Archaeologist and ethnobiologist specializing in historical ecology and eco- human dynamics of landscapes in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes region, Chelsey Armstrong discusses Indigenous-conscious environmental conservation, the futile divide between the social sciences and the natural sciences, and how hegemony is becoming more and more prevalent in Western society.
Tracy: You once mentioned to me some problems with our current system of conservation versus the historical utilization of land. A lot of environmentalism aligns with the concept of sequestering off parts of our landscapes from people. Why do you suggest that Indigenous and other local communities should be allowed to remain active with their land?
Chelsey: Yes. So the concept of conservation, or the ideal of conservation in the Western sense, is putting a fence around an area and saying, “No one go in there, we need to leave it alone.” The idea is somewhat rooted in an early 1900s group called the Boone and Crockett Club who started the National Park and National Forest Services in the United States, later branching out to other countries. This spurred on the contemporary conservation movement, and the contemporary environmental movement. But there lies a few problems in this concept.
First of all, it assumes that humans are not part of a natural landscape. This is also rooted in Western notions of dividing up what is human from what is nature, which is a false dichotomy. Humans are part of nature and part of this landscape, so they affect land just like bees, just like birds, and just like bears. By taking humans out, we think we’re doing a service to nature. I'll point out that in some cases, yes this is absolutely true: when you’re comparing it to the human systems of hyper-capitalism, or industrial systems. But you're losing out when it comes to Indigenous people, or even what’s called a local community which is not having to be Indigenous to an area but holding knowledge on that area. For example if you’re a 7th generation fisherman on the coast of Newfoundland, that’s a local community - you’re not Indigenous, but you still hold local knowledge.
You have generations of tried and tested, passed-down knowledge on that landscape, so you know that landscape better than any Department of Fisheries and Oceans person will ever know it. But in most scenarios Indigenous people have such an obvious space-time connection to their land that the folly of conventional western management systems lies in the ignorance of how Indigenous people managed the land in the first place. In most cases Indigenous people maintained and often increased the biodiversity and productivity of their inhabited landscapes. [note: biodiversity, generally, the most accepted barometer of gauging ecosystem health].
Because Indigenous ancestors have survived in, and sustained themselves off of, those landscapes through all types of conditions. They've lived there for generations, versus just studied there for a few years?
Yes exactly. This is a good time to explain a popular acronym in the natural and social sciences, called Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK. It’s also sometimes called Traditional Local Knowledge, or used synonymously with Traditional Environmental Resource Management. There are a lot of different names and they’re all slightly different, but the main idea is that there’s culturally translated knowledge - so transmitted culturally - based in ecological practice. Your ancestors lived on the same land that you’re on now, they’ve taught your great-grandparents, who have taught your grandparents, who taught your parents, who taught you. Over time that compounds; they’ve culturally coded information about the landscapes, about how to make them more productive, about how to promote their resiliency, and about how to live with them. And usually that has great benefits.
This is where the concept of the noble ecologist comes from - these are Indigenous people who live in harmony with the land. They have also been called the noble conservationist. Of course, this is not always the case; people have depleted resources and had to move because they deplete them. But generally local knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge is a resilient management system because people have learned over thousands of years how to live off x amount of resources with y amount of people. There are a number of ways to do this but essentially this knowledge is more beneficial to people and to the environment than most Western management systems.
I will add one disclaimer - it's that a lot of consulting and engineering firms have also used TEK and TLU (Traditional Land Use) studies to conform to some level of compliance of "consulting" with First Nations. I.e., as a superficial was of consulting with First Nations before a pipeline goes in, some firms will do TEK/ TLU studies - they'll go out on the land with 1 or 2 First Nations people, document a few plants, write it up as a report and boom they've done their due diligence in consultation. This isn't consultation, it never will be.
A good example of this is a story you once told me. There was a region in Mexico where the UN implemented a system that wound up discouraging people's traditional land management practises, and - whether intentionally or not - had some pretty ill effects. Want to explain this further?
Of course. When you keep humans out of a landscape it can have unanticipated negative impacts, both on that landscape and on the people who may have had their livelihood depend on that landscape. So what happened here was, the United Nations sponsored a program called Payment for Environmental Services: PES. And PES is based on the a fundamental principle of conservation that removes humans from a landscape. I believe it was in Oaxaca where this subsidiary, or group sponsored by the UN went into the local Indigenous population. They noticed that Indigenous people were harvesting timber when it was becoming scarce. It's important to note that there was industrial logging and federal logging happening in Mexico as well, so not just the Indigenous logging.
