My great-uncle David Heaps bounded up flights of stairs into his 80s. While he never lost the bounce in his step or his wry wit, his counsel in later years was tempered by rebellious realism – no doubt the result of seeing rapid progress in the decade after World War II, which was subsequently swamped by the forces of conventional wisdom and groupthink that so often seek a reversion to the status quo.
Two of Uncle David’s axioms replay in my head on a regular basis:
“It’s a losing battle, but then those are the only ones worth fighting.”
“Never underestimate the ability of powerful people to justify their actions.”
When we look at the past 50 years, from the Vietnam War to our upside-down tax system (where those who have the most often pay the least in terms of their effective rates), it’s hard to argue, on the whole, that he was wrong.
But it’s also fair to say we are no longer living in usual times. The COVID crisis is a reminder of the power of civilization to rapidly address existential challenges when we flex our collective muscle.
The pandemic pause has allowed room to reflect on the kind of society we want. Do we want to continue our zombie-like march toward torching the only home we have? Is it really inevitable that we must continue to prop up the mighty with tax giveaways and handouts while we undervalue the vulnerable people and planet that we need the most?
By 2030, Canada could create more than five million quality job-years of employment by greening the power grid, electrifying transport and upgrading our homes and workplaces to be more comfortable, flood resilient and cheaper to run, saving Canadians $39 billion per year at the pumps and on heating and power bills by 2030 (in today’s dollars). We could also help protect the livelihoods of many others, including by supporting farmers to adopt practices and technologies for restoring the soil while paying them fairly for the ecosystem services they provide, paying young people fairly to plant billions of trees, and supporting Indigenous communities as sustainable economy leaders.
By 2030, we could own large parts of the clean-economy podium. We have all the ingredients to create Canadian champions in fast-growing industries of the future, including lightweight bitumen-based carbon fibres, renewable jet fuels, green hydrogen, batteries and electric vehicles (see our green economy vision board on p. 34).
In the wake of the COVID crisis, this is all within reach if we choose to build back better by making these job-rich themes a priority in the federal government’s stimulus and recovery packages.
The people who control the budgets will ask, how can we afford it? An equally valid question is how can we afford not to do it?
A big part of the explanation is traceable to Uncle David’s two axioms. We cannot afford to listen to the voices that say we just need to get back to doing what we were doing.
There is no going back. Now is the time to move forward.
That, at least, is my hope, but what happens will not be up to me.
It will come down to the human condition and how it responds to the current crisis. Will we be guided by fear or hope?
On this question, I am reminded of Uncle David again. Two of his sons played roles in the 1963 movie Lord of the Flies, based on the dystopian William Golding novel that reveals the rot of fear that dominates the human condition.
Lord of the Flies was fiction. In real life, it was a different story. In 1965, six restless boys set sail from the South Pacific island of Tonga, were hit by a storm and ended up shipwrecked on a desert island for 15 months. When they were finally found, rather than the dystopian situation Golding envisioned, the boys were getting along just fine, having set up a commune with a food garden, gym, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent communally tended fire.
It will also take a community to overcome the forces of the status quo.
Some have been dismissive of the idea of a just green recovery.
But they may be missing the point. The just part of a green recovery is not an add-on, but an essential condition for creating the big-tent coalition required to dislodge the forces of inertia. As a practical matter, it’s hard to see how the current “shecession” (women are bearing the brunt of the recession) gets addressed without some radical improvements in supports for affordable childcare, greatly improved eldercare and a living wage.
The best chance we have for the forces of hope to prevail is by marrying the green and just fires that burn bright in all our bellies, from which hope springs eternal.
Toby Heaps is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Corporate Knights.