Viewed from the perspective of geological history, our current climatic and economic conditions are unusual. For most of the last 60 million years, the climate has been wildly unstable. It was only 10,000 years ago that it settled into its current stable state, and within this period that the Holocene emerged, during which human societies shifted their relationship with nature though agriculture, and then creating complex settled socio-economic forms, including capitalism.
Despite its omnipresence today, capitalism itself is very young. But it has its roots in that stabilisation of the climate and the subsequent development of agriculture. Fully-fledged global capitalism has been with us for no more than 300 years. In the 4.5 billion year history of the earth, capitalism is a brief moment within the blink of an eye that is human existence.
But this brief moment is a global force. It is capitalism that has placed us on a path to leave the stable climate of the Holocene. Thanks to capitalist development, the earth is currently 0.8 of a degree warmer than the pre-industrial average. Without overthrowing capitalism, we are likely to warm the earth to levels that humans as a species have never lived with.
This should terrify socialists. As I will argue here, the environmental system and the economy have co-evolved. The economy is dependent on the environment. Once we leave the stable climatic conditions of the last 10,000 years, we have very little guidance on how to build a socio-economic system that works. There is no particular reason to think the systems we have developed in one set of environmental conditions will flourish in another. There is also no reason to believe that such conditions provide fertile ground for the development of a more compassionate or humane socio-economic system.
If we want to stand a chance of building socialism in the near future, we must become eco-socialists and stop catastrophic climate change now. At the same time, to stop catastrophic climate change, environmentalists must also become eco-socialists. The dynamics that drive climate change are core to capitalism. Serious action on climate change will necessarily amount to the first steps of a programme to end capitalism.
The economy, the energy system, and the environment: co-evolutionary systems.
The economy, the energy system and the environment have evolved together. They draw on one another, passing materials between them and absorbing one another’s wastes. All economic activity ultimately rests on the transformation of material resources. These must be drawn from the environment and then worked by labour. Marx makes this interdependency explicit:
The use values… i.e. the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements–matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature.1
Marx uses the example of linen–which is produced by workers (labour) who transform the fibres of the flax plant (environment). But this interdependency also holds true for more modern commodities. For example, the servers that host the files for music streaming services are made of up various minerals and metals that have been rearranged by labour.
An additional interdependency comes in the form of energy. At every stage of the production of a commodity, energy is being used to transform matter from one form to another. Metals are heated, melted and transformed into iPhones. Cotton is grown, harvested, woven, and dyed to make scrubs worn by surgeons. The energy used in these processes cannot be created. It can only be transformed.
All energy used in the economy is entropic: it comes from a repurposing of energy found in the earth system, and exacting it in return for a cost. Coal is dug from the ground and burnt, solar energy is captured by photovoltaics, or in plants that we cook and eat. The energy system which enables economic activity is entirely dependent on the environment.
We see here how the environment influences the economy. The economy is the process of transforming materials extracted from the environment by repurposing energy flows from the earth system. The result of this, is, to quote Marx’s citation of the economist William Petty, that when it comes to material wealth, “labour is its father and the earth its mother”.2 But at the same time, the environment and the energy system are shaped by the economy. The priorities of the economic system determine the valuation of each element, as well as which materials are extracted, changing the composition, look and dynamics of the environment.
The practice of extraction itself is not exclusive to capitalism. Agricultural practices that pre-date capitalism have reshaped our landscapes. Take sheep farming, for example.3 Heavy grazing tends to change the biological make up of heathland. Eventually, heathland may lose all of its herbs and woody species and become grassland. As grasses can survive for longer as the sheep eat them than woody plants and herbs, the transition from heathland to grassland can make conditions more favourable for sheep grazing as the sheep have more to eat. This is less helpful for bird life, as the grasses are a poor habitat substitute and the sheep compete with birds for certain types of fruit, and reduce the availability of various insects. Through pastoral grazing economic activity has transformed former heathland landscapes.
Climate change is another example of the co-evolution of the economy and the environment, but this time, one specific to capitalism. As we will see, the two are inextricably linked. Without fossil fuel deposits, capitalism could not have become the dominant force it is today. Similarly, without capitalism, fossil fuels may never have become the backbone of the economy.
