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Interview: Avi Lewis and the leap for climate justice

Dunja Apostolov

March 28, 2018

Following his electrifying keynote at the Fight for $15 and Fairness Provincial Strategy Meeting and with just 10 minutes to spare, I sat down with Avi Lewis on the sunny front steps of the Toronto Central YMCA to discuss the environmental movement, collective action and the importance of transformational politics.

DA: The Leap Manifesto draws important connections between labour and the environment—the kinds of jobs we have and are investing in and the prospect for climate justice. Can you discuss the low-wage low-carbon economy and your vision of a just transition? Why should environmentalists support $15andFairness? 

AL: The connection between low wage work and low carbon work, and the fact that we talk a lot about the just transition and because of the way the tar sands have seized the national conversation, both from the environmental/anti-pipeline campaigns, but also because of Rachel Notley and because Trudeau instrumentalized the whole pan-Canadian climate deal around a grand bargain for more pipelines, we have high-carbon workers at the centre of our conversation about the “just transition.” It is vitally important that people in the extractive industries have a future that is safe, that they are doing healthy work, one that contributes to a safe future for us all, because they didn’t choose to live in an economy where those jobs are the highest paid. 

But, we also have to look at the whole economy when we talk about the just transition and about creating a climate-safe future that is also a fairer future, which would also involve the redistribution of wealth and power in our society. So, making that recognition, that low-wage workers—predominantly women, predominately people of colour, from racialized and marginalized communities—working in the services sector, working in daycare, working in caregiving, recognizing that these are climate warriors, that these are green jobs and that these are climate jobs, I think, is critical because these are the very sectors that are undervalued, that have been subject to austerity for so long, particularly in the health and education sectors, and have been subject to decades of cuts and that these are the very sectors we need the most to hold our societies together. These sectors need massive reinvestments from the public sector.   

Care work is climate work!

Yes, that’s actually a slogan of Naomi’s. She and I have both been fantasizing about a campaign featuring millions of workers in those sectors wearing “care work is climate work” buttons because it just seems to distil this connection.

For many people the environment and environmental issues seem abstract. The connections the Leap Manifesto makes between jobs and climate, to me, approaches environmental issues in a way that resonates with people’s lives and material concerns. 

The environmental movement has everything to gain from connecting with genuine working class movements because an environmental movement without an economic analysis has given us recycling as a solution to environmental problems. That mindset, that just sees concentration of gasses in the air rather than people’s lives as on the line, has been a failure. Of course we need to reduce emissions, but we vitally need to connect environmental issues with people’s lived experience.

We are seeing a lot of momentum behind collective action and social struggles aimed at addressing various forms of exploitation and oppression. In North America, we have seen resistance to pipeline developments (Kinder Morgan, Standing Rock), Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, #MeToo/Time’s Up, the teacher’s strike in Virginia, in Ontario we currently have two locals in the education sector on strike (at York and Carleton University), the $15andFairness campaign etc. The grievances being expressed are not necessarily new, but the movements have certainly been galvanized and gained greater visibility in the mainstream over the last couple of years. These struggles are different in form and their transformative potential is varied. Nevertheless, I was wondering if you could reflect on this moment and the importance of collective action. Specifically, I am interested in its importance to solving the climate crisis and tackling economic inequality, which has emboldened the far-right.

This is a time when everything is at play. We live in an era where abrupt political change, shocking political change, is very common and none of the usual predictors are holding true. So, we could get Donald Trump or we could get Bernie Sanders. We could get Doug Ford or, if the NDP had a more transformative and radical vision, I fervently believe that we could get a truly left-wing government at any level and jurisdiction in Canada. The appetite is there, but so is an appetite for anti-establishment candidates on the right who succeed with the help of the corporate media in casting themselves as populists. We know of course that right wing populism is an utter oxymoron, but those people have a path to power. So too does the left when we can connect the dots among the different crises and different solutions and crises.

