To understand our climate movement’s evolution, read Nietzsche. To understand our Achilles’ heel, study Gandhi.

The peaceful occupation of Liberal government ministers’ constituency offices by the Youth Rising Collective on November 30 gives hope that Canadian climate activism has entered a new phase. The conscientious occupiers did not lead with their opposition to fossil fuel development, a negative message of austerity — their three-point call began by embracing a rapid transition to 100 per cent renewable energy, creating a million jobs. A message of positive opportunity and abundance:

  1. Transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030, and create one million climate jobs in the process
  2. Meaningfully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  3. Keep fossil fuels in the ground and align the federal climate plan with the 1.5 degree threshold

This is cause for celebration, a sign of our movement’s maturation.

But while Friedrich Nietzsche would fête the youth for their Third Metamorphosis, a pensive Mohandas Gandhi might brood.

Nietzsche’s Sacred “Yes”

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche suggested that we must undergo three metamorphoses (his term) to become fully self-actualized (not his term, he preferred “Ubermensch”).

In his metaphor we begin life as camels, accepting prevailing moral norms, enforced by a golden dragon on whose every scale is written “Thou Shalt.” Before we can develop a personal ethics we must become lions, rejecting reflex obedience (to parents, government, faith traditions, etc.) with a sacred “no.” In doing so, we slay the dragon. But while these lions oppose authority, they cannot propose moral codes of their own. They must metamorphose into children in order to create their own ethics with a self-fulfilling joy and wonder —with a sacred “yes.”

By analogy to the climate movement,

  • We begin as camels, accepting the status quo. Our dragon happens to be named “business as usual.”

  • We become lions once aware of the climate crisis. We oppose business as usual; we oppose thermal coal; we oppose the development of Alberta’s bitumen resources. But opposition only gets you so far.

  • We become children when we move from opposition to affirmation, envisioning how the world could and should be. When we articulate a positive, inclusive vision of what Canada should move towards.

Behold the eco-mensch! Nietzsche would be proud.

Sustaining Our Satyagraha

To borrow from Martin Luther King Jr., climate change is an intensifying crisis that demands we act with "the fierce urgency of now." In the U.S. Civil Rights movement, King adopted Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha — which he translated as “soul force” — whose aim was to convert the other side to one’s way of thinking. Gandhi contrasted this with duragraha, an inferior approach of forcing the other side to change its actions, without changing their hearts or minds. In simple terms while satyagraha builds from empathy, duragraha does not move past enmity.

Satyagraha shines through in polling showing more than two-thirds of Alberta energy sector workers support a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050. Still more impressively, 59 per cent were willing to take a pay cut to transition to renewables. We supporters of climate justice must be willing to do the same.

Sadly, satyagraha has not shone through in our responses to Alberta’s crisis of collapsed prices for (some of) its heavy oil. If we choose this moment to remind Albertans of their poorly-chosen public policies or their petrostate-worthy profligacy, will that bind them to our cause more strongly, or offend them in their time of need?

Many climate campaigners are political progressives, and few things reliably anger progressives more than blaming the victim for their misfortune. And yet, isn’t this what many of us have recently done? As tempting as it may be to equate Alberta with Big Oil, doesn’t this latest development prove the province is more a victim or hostage to Big Oil, than a beneficiary? If dozens of lobbyists and executives conspired to spread climate lies for personal gain at public expense, that still leaves 99.99 per cent of Alberta’s energy sector workers — and the entire rest of the province — as innocent bystanders. If we speak first to the fears of the 99.99 per cent before condemning that cabal for its crippling mismanagement, we may be able to raise that two-thirds support to three-quarters, or four-fifths. That’s the kind of return on investment I’m willing to bite my tongue for.

As for those lobbyists and executives, their ethical choices do seem monstrous. That ever-quotable German philosopher warns us to “beware that when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster … when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.” After enduring years of climate denial efforts to depersonalize and dehumanize us, perhaps the lesson for the climate movement is that we should accord them the dignity we always knew we were due.

Articulating a hopeful, abundant vision of what the future could be has helped climate activism gain widespread support across Canada, and even from a strong majority within Alberta’s energy sector. With the province facing a crisis, our movement may benefit from affirming solidarity with the many who face uncertainty, before we criticize the few who got them there. With luck, and working together, we can craft a "sacred yes” so inspiring that instead of revisiting old wounds anew, Canadians from coast to coast to coast can together create an abundant future “pour tout.”

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Thank you Matthew.

Shout this message out loud! We can see the mountaintop!

Thank you for this fresh framing of the situation. Coming in under 900 words, this might come across as glib, but I expect the it would stand up if it were a longer piece. Many of us have been waiting for federal and provincial governments to offer a clear path forward for oil workers, with the short-term costs (e.g. of retraining and relocation) borne as broadly as possible. This is a societal problem of the highest rank, and tackling it immediately would signal many things to many people.
And the real business-as-usual dragon should be slayed without mercy.