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Misunderstanding the Leap, critics fall flat

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The Leap Manifesto

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That things are not well should be evident to anyone of acumen.

Retreating glaciers, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, ever more extreme weather, dying coral reefs, desertification, the disappearance of the Aral Sea, the destruction of rain forests, vanishing species, record levels of economic inequality, rising extremism and xenophobia, political corruption, proliferating tax havens, decaying infrastructure, daily beheadings, bombings, terrorism, waves of refugees sweeping across Europe -- or drowning enroute in the Aegean or Mediterranean.

It's not hard to connect the dots.

Corporate capitalism is devouring the ecosystem and the social and economic fabric upon which we all depend. Oxfam reports that 62 multi-billionaires own as much wealth as half of the world's population. The richest one per cent own more wealth than the other 99 per cent combined. Their proliferating network of tax havens allows the wealthy to hide $7.6 trillion, avoiding paying taxes and thereby impoverishing governments of revenue. The poorest 50 per cent of the world's population own 0.7 per cent of the planet's wealth. [See: An Economy for the 1%.]

Who could contemplate such facts and not understand that something is drastically askew?

This is the crucible in which the Leap Manifesto was forged. The reasons for its existence are as clear as the facts delineated above -- and these are the barest tip of a towering iceberg of environmental degradation, systemic discrimination, aboriginal genocide, political disenfranchisement, corruption, nepotism, and greed. 

The continuing discussion about the Leap Manifesto, to some degree catapulted into prominence by the NDP's recent "recognition" and "support" of it at its national convention, is a propitious moment in Canadian history.  As a political manifesto, it is accomplishing precisely what it ought: engaging people in spirited discussion on substantive political issues, reflecting on where we want to go as a society and what we correspondingly must do to build a social and economic fabric that is also environmentally sustainable.

Predictably, however, there are those who, failing to Leap, fall flat on their faces. This survey illustrates some of the pitfalls.

Bill Tieleman: Just Win Elections

If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else. -- Yogi Berra

Yogi BerraYogi Berra's insight is a valuable departure point for those seeking to make change. Getting somewhere may involve delays or detours, but if you lose sight of the destination, you'll never arrive.  However much you must temper your tactics or modify your strategy, it is critical to develop a vision that is clearly articulated and firmly in the crosshairs of your political strategy.

This is the point at which Bill Tieleman's (former communications director in the B.C. Premier's Office and at the B.C. Federation of Labour) thesis in "NDP Should Forget Leaping and Protests, Just Win Elections" stumbles and falls. While striving to understand how to direct political change Tieleman proposes, "Neither Occupy nor Leap -- just win elections. It's a revolutionary idea." It's a snappy sound bite, however it completely misses the boat with respect to what politics is and how and why elections are won. 

The Leap Manifesto

It's important to understand that the Leap Manifesto is not a protest movement, contrary to Tieleman's characterization. Its 15 demands address aboriginal justice, renewable energy, fossil-fuel infrastructure, energy democracy, energy poverty, sustainable and affordable mass transit, retraining for workers to participate in a clean energy economy, investments in public infrastructure, the development of localized and ecologically-based agriculture, an end to trade deals that undermine Canadian sovereignty, substantive protections for workers, substantive investments in low-carbon sectors such as caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts, and public-interest media, a discussion on the introduction of a universal basic annual income, an end to "austerity" economics, and political and electoral reform.

It is a statement of political philosophy. In my view, the Manifesto provides a visionary basis for a transformative political movement -- precisely what the NDP should embrace if it wishes to be in the vanguard of progressive political change in Canada.

End of ProtestTieleman takes up his analysis of the Leap Manifesto through the lens of Micah White's recent book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, which reviewer Grant Munroe called, "a muddled cocktail of neopaganism and Unitarian Universalism with a twist of Zen."