Coal, the great divergence and the origins of capitalism
Between the mid 1500s and 1900, there was an explosion of coal use in England. On average, English coal use more than doubled every half century during this time period. By 1900 coal represented 92% of English energy use and was providing 25 times more energy than all energy sources combined had in the mid 1500s.
Over this time period the English economy also grew rapidly. For mainstream economic historians, the period from 1700 onwards marks the start of ‘the great divergence’. England began the industrial revolution and its economy took off, becoming much larger than other economies that had until that point been a similar size.
It is not a coincidence that coal use and economic growth expanded simultaneously. Coal is a high quality fuel. It offers a much greater amount of energy out for every unit of energy required to produce it than wood, for example. Consequently, it enables more work to be done–more materials transformed – than muscle power alone, or even wood or water–the dominant fuel sources in the nascent English industrial economy.
But the geographical distribution of coal is not, by itself, enough to explain English economic growth or the ‘great divergence’. In 1700, China had widespread domestic coal use, just like England. And until 1700 China had a similar sized economy, with similar levels of market activity. But neither Chinese coal use nor the Chinese economy grew exponentially in the way that England’s did.
The difference was the consolidation of capitalist social relations in England. We can locate the pressures that lead to capitalism, and the capitalist exploitation of coal, in the agrarian economy of 1500s England. As these pressures grew, they drove coal use and economic growth in England. Though pre-capitalist China was incredibly well-developed, had an extensive use of wage-labour within markets, it never became dominated by proto-capitalists, and so did not develop the same systematic pressures. Coal use and the economy, subsequently, did not see the same qualitative expansion.
Political Marxism and the Fossil Economy
Archetypical of the Political Marxist approach to modes of production, Ellen Meiksens Wood argues that a capitalist economy is one where a majority of people depend on the market to meet their basic needs.4 This distinguishes capitalism from feudalism, in which there is a large peasant class largely self-sufficient in terms of basic needs, and in which the more powerful classes depend not on market power to support their consumption, but on military and extra-economic power. Wood further distinguishes between the form of markets under capitalism and those that characterise pre-capitalist economies. She argues that markets originally functioned and made profit by providing a means of getting goods that could only be produced in one part of the world to other parts, where those goods could not be produced. She goes on to argue that capitalist markets operate differently: profit here is achieved by reducing costs and improving productivity.
Though substantially debated, this approach was developed by Wood (alongside Richard Brenner) as a reaction to what she saw as ahistorical explanations of the role of markets in the development of capitalism—particular the claim, coming from Adam Smith, that capitalism is “…the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”5 Against this, Wood argues that capitalism began in England because of its unique constellation of social conditions.
In her landmark work The Origin of Capitalism,6 Wood argues that capitalism could only have begun in agrarian England. Unlike other nations with similarly sized economies, England had the unique combination of a large national market, substantial numbers of tenant farmers (as opposed to peasants, tied to the land by social convention), and highly centralised state power. These three components come together to create a transition to a market dominated economy. Highly centralised state power took political and military power away from land owners. So unlike in Holland, for example, the primary way for landowners to exploit the surplus of their workers was through market means rather than direct coercion. This was possible because of the existence of the large national market in which they could sell goods for a profit, and because of the existence of tenant farmers, which meant they could remove unproductive farmers from their land.
It is the development of capitalist markets, as Wood describes them, that creates the conditions for fossil fuel exploitation. Capitalist markets, like all economic systems, turn on the necessity of using economic tools to extract surplus. This dynamic creates capitalism’s drives to reinvest in productivity growth and to discipline the workforce in order to increase output. Because landowners were now dependent on the market for their own livelihoods, they tried to reduce costs and maximise outputs. This fundamental change in the nature of production created a system in which the ability of energy to do extra work became very attractive. Although Wood never directly discusses energy, her work has influenced Andreas Malm, whose Fossil Capital7 does pick up the energy question.8
Malm argues that under the conditions of capitalism, coal came to be a tool of social control. Coal centralises production, bringing workers under one roof. This serves the dual purpose of making them less able to embezzle from their employers, allowing improved scales of production, and also enabling employers to more easily regulate the times of work and levels of production. In addition, coal—alongside the machinery it allows—improves productivity: by giving them a greater source of energy than food and their muscles alone, coal increases the amount of output that can be produced by workers.