In order to stall this amount of logging, or to create a bit of a balance, activists went in and told the Indigenous people, “If you don’t log this area, we will give you money.” Since logging is part of their livelihood, the UN didn’t want to say to stop logging altogether; they realized that wouldn’t be fair and that these people live off the forest, so instead the UN offered money. Now that might have been an O.K. idea, but that community wasn't just logging the forest and then leaving after making money off the wood. They wouldn't clear the forest all at once: they cleared patches of the forest for their own agro-ecological system. They subsist off the food they get from farming logged patches. Their systems were so intricate that they would log one plot of the forest one year to grow their crops, and then the next year they would leave that fallow, and go clear a different little section. And so there is actually this beautiful little patchwork that is incredibly biodiverse with different succession levels - different age groups.
Explain why different levels of succession is a good thing.
Different stand succession is good because when you have pests or any sort of blight, they’ll sometimes attack a certain age group (or cohort) of a given species. For example, all trees over 20 might get pine beetle, so saplings are fine but then when they get to a certain age, that’s when a pine beetle will attack. So if you have a forest story where they’re all the same age, one blight comes in and can take out the entire story. Whereas if you have differing ages and mosaics, it will actually help keep some life. So these are all part of the agro-ecosystems that are traditionally embedded in the culture of these people.
Going back to Oaxaca, what happened after the PES program to discourage logging was offered to the Indigenous community there?
Well when you say, “Stop logging”, you’re not just saying to stop logging, you’re saying, “Stop eating your traditional food. Stop hunting your traditional ways. Stop learning about the landscape in your traditional methods.” It takes all that away. So what are they going to spend that offered money on if their traditional harvests are discouraged? The fantastic research by a woman named Ibarra showed that in Oaxaca this PES program resulted in an increase of things like diabetes, because instead of eating their traditional foods and moving around with all the agriculture, they were now staying in one spot and importing all their foods. When you import food it tends to be highly processed foods like chips, pop, chocolate bars, etc. So it completely decimated not just the forest because now you have this uniform forest system prone to disease, but it also wound up ruining the health of the people.
It makes you wonder why these types of conclusions weren't drawn or predicted. We never seem to look into the longterm. You also had another example where a forest fire was the result of similar segregation of human activity.
Yes it's a great example in British Columbia, and in New Mexico it's also getting really bad: the prevalence of wild forest fires in the last few decades. These are massive forest fires; at one point almost half the state of New Mexico was on fire. And these catastrophic fires are really a recent phenomena - in the past they wouldn’t have been this big. The reason is that, traditionally, Indigenous burning was very common worldwide and they have been burning for millennia. However they're not these big massive forest fires that Indigenous people start, they're usually high frequency, low intensity fires and they are controlled. This removes a lot of the brush from the understory and it actually cleans the forest.
We have data saying that people have been burning for almost 10,000 years in British Columbia. But then Europeans came in during the colonial era and instituted a ban on fires in the early 1900s. They made it illegal to burn and any Indigenous people who were caught burning would go to jail. The amount of brush in forest stories started piling up and piling up. So burning - small burns when you have a little bit of brush burn to help along the process of this dead-fall returning to the earth - is fine. But when you don’t, it’s like kindling piling up in these forests for decades and decades. So if one lightning bolt hits, all of a sudden half the province is on fire. These are matchboxes.
Because we've left humans out of the management of our forests.
Exactly. Of course, I’m not saying that we need to go back and just start burning, but in some areas of Australia, and a few parts of California, the National Park system has started to realize that burning is important and they've said that they’re going to start looking at it. But again, what's important about all of this is that burning was done by people who had, that tried and tested data with thousands of years of information from living there, and that coded knowledge. It wasn’t just, “Go burn the forest”, it was coded knowledge in the cultural sphere of how they live: how to keep a landscape thriving, how to live mutually with it, and how to live within it. Most importantly it was all about reciprocity. These are highly detailed systems - they're not just burning the forest, they're using coded knowledge and cultural systems.
Looking at alternative ideologies to help lead us away from our current broken system of staunch capitalism is something a lot of political science professors, equal rights advocates, and modern philosophers are doing. One that has a bad mainstream reputation because of poor interpretation is Anarchism. I've been told it's actually quite an 'environmentally' friendly philosophy, to place it in rudimentary terms. What are your thoughts on this?