The "paroxysms of Zarathustra-lite prophecy and exclamation" aside, White's book does contain one important insight, and that is that street protests by themselves will not overturn a political order -- that requires organization. However, because protests are not sufficient for the task, that doesn't mean they aren't necessary, or indeed useful. Witness, for instance, the role of protest in halting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Elections aren't won on the basis of political vacuum either; they are won on the basis of ideas. Ideas of how we conceive of social, economic, and political relations, how justice factors into these, what is tenable and sustainable, pathways to get there, and of governance. Where we place value in determining our political arc. In other words, precisely what is articulated in the Leap Manifesto. To base winning elections simply on the idea of winning elections is a depauperate political philosophy; one bereft of meaningful political content.

Thomas Homer-Dixon: Missing the forest for the trees?

In Start the Leap revolution without me, Thomas Homer-Dixon (who holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs), quite correctly discerns two important touchstones of the Leap Manifesto:

"Its ideological starting point is, in other words, profoundly communitarian, appealing directly to our cultural impulse to take care of one another that underpins institutions such as Canada’s health care system."

"The Canadian economy -- structured around commitments to private property and corporate capitalism -- is making our society sick, root and branch. It’s also contributing to a global ecological crisis that threatens humanity’s survival. So it must be restructured, urgently, from the ground up."

So far, so good. Curiously, however, Homer-Dixon believes that these are hidden "deep assumptions" that will "bewilder" some people -- a perplexing conclusion given that the premises of the Leap Manifesto are as plain as the light of day. Homer-Dixon also believes that they have they have "throw the country's left into crisis" and warns:

"So it's a profoundly divisive document at the very moment when we need to find common ground on climate change."

What's puzzling about Homer-Dixon's conclusion is that the Leap Manifesto provides the most expansive common ground imaginable on which to base, social, economic, and climate justice. Homer-Dixon has found the forest, but appears unable to see it, blinded by the trees.

Margaret Wente: Let them eat mouldy, stunted potatoes

A little learning is a dangerous thing. -- Alexander Pope

Mouldy PotatoThen there is The Globe and Mail's perpetually offside columnist, Margaret Wente whose article The great global greening is happening now misses every possible mark. [Note: In addition to its addled attack on the Leap Manifesto, this column has also become the center of a storm of controversy regarding Wente's apparent plagiarism. See: Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente caught up in plagiarism scandal – again.]

Alleged plagiarism aside, Wente's article is a hodge-podge of misunderstanding, indignation, and poppycock all grounded in ecological, agricultural, and silvicultural confusion with Wente's claiming that the Leap Manifesto, "would rather have the world's billions eating mouldy, stunted potatoes that exhaust the soil and suck up all the water."

Naomi Klein & Avi Lewis"I mean you, Avi and Naomi, and your merry band of actors, writers and professors who signed on to the Leap Manifesto," thunders Wente. "They want to take us back to a romantic world of small-scale, low-yield, subsistence farming that would in fact require far more land and far more labour than we use now. It is the worst prescription for the planet you could possibly imagine."

If Alexander Pope was correct in his observation, then Wente appears to have shown that a very little knowledge...is simply absurdly inconsequential.

Bruce Anderson: Fossilized thinking

I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones. -- John Cage

In Canadians won't accept Leap because it breaks these two rules for The Globe and Mail, political pundit and chair of Abacus Data, Bruce Anderson apparently starts off well:

"Canadians want 'pro-growth environmentalism.' They want to tap entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, science, capital and yes, capitalism, to help create ideas that marry our desire to put food on the table, money away for our kids' education, and some sense of security about how we’re going to live in retirement.

"So to paraphrase the Leap Manifesto, the first 'iron rule' of environmental advocacy should be to accept that people have legitimate economic fears and aspirations, and be credible in describing how your ideas will achieve their environmental and their economic goals. 

"It's easy to reduce emissions if you don't care about the economic consequences. The hard work, the meaningful work, the necessary work, is to get past slogans, and posturing and finger-pointing, and to find and settle on some pro-growth policy approaches that move the environmental yardsticks."

So far, so good. However, what does Anderson conclude from this?

"We are Modest Shift people. Thoughtful Shift people. Not Leap People. Or Big Shift People."