Only in England did the capitalist class benefit from these features of coal. Economic structures elsewhere followed fundamentally different logics that did not reward productivity and output growth. Though markets existed outside of England, central power and surplus was derived from military and political power, and only peripherally from economic power. Consequently, although productivity increases may have occurred by chance, societies were not systematically driven by the need to continuously produce more, or to do so more productively. As Debeir et al. put it, Chinese coal use:
…did not create new social needs, did not constantly push the borders of its own market outwards…proto-industrialisation and economic growth were remarkable achievements but failed to generate an accelerated division of labour.9
To understand this more fully, let us now examine the nature of capitalist markets in more detail.
Capitalist Markets and the Pressures to Grow
The ecological economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor call the above dynamic the “productivity trap”.10 It occurs because, under capitalism, workers must be able to sell their labour to be able to obtain a decent standard of living. Capitalists depend on market power for their profits and therefore constantly reinvest in productivity gains. Productivity gains mean fewer workers are needed to produce a unit of output. So if output stops growing, employment will fall. This creates a legitimate desire amongst workers for more growth, and gives governments a mandate to do everything they can to expand economic activity.
Moreover, this ‘productivity trap’ is self-reinforcing. The expansion of markets drives the division of labour. Adam Smith argued that as workers become more specialised, they are better able to improve the production processes they’re engaged with. And at a higher level of specialisation you develop whole classes of workers whose job is purely to make production more efficient. In this way market expansion itself leads to productivity gains. But as people become more specialised this means that they come to depend on markets to get more and more of their goods—because (to use a personal example) people who sit in offices reading long-dead economists for a living don’t spend much time growing food, sewing clothes, or saving lives. So the expansion of markets creates both the conditions for further growth and the need for it.
We also need to talk about consumer capitalism. Innovations leading to productivity gains do not in themselves create a market for the greater volume of goods produced. This means that capitalism must alter consumption as well as production. Today, this increasingly involves the stimulation and artifical creation of consumer needs and desires by the capitalist class—who need us to keep consuming if they are to continue earning profits. William Morris argued that in order to get and maintain profits, capitalists must sell a “mountain of rubbish…things which everybody knows are of no use”. In order to create demand for these useless goods, capitalists stirred up:
a strange feverish desire for petty excitement, the outward token of which is known by the conventional name of fashion—a strange monster born of the vacancy of the lives of rich people
A substantial body of more modern work suggests that current society encourages the idea that consumption is the path to self-betterment. Psychologist Philip Cushman argues that the dominant present configuration of the “self” is as an empty vessel that requires filling up with consumer goods.11 The emptiness, he argues, comes from a lack of community, tradition, and shared meaning. These are not things that will be solved through consumption. Under consumer capitalism, there comes a collective inability to imagine social and personal change except through consumption. As a result, even ‘radical’ leftist futures tend to revolve around ever increasing levels of material consumption, rather than imagining new ways to live that prioritise our need for community and purpose beyond consumption.
No decarbonisation under capitalism
Because of the structural drivers towards growth that we see under capitalism, it is extremely unlikely that capitalism can avoid catastrophic climate change. The structural drive for growth means that efforts to reduce carbon emissions will be overwhelmed by the expansion of economic activity. This is controversial to most mainstream environmentalists (and to many socialists). But it is the clear experience of the history of capitalism.
To date, resources have not been conserved under capitalism. Rather when we become more efficient or find new resources, this frees up resources that are used by other parts of the capitalist machine. This explains why, for example, renewable energy and nuclear power remain only a small part of the global energy system (Figure 2). Under capitalism, low-carbon energy sources have grown but they have not replaced fossil fuel at any meaningful scale. Instead low-carbon energy is simply another energy pot available to fuel growth in economic activity in order to generate profits.
Figure 2 Global Primary Energy Use by type, 1900-2014. Source: Author’s own calculations based on data from De Stercke, 2014.
The same is also true of energy efficiency gains. Energy efficiency can be a key contributor for decarbonising the global economy. But only if it is coupled to a plan to limit the size of the economy. Under capitalism, energy efficiency measures actually drive economic growth. This happens for the same reason renewable energy doesn’t lead to decarbonisation. Energy efficiency improves productivity and reduces costs. In this way it reinforces capitalist growth imperatives, driving the expansion of the economy which requires more energy to be used overall.
