Growing Up Without Growth

The Sustainability Movement Learns to Recognize Social Justice

graphic Jennifer Aedy

The sustainability movement is growing up.

It now recognizes that a sustainable world hinges not on a development-focused model, but on three pillars: social justice, ecological health and economic equality. We saw this attitude during the Concordia Student Union’s Rethink Sustainability Street Fest at the beginning of the semester, which reached out to groups that maintain these ideals, like the Quebec Public Interest Research Group and the Centre for Gender Advocacy.

However, the sustainability movement at large is still in the process of realizing that its initiatives don’t exist in silos. These groups are finding that they cannot work on just one pillar at a time—all three are deeply interconnected.

We are seeing this growing awareness at Concordia as austerity measures have struck the university. There was the immediate loss of the Sustainable Transportation Coordinator, the dropping of teaching assistants, staff reductions in the health centre, the Voluntary Departure Program and complaints in student departments about fewer assignments. These are jarring reminders that we must acknowledge the larger economic context in which we operate.

Austerity has massive implications across the board. In September, Sustainable Concordia received a letter asking for support from Eco-Quartier Peter-McGill, a community sustainability organization in the downtown district where the Sir George Williams campus is located. They said they were losing half of their budget and would be forced to let go of half of their staff.

Several years ago, the Réseau québécois des groupes écologistes, a network of environmental groups based in Montreal, had its budget cut by 15 per cent. We can see how decreases in government funding impede environmental organizations’ functioning.

The trend continued with Quebec’s Department of Environment, which has seen its budget repeatedly slashed since its inception in 1979.

When the title “sustainable development” was tacked on to the department in 2003, the core mission of protecting the environment was overridden by that of “sustainable” resource extraction. In “sustainable development,” there is only development.

Today, we see Minister David Heurtel allowing work on the TransCanada Energy East pipeline and encouraging the construction of an oil export terminal at Cacouna, a municipality just outside of Rivière-du-Loup, despite the repeated warnings of diverse community and environmental groups. This shows that the department’s “sustainable development” is, in fact, greenwashing.

This process is occurring throughout Canada. In 2012, we saw $88.2 million in cuts to Environment Canada, $79.3 million in cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the scrapping of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

This is just the most recent aspect of an ongoing dismantlement project. In the mid-1990s, we saw 35 per cent of Environment Canada’s budget cut, as well as a cut of 44 per cent in the Ontario Ministry of Environment. These cuts set the stage for the 2000 Walkerton Tragedy. Seven people died in the small town of Walkerton, Ontario, when the water supply became poisonous. This was because of a slackening of monitoring and testing practices due to budget cuts and poor policy.

The logic of austerity beats on the rhetoric of deficit zero, fetishizing the need to get out of debt but ignoring the process by which we got into it. Over the past 50 years, the provincial government has reduced corporate tax rates from 40 to nearly 20 per cent, reduced the capital tax of 0.6 per cent to 0 per cent between 2006 and 2011 and reduced income tax brackets from a progressive 16-division scheme to one using only 4.

Previously, people making very high salaries would pay higher rates of taxes on the higher portions of their salaries. The inverse of this (and the direction of the aforementioned reductions) is Alberta’s flat tax, or one-bracket system, where people making $20,000 per year would pay the same rate as those making millions. By reducing government revenues by reducing various forms of tax revenues, principally benefiting the rich and the private sector, these deficits have been manufactured.

The process by which austerity functions is akin to subsidization, whereby cuts in health, education and the environment become profits for corporations and the ultra-rich. Quite literally, as cuts to corporate tax rates lower state revenues, cuts to public services make up the difference. The poor subsidize these profits with their health, while students do the same through brutal reductions in quality of education and increasing fees. The environment subsidizes through its destruction. It must be mentioned that all of this rests on the oldest national subsidy of all—the initial and ongoing theft of land and attempted cultural genocide of indigenous peoples.

Austerity is the ongoing process of privatizing profit and socializing costs. We see this at large when we look at climate change, the explosion in Lac-Mégantic, the deregulation of environmental protections, the de-financing of environmental protection agencies and the dismantling of our public services as represented by health, education and cultural production in the CBC.

Furthermore, this process is global. Britain’s environmental agency is being forced to let go of 1,400 employees—half of their staff—between 2013 and 2016. In 2012, there was a massive amount of smog over Athens as austerity-induced rates of poverty forced people to use less efficient forms of heating fuel.

Through Sustainable Concordia’s definition of sustainability reflecting social justice, ecological health, and economic equality, the Sustainability Actions Fund’s application form’s inclusion of social justice as a stipulation and the CSU’s Rethink Sustainability Street Fest, we see that sustainability groups at Concordia are beginning to recognize that they don’t exist in a bubble.

While reforms of operations in an institution like Concordia are important, understanding and addressing the root causes of un-sustainability is essential. The government policy which feeds this economy which turns social well-being and the environment into private profit must be tackled.

Alternatives to social injustice, economic inequality and ecological destruction exist. We must build within our movements the courage and political power to demand and implement them, together.

Join us on Nov. 24 at the Concordia Town Hall on Austerity, from 5-7 p.m., where we will further discuss the implications of and potential solutions to austerity.

_Mike Finck is the External Coordinator for Sustainable Concordia _