When the National Energy Board of Canada approved Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion on May 19, like most people, I was far from surprised. But strangely, I was also somewhat uplifted that day. Buoyant even. Maybe I’m becoming deluded, I don’t know.
It’s just that the system did exactly what the system is designed to do: expand the web and capacity of fossil capital, regardless of public opposition, democratic process, infringed indigenous rights, or the science of climate change. Stupid is as stupid does, and I doubt there’s ever been anything in this world quite as dumb as the accumulation of more of everything for the sake of accumulating more of everything.
At that moment, it didn’t matter. The NEB, whichever government (Harper’s or Trudeau’s) hell bent on expanding the tar sands—it just didn’t matter. All this feels part of a world that is so patently of the past, redundant now, finished. I’m not saying pipelines won’t get built—they might still. I’m not saying fossil fuels are done like dinner—though they have never looked more vulnerable to system change. I’m just saying something feels different now, and this has an upside and a downside—no doubt a few other sides too.
On the UP SIDE, I’m reasonably confident that we are now indeed living in the early days of a transition away from fossil fuels and towards some amalgam of renewable energy sources. I’ve got no hard evidence for this—it’s a gut feeling—but it’s based on what feels like a tipping point in how the media is covering the issues, the sort of weary inevitability that reporters and even industry executives seem to be meeting the constant grass roots resistance and ever-present call for climate action. Maybe I’m in an alternative media bubble, but it seems different now. The Fort McMurray fires are part of this. Floods in Europe. Everything now is openly linked to acknowledged climate change, by both the majority of media outlets and even most government officials. Where climate change would have been ignored or angrily dismissed before, now it seems an inevitable part of our lives—not a ghost of summers to come, but a spectre haunting the hot and dry present. Again, maybe I’m deluded, but the nay-sayers seem to be losing.
Ok. DOWNSIDE NUMBER ONE. I think it’s too late. Climate change is already happening and no matter what we do now some amount of destructive warming is here and its effects will be a part of the rest of our lives, our children’s lives, and—if they have children—their children’s lives too. Global temperatures are hitting 1.5 already, sooner than expected, and should shoot past 2 degrees global warming before too long. Oceans will rise, inundating coastal communities. Deserts will expand at the hearts of continents. Food scarcity will be a real issue felt by almost everyone (though the most marginalized and impoverished will of course feel it first), and more and more people will be displaced, the number of those in search of climate refuge swelling into the many millions. Fires, storms, flooding, drought, etc. etc.
This even if my rosy prediction is right and we are indeed on the cusp of starting a transition away from our fossil fuel dependence. This even if we, in a few short decades (best case scenario—it really will take time), stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure and instead invest public funds in renewable energy, phase out the tar sands, replace fossil fuel driven cars with electric ones and light rail in our cities, etc. etc.
I think the beginning of a transition is probable largely because of DOWNSIDE NUMBER TWO: capitalism keeps doing what it’s doing as long as it finds a way to keep being profitable, and fossil fuels are on their way to not being profitable anymore (at least this appears to be the case in Canada already, a fact for now being ignored by irrational corporations and their elected supporters). Once the profit rate on business as usual falls low enough, business will move on to something more profitable (those electric cars are starting to look pretty good after all). So downside number two is that, even if we are managing to force the world towards an energy transition, and leaving aside downside number one for a minute, we may rid ourselves of fossil fuels but not the capitalist logic that led to the adoption of fossil fuels in the first place. This leads me to:
UPSIDE NUMBER TWO. As we struggle to deal with the effects of climate change—with food scarcity, mass displacement, extreme weather damage and avoidance of climate impacts (which may involve large scale migrations), the capitalist system will continue to show itself ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. Thus there is still—even if capital does what capital does, and rebuilds itself once again in its own image, only as “green capital” this time—there is still a real opportunity, even a demand, to toss private property, the profit motive, the wage and all the rest to the curb as we come together to deal collectively with the crisis capitalism has created. In other words, we are in the midst of being thrown from the frying pan into the fire; now, what mid-air acrobatics are we yet capable of? Who would rather some other landing place than the flames beneath the pan?
I’m sitting right now with an old book open in my lap. It is William Morris’s 1890 utopian novel News from Nowhere. In the future, after long social struggle and a revolution, our narrator is taken through a radically transformed London. Trafalgar Square has lost its imperial column and is now an orchard, as the city has gone through a sort of re-wilding known as “The Clearing of the Misery” (commemorated every May Day “in those easterly communes of London”)—a process which amounts to an erasure of the distinction between the urban and the rural, the town and the country—as in the absence of a “World-Market,” communities have had to learn how to be as locally self-sufficient, and thus as ecologically self-sustaining, as possible.
In short, Morris offers an image of entwined and interdependent social and ecological transformation. Trafalgar Square, we learn, was where the struggle really began—with a direct confrontation between the state and protestors. And now Trafalgar Square blooms with an orchard—rather than “beastly monuments of fools and knaves”—revealing its carefully managed provisioning of the local commune.
While the NEB does what the NEB is designed to do, and while the Trudeau government goes on doing what industry tells it to do, I find myself dreaming about those sites of struggle—the Burnaby Mountains, Westridge Marine Terminals, Burrard Inlets and tar sands—that may be the sites of future orchards—after the Clearing of the Misery that is fossil capital.