For the record, the following is the text I roughly spoke from at today’s Friends of Durika conference. It may or may not make a compelling blog entry, but this seemed like a good place to park it anyway.
I’m glad to hear, in Kim’s introduction this afternoon, that we have something in common. You’re crazy. Me too. I run for a political party that, we were told, was never going to be taken seriously. And I advocate solutions to our problems that, we are told, are unrealistic. People say we’re crazy, and they tell us to “get real.”
At the same time, I’m a little humbled to be here, and I’ll tell you why. Earlier today I was speaking with a woman who was at the founding convention of the Green Party. (For the record, I wasn’t there, and would have been in diapers if I was.) She’s still involved, but her energy has become diverted to other organizations and action as well. In her words, “I got less political and more hands on.” Of course, that’s like you folks.
You got real. You’re accomplishing real things and demonstrating that the solutions that people like us advocate to the many threats facing our species and our planet are realistic solutions. And though the process we discover that what’s actually unrealistic is the path that we’re on now.
Today I want to talk about how we make political rhetoric real. And specifically, I’m going to talk about what language we use to bring others to our side. Because that’s part of my role as a politician: to speak to people in a way that they understand and that will ultimately cause them come to adopt my point of view. And I hope that’s what I can contribute to the discussion today.
First want to start by giving you a brief primer on the Green Party of Canada, so that you know where I’m coming from and can see how much common ground we share.
By way of introducing you to the Green Party, I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer. And that is simply that I don’t want to speak to you in a partisan way. That’s possible, because in many ways, the Green Party is a non-partisan political party. Both our membership, and our policies, come from the other three major Canadian political parties. We say that we are neither left nor right, but out front.
But what, exactly, does that mean? In part, it means that instead of subscribing to a political ideology of left or right, we have adopted the six key values of the Global Green movement. Those values are:
- Ecological Wisdom
- Social Justice
- Participatory Democracy
- Respect for Diversity
And I know that last one is very important for Durika as well, thinking of your work towards biodiversity.
Sometimes it’s strange to speak to a group like this because, in some ways of course, I’m preaching to the choir. So I thought an interesting thing for us to talk about today would be: “how do we make the choir bigger?” Politics is about using language to persuade other people of your position, towards the goal of getting your ideas implemented. So let’s look at the language we use.
Green is the new black. Green is sexy. A few years ago, books like Collapse and A Short History of Progress were national best sellers. Following our natural cultural progression, popularity in literature became popularity in film this year with the release of An Inconvenient Truth. Wired magazine, the bible of “the next big thing,” put Al Gore on the cover and devoted a good chunk of the issue to neo-environmentalism. Last month The Toronto Star ran a feature story about several people who are discovering that environmental awareness is economically very valuable.
The Green Party is another gauge of public interest in this area. In just two elections The Green Party of Canada has gone from 0.8% of the vote to 4.5% of the vote, and in a recent poll we were at 10% nationally.
One of the ways we’ve done that is by adopting economic language to describe ecological problems and solutions. I wasn’t surprised to see the same thing on the Friends of Durika website, where biodiversity is described as “natural capital.” More about this later.
The downside, of course, is that much of the language used by corporations and politicians around issues of ecological wisdom has been greenwash: words on a page that don’t materialize into real action. When a company like Shell can claim to be operating in a sustainable way, we have to question whether or not that word has now lost all meaning.
As an exercise, let’s unpack this paragraph from the Friends of Durika website:
“Over the past fourteen years, they have created a sustainable community that is a true eco-village. Their energy source is alternative, their food organic and the organizational structure of the community is both democratic and consensus based. There is no religious affiliation nor do they subscribe to any particular political party.”
Let’s start with the word “sustainability.” One of the major critics of the word is author Michael Crichton, who argues that because natural systems are always changing and evolving, that sustainability cannot be defined or shown to exist. Now, I don’t agree with him. For example, when you build a suburb of Calgary or Toronto and start drawing down the water table faster than it fills up again, that’s clearly not a very sustainable action. However, I think it demonstrates that the word has not been well defined. I suspect that most people don’t have a very good understanding of what it means.
So let’s attempt to define it. The best definition I’ve seen is from Mike Nickerson, one of the elders of The Green Party and the author of several books, including his most recent, “Life, Money and Illusion.” Mike defines sustainability in the following way:
Well-being can be sustained when activities:
1. Use materials in continuous cycles.
2. Use continuously reliable sources of energy.
3. Come mainly from the qualities of being human (i.e. creativity, communication, coordination, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development.)
Long term well-being is diminished when activities:
1. Require continual inputs of non-renewable resources.
2. Use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.
3. Cause cumulative degradation of the environment.
4. Require resources in quantities that undermine other people’s well-being.
5. Lead to the extinction of other life forms.
I think that’s a pretty good definition, but it doesn’t fit into a soundbite. Therefore, when I speak to people I take the first point, “use materials in continuous cycles,” and focus on that language. We are the only species that creates waste. In nature, all waste is food. In the language of Ray Anderson, our economy is a linear “take-make-waste” economy. We need to transition to a cyclical economy, where materials move from cradle to cradle. We need to challenge economic indicators, like the GDP, which actually goes up in response to natural and other disasters.
The next phrase in that paragraph from the Friends of Durika website that jumped out at me was “their energy source is alternative.” Of course, the question I’d ask is, “alternative to what?” Up until the lat sixties, 100% of Ontario’s electricity mix was renewable. It was hydro generation, which is why we have this strange language relic in Ontario where we call all electricity “hydro.” In the late sixties, however, we introduced “alternative” energy sources. You know, things like coal, and nuclear. Just forty years later, and now “hydro” is the alternative.
Next, “their food [is] organic.” Here’s a fun pop-quiz: what’s the opposite of organic food? Ask most people in a supermarket, and they’re going to say “normal.” There’s organic food, and then there’s normal food. Well, we know that there’s nothing normal about putting poisons (pesticides) on your food. Or about building an entire agricultural system around oil-based fertilizers.
And finally, Durika is referred to as an “eco-village.” Over the past week I’ve been struggling a bit to explain to people what Durika is. It’s a place where people understand that materials need to be used in continuous cycles. It’s a place with natural energy, instead of the unnatural alternatives. It’s a place where they grow normal food, not food with artificial chemicals in the form of pesticides and fertilizers. Durika is a village first, and eco-village second. I know, of course, that it is a very special and extraordinary place, but it shouldn’t be. It’s just a place where, more or less, things are done right.
Thanks to your work, to the people of Durika, and to other communities like it, we are proving that there are realistic, wise solutions to the problems our communities and our planet are facing. And when you do that, when you take political ideas and turn them into real action, that’s when you can look your biggest critics in the eye and say, “who’s crazy now?”