This is also why progressive action on climate change will undermine capitalism. We will only successfully avoid catastrophic climate change if we are able to break the dominance of the market, and break the social imaginary that ineffectually ties fulfilment to consumption.
So, where do we go from here?
The economy, the energy system, and the environment are all inextricably linked. Combining ecological economics and Political Marxism, I have set out a framework in which climate change can be seen not only as a consequence of capitalism but as fundamental to it. Widespread fossil fuel use was enabled by, and necessary for, the capitalist dynamics of productivity growth and expansion. Climate change is a feature, not a bug of capitalism.
To avoid catastrophic climate change, we have to break the expansionary cycle of the economy. Otherwise technological improvements, renewable energy, and energy efficiency gains will do nothing but add to the stock of ways that capitalists grow the economy and their profits. Likewise carbon taxes and other market mechanisms will simply reinforce the core dynamics of the market and any positive effects will be overwhelmed by growth. Growth will increase energy use, including fossil fuel use. This will plunge us into a world that we do not know how to live in. It is likely that ‘hothouse earth’ will eventually destroy capitalism. But not before destroying the livelihoods of millions through extreme weather, greater incidence of disease, and ecological breakdown. There is no reason to believe this will lead to a better future.
Breaking the expansionary cycle of the economy in a just way requires rolling back markets. We must instead use commons, household, and state-based production as the principal means of meeting the collective needs of society. Only in this way can we break the societal drive for productivity growth and expansion. There is nothing inherently more sustainable in non-market forms of production (all economic activity uses energy), but these systems lack the expansionary drive of markets. Consequently, energy efficiency gains and new technologies can be used to replace fossil fuels rather than add to them.
This transition has the potential to be hopeful, a chance to build a more humane system. This system will be materially poorer than today’s society. But this is not ‘eco-austerity’. Much of the energy we use today is in producing goods that we do not need, that do not fulfil our needs. Richard Seymour articulates this in the context of the labour theory of value:
The overproduction of ‘stuff’ is largely achieved by making a costly withdrawal from the worker’s body, a form of life-impoverishing austerity. And a great deal of that ‘stuff’ is not for workers’ consumption, but rather, where it is not consumed as profit and dividends, is dead labour whose main effect is to achieve a further extraction of labour. We might think of energy conservation as class self-defence.
Put another way, consumption is an ineffective way of building a good life. Collectively limiting our consumption could open a path to a better economic system.
There are links between such a program and other radical leftist programs for change. Freedom from the market and repurposing of production along the lines of social need rather than profit are central to the post-work movement.12 But this movement lacks a critique of consumerism, and its analysis of capitalism fails to engage rigorously with insights from ecological economics. Visions of mass space flight continue the fantasy that consumption can fulfil us, and rely on the notion of continued expansion of output and energy use. It is unclear why those who advocate ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (for example) believe that a political programme whose key appeal lies in having more stuff will find itself able to break free from the expansionary cycle that lies at the heart of the ecological catastrophe. If the promise is more mass consumption, doing away with the most reliable and efficient energy sources to which we have access will be a hard political sell. There can be no avoiding growth in fossil fuel use under capitalism. But this does not mean that anti-capitalist programmes are all equally good solutions. The route forward is to embrace these radical impulses, but critique their obsession with consumption, and highlight the destructive dynamics they share with capitalism.
This marks out the terrain for political struggle. Socialists must engage mainstream environmentalists and work with them. We have a common foe in the big capital of the fossil industry. Many environmentalists are critical of the economy as it is, but lack a full analysis of its mechanics. Extinction Rebellion is a key example of this: a critical yet ‘apolitical’ movement. Yet they offer perhaps our best hope for building institutions that give us community, autonomy, and purpose, and for breaking with the expansionary capitalist fossil economy.
- Marx, Karl. (1856) 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, p.133
- ibid. p.134
- Ross, L.C., Austrheim, G., Asheim, LJ. et al. ‘Sheep grazing in the North Atlantic region: A long-term perspective on environmental sustainability’. Ambio (2016) 45(5):551-566. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-016-0771-z
- Wood, Ellen Meiksens. 2017. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso.
- Smith, Adam. (1776) 1976. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.17.
- Wood (2017).
- Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.