It's an interesting one because people in academia when we are looking at alternate political economic systems to capitalism, they very often think of Marxism. So if we are talking about alternative societies, or different systems of knowledge, or better understanding socio-political economic systems, Marxism is at the centre of that. There are a lot of Marxist scholars, and at one point SFU was even considered a Marxist University. Even further, some people say that the root of all the social sciences is rooted in Marxism. And [Karl] Marx was really the first to look at large-scale social-economic systems. He talked about religion, he talked about modes of production, he talked about family structure; he talked about all these very Western-based things.
People often refer to Marx with a negative connotation, which tends to be more of an emotionally-based fear than an intellectual one - Marxism is seen as something we had to 'beat' during the Cold War.
But I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying that people like Marxist literature too much.
You mean among those on the Left?
Yes, so I'm talking about the Leftist academy; there’s the Right academy and the Left academy - and obviously all the cloudy areas in between. But within the Left academy there are a ton of Marxist scholars and there are Marxist institutions, yet Marxism within something like anthropology is so funny because Marxism is a Western-based knowledge system and you’re looking at all these non-Western systems. You can't think about hunter-gatherers as Marxists! So in looking at Anarchism which, although yes is also a Western philosophy, it might be a better way of looking at these non-Western systems.
I say this because Marxism is a very materialist way of thinking where a human’s time is conceptualized economically, and where the input of natural resources is seen as a commodity instead of a living, breathing part of an ecosystem. And that’s a problem. However in an Anarchist system, almost anything is considered - and I don’t mean it's considered in some radical, unorganized way. Anarchy is complex organization: self organizing complexity and self association. It allows one to explore these complexities from different facets, not just commodification. Within Anarchy a resource can certainly be an economic thing, but a resource could also serve a spiritual purpose, and that’s okay. But with Marxism, any form of religion was frowned upon.
Dividing ourselves between Left and Right is indeed too simplistic, and only seeing one alternative to capitalism even more so. You study historical ecology; want to tell people what that is, and then elaborate on the focus of your research?
So this actually ties nicely into what we’re talking about overall here, which is separating the human from the natural. Historical ecology is a research program (not its own discipline) that says every landscape on earth - every single one - in one way or another has been affected by humans. So the concept of a natural "pristine" landscape does not exist. There’s a great paper from the 90’s by a man named [William M.] Denevan who called this the ‘pristine myth’ saying that when we look at a landscape and think, “Oh this is so wild! So untouched by humans!” it’s actually not. Humans have somehow affected it. Of course the way humans affect it is going to depend on their social-economic system, so if you're an Industrial-agricultural society of course you're going to affect the landscape more than a mobile hunter-gatherer. So the degrees are different, but there is no longer any landscape that is void of human activity.
An example of this is in the Amazon when 20 or 30 years ago scientists believed that it was a pristine, wild place. They thought, "It’s a jungle, it’s dark, it’s full of venomous critters and plants that could eat you! Humans can barely survive there!" Well when people did enough digging around and actually started talking to Indigenous people instead of ignoring them, they found these huge deposits right in the middle of the Amazonian Rain Forest. These huge, thick deposits of black earth are now called the ADEs, the Amazonian Dark Earths. And those ADEs are everywhere. They consist of layer upon layer of human made organic waste, which is very productive organic material. So you have really productive, biodiverse areas in the Amazon. This was one of the first to suggest that biodiversity is actually more of a sign of a human footprint than a non-human one. Especially when you think of ecologists and biologists saying that we need biodiversity, and to protect biodiversity. Well if humans are creating that biodiversity then our current conservation system protecting biodiversity doesn’t make any sense. When humans create biodiversity, you can’t say that we need to keep humans out. This is where that hypocrisy and that contradiction within the separation of conservation systems and human systems exists.
So over thousands of years, human interaction with the forest created these ADEs, which is from the people Indigenous to that land? It's not just any human activity, it's going back to what you said about Indigenous populations and these complex, coded-knowledge based human systems.
Precisely. One of the archaeological sites in South America is about 15,000 years old in Monte Verde in Southern Chile. People have been on that continent for a very long time, and the Amazon in particular is an extremely culturally complex place. It's similar to British Columbia where you have high linguistic and cultural diversity. World-wide, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity are often tied to biodiversity.
