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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Literature Matters - 1: A new social contract

Keep it in the ground is an evocative campaign that The Guardian newspaper (London) launched recently. Advocating strict policy measures to tackle climate change, the Guardian Media Group divested its entire £800 million portfolio (about $1.4 billion) from fossil fuels, which it will re-invest in socially responsible alternatives. It is urging the world’s two largest charitable foundations — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust — to stop investing in oil, coal and gas companies.

The debate over climate change is the only one that should dominate our century. Nothing else matters. Two recent events in Toronto focussed on the urgent need to focus on climate change not merely from an environmental perspective, but as an economic, social and moral imperative. On April 7, Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, presented Literature Matters that featured Canadian author Thomas King, and Naomi Klein, the author of a series of books on the exploitative nature of capitalist economy, whose most recent book This Changes Everything Capitalism vs The Climate, has comprehensively changed the debate. 

On April 12, as part of the Spur Festival, Imre Szeman, Canadian Research Chair in Cultural Studies and professor at the University of Alberta; and Chris MacDonald, Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program discussed the Moral Economy – Canada’s new social contract; the intersection between public permission to operate and important sectors of the Canadian economy. Konrad Yakabuski of the Globe and Mail moderated the debate.

The two events overlapped on several key issues.

Klein believes that we are dealing with a profound failure of imagination, even though nobody is disputing the claim that capitalism is destroying our planet, there is no attempt to find an alternative to capitalism. There is a near-universal sense of defeat. The two prevailing thoughts that have contributed to inertia are: We screwed up, but we’re God’s species, so we’ll eventually fix it. The other is: We did it, and it’s too late to fix it, so we should let it all burn down.

Klein characterised it as either defeat or war. The idea of peace with the planet is not part of the narrative.

She attributed the policy paralysis in terms of tackling climate change to the increasing fundamentalism of market-driven economics. The dominance of capitalism as a determinant of global economics has left us without any alternatives, and this has stifled both debate and action. 

A few days later, at the debate over Moral Economy, Szeman emphasized that the policy paralysis stems from a paradigm shift. It’s not just our economics that is market driven, market philosophy has taken over our way of life, and it has now become an integral part of every human endeavour.

The debate over social licence – the new social contract that governments and corporates need to negotiate with the society – is acquiring dimensions that appear to question even the democratic basis of our societies. Szeman, in fact, stated so rather bluntly. The issue of climate change is no longer about individual choice, it is a collective responsibility. By embracing globalization, western societies have outsourced pollution.

Klein quoted Andreas Malm, who has termed climate change as an “atmospheric expression of class warfare.” Writing in Jacobin, Malm says, “Few resources are so unequally consumed as energy. The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. The difference in energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold — and that is an average Canadian, not the owner of five houses, three SUVs, and a private airplane.”

The debate also needs to factor the traditional rights of people over their lands. In Canada, it’s the first nations people, who have been systematically deprived of their economic right as their traditional resources have been usurped by the government and the corporates that profit from extractive resource sectors.

The debates were both insightful and disturbing; and Thomas King, the critically-acclaimed Canadian author, gave it a human dimension. The academics and the journalist marshalled facts, arguments and statistics to prove their contention, the author touched the audience’s heart by telling a simple story of the greed for more candles. As part of Literature Matters program, Lee Maracle, one of the first indigenous authors to be published in the 1970s, ‘robed’ Thomas King with a handmade blanket she had woven together from pieces of cloth gathered from around the world. Later, Joseph Boyden paid a tribute to King.

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