- ibid. p.258, 263
- Deléage, Jean-Paul, Jean-Claude Debeir, Daniel Hémery. 1991. In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilisation Through the Ages. London: Zed Books, p.59
- Jackson, Tim and Peter Victor. ‘Productivity and work in the ‘green economy’: Some theoretical reflections and empirical tests’. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions (June 2011) 1(1):101-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2011.04.005
- Cushman, Philip. ‘Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology’. American Psychologist (1990) 45(5):599-611. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.45.5.599.
- Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-Work Politics and Post-Work Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Toronto-area rapper blames systemic racism for months of misdiagnosis
TORONTO — When Matthew John Derrick-Huie went to the doctor with chest pain and shortness of breath in 2017, he didn’t know he was about to embark on a two-year medical nightmare.
The 24-year-old Canadian rapper who goes by the stage name “John River,” told CTV News that he went to the emergency room five times before doctors took him seriously and on that fifth visit, they gave him a spinal tap to test for meningitis.
“I felt I had been trying and pushing so hard with every fibre in my body,” he said. “I’m not a quitter. I don’t think I’m weak. I don’t believe in giving up in any capacity in my life and even for me, I was unbelievably outmatched.
For the next 60 days, River visited family doctors, specialized clinics and emergency rooms as often as 30 times in search for an answer, but failed to find one. Some doctors told him he was suffering from anxiety and depression and prescribed him antidepressants, but he knew that wasn’t the issue.
“One physician told me that I was in a depressive state and I just didn’t realize,” he said.
“I said: ‘Respectfully, I lost my house twice when I was 17, my cousin who used to live with us was murdered…with all due respect, if I was going to have an anxious breakdown, I feel like it would’ve happened already.’”
It wasn’t until River’s family took to social media that they were able to find a doctor who would take a look at River’s case. The doctor soon discovered River’s brain was sagging in his skull due to low cerebrospinal fluid levels. The doctor believed River’s spinal canal had been leaking since that meningitis test two months prior. Cerebrospinal fluid leaks are a known complication of spinal tap procedures.
”I understand (cerebrospinal fluid) leaks are what some people would call a rarity and a difficult diagnosis, but I don’t think that’s applicable here,” he said.
Rivers questions why doctors didn’t follow up with him after the original operation and given him an immediate treatment to fix the leaking.
“They knew they had given the patient a procedure in which you told him: ‘For the next two days, you may feel like you want to die.’ If you don’t proceed with a follow-up procedure, one would have to assume that that patient is still out there.”
River required eight months of recovery and also wonders why no one would listen to his pleas for help.
“I absolutely, unequivocally, no doubt, feel that it absolutely had to do with the fact I was a young black man,” he said.
River adds that he felt multiple instances of racism as he dealt with health-care providers, including one visit when a nurse accused him of visiting the hospital solely for drugs.
“She said to me: ‘I know you are here for drugs, why don’t you just tell us which drugs they are and we’ll expedite this process,’” he said. “How is it within a two-minute time period (that) you were able to come to the distinction that I either came to your hospital to abuse narcotics or to sell narcotics?”
River said it was only after he spoke publicly about his medical situation on Twitter that other members of the black community reached out to him with similar stories dating as far back as the 1970s.
Dr. Onye Nnorom, a family doctor who works with the University of Toronto to advance the health of black people in Canada, said River’s experience in the health-care system is one of many similar stories she’s come across.
“I do hear about experiences of racism and I’ve heard about it not only from my patients, but also from family members (and) from colleagues, so it is certainly a problem,” she said. “I think one of the biggest problems is that we’re not able to collect data to demonstrate it.”
Nnorom adds she’s also heard from black patients who’ve been accused of seeking drugs instead of medical care.
“The (health-care provider) is making assumptions about their appearance and thinking that they’re a drug dealer,” she said. “That’s going to affect the way the health-care provider is able to diagnose and treat the patient.
“From the patient’s end, that really makes a person feel like they’re not being respected.”
Racism within the Canadian health-care system is not only an issue among black Canadians. In 2017, an external review found several Indigenous women had felt pressured into sterilizing themselves immediately after childbirth at a hospital is Saskatchewan.
Additionally, a report concerning the case of Brian Sinclair, who died of a treatable bladder infection in 2008, found emergency staff at a hospital in Winnipeg ignored him for 34 hours because they assumed he was homeless or intoxicated.
