A Social Democratic Party that Lost Its Way: Once-upon-a-time Canada’s New Democrats knew that there were Limits to Growth. They knew about the Club of Rome, about Silent Spring and about the Population Bomb. They knew that resources were finite and that their unrestricted extraction would cause irreparable damage. They knew that “growth” was the ideology of the cancer cell. Yes, in the 1970’s the environment was very much on the agenda. Party academic and scholar Charles Taylor spoke of “the politics of the steady-state” and John Harney ran his federal leadership campaign on those kinds of issues.
Here’s what the British Columbia NDP stated in 1972:
a. “An NDP government will undertake a study of the effects of continued exponential growth in the Province of B. C.
b. “Such a study of the exponential growth in B. C. would investigate the possibility of taking all steps deemed necessary to deal adequately with the situation.
c. “The Environmental Control Committee of the provincial NDP will study the adoption of a steady-state economic policy, the concept of progress and limited growth, and the party’s stand on this matter.”
d. “It is recommended that a federally-sponsored permanent research group be established to investigate all aspects of growth and to submit recommendations for action. Such a research group would be required to submit reports within two years of its establishment, and at subsequent two year intervals.”
e. “An NDP government will give top priority to environmental problems with particular emphasis on population control.”
f. “An NDP government will encourage all means which will bring about voluntary limitation of population.”
g. “Immediate steps will be taken to educate the public in the urgent necessity of halting population growth.”
(From Policies for People, Policies of the B.C. NDP 1961-78, p.30)
So what happened to all of this? Somehow the NDP lost its vision. Its prescient grasp of the impending ecological crisis slipped away into the hands of those who would have us believe that we can “have our cake and grow it too”. That we can have Economic Growth—“development”—and environmental integrity at the same time. They reconcile these contradictory goals with self-delusional, trendy oxymorons like “sustainable development” and---my personal favourite—“smart growth”. The NDP has become a party not just about dividing up the economic pie more equitably—but about “growing” the pie too. “Grow the pie to grow the revenues, and increased revenues will allow us to fund and maintain an endless laundry list of social services. Growth is not the problem you see. The problem is that the poorer among us are not in on the action. Apparently the NDP has not heard the terrible news: We’re living on a finite planet.
As I wrote in 2008, when the NDP was led by Jack Layton and the federal Liberals by Stephane Dion,
“In this they are not to be distinguished from any other party. Even the Greens, beneath their rhetoric, are committed to Economic Growth, because their leader Elizabeth May shares Layton, Harper and Dion’s goal of boosting Canada’s population to 40 million plus via immigration (). That's right folks. Greens and so-called 'environmentalists' somehow believe that you can add another Metro Toronto to Canada's population every decade without negative ecological impacts! Yeah, and you can eat a liter of ice cream every day and lose weight too. Immigration accounts for two-thirds of the country’s population growth, and it is that, coupled with per capita consumption rates, which drives economic growth. And economic growth is eclipsing wildlife habitat and spurring greenhouse emissions.
No Jack, it’s not about driving Green cars, or building windmills, or retro-fitting houses. It’s about stabilizing our population level, limiting economic growth, and finally establishing what we talked about 35 years ago—a steady-state economy.”
Well that was then and this is now, September of 2015, when the country is in the midst of a federal election campaign. A campaign where, once again, contending leaders employ histrionics and fake outrage to give the impression that each offers the voters a radically different choice than their rivals. And once again, many voters are buying it. Harper is the devil incarnate or he is the one man who can be trusted to guide us through tough economic times. The fate of the world hinges on stopping Stephen Harper or re-electing him. That is what rhetoric can do to peoples’ brains.
But if there is indeed a difference, it is, as Freud would have put it, “the narcissism of small differences”. The differences are so petty that each leader feels obliged to inflate them to stake out a distinctive position. All parties support continued hyper-immigration-driven rapid population and economic growth, but some are careful to couch it those aforementioned oxymoronic euphemisms like "sustainable growth", "sustainable development", and drumbeats, "smart growth" (smart extinctions? smart clear cuts? smart carbon emissions?).
The only difference between the Opposition Parties and Harper's Conservatives is that the former are more adept at Greenwash. Nothing better illustrates this point than the absurd contention of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair that he is committed to getting the oil sands oil to market, but will ensure that it will be extracted and delivered safely and responsibly in accordance with tougher environmental regulations. What Mulcair doesn’t get is that it is not how the oil is procured and shipped to market that is of crucial importance, but the fact that once “marketed” and received, customers are going to actually BURN it. How is Mulcair and his party going to “green” that? And this is the party that accused Stephen Harper of not being serious about tackling climate change.
No doubt Mr. Mulcair took his cue from the newly elected NDP Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, who shortly after assuming office this summer, declared that the oil sands project was a “tremendous asset” and an “international showpiece”. That’s quite an abrupt transition for a party that once regarded it as the planet’s most conspicuous environmental blight, and insisted that the oil sands was in reality the “tar” sands. Funny how that works.
Funny, except that Mother Nature is not laughing.
September 8, 2015