Elizabeth May's roadmap out of the mess

By Aaren Madden, July 2011

George Monbiot says environmentalists don’t have a clear vision of how to stop wrecking the planet. Elizabeth May says she does.


It just so happened that the day Elizabeth May became the first Green elected to parliament in Canada, the prominent UK environmentalist and writer George Monbiot wrote a column in which he argued that, as a movement, environmentalism is, well, lost. “None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess,” he laments in The Guardian piece titled, “The Lost World.” Calling for clarity and realistic discourse, he asked, “Where is the clear vision that can resist the planet-wrecking project?”

Elizabeth May was holding court in the centre of her bright and buzzing Sidney office the day I asked her Monbiot’s question. Leaning on a cane but radiant with the outcome of the still-recent election, she recalled her first acquaintance with Monbiot as team-mates for the Munk Debates on Climate Change in Toronto back in 2009, against Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson. “It was quite grim,” she said (see for yourself online). Days later in Copenhagen, she and Monbiot communicated frequently over the course of the UN Climate Change Conference.

In his May 2 column, and another on May 5, Monbiot, who is also the author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, suggested that, among environmentalists, there are three types of responses to the mess we’re in: There are those who try to accommodate a growth-based economy while becoming carbon-free with alternative energy sources; those who prefer “radical downsizing” to a land-based economy; and those who foresee economic collapse as an inevitable solution—“our doom is our salvation.” 

Each approach is riddled with its own crippling conundrums, wrote Monbiot. A system demanding perpetual economic growth cannot be “accommodated.” Any allowance for growth, including by renewables, simply leads to more growth—and more environmental problems. Britain’s goal of becoming carbon-free by 2030, for example, will be Sisyphean: “Growth then ensures that we have to address the problem all over again by 2050, 2070, and so on,” he observed. A steady state economy is the answer, but politically implausible.

As for returning to a land-based economy, how do we provide for manufacturing, even of basics like bricks and soap, at our current world population, not to mention the tough sell to your average entitled First World citizen? And collapse, Monbiot’s third response, just means we grab more furtively. “In East Africa,” he wrote, “ I’ve seen how, when supplies of paraffin or kerosene are disrupted, people don’t give up cooking; they cut down more trees.” 

“The problem we face,” Monbiot continued, “is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much. As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines, they’ll switch to ultra-deep reserves.” (It’s playing out in Canada and elsewhere now.)

Elizabeth May, as a long-time environmentalist who has authored seven books, including How to Save the World in your Spare Time, Global Warming for Dummies and Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy, seemed like the obvious Canadian to turn to for insight into the quandary Monbiot posed. But, though they share a deep mutual respect (he recently lambasted The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente in May’s defence), May doesn’t share Monbiot’s perspective in this case. “There are an awful lot of roadmaps for how we get out,” she assured me. She suggested the Vision Green platform as “a really down-to-earth way to get from where we are to a post-carbon economy while building jobs and building resilient, healthy communities all at the same time.” 

Following the Green Party plan, said May (and doing a little magical thinking), “we would reduce our emissions below 1990 levels substantially by 2020.” Since we waste about 60 percent of the energy we use, even a 20 percent reduction “would be a huge impact on our economy; a ‘barrel’ of energy saved is just as valuable as a barrel of oil found,” she reasoned. Referring to tar sands and shale gas, she echoed her colleague. “All of these very destructive technologies—to get a bit more fossil fuel out before we run out—cost more, take more energy.” Conservation brings enormous potential quickly, without the need to invent any new technologies, she noted. “That’s what we should be doing first, and bringing in renewables at the same time, so they are ready to pick up the slack when we are finished maximizing energy efficiency.” 

May envisions a form of accommodation that grows the economy, suggesting we can have our cake and eat it too. The real problem, as she sees it, is that “We are going in the opposite direction because Stephen Harper’s government doesn’t believe it’s necessary to do anything about the climate crisis and doesn’t want our economy to diversify or modernize.”

Here’s an example of why she says that will be our undoing. Before UN climate talks in Mexico last year, the Conservative majority in the senate killed the Climate Change Accountability Act. Prime Minister Harper said implementing it would have cost millions of jobs. (May rolled her eyes at the “ridiculous” figure.) While in Cancun, May asked Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist for the World Bank, to comment on Harper’s claim. She wishes all Canadians heard his response. “If Canada stays dirty—that’s an interesting way to be seen in the world—if Canada stays dirty, it will cost you investment and jobs; it will cost your economy; because other countries are going to start applying trade sanctions against countries that don’t take climate seriously.” The fact that addressing climate change was conspicuously absent as an election issue—something May attributes in part to her exclusion from the debates—doesn’t bode well.

“Internationally,” May predicts, “anger is going to increase toward Canada, because we are really in the way in global negotiations.” Monbiot’s own post-Copenhagen rant, “Canada’s Image Lies in Tatters” in The Guardian on November 30, 2009, echoed that sentiment. Calling Canada a “thuggish petro-state,” Monbiot wrote, “The government’s scheming at the climate talks is doing for its national image what whaling has done for Japan.” May thinks Canadians should open their eyes to the country’s deteriorating democracy and withering international reputation, and “be prepared for the next election.” 

Recently, in a UN report, the Canadian government failed to include figures stating increased pollution from the tar sands. Worse may be yet to come, according to May. “I think we probably have to brace ourselves,” she said, noting that several new cabinet ministers—Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty, John Baird—are from the Mike Harris era in Ontario, where the approach was, according to May, “to do maximum damage at the very beginning of his mandate and hope the people had forgotten when they went to vote in four years.” 

To counteract that, she plans to forge bonds where she can, especially within the Conservative Party. “I hope to find non-partisan ways to move forward,” she said. “We are not going to get anywhere just by screaming.”

While we watch what unfolds this summer, May is doing her own soul searching. She’d dearly like to visit her daughter, who is studying in Europe. It would mean an opportunity to also see George Monbiot. “But,” she confided, “It will be the first time I have taken a plane to go on a vacation in ten years.” 

For her part, Aaren Madden often pines for a return to a land-based economy and what she unrealistically imagines as a simpler, saner life.