What this precisely means or why it follows from his earlier remarks is uncertain. Apparently Anderson believes that because Canadians care about the economy therefore they won't "accept" the Leap Manifesto. One might conclude from this that Anderson has simply never read the Leap Manifesto, which is entirely about reconciling the twin objectives of long-term economic prosperity with the environmental imperatives of addressing climate change. For example:

Leap Manifesto

  • Producing 100 per cent of our electricity from renewable energy sources by 2050 (the technology for which is available; the timelines for which are do-able); 
  • A universal program for building and retrofitting energy efficient housing;
  • Developing high-speed rail and affordable public transit to replace fossil-fueled transit systems that are outdated, inefficient, inequitable, and are poisoning the planet;
  • Retraining for workers in carbon-intensive jobs to ensure their swift and just transition into a clean energy economy;
  • Significant investment in decaying public infrastructure;
  • Development of a more localized and ecologically based agricultural system, reducing our reliance on imported fossil fuels, enhancing both energy and food security, thereby producing healthier and more affordable food; 
  • An end to damaging trade deals that hinder our own economic autonomy and lock-in damaging resource-extractive projects;
  • An expansion of existing low-carbon sectors such as caregiving, education, the arts, and public-interest media and the development of a national childcare program. [Parenthetically it is worth noting that in terms of value for money, developing society and the economy, and improving social outcomes, absolutely nothing beats investments in education, from early-childhood through to post-graduate. For example, see Doug Saunders' article Finland's social climbers: How they're fighting inequality with education, and winning.];
  • An end to austerity economics and fossil fuel subsidies; the implementation of financial transaction taxes, increased resource royalties, increased income tax on corporations and the wealthy, progressive carbon taxes, and cuts to military spending.

The Leap Manifesto is saturated with proposals to address the economy and the environment leading to social, economic, political, and environmental justice. Each of the above points (and there are others) touch on critical area and are underpinned by extensive bodies of contemporary thinking and knowledge. 

In some instances they are gateways to a public discussions that we need to have as to how to develop and implement these in a Canadian context. They are not somehow "out of step" with Canadian values -- they precisely reflect the values of the large majority of Canadians. Those who have been systematically socially disenfranchised, politically marginalized, and economically impoverished by four decades of neoliberal austerity politics.

Furthermore, the development of renewable energy, as called for by the Leap Manifesto, what Stephen Lewis correctly called, "a Marshall Plan for employment," entails a massive economic opportunity for Canada in a sector which has already surpassed oil sands employment [See: Behind the Numbers: Our Oil Sands and Clean Energy Job Comparison.]

Renewable Energy Jobs

In 2015 the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reported that there were 8.98 million direct jobs in the renewable energy sector. [See: Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review 2015]. This is an employment sector that has grown by 144 per cent in five years, i.e., an annual growth rate of 29 per cent. Is there another area of the Canadian economy that could compare to this? 

Anderson is undoubtedly correct in saying that "Canadians want 'pro-growth environmentalism'" -- which is precisely why Canadians who read and consider the Leap Manifesto will understand and accept it.

Why Leap?

Those who do not move do not notice their chains. -- Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa LuxemburgIf addressing the global social, political, economic, and environmental imbalance seems like a formidable "leap" that Anderson thinks Canadians would be unwilling or unable to make, it is only because, as I wrote in Pipelines or pipedreams? The Leap Manifesto and Alberta's dilemma:

"The reigning socio-economic paradigm of western civilization has become so askew that setting it aright and onto a sustainable and just footing requires a significant realignment. No one who looks at the imperatives of climate change, and the circumstances that have set these processes into motion, can imagine that there is a trivial solution, some silver bullet or techno-fix, that will straighten all this out and allow us to continue with deregulated, corporate capitalism as usual."

There are times and situations where Anderson's phlegmatic "modest shift" paradigm is applicable. This is not one of them.

It is no accident that this political manifesto is called The Leap. At its heart is a recognition that incrementalism will not suffice. That the scale of social, economic, and environmental rebalancing required, and the urgency of responding to climate change, cannot be addressed by creeping lethargy. We need a Leap to accelerate our response to these pressing exigencies and to jolt political thinking out of the neoliberal rut in which it has been mired for the last four decades. To Leap is not an option at the present moment, it is a necessary step.

[Note: Part one of this series on the Leap Manifesto is Pipelines or pipedreams? The Leap Manifesto and Alberta's dilemma.]

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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