Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 6: Environment and Public Policy

We talk with Elizabeth May about how to do politics differently, and consider whether the coronavirus could be a hinge moment in history for how we think about our relationship with the environment. May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands and Parliamentary Leader of the Green Party.

Read the Transcript

The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

GEOFF CAMERON (Director, Office of Public Affairs): I'm delighted to be joined on this episode of The Public Discourse by Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich – Gulf Islands and Green Party Parliamentary Leader. Elizabeth, for many of our listeners you will not need any introduction, but for others maybe you could just say a few words about your path to public service, and the role that you play in Parliament.

ELIZABETH MAY (Member of Parliament for Saanich – Gulf Islands): Thanks Geoff. Because I'm speaking to you from British-Columbia I want to acknowledge that I'm on the territory of the W̱SÁNEĆ people. And Saanich – my riding, Saanich-Gulf islands – Saanich is an Anglicized mispronunciation of the territory of W̱SÁNEĆ people who are SENĆOŦEN-speaking people, and I acknowledge their territory with another sign of deep gratitude.

My path to public service certainly wasn't a straight one in that I had no intention of "going into politics" for most of my life. I didn't join a political party until I was 52. So, most of my work in public service – and I think that has been my life's work – has been public service. But I started quite young in school working on environmental issues.

Anyways, it's not a direct line, it's circuitous. But wherever I was, and whatever moment I found myself in, I was doing environmental work. So, when I was waitressing and cooking at a restaurant on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, I saved my waitressing tips and used my unemployment insurance every winter to fight the pulp companies so we wouldn't be sprayed with pesticides. That was an ongoing struggle that eventually got me into law school. That eventually got me a job working in government for the Ministry of Environment, and I learned a lot there. Then the longest chunk of time was 17 years – 1989 until 2006 – as the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada. So, the course to public service has been, in some ways, unerring and unrelenting, but the various costumes I put on in that pursuit have changed over the years.

I was the second elected “Green” in the world elected under a “first-past-the-post” system. So, the first thing I did when Parliament sat for the first session in June 2011 (I had been elected in May), I hosted a party for all newly-elected MPs as a come-and-break-the-ice. It was the “non-party party”. We're working quite effectively because we are essentially non-partisan in our approach to politics. And so we work across party lines in a way that's quite natural for us. We're collaborating a lot with the Liberals in minority, with the NDP in opposition, with the Bloc, and where we can, with the Conservatives.

GEOFF: Well, that's a theme I would love to come back to a little later in our conversation.

One of the themes of this podcast about the coronavirus is the values that bind us together. You know, we're more conscious now of our interdependence, and of a need to work together. We're also, I'm sure, thinking about the kind of society we want to emerge from this crisis.

So, I'd like to ask you: what are the values that are getting you through this time? And where do those values come from?

ELIZABETH: You and I first met through what I hope we'll be able to do in Parliament, which is re-creating – putting back on its feet – a caucus for inter-religious dialogue.

I'm very committed to being open about faith, and open about my own personal spiritual path. I'm an Anglican, and I'm also one of those Anglicans who is a questioning, doubting, probing, accepting-of-all-faiths, and non-faiths, kind of person.

What informs me through this of course is: remaining prayerful. I mean, there are so many people at risk. I've had very dear friends diagnosed with COVID-19, who have been very, very sick, and pulled through. We're in a time where we're being gripped by death, and at the same time I find it an enormously hopeful, fruitful, fertile, interesting time. For the first time in my lifetime, governments around the world, without much prodding and pretty much simultaneously, decided to shut down their economies because life is more important than money.

Right around the world, governments are being guided by public science, public health advice that says: "To save lives and to avoid millions of people dying, we have to shut down our economies and we have to have people stay home." I mean, that's a profound statement of values – public values, political values. We haven't seen anything like that, probably ever. I think that's what makes it much more collaborative. We're working across party lines much more.

At a very personal level, I feel very, very blessed, and in a spiritual place. I'm thinking: does this change the values of our society permanently? Do we emerge from this with a very different sense of what really matters? Can we be less of the mindlessly consumeristic society that wants to constantly buy more, and more, and more stuff and think we "need it". Could we be a more caring, compassionate society that embraces these values for the long term?

I think that for me personally, I think there's a moment here for a re-evaluation of what really matters.