Consider this: the most diverse ecosystems in Canada are in BC. Well there are 11 language families in Canada, eight of which are in BC - in that biodiverse area. And I’m not simply saying languages, I’m saying language families. So this is how complex it gets: the Indo-European language family (which is only one family) includes Arabic, English, French, Sanskrit, Italian, German .. these are all one family. So you have eight other language families in BC. And if you look at other places in the world where there’s a high amount of biodiversity (which means species richness and species evenness), there’s a direct, positive correlation with the linguistic diversity.
Interesting! I have a hunch, but can you explain why exactly this is?
Consider living in the Arctic. As you know there's the stereo-type of 100 words for snow, but certainly there should be. So for a made-up example, let's say there’s an arctic world we'll call World A, where there are 20 plant species, two mammals, and the land is very vast so you [harvest] off a huge square footage: let's say a small group of people lives on a thousand square miles. Your interaction spheres between you and that plant, this plant, and that plant - so the network of interactions - is not as wide. It doesn’t have as much breadth and depth as, say if you lived in what we’ll call World B, which is a temperate rainforest in Northern Italy or in China where there are 4,000 plants.
Now all of a sudden those 4,000 plants need names, those 4,000 plants need descriptions of when to harvest them, as well as 4,000 descriptions of which to avoid or which can be used as medicine. You can also live off a smaller square footage of area, so now all of a sudden there might be more people, so there are even more interaction spheres. And of course, this doesn’t mean that World A is less complex or diverse, it is still very complex and they're still going to have very intricate language systems. But the diversity is just different because of fewer interactions with those additional species. I don’t want to come off and as an environmental determinist – both world’s A and B are equally complex, I’m just trying to explain the worldly patterns (not other-worldly patterns).
Want to tell me a bit about the benefits of interdisciplinary discourse? We could sit and talk to others within our own fields all day long, but in your opinion why might that not be such a good idea?
Yes. Excellent question. Let’s frame this in light of where we're at with something like climate change. We have a lot of data on climate change: we know it’s happening, we have instruments that can measure the rate at which it’s happening, we know which biotic communities are more affected, and we know that it is projected to get worse. Scientifically speaking, we know these things. Yet why does your typical person - and I don’t mean a conservative who doesn’t believe in climate change, I just mean the regular, neutral, apolitical person - why do they not care about it? Even if they know something about it, and when given a survey, they say they sort of care, but they aren't doing anything about it. Why are we all just hanging out continuing to let things go on in this way when we know there’s an impending disaster?
The answer to this is what the social scientist is going to tell you. The social scientist is going to say, “Here’s how climate change is affecting human communities, how it affects frontline communities more than urban communities, and why people in the Arctic are going to be more affected.” In order for us to convince people in cities how bad it is, maybe if we stop focusing solely on the natural sciences talking about how it affects little microbes, we also start to focus on the social sciences - talking about how it affects the Inuit people and how they’re recognizing that they can’t hunt in certain places anymore or why the salmon runs on the Skeena river aren’t predictable anymore and it’s screwing up Gitxsan fishing norms. What are the stories we can tell and learn from a social science perspective that’ll make it more relatable to urban communities? Well, Indigenous groups have an incredible knowledge base in regards to living through climate variability, so if those in the natural sciences spoke with those in the social sciences about this - again that interdisciplinary discourse - then maybe we could learn a thing or two.
Explain the difference between climate variability and climate change.
That's right - climate change and climate variability are two different things. Climate variability is what has been happening for thousands of years. Climate is variable: it goes up, it goes down. So a lot of naysayers will call that climate change, but climate change is only happening now. It is a complete shift from climate variability and is caused anthropogenically - that is, climate change is human induced. People have adapted to climate variability in different ways, some in successful ways, some in not so successful ways, but we can study how they adapted, how they changed, and what they did. We do this archaeologically, paleoecologically, ethnohistorically. We know these things, so we can't just leave it to the scientist to simply measure the level of ocean acidity and hope people will do something with that. Let’s look at the human adaptations and try to model that or use that within our own communities.
There are so many ways to apply social science research to climate change, which is predominantly thought to be a natural science. Recently there has been a shift in geological discourse: we’re now living in the age of humans. It’s called the Anthropocene. Previously, we had the Holocene, the Pleistocene.. these are geologic eras. Geologists have now come to call the current epoch as the Anthropocene. So if this is the age of humans, why are we not using social sciences to study it? Of course there's just a little caveat I'll add here: some have criticised the Anthropocene, because they say it’s not the age of humans, but the age of capital that is destroying the planet. So it’s not just humans, it’s capitalism that’s doing all this massive damage.
