When asked what he thought of Western civilization, the story goes, Mahatma Gandhi replied: “That would be a good idea.”
Gandhi died in 1948, yet here we are 66 years later and his quote remains fresh.
Yes, we have seen many dramatic changes in the world since Gandhi’s time. We have seen humans walk on the moon, tear down the Berlin Wall and rightfully place South Africa’s Apartheid regime in the dustbin of history. There are many singular events that speak to human ingenuity and our capacity for social justice. However, we have yet to eradicate the extremes of poverty and hunger, social and gender inequality thrive, human rights are ignored on a mass scale and the fossil fuels industry continues on its merry, greedy way impervious to its role in promoting the climate change crisis awaiting us.
On issues of inequality and climate change alarm bells ring loud, but for our own governments—federal and provincial—the only response is no response. “Let’s pretend we are not part of the global human community. No need to worry about widening inequality, no need to concern ourselves about growing greenhouse gas emissions. Just don’t smile while head is buried deep in the sand.”
Ignoring the most urgent issue of our time
The most recent climate change report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is sobering. “Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years,” it reads. If left unchecked, we are warned to expect more extreme weather events and long-lasting changes to our climate system. The solution is also clear: “Substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are at the core of limiting the risks of climate change.”
In response Canada’s conservatives revert to their mantra that Canada’s fossil fuel industry is responsible for a mere 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and the tar sands a smaller percentage still. In other words, we are so small we should be left alone in our gated, highly protected bubble. They ignore the fact that this is a global problem that requires we all do our part. There are no protective bubbles when it comes to climate change.
What our fossil fuels industries won’t tell you is that Canada has one of the highest carbon footprints on a per capita basis. If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average North American we would need four planet Earths. If you want to know who needs to change, it is we.
Given the Conservatives’ past record of inaction, one can expect more empty rhetoric about Canada doing its part. This includes obscuring the truth. Here is an excerpt from a Nov. 3 article in the Globe & Mail:
Responding to a French journalist’s question about the oil sands, Mr. Harper said Canada reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sands by 40 per cent in recent years. Asked for clarification, a spokesman for the Prime Minister later said the figure refers specifically to emissions intensity for oil sands upgrading between 1990 and 2011 – a distinction Mr. Harper did not make in his comments to reporters.
A 2013 Environment Canada report says increased oil sands production is expected to drive a rise in emissions from the oil and gas sector of 23 per cent between 2005 and 2020.’
Of course Canadian democracy is such that our national ‘majority’ Conservative government will continue to show nothing but contempt for the MPs who represent the 60 per cent of Canadians who did not vote Conservative. In place of tougher environmental regulations in 2012, the Conservatives introduced omnibus Bill C-38, which took the axe to the National Roundtable on Economy and Environment while dramatically weakening the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The message was clear: we have oil and gas pipelines to build.
Income inequality on the rise
Another topic that has gained global prominence is the widening inequality gap. Even the World Bank has called the prevailing levels of inequality totally unacceptable. In January 2014 Oxfam reported that the world’s 85 billionaires owned the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population, over 3.5 billion people. The wealth of the world’s richest 1 per cent of people amounts to $110 trillion, or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world. This is not a static figure. In fact, Oxfam estimates that the wealth of the super-rich has collectively increased by $668 million each day over the past 12 months.
Talk about set for life. Oxfam found that it would take the world’s richest man—Mexico’s Carlos Slim—220 years to spend his $80 billion fortune at a rate of $1 million a day. Oxfam is now calling for a moderate 1.5 per cent billionaire wealth tax which would raise $74 billion a year — enough to put every child in school and provide health care in the world’s poorest countries.
How has Canada responded to the widening divide between the rich and poor?
The Conservatives have decided that Canadians with bundles of money—corporations and rich individuals—need more money, and so tax cuts are the order of the day. Witness the Income Splitting Bill whereby higher-earning spouses are able to shift up to $50,000 of their taxable income to a lower-earning spouse. The end result is a lower tax bill for those with oodles of money. Isn’t it charming that this benefit is capped at $2,000? This tax break will result in a loss of revenue of over $4 billion in the coming two years.
Counter this madness with the latest Canadian HungerCount report, the only comprehensive study of food bank use in Canada, which states Canadians will make over 14,000,000 visits to food banks this year. That is equivalent to 25 times the population of Newfoundland and Labrador. On a monthly basis over 360,000 children will rely on a food banks for basic sustenance. The fact is our government could be taking action on tax fairness to reduce inequality here at home. We could be investing in affordable housing. How about a guaranteed livable income for all Canadians? Why not improve programs such as the Canada Pension Plan that would help many impoverished seniors live in dignity?
The goal remains that one day we will see western civilization, but it will require bringing down the curtain on Conservative ideology.
Bill Hynd worked for Oxfam Canada as an educator and campaigner for 30 years. He is currently the co-chair of the NL Social Justice Cooperative.
This article is part of an ongoing series produced by members of the Social Justice Cooperative Newfoundland and Labrador in collaboration with The Independent.
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