GEOFF: Well, to continue that line of thinking: I wonder if you would talk more about how this crisis could allow us to reconsider our relationship with the environment. As you say, many of us are getting used to travelling much less, hopefully reducing our personal consumption, thinking in more collective terms, being even more attentive to our local economies. So, I'm wondering: do you think it's possible that we will come out of this crisis with a new perception, or some new collective consciousness of our relationship with the natural world?

ELIZABETH: The quote I wanted to find is this one. This is from Vandana Shiva from India. “Post COVID-19, let us regenerate the economy with the consciousness that all lives are equal, that we are part of the earth, we are ecological biological beings, working is our right and is at the heart of being human, and care for the earth and each other is the most important work. There are no disposable or useless people. We are one humanity, on one planet. Autonomy, meaning dignity, work, freedom, democracy, are our birthright.”

I don't know that we have for quite a long time [asked big questions, as a society]. Like, what's the meaning of life? What's my purpose here in the world? I am a physical incarnate human being on the planet; what's the meaning of that? I think that something like a global pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of people and infecting millions (and we don't know how this story ends) – this is not something that several generations of humanity have experienced. Particularly in wealthy and industrialized countries, where we've been rather absorbed by the notion of the economy being the be all and end all.

So, it could indeed be a moment where we reassess our relationship with nature. It's been striking for people all around the world to suddenly see what their cities look like when not shrouded in pollution. For people in Northern India to see the Himalayas; for people in Paris to see their city; the reappearance of fish in various places; the appearance of whales inside Vancouver harbour in places that would usually be too busy with ship traffic to see a Humpback Whale. There are extraordinary moments of nature – and wild animals as we think of them – coming closer into our living spaces where we have pushed them out.

It's also, though, a very worrying moment to realize that even with all of us staying home (for the most part), and all of us not flying, and all of the cars in the garages, and air pollution way down – that the International Energy Agency estimate for 2020 is that overall greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 will only be 4 to 8 percent less than they were in 2019. I mean it's certainly good to have a reduction, but it says quite a lot about the nature of the hard-wiring of our economies around fossil fuels – even with us [having made changes], in terms of our personal choices and lifestyles, which have been made into such an obstacle to progress on climate.

Frankly, I think that the, "What are you willing to do?" question has been in the way of climate action for far too long, and this pandemic illustrates pretty clearly that even when humanity is staying home and self-isolating, the impact compared to 2019, overall for the full year, the estimate is at most an 8 percent reduction in greenhouse gases. That's kind of worrying.

I do hope that we can emerge saying our sense of humanity's relationship with nature, and our sense of our relationship to each other as members of the same human family, has been shifted.

GEOFF: Yeah, there's almost - in that quote that you read by Vandana Shiva - there is a kind of spiritual perception in there too. I mean it's this paradox isn't it? That this biological entity that has raced around the globe has done something to remind us of the spiritual aspect of our reality. This very material thing actually helps us to think about the way in which the spiritual is quite important to our lives; not just individually but also collectively.

ELIZABETH: Well, it has, and I wish that there was more space in public discourse for the voice of faith leaders right now in terms of what are we facing, what are we seeing. I mean, obviously we can't congregate in our places of worship (it's not safe and it's not smart) but it's interesting how many people have, in some ways, started going to Church because the meetings are available on Zoom. And you can pick and choose what faith tradition you want to visit if you want to go to observe something. But, for the most part what I am really lamenting is, other than Pope Francis, I haven't heard any voices of religious leaders that have pierced through all the noise of COVID to say to people: "This is a moment for you to reflect on what matters to you."

I do think that even without those voices it's happening. People who are isolating at home and spending time away from their normal day-to-day routines and facing something as large as a virus that's an invisible parasite that is extraordinarily lethal – it has shifted to more time for reflecting matters.

GEOFF: I want to zoom out now and look at the broader picture. You've been part of the Green Party, which fits within the democratic system of party politics, and yet, as you referred to earlier, you have often talked about doing politics differently and working across party lines.

I think like most people I have been really alarmed, especially before the pandemic hit, at rising partisanship and polarization, and the more performative aspects of politics. But also, as you mentioned, there is a new sense of unity that can emerge from a crisis and a return sort to the fundamentals of democracy. That is, talking through different viewpoints and arriving at decisions in the best interest of the public.

So I wonder, coming out of this, where do you see the potential to do politics differently?