I think that it’s a both scary and exhilarating time to live. People broadly speaking, not just politicized people, sense that something is deeply wrong. People see headlines the economy surging, job numbers going up—why are they working two and three jobs and struggling under so much debt? How come kids are eating lunch on the floor of a bathroom of a public school in one of the richest cities in the world? Why are all of our public institutions crumbling and falling apart if we are supposed to be doing so well? Well we know why: because the 1% is capturing the vast majority—85% or more—of the increase in economic activity. It’s not being shared: there is plenty of wealth, it’s just not being shared. People know this, even people who don’t have the political vocabulary to articulate it. I feel that there is deep unease in this political moment among masses of people and there is that opportunity, massive opportunities, for collective action because people actually want to get to work. People talk about feeling anxious, disconnected, feeling lonely, working too hard, being oppressed by debt and not knowing what to do. So there are huge numbers of people out there that just want to get to work. Movements that can harness that have massive potential as well.

On that note, I see certain parallels between the Leap Manifesto and the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. When the Leap Manifesto first came out, a lot of people pejoratively called it far-fetched, radical, and out-of-touch with the economic reality. People have critiqued the $15 and Fairness campaign along similar lines. When the Fight for $15 campaign got under way, we were working with the goal of raising the minimum wage to $14. At the time, that figure seemed radical. Then, from below, we were pushed further—to demand $15/hr. Why is it important for our politics to have wide horizons and for us to put forward transformative agendas?

First of all, I would just briefly observe that it’s amazing how much things have moved in two years. The Leap Manifesto was called radical because it calls for no new fossil fuel infrastructure and now we have the entire province of British Columbia, essentially, calling for no new fossil fuel infrastructure through their land—led by First Nations also supported by the government that was elected by enough of the people. We have jurisdictions like Seattle and Portland that have passed fossil fuel infrastructure bans; these are major American cities. We have New York that is suing the fossil fuel majors for the effects of climate change and is disinvesting $5 billion dollars from its pension fund. So, those things that may have seemed radical about the Leap two years ag—and I don’t agree that they were radical, they were pragmatic—are being seen by people who say the Leap’s positions as radical as being much more mainstream because things are moving that fast.

They also seem radical because we are accustomed and acclimatized to incrementalist politics and have been told for so long by the extreme centre, the guardians of the status quo, that we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have been told that we should do what is politically possible. That range of policies is incredibly narrow. We have dealt with the shrivelling of the political imagination in Canada for decades. And actually as Becky Bond, one of the primary organizers behind the Sanders’ phenomenon and author of Rules for Revolutionaries recently said, people want solutions that actually solve our problems. It’s that simple. So when you say that we have a massive student debt problem and access to post-secondary education is in crisis in Canada, which I believe it is, you have political parties nominally of the left who are proposing that a reduction in interest payments on student loans is the solution as opposed to calling for free tuition for all. If it’s a public good to have children in primary and high school educated at the public expense, why does that stop when people turn 18? Surely it’s even more important to continue for the rest of our lives to continue being educated as a public good.

We need solutions that match the scale of our crises. And again, maybe people don’t necessarily articulate it that way, but that is the feeling people have at this point in history. Transformative politics and transformative policy are the only solutions because we have neglected for so long things that have been getting worse and worse for a majority of people that small steps are not going to be able to do it anymore. Transformation is the only option now.

And to conclude, what are the key next steps for the climate justice movement?

My own feeling is that the climate justice movement is already talking to people who care about climate and understand the connections between economic transformations and social transformations, racism, feminism, the primacy of Indigenous rights. We have gotten those people now and more and more people are making those connections. I think the broader environmental movement really needs to get its house in order around the fundamentals of fighting surging white supremacy and fighting a deeply extractive economy, not just extractive projects. So, there is big amount of work that the mainstream environmental movement has to do.

I really do feel that it comes down to analyses of our situation that connect the crises that we face which are connected, propose solutions that solve multiple crises and campaigning and ceasing mobilizing opportunities that bring movements together so that we see our common interests because we need to bring a lot of power politically and we are never going to do that in our silos. So, it’s silo busting that is required whenever that can happe

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