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"Vancouver is debating a resolution to divest from fossil fuels"

In Conversation with Ben West, Tar Sands Campaign Director at ForestEthics Advocacy

by Ben West

Bill McKibben KXL Arrest (photo: chesapeakeclimate)
Bill McKibben KXL Arrest (photo: chesapeakeclimate)

 

Introduction 

 

My name is Ben West, and I'm the Tar Sands Campaign Director at ForestEthics Advocacy. I've been working in the environmental movement for about a decade now, for the last five years, I was a campaigner at the Western Canada Wilderness Committee which is also based in Vancouver, and before that I actually worked for the Green Party of Canada and the Green Party of British Colombia in a variety of different roles, and also I've been involved as a volunteer and a student activist for years before that. In my current role I've been here since January, and I was offered the job kind of close to last year, and I took an interest in it because ForestEthics had created a new wing, ForestEthics Advocacy, which is not a charity, and with the Harper government's crackdown on charities, instead of playing defence, it made sense to me to do what ForestEthics was doing which was to take a more offensive posture, and this advocacy group was set up explicitly to do political organizing, to get more involved in policy work and go further than you could within the limitations of a charity, and that seemed very important to me, and I have a background in politics as I just mentioned, so I was happy to take on that role. So, I've been here since January doing that and glad that I have. 

 

Can you clarify the position of government regarding environmental terrorism and where ForestEthics stands in relation? 

 

Well, I mean I think what we've seen happen is there's a new anti-terrorism strategy that came from the federal government under Stephen Harper and amongst what they listed in what they considered to be terrorist threats was the idea of what they called eco-extremists. Now, I don't think there's really going to be much implications for groups like ForestEthics other than the fact that it's possible that they're going to be paying even closer attention to what we're up to, but we're not a group that organizes direct actions or gets involved in civil disobedience. I think the focus will be more on that sort of thing, now that being said, this is totally crazy. The government's been bending over backwards to do everything it can to help the oil industry and I think this is one example of that, and to put concerned citizens who are trying to take part in actions, that are peaceful, in a way that will sort of bring up an issue that is required. You know, there's a long history of civil disobedience playing a role in social movements. I think it's the equivalent of calling Martin Luther King a terrorist to call environmentalists terrorists. It's one thing if people are blowing up buildings and threatening  human life, or doing something awful like that, but the categorization they are putting here is definitely got the implications of people who are trying to stop pipelines from being built by standing in the way of infrastructure. There's a long history of that sort of thing happening, not just in the United States, but in Canada as well. You might remember the standoff at Clayoquot Sound in a very long civil disobedience action where hundreds of people were arrested. Terrorism laws weren't brought into the mix of that, nobody was injured as a result of the actions, and the end result was that a bunch of pristine coastal rainforest, that was old growth forest, that many thousands of people cared dearly about was protected, and governments today are all proud of that protection. Even the NDP, who was the government of the day, you talk to them now about it and they take pride in what they did to protect Clayoquot Sound, although at the time they were saying things differently than that. And I think the truth is that often the people are out ahead of the government in terms of what should be done, and in a democracy there's a lot of different ways people can express themselves and I think nonviolence and civil disobedience is very different than terrorism - to combine those two things into one category is really unjust and doesn't reflect reality, and probably actually is an obstacle to actually doing what needs to be done to look at terrorism which is a very different thing. 

 

Have you experienced actions in the environmental movement that you would consider inappropriate?

 

Ya, there's definitely been times when, let's say I've been at a rally that had children involved and you people with babies and baby carriages, and that sort of thing and there's other people that show up and want to have confrontations with the police or are kind of more interested in sort of a "smash-the-state" kind of approach rather than focus on any one particular project, and you know, that to me has been problematic at times when there wasn't good communication between those involved in planning a rally and those who showed up and tried to turn it into something else. People who want to organize their own rallies and frame it around whatever it might that's one issue, but to show up at a rally that's supposed to be a family-friendly event or have a certain focus to it around a particular project and to take that and change it into something else, I think that creates an unsafe environment for everybody who's involved and that can be very problematic, and that's definitely different than terrorism, per say, but there's definitely a difference to the kinds of tactics and strategies, and what the implications of them are, and when you're talking about organizing something where there's a potential for conflict with the police or breaking the law in some way, I think those things need to be very well communicated to the people who show up to be involved, they need to know what they're getting themselves into. Most of the civil disobedience work that I've seen happen, there's been a lot of preparation, planning, training. People are taught how to participate safely, what to anticipate, or how to avoid injury, or how to deal with getting arrested, strategies for who to call, who's representing people. That kind of stuff is all planned out in advance, so to bring that type of action into a rally where people don't have that expectation is problematic. So I think that's probably the closest thing to the answer to your question that I have experienced is people showing up and for whatever reason getting into shoving matches with police or whatever. I wasn't there but during the G20 in Toronto there was definitely time when there was peaceful rallies that were planned that turned into conflict with the police. Frankly, I think in that example it had more to do with the police just rounding people up than it had to do with activists causing trouble. There might have been people doing that but the reaction from police was totally out of proportion from what was taking place, and there was definitely times when large numbers of people, including people who may have just been walking by, or riding down there bike down the road ended up getting rounded up and taken and put in holding cells for long periods of time. There's clearly the reaction or overreaction of police that needs to be taken into account with these kinds of things as well. 

