Sep 26, 2010

Protecting the environment and social justice: you can’t have one without the other


A couple of weeks ago there was a conference in Vancouver on building a green economy.  It was a conference with a difference.

Organized by the Columbia Institute, the conference focused on jobs and justice as well as the environment.  Roughly 15 unions and 10 environmental organizations came together to talk about meeting environmental challenges in a way that does not disenfranchise and impoverish working people.

On Friday evening David Foster, Executive Director of the American Blue Green Alliance talked about his experience with the sometimes difficult task of finding common ground between labour and environmental activists. 

The Alliance was launched in 2006 as a partnership between the United Steelworkers of America and the Sierra Club.  Since then it has grown to include other labour and environmental organizations.

Foster told the audience that the BG Alliance was based on the principle of identifying and working together on common issues, while still recognizing the difference between labour and environmental groups would continue to exist.  He talked about his personal realization that the two groups would need to work together because they are the only organizations in America working for real, progressive change.  Cheap oil and cheap energy, he told the audience, go hand in hand and are bad for both the environment and for working people.

 Foster shared his belief that every economic recovery had been led by a single sector and that today that role could be played by building a green economy.  That would mean a national commitment to things like transit, railroads, and energy efficiency in homes and in industry.

We had workshops the next day.  I facilitated three of these: Relocalization of the economy, Food Security in BC and Financing retrofits.  To me the most interesting session was on food security.  Everyone in the room, regardless of where they were from had a personal connection to how we produce the food we eat. 

The conference was not a complete love in.  At the end of the second day the most important ideas were put up on the wall on flip charts.  People were asked to vote for or against them using red and green sticky dots, and there were lots of red dots on some issues.

But more important, there was a lot of agreement on a lot of issues. 

Why was this conference important?  I think we are reaching a social consensus that something needs to be done about the environment.  If we are not in a crisis now it is coming.  But so far governments have paid little attention to involving the people who will pay the price either for a deteriorating environment, or for fixing the problem.  Here in BC, as Marc Lee points out in an earlier blog, we have a carbon tax whose main impact is to raise taxes for low and middle income people and lower them for the rich (Marc also spoke to the conference on Saturday).

To really change the way we live we need buy in from working people.  That means they have to be involved with the decisions and they have to be treated fairly.  The Columbia Institute’s conference was an important start to this discussion.  The work of the CCPA’s Climate Justice Project makes critical contributions to the discussion.

We cannot protect the climate on the backs of working people.  Too often I have heard Walmart touted as a “green” company and for me it’s not good enough to be green if you have poverty level wages and poor labour practices.

If we are serious about change, social justice and protecting the environment need to go together.

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