ELIZABETH: In Canada, our executive and our legislative are the same. So it's really important for Canadians to understand our system of government more fundamentally than we do, and in this I include most of the major national media pundits. They cover Canadian politics as though it was a lot closer to US politics, but our system of government, at least in theory, is that every Member of Parliament is equal and the Prime Minister is merely first among equals. And that appreciation of it says that once an election is over, we should stop thinking about partisan politics altogether.

We should just be thinking of: how do we work together? We're all elected to this place, we're in Parliament to work together and holding the government to account is clearly part of the job. But, believe it or not, because it has been so long since people have even understood this basic reality, if you're a Liberal back-bencher – meaning you're not in Cabinet – your job is to hold the government to account, just as much as the Greens, and the NDP, and the Conservatives are supposed to hold the government to account.

So, over time, the power of political parties has grown so much that most members of Parliament don't even understand that the principles, and the system, and the theory of Canadian Parliament is that other than the Cabinet members, everybody in the room is supposed to be holding the government to account and working together. We've lost that quite a lot over the years. But I'm a stickler for tradition and I think it's really important to remember that we aren't the US. I really love the Westminster parliamentary system, and if we could just push backroom political operatives out of the way, other than during elections, it would function a whole lot better.

GEOFF: Well we're coming towards the end of our time together, and I know you have other appointments to keep.

ELIZABETH: Isn’t it terrible.

GEOFF: We end each of these episodes by asking our guests about their hopes for the future, and this has already been a theme that has run through our conversation, but maybe I can ask you again in closing. What your hopes are for the kind of change that might come out of this crisis? If it's an opportunity for a new beginning, or to think about how we can build something anew afterwards. What are your hopes and aspirations?

ELIZABETH: I'm really thinking very big about all this – about a “hinge moment” in history. There are not that many moments where things really shift. This is not like the 2008 financial crisis where it's really bad, but then we're going to have to spend stimulus money and everything will get back to normal. This is fundamentally different from that, and it opens up a conversation on a whole lot of issues.

I mentioned neo-liberalism briefly earlier, and the mantra of neo-liberalism, which really owned the public discourse since the late eighties – that government is best when it's small, that private sector does things better than government – that whole discourse around government and private sector has been turned on its head in pandemic.

Everything about neo-liberalism has been turned on its head, and the public's fear is back. Can you put it back in a box again? I mentioned earlier on the climate emergency how much it has been a barrier that governments have been able to say: "Does the public look ready? Do we see a willingness to drive less? Do we see a willingness to…." In COVID-19, nobody said: “I don't see a willingness on the part of the Canadian public to stay home for weeks on end and wash their hands constantly. I don't think there is a will…" You know. This turned all of the assumptions about the only kind of change we can ever get is incremental, because large-scale shifts can't happen, and governments don't move that fast. Well, that's all out the window. So how do we unlearn what we just saw? I don't think we unlearn that.

That's an encouraging thing for me because if we're going to survive as a human society, as a functioning civilization on this planet, we have the looming climate emergency, and we will not deal with it through incrementalism or market forces. We need the same level of, “We listen to the science now,” and “The science told our policy makers.”

As I said to one of my friends in the Cabinet the other day: on climate science you guys say, "Well we can't give you everything you want, but we'll do better." So that's like saying, "We can't give you six feet apart, we'll let you stay three feet apart." "Can't stay two meters apart, we'll let you have one meter apart because we have to compromise on these things."

Climate science and the carbon budget isn't something we negotiate. We are literally running out of time to avoid the kind of runaway global warming that will preclude the survival of human civilization probably by the end of the century without real action.

I think it's one that actually does challenge us as to what we are, and who we are, on this planet. What's the point? What's the meaning of life? What's the meaning of existence?

We've suddenly stopped and stayed in the same place too long. It gets people down, and there's a lot of mental health issues going on that one shouldn't ignore. But it's the kind of moment… I was thinking from the beginning of this conversation for some reason about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is one of my favourite theologians - and I'm sure you know the quote, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience."

It may be that COVID-19 is reminding us of that. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, and what do we want to make of it?

GEOFF: Well that's as good a note as any to end on. So, Elizabeth May, thank you so much for joining us for this podcast. And I wish you a happy and healthy weekend, and I hope you have a few moments to enjoy some fresh air in-between all of your Zoom calls.

ELIZABETH: Take care.

GEOFF: Okay, take care Elizabeth.