 

What has been your experience of advocacy in Calgary? What role do communities in Calgary play in your work?

 

The organization I work for doesn't have offices in Calgary, and we don't do a tremendous amount of  on-the-ground organizing in Calgary. I mean of course we do communications work that reaches people all across Canada, and I'll do interviews with media in Calgary and that sort of thing, but the majority of the work that I'm doing right now is actually along the Kinder-Morgan pipeline route, primarily in British Colombia, and the vast majority of it is happening relatively close to where our office is, because that is kind of the easiest thing to do is to organize as close to where you are as possible. I do think that there is some great work being done by some of our allies and partner groups. I've come to Calgary to speak at events that were organized by allies in the past. It really is the place that is the centre of the oil industry in Canada, and I think that there's a special responsibility for those that are in that area to be having those conversations and to be bringing in folks from industry, folks that work in the industry, and those that are concerned about climate change, and oil spills and First Nations land and title rights to kind of have those conversations right there in the heart of the core of the business. But it hasn't been something that has been what I've worked on personally. It's been something where I've played a supportive role, and in the environmental movement there's a lot of different groups playing a lot of different roles. One of the groups that probably is most active in terms of working directly with industry is the Pembina Institute. Pembina both works as a consultant directly for industry trying to help them reduce their footprint, but also as an advocacy group that is trying to raise issues and effect public policy, so there's actually two wings to the organization that both operate out of Alberta, and they're work has been quite effective. There's also a bunch of groups that are much more, I guess you could say activist in their approach, like Greenpeace and Sierra Club chapter in that part of the world, and other groups. So, we've at different times partnered with a number of different groups to hold events in Calgary, where I've come to speak at, and there is a number of people in Calgary who organized buses to take people up to the Tar Sands Healing Walk earlier this year. So there's a big mobilization from Calgary, earlier this summer, to bring people right to the Tar Sands to see it with their own eyes and at the invitation of First Nations, Fort Chipewyan, Athabasca Fort Chipewyan First Nations, and the Keepers of the Athabasca which is a group up there, and basically the idea was to come and see for ourselves what was going on and to show solidarity with First Nations who had been affected by being in such close proximity to these projects, so there was a focus on the much higher than normal cancer rates in the area, and other related health impacts for community members as well as treaty and rights issues that relate to the Tar Sands.  

 

What are some exciting current developments? 

 

 One of the more exciting current developments right now. Well, there's a lot going on, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is about to have a decision come down from the joint review panel, there's a lot of work going into organizing a response to that both proactively and reactively. So, that is a big focus right now. There's plans for a big national day of action next month that a number of different groups are involved in working on. So, I mean that is taking up a bunch of my attention right now. That's definitely exciting, there are many thousands of people who care deeply about what is going on right now in Canada and there's many different pipelines across Canada that are being proposed simultaneously and what we're seeing right now is kind of a desire to all collaborate and work together to show the similarities between the various projects that we're involved in. So, in that sense, now is kind of an interesting time to be in British Colombia, also simultaneously, I should say, we also have this proposal coming form Kinder Morgan to the point where it will actually be presented to the National Energy Board right around the same time that the conversation is happening around Enbridge, so we actually have two huge projects - both coming to critical moments - one in the application stage, one in the decision stage. But the two big pipelines in BC are coming to important moments in the campaigns related to them as we speak, so it will be an interesting next few months in British Colombia, and it's definitely keeping me busy. 

 

Well, I guess just one other thing to add is you know it's interesting to be having this conversation right at the same time that the latest report came from the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change. We've been told that climate change is a very serious threat, in fact the most serious threat facing humanity today. Groups like UNICEF and Save the Children are emphasizing the particular impact on young people around the world in developing countries, in the Global South, and to