In 2018, the Canadian Public Health Association acknowledged that “we are all either overtly or inadvertently racist and that the influence of this racism affects the health of individuals and populations” and offered several recommendations for all levels of government and health-care providers, including a complete review of their policies and to provide “system-wide anti-racism and anti-oppression training for all staff and volunteers.”
Kathleen Finlay, the CEO and founder of The Center for Patient Protection, called River’s treatment “appalling.”
“Anytime a person presents multiple times to a hospital or a health-care provider for the same symptoms or worsening of their symptoms, that should send up big red flags, that should not be happening,” she said. “Fortunately, the outcome here worked out well, but patients can actually die in these situations.”
The Ontario Ministry of Health declined to comment directly about River’s case, but said in a statement Thursday that the government “is committed to providing all people in Ontario with a health-care system that is focused on them.”
“(The People’s Health Care Act, 2019) states that the health-care system should be centered around people, patients, their families, and should be guided by a commitment to equity and to the promotion of equitable health outcomes,” a spokesperson for the department wrote in the statement.
The ministry adds it does not collect data on a patient’s race that could be used to measure access to treatment.
River, who was nominated for a MuchMusic Video Award in 2015, took two years away from music to deal with his health situation. He has since returned to his promising career and plans to advocate for equality within the health-care system.
“The only thing that’s on my mind every day is how much pain I went through,” he said. “I could never consciously allow somebody else to go through what I went through.”
“If we save one life because of the pressure that we apply today, then I can say to myself: ‘OK, I did my job.’”
River’s first song since the ordeal, titled “Burn the Boats,” discusses his misdiagnosis and how he is now “back from the dead” following the complications.
ROTHENBURGER: What we need in this country is a special racism court
ANOTHER PERSONALITY LOST his job Friday over racist remarks.
The latest offender is Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters, who resigned after revelations he used racist slurs against a player a decade ago.
The case is pretty typical when it comes to process. An indiscretion is revealed, social media lights up, an employer assesses the damage and acts accordingly. Loss of employment is often the resulting punishment.
There’s got to be a better way, a practical approach based on common criteria and effective assessment.
Aside from legislation against hate speech, the court of public opinion has mostly been in charge of defining racism and the appropriate punishment for those found guilty of it.
Social media are the vehicle of choice both for committing acts of racism and for meting out retribution, but racism means different things to different people.
Quoting the dictionary definition of racism is of little use, since we have a habit of either expanding it or contracting it to fit our own opinions for each situation. As an exercise, consider the following, and rank them according to your own view of the seriousness of the offence.
1. A hockey commentator chastises “you people” who immigrate to Canada but don’t wear poppies on Remembrance Day.
2. A prime minister is found to have worn “brownface” at costume parties.
3. An NHL coach makes racist remarks to a hockey player.
4. A woman taunts people sitting near her in a restaurant, saying they aren’t true Canadians.
Are any of these situations more egregious than the others? What factors do you consider in defining them as racist, or not, and in making your own judgment as to what should happen?
In each of those cases, apologies weren’t enough. Don Cherry tried to apologize but was fired anyway. Justin Trudeau apologized and almost, but not quite, lost his job. The woman in the restaurant apologized but was fired. Bill Peters apologized but was suspended, then resigned.
Immediacy isn’t always an extenuating factor, either. Cherry was immediately fired from his TV job, and so was the Lethbridge woman in the restaurant, but Trudeau’s and Peters’ indiscretions happened years ago. There seems no statute of limitations when the public’s indignation is aroused.
What about intentions? Does it matter if someone offends inadvertently, or is ignorance no excuse? It’s pretty clear, for example, that Trudeau wasn’t trying to be racist — he just likes to dress up on occasion, and has a habit of making bad choices.
Was Don Cherry intentionally being intolerant, or did he just get carried away with his fervor about the need to honour veterans? Many have said the latter. Did Cherry understand that “you people” is widely viewed as being racist, or is it just the way he speaks?
Clearly, there’s a difference between using racial slurs to intentionally belittle someone, but is the end result the same?
Premier John Horgan last week announced the creation of the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network. By the sounds of it, it’s mostly an information, training and prevention program, not one that hands out punishment, but it might prove to be an important step.
