Sustaining Change from the Middle Ground

Michael M’Gonigle and James Biggar expose how middle organizations are breeding grounds for change and sustainability.

“Climate porn.” That’s how the Institute for Public Policy Research in Britain depicts the portrayal of the climate crisis by media and governments. In the organization’s report, “Warm Words,” the authors claim the apocalyptic and external framing of global warming convinces the public that climate change is inevitable and therefore beyond human control. In the context of that frame, appeals for changes in individual behaviour, such as the Liberals’ One Tonne Challenge and the endless “Ten Things you Can Do” lists, seem pretty lame, even to advocates.

“Climate porn.” That’s how the Institute for Public Policy Research in Britain depicts the portrayal of the climate crisis by media and governments. In the organization’s report, “Warm Words,” the authors claim the apocalyptic and external framing of global warming convinces the public that climate change is inevitable and therefore beyond human control. In the context of that frame, appeals for changes in individual behaviour, such as the Liberals’ One Tonne Challenge and the endless “Ten Things you Can Do” lists, seem pretty lame, even to advocates. After all, how many times can a dutiful bicyclist be squeezed into the curb by a lumbering SUV before she feels there is no point to her action?

To individualize responsibility for global crises is disempowering in the face of systemic roadblocks to meaningful change. We admonish people to ride a chronically under-funded bus service and then leave them waiting at the stop in the rain as the infrequent and over-crowded bus rumbles past. We encourage homeowners to buy energy efficient light bulbs, and then subsidize production of Alberta’s oil sands. Telling people to be good individual consumers is not enough when our collective decisions defeat their contributions to solving our problems. Worse, this approach displaces a more meaningful role for people as engaged citizens and active democrats. The latter role is fundamental to shaping a collective future through our shared social institutions. The focus on individual actions takes the politics both out of what is a deeply political challenge, producing real action through the institutions in our society that create collective change, and, fundamentally, out of deciding what kind of shared future we want to create with those actions.

When Canadians are not looking to the individual they are looking to federal and provincial governments for leadership and solutions. In regard to the climate crisis in particular, those governments have been inadequate on both counts. The fact that public opinion has shifted decisively about the causes of the climate crisis is not enough to expect this to change. The political economy of an energy-intensive and export-oriented country is highly resistant to the necessary transformations in the ways that we harness and use energy. Legislation that creates hard targets that are tough enough to avert catastrophic climate change, is only a new beginning in this struggle. Without silver bullets from technology, we do not yet know how to reach those targets. And given the complexity of the problem, the pathways to those targets will be different in different places. Furthermore, given the scale of change that we face, it is unclear that we are now prepared to make some of the choices that may be required. While it is relatively easy to agree to abstract percentages and far-away dates, it is much harder to then realize the diversity of changes to our society that will be required to make those goals. In addition, we can expect those who worked to sow doubt in the causes of climate change, to work just as hard to sow doubt in the solutions.

To chart a path to a just and sustainable Canada, and to then stick to that path over the long run, we must focus on planning at all levels, and engaging people so those plans get implemented. Given the track record of federal and provincial governments on this issue, and given the deep structural challenges that it poses to the Canadian economy, we would be foolish to rely on those governments to provide either the necessary plans or the engagement – even if they do pass legislation for hard targets and broad policy tools like carbon taxes.

We need a new political geography that maps onto the landscape of our political consciousness the wide range of institutions that exist, unnoticed, between individual households on the one side, and the federal and provincial governments on the other. These middle institutions are the tangible places where citizens can engage in planning and implementing initiatives to develop a sustainable society.

Many of us live and work in places where practical change can happen: schools, universities, small- and medium-sized businesses, housing complexes, local and regional governments. This is where we can build things like a 21st century transit infrastructure, or a new social contract with local farmers to produce healthy food. At this level, we can try out new economic models that reduce the throughput of materials and energy, while improving real returns to people and communities. In this context, politics is no longer a remote activity left to specialists (the politicians), but a daily product of meaningful social engagement. For example, engaged citizens at the University of Toronto convinced that institution to source a portion of its cafeteria food from Local Flavour Plus. This is a big boost for an organization that supports local farmers by developing the stable demand that is necessary for them to produce a sustainable food supply for local markets. In other words, it is a practical piece of the process to transform what Torontonians eat.