This is a topic that comes up often: Capitalism. I’ve encountered arguments for both sides. Some say that it’s not capitalism, but rather it's greed and demands for exponential growth that have caused the damage. Playing devil's advocate, can capitalism be used for good if we're talking about companies like Patagonia who are now looking into halting expansion as well as funding environmental activism? They use their profits to invest into movements and documentaries that raise awareness about environmental issues.
There are many answers, but I’ll start with this: what capitalism does is place a value on a thing, on a person, and on time. It places values on these, and those values are market driven. Market is driven by a group of people who are usually in higher, very removed, and privileged positions, to make it grow. So the concept of capitalism is to grow, and to grow, and to grow, and you can’t stop growing. As soon as it doesn’t grow, it’s no longer viable, your shareholders are going to pull out, and you’re done. So inherently, capitalism is bad simply because it can never be satisfied. Something that can never be satisfied is dangerous, especially when it relies on a finite resource. What's important here is that a finite resource has other values outside of the capitalist instrumental value: it has spiritual values, ecological values, and many other values, not just an instrumental one. Capitalism privileges instrumental value over all of the other values, and over every other human value.
Let's take logging for example. I’m not saying we shouldn’t log, people on the Northwest coast logged for ages, but the problem is that capitalism requires it to have more and more, faster and faster, all the time. When they say they’re doing sustainable things, or they’re trying to do it in a sustainable way, that can't be done. That’s not capitalism. What's particularly bad about this type of capitalism is when they’re goldwashing, “We’re going to go mine over here, but we’re also going to build this little school.” But the school can't make up for even half of the long-term damage that the mine is doing. Or they will greenwash, “We're putting up a solar panel, but we’ll keep generating more and more plastic packaging.” Again the vast damage being done isn't levelled out by those little positive efforts. But these things are part of corporate culture which often lies and misleads. Corporate culture is designed, in its entirety, to help sustain the hegemony.
I see, two wrongs don't make a right. Describe the role of capitalism in hegemony and how you see it playing out today.
So, by definition, hegemony is the ongoing acceptance of a populace of a social arrangement that has the greatest benefits for a particular social elite, rather than for the public. So capitalism says that the people at the top - that very small percentile - must do their job to try and convince you [the general public] that what they’re doing is fine for the environment, and fine for humans. So the one percent must convince you that what they're doing is okay. Hegemony though, goes even further and says that a huge group of the population is also partaking in that narrative. But that's only because this is what they honestly believe to be true; they've been utterly convinced under hegemony. I mean look at the oil industry. You go to Alberta and people there actually think that oil is great - they love that oil provides jobs. It’s just so great in their minds. That’s the problem with hegemony, they think they’re getting all these benefits from it, but they’re not. It's this mystification of domination, so that we consent to the way things are without carefully scrutinizing who gets more of the benefits, and who pays more of the costs.
This is the role of industry-funded media. People have told me Stephen Harper has done more for the economy than any other prime minister, which has been proven to be absolutely false. But those who think this tend to watch TV shows rather than read, so are advertised to on that medium. Rarely do they look at the details behind what the oil commercials are telling them. As well, if you only listen to the sensationalized sport-like political debates on TV, you judge who to vote for based on who ‘won’ the argument (essentially who’s better at talking), when instead you should actually be looking at their platforms.
And that’s the thing. This is part of that hypocrisy and part of that hegemony because it’s making people believe that the status quo is good for them when it’s not. There are people who own major coal burning factories whose sons have asthma. There are major pesticide companies who won’t even feed their own kids the food their product has been used on. And here in Canada it's this farce of oil and jobs versus nothing - no oil, no more jobs! Oil development, specifically tar sands expansion, is synonymous with job creation - which we know to not be the case.
Go into detail on how that isn't the case because I think this is a very important issue to look at.
Okay. First of all something to keep in mind here is that there are two scales. So there’s a temporal scale, which is a time scale; so how long a job will last. And there’s a skill scale; so who is getting those jobs. A lot of unskilled labour are untenable jobs with very poor working conditions as you'll know if you’ve ever been to Fort McMurray, and if you know about ‘man camps’ which I suggest readers to google what this is if they don’t know. These man camps are all over North America; it’s the same kind of horror story that you see with migrant workers anywhere. Migrant working conditions are some of the worst anywhere you go in the world: oil camps in Saudi Arabia abusing Indian migrant workers, even farms in the BC valley have migrant workers under extremely abusive conditions. Mancamps are unequivocally horrendous places with insanely high rates of violence, rape, drug abuse, its goes on.