The move came after Ravi Kahlon, the NDP MLA for Delta North, spent his summer travelling the province gathering ideas on how to deal with racism. He’s flying the idea of fining people for lesser offences relating to racism, the kind that currently don’t make it to court.
None of the examples I gave above was prosecuted other than by public opinion which, as I said, carries a lot of weight. The offences weren’t committed by organized hate groups, weren’t part of any campaign against minorities, didn’t involve violence.
But they have consequences, both to the perpetrator and the target. Society has decided it’s no longer the sort of thing we just put up with. The question is, how can their seriousness be defined, and how can appropriate repercussions be decided? There are no guidelines, and it would help if there were.
So, following up on Kahlon’s idea, what if a sort of bylaws court for hate offences was developed that could take care of things like the Burnaby convenience store case in which a customer berated clerks for not speaking English, or the examples above?
After all, we could take the position that racism is racism is racism, and one example is as ugly as the next, but is that really fair?
Suppose this special court operated under a set of criteria such as the ones I’ve mentioned. How much time has passed since the incident? Was an apology offered? Was the offence intentional? What language was used and to what degree are the terms offensive? Did it involve an overt slur? Did it occur in a public setting? Was it a first or second offence?
With those things in mind, our brief list might rank the restaurant rant and Peters’ insults ahead of the others, followed by Cherry and Trudeau. You might view it differently but the point is that one offence isn’t always the same as another, and that penalties should be somewhat different from one another.
Should those penalties involve community service? A public apology? Fines based on a system similar to traffic offences?
Such a system would have to be complaints based, and it would be a challenge to enforce. But each time it was, it would make a statement that if you engage in racist talk or actions, even though it falls short of violence or an all-out hate campaign, you’ll pay a price.
And, employers could make decisions based on these independent evaluations by the court system, instead of on the highly fallible court of public opinion.
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and newspaper editor. He writes five commentaries a week for CFJC Today, publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Remembering everyday violence against women and girls on Dec. 6
It’s the National Day of Remembrance for the 14 women who were killed at the L’école Polytechnique in Montréal for being women and for being students in a discipline that, at the time, was wholly male-defined.
Across the nation and on different social media platforms, the remembrance is being marked by symbols and personal testimonies.
It’s a reminder that the violence has not ended despite the overworked sector of civil society — women on the front lines in shelters, rape crisis centres and counselling centres.
While the collective outpouring of grief that marks this day is anchored in a remembrance of the murders of women at the polytechnique, it is also imperative that high-profile acts of violence don’t overshadow the everyday, routine forms of violence that women suffer.
Six deaths every hour
The report of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability notes that around the world, every hour, six women are killed by men they know.
Femicide, or the killing of women because they are women, is underpinned by patriarchal ideologies that define how women should comport themselves. This ideology, grounded in the belief that men own women and that women need to be controlled, is also at the heart of gender inequities.
Although the tragic events at the polytechnique occurred 30 years ago, women and girls in Canada today continue to suffer from the effects of patriarchal ideologies. They experience that patriarchy differently, depending on where they are located in the matrix of domination — the axes of race, class, gender, religion, age, ableism and sexuality that criss-cross society and heighten the vulnerabilities of some women more than others.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry reveals the extent to which Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ+ are dehumanized and subjected to violence. Canadian statistics reveal that a woman is killed every five days by an intimate partner or a family member. Murder is the finality in the continuum of violence that women and girls experience.
Privilege does not shield
We can’t forget these deaths — the murders that are reported in short, terse paragraphs in the news, or that are accounted for only by organizations situated in particular communities, or remembered by close family and kin.
These deaths testify to the presence and power of patriarchal values and traditions. Similarly, while groups like the incels have attracted power and attention, they remain the tip of the iceberg. There are countless everyday expressions of male power and violence that work to constrain women.
Much like how the focus on racism that tends to be restricted to the actions of extreme hate groups and their acts of violence, the systemic, everyday racism that permeates society also needs to be named and dealt with.
The takeaway of the murders at the polytechnique is this — violence that is endemic and coursing through society is violence that crosses the boundaries of race, class, age, sexuality, gender and religion. It’s violence that is anchored in the view that women are inferior, less than men, and to be controlled by men.
The 14 women killed at the polytechnique were white, middle class and educated, and this did not shield them from patriarchal violence. What then about the women who have no such privileges? How best can we remember them?
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