At POLIS, an ecological governance research institute in Victoria, BC, our work has focused on the potential of universities, a particularly powerful set of middle institutions. In Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University, written by POLIS founder Michael M’Gonigle and research associate Justine Cara Stark, the authors show the wealth of assets that universities can bring to catalyze local and regional sustainability. Their broad expertise, deep research capacity and youthful creativity give universities the tools needed to create plans to deal with complex local problems, such as responding to the climate crisis. The physical presence and immense local economic impact of universities give them the tools to be major players in the implementation of those plans.

The potential for this combination of mind and matter is huge. One area where universities have already been playing a leading role is in the development of public transit systems. Several universities have introduced a U-Pass, a universal transit ticket for students. At the University of Victoria, this pass dramatically increased bus use, reduced car trips and provided a cash infusion that helped finance upgrades to the entire regional transit system. Directly improving bus service is something that people can get excited about because it makes a difference in their lives. It is a first step in creating the integrated transportation networks that will marginalize the private automobile and form a core element in the creation of an ecological city. Universities not only have a dozen or more departments that could help a city plan to make this a reality, but they can also form a key hub in the new network, and an anchor of demand for the new systems.

The potential of universities; however, is almost completely missing from our collective awareness and in discussions on climate change. Universities eschew a catalytic role in community issues because they do not often see a collective or local role for themselves.

One higher education institution that did realize an opportunity to create dramatic change is a college in Kinsale, Ireland. Twenty students from the local university were asked to create a plan to completely kick the town’s addiction to fossil fuels. Together with the community and other middle institutions, the students created the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan. The collaborative process for creating the plan engaged people as active citizens of their place. As a result, the diversity of perspectives made the plan realistic, and by engaging people, the process created the political support needed to get the town council to make it official policy. As it was adopted, graduating students created a non-profit group to guide its implementation. Now, if a small town and a small class in a small college can do this, shouldn’t we expect at least as much from Canadian universities and the communities in which they reside?

With over 20,000 people on campus, the University of Victoria is a mid-sized university with a considerable ecological footprint. It has thousands of people with the energy and expertise to forge effective responses to the local manifestations of the climate crisis. To take advantage of all this mental and material power, a network of students, staff, faculty and regional partners created Common Energy. This organization’s goal is to mimic Kinsale in that it will move the university beyond “climate neutral” so it does more to solve the climate crisis than it does to cause it.

The key to Common Energy’s success is its ability to engage people as active citizens in the creation of plans through collaborative networks. The combination of diverse perspectives makes it possible to deal with the complexity of the climate crisis, and the inclusion of regional partners makes it far more likely that those plans will be accurate and realistic. Members are empowered to decide what kind of university, city and region we want, instead of simply trying to limit the things we don’t care for. Finally, the process educates people about the challenge, building the deep support necessary to accept the solutions they have had a role in planning.

The potential for this strategy lies in the network relationships that can be built between middle institutions to reshape their local cities and regions. In partnership with a local environmental group, the Oak Bay Green Committee, Common Energy helped motivate the municipality of Oak Bay to create a climate change task force. Now, Common Energy will work with the task force to create plans for the municipality that include the university. This provides a model that will be used to create a network with municipalities and other middle institutions across the university’s region. How much can these networks do to respond effectively to the climate crisis? According to the Partnership for Climate Protection, a network of 135 municipalities across Canada, up to half of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions (350-million tonnes) is under the direct or indirect influence of municipal governments. So quite a bit can be done.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report 2006,” Canada has the fourth largest ecological footprint in the world. Along with Australia and the United States, Canada has been included in an ecological “axis of evil” by environmentalists. In the foreword to the Canadian edition of his recent book, Heat, George Monbiot writes, “You think of yourselves as a liberal and enlightened people, and my experience seems to confirm that. But you could scarcely do more to destroy the biosphere if you tried.”

Changing that track record is going to take robust planning and deep commitment. It’s time for universities and other middle institutions to take up the challenge of putting Canada on a new path toward sustainability. In doing so, they will reshape the social context that reverses the gains from virtuous individuals and make it difficult for our governments to lag behind their citizens.

James Biggar is an MA candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria and a member of University’s Board of Governors and the University of Victoria Sustainability Project, and a founding member of Common Energy.

References: Partners for Climate Protection, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, The Role of Municipal Governments in Climate Protection, p. 1
Greenhouse Gas Division, Environment Canada, Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, 1990-2003, Initial Submission, p. 10