– by Peter G. Prontzos –
Political Ecology: System Change Not Climate Change
Black Rose Books, 2019
When more than 97 percent of meteorologists, the federal Conservative party, and even KLM Airlines agree that humans are heating up our atmosphere and oceans to disastrous levels, that’s a climate crisis, not merely climate “change”.
However, when we hear about the terrible consequences of our growth-at-any-cost economy, many of us just tune out. After all, it’s no fun to contemplate a frightening future with more forest fires, tropical storms, food and water shortages, climate refugees, and disease.
And war. The Pentagon understands that such hardship will fuel more conflict and bloodshed. So for two decades it has been making plans to ensure that the U.S. will always come out on top of any future climate wars.
On the other hand, there are reasons to hope that if enough people take this threat seriously, we will not only survive the crisis with minimal suffering, but actually create a more peaceful, sustainable global system, while eliminating global poverty.
This is the positive vision that permeates, Political Ecology: System Change Not Climate Change, by Montreal’s Dimitrios Roussopoulos. Fifty years ago, Roussopoulos founded Black Rose Books, and has since published such writers as Noam Chomsky, Murray Bookchin, and George Woodcock. In Roussopoulos’ view, “the climate catastrophe is an epic war of the rich on the poor; corporate criminality on a global scale. Just one hundred corporations are responsible for 71 percent of emissions.”
While the destruction of nature increases, and shortages of food and clean water become undeniable, corporate priorities that place profit above people are also increasing global inequality, debt and stress levels – and not just in poor countries. In the words of Thoreau, more and more Canadians are leading “lives of quiet desperation”.
While time is running out, the truth is that humanity already has enough technology, wealth, and knowledge to save itself. A clear example of what can be done when faced with an existential crisis was the quick turn-around in the U.S. economy when it entered the Second World War. Not only did industry move from making washing machines to tanks and battleships in a matter of months, but the Depression ended almost overnight as the demand for workers virtually eliminated unemployment. The growing demand in North America and Europe for a “Green New Deal” references this successful re-orientation.
Roussopoulos does not believe that governments will somehow finally “get it” and do the right thing. Rather, he puts his hope on “building the force of a grass roots people-power movement” that will not only pressure those in power, but will help create a more directly democratic system – one that will “re-envision society and our relationship with nature” in a healthier way.
To realize this vision, it is imperative that citizens focus primarily at the local level to “create a network of democratic, ecological city governments, and reorganize regional economies” in a sustainable manner. Hopeful examples of this are the actions of U.S. cities and states such as California which are defying the federal government by investing heavily in green jobs and renewable energy, as well as bringing in stricter laws to reduce pollution. (Note: a recent study found that the hearts of city dwellers – as young as 3 years old – already “contain billions of toxic air pollution particles” that can lead to heart disease, brain damage and other health problems).
Roussopoulos ultimately focuses on the power of cities to lead the way in creating a more democratic and sustainable future. “The world’s cities…produce 80 percent of GDP. A preponderance of taxes come from cities. Their power is enormous. And people power, when concentrated, is formidable,” he explains.
He stresses that cities will succeed only if they indeed become more democratic and ecological while building alliances with each other. Ultimately, “the ecological crisis demands urgent systemic change, which is to say challenging and transcending a profit-centric economic system based on ruthless competition and growth for its own sake.”
“Growth for its own sake” is of course the nature of cancer which, left untreated, will destroy its host. Or, as ecologist William Rees explains, “you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.”
In Political Ecology, Roussopoulos gives us a roadmap – not only for surviving today’s multiple crises but for creating a better world at the same time.
Peter G. Prontzos is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Interdisciplinary Studies at Langara College in Vancouver.