, will run up against the metric of our "base," or at least fall into the calculus Graeber warns against: "Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons." That's the state's game. It can't be ours.
What we need to do is start to find ways to enact and protect real commons now. We need education (which is exactly where the whole Red Square movement began, remember), we need information, we need street teams and forums, discussions and ideas -- in our neighbourhood communities and everywhere else.
We need to collectively develop detailed pictures of a viable world strikingly different from the one the likes of Harper serves -- and we need to get these pictures into as many hands as possible, by as many means as possible.
We need orators, poets, artists, musicians, philosophers, activists and organizers. We need to reach out in ways the state can't, won't, or doesn't care to -- to everyone everywhere.
In other words, we need to get even deeper into the grass and its roots. So go ahead and bang your pots and pans. But get ready to talk too, and to organize, when the din dies down.
Stephen Collis is the author of four books of poetry, the most recent of which, On the Material (Talon Books 2010), won the 2011 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. A collection of essays on the Occupy movement, Dispatches from the Occupation (Talon Books 2012), will be available in September. He teaches poetry at Simon Fraser University.