There’s actually a documentary called Food Chains about the supermarket sourced farm produce in the United States right now.
Yes it happens all over the world. So when we think of these corporations giving us jobs, it’s not this stagnant, one-dimensional thing that’s good for everyone - there’s a lot more to it and that’s what I would suggest people look at: the time scale of those jobs, and who is getting them, as well as how they are being treated as workers. Now, as an example in just pure numbers to satisfy people who are more adept with that, the Northern Gateway Pipeline for example, which is touted as this huge job creator, would actually only produce about 30 full time positions for people with engineering degrees in the long-run. So sure, while the pipeline is being built which will take a few years, there will be more than those 30 to build it, but after it’s built those jobs are gone. And those 30 long-term jobs, well those numbers are often conflated by the NEB [National Energy Board].
Another documentary called Stand about tar sands expansion line through BC, mentioned that the pipeline going out to the Kitimat refinery on the coast, was going to generate about $312 billion for Canada's GDP over three years. But then what would BC get? Only $2 billion of that. Then they pointed out how BC's tourism and fisheries already generate $2 billion from those coastlines - which are industries under threat by that very pipeline.
I'll add even more onto this because GDP revenue is another big argument for oil - they say that it’s a job creator, and that it’s a federal revenue generator. But I’ll say right now just so we’re all on the same page, Canada has zero plans for managing growth in the long-term. So there is no long-term plan for managing the money that we get from oil, unlike other oil producing nations like Sweden who has billions of dollars stacked up for things like education and health care. Canada has no plan. So that money is not coming back to us. There are no strategic oil preserves, and we rely almost entirely on foreign investment. So whereas 80% of the world’s remaining oil is nationalized, Canada’s policy promotes and facilitates private, foreign-led industry. Canada is not getting money from the tar sands. None of it.
That's a hard pill to swallow. So where is it going and who is getting it?
Foreign investment. Canada does not have the capital to invest in the expansion of the tar sands; it costs too much money. The tar sands is this last, desperate, grab for cash because we’ve reached peak oil - in the last 100 years we’ve gone through half of the known oil in the world. We’re now in the second half and we’re going through that at a much faster rate. Tar sands is not conventional oil - it’s crude, bitumen, or it’s shale-fractured which is what they call “fracked” oil. You can’t just go into the tar sands, put in a well and take the oil out, so the capital needed to invest in the required infrastructure to get anything out of the tar sands is so massive that Canada alone could never foot the bill.
We have investors from China, and investors from France (which is a huge one), and they’re all taking that money out with them. But we are left with the environmental bill for that massive, completely destroyed mark in the middle of the landscape. We are left with nothing. And when I say ‘we’, I’m saying it even though we are on colonized, settler land; Indigenous people are the ones on the front lines, and they are the ones who are hurting more than anyone else from this. So saying 'we' in problematic, but as a collective, Canadian ‘we’, we're definitely not benefitting from any extraction or expansion of the tar sands.
Then what is the benefit? Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada are so pro Tar-sands expansion, and most people think this is because their government is getting a nice big budget expansion for their party out of the transaction.
It’s business as usual in politics where there is so little framework to protect people, and government interests are aligned with corporate interests. For example, why do we pay billions of dollars for fighter jets when women’s shelters across Canada are closing? It’s because decent people are not in high-powered positions in society. The ones, who are, make lots of money and they want to make more money, and they are the ones who can pull the strings of the federal government. Stephen Harper does not have a congress that he has to answer to or abide by. Every single minister in Canada - the minister of environment, the minister of foreign affairs - these are people who are appointed by Stephen Harper. They are not voted in, they are appointed by him. And if they do something that he doesn’t agree with, he kicks them out. In fact this man has a horrendous record of doing so - his cabinet shuffle is like a game of musical chairs. So there is no accountability, and there is no transparency.
Which is important to note that neoliberal does not mean "new" "liberal", it's quite the opposite of what people think being liberal is.
Yes, this word is kind of a misnomer in that way. When some people hear neoliberal, they might think, “Oh great liberal! I’m a liberal!” but it is not based whatsoever in any liberal ideology. It gained momentum in the 60s and is synonymous with the era of [Margaret] Thatcher, [Ronald] Reagan, [Brian] Mulroney, and even [Augusto] Pinochet in Chile with his partnership to Milton Friedman. Essentially neoliberalism is when the government aligns itself with corporate interests ostensibly for the sake of the 'economy'. Yet corporate profits that increase the GDP does not mean that money is being put back into any programs for people, or creating any decent jobs for people.
Neoliberal ideology is to create the best business climate possible for multinational investment, so that means fewer restrictions by gutting environmental policy, fewer restrictions by reducing corporate taxes, fewer restrictions by ignoring human rights. They want municipalities to have very little influence, and they want to dismantle unions and the welfare state entirely - almost to the point of austerity. All this, so that business wants to come in and not have to deal with anything getting in the way of their profits.
Similar to what they like to call ‘third world’ countries, where workers have notoriously been abused by Western ‘first world’ corporations. But now it's happening in the West as well.
Exactly. The whole outlook of a neoliberal state is how to make more capital, and how to do it with as few restrictions as possible, and they want to do it everywhere possible. It’s this pathological, hyper-capitalist thing that some scholars point to as evidence that we’re in the state of late capitalism which Marx said was the violent time of capitalism. We’ve had our heyday in Western Capitalism, and now it's getting violent. We’re in this late capitalist period and that’s what neoliberalism is: this concept that money comes before everything, and that in some form it will self regulate or self help.
What it actually does is push austerity to the point where it affects the lower class, which are often people of colour, Indigenous people, people with low socioeconomic status. There’s no benefit to anyone but the top percentile. People will say that corporations have been doing this forever, but the unique thing about this late capitalist period, is that now these things are being legislated, because the government is intimately entwined with the corporate agenda. They have the capital of a corporation, along with the mantle of the government. The NAFTA agreement under Mulroney in the mid-80s was a huge, huge proponent of neoliberalism.
Today we're seeing a huge expansion of NAFTA: the Trans Pacific Partnership [TPP] where a corporation would be able to sue a government for declining a project based on environmental standards or human rights violations. That government would be sued in an international court for loss of potential profit.
There's a good example of this that happened two Octobers ago when there was a huge stand off between RCMP and the Mi’kamq people of New Brunswick. A Texan company [Houston-based Southwestern Energy] who wanted to pursue shale gas extraction activities bought the rights to a piece of Indigenous land from a municipality who didn’t have legal rights to that land. Since it belonged to the Mi’kamq people, when the company went in to go drill, the Mi’kamq came and placed their bodies on the ground and stood their ground for two weeks.
The company sought an injunction, and elders were shot with rubber bullets, women were tossed out of the way, and people were badly injured. It was a crazy stand-off. But in turn, the Texan company tried to sue the Canadian government through NAFTA. So this is what neoliberalism is doing: reduce restrictions, reduce regulations, dismantle the power of communities, dismantle the research and speaking platforms of professors, scientists, and other professions. Anything that stands in the way of these multinationals making their profits.
First, the plethora of documentaries aside, two big movies based on true stories showing this type of dismantling of expert advice standing in the way of profit and power are The Insider, and Whistleblower.
Secondly, I’ll play devil’s advocate again and relay some pretty brutish things I’ve been told by people with influence in Canadian politics that I know. One has argued that the people these corporations and governments are harming are, "extremely lazy; they’re not using their land and so why can’t we go in to build, develop, and make new things with those resources.”
This is the whole concept of pre-emption. By "using" a land, they’re ascribing instrumental capitalist value. Again, you can have value in a land that doesn’t look anything like this. Neoliberal capitalism looks at a plot of land and says, “How can I use this; how can I make money from it.” That’s instrumental value. That’s only one kind of value ascribed. You have 30,000 other types of values that could be ascribed to that land that hasn’t nothing to do with destroying it. You could play there, is that using it? You could gather from that land, is that using it? Is praying using it? Is burying your ancestors there using it? Is pruning bushes using it? Is hunting there using it? What do you mean by "using" it, and why is it capitalism that gets to decide the paramount definition of that value? This is colonialism at it’s finest, and the fact that it permeates into people like that shows you the pervasiveness of hegemonic capitalism.
Well said. Thank you for these insights; it's a tremendous honour to discuss these issues with such a knowledgeable woman. Keep up the fantastic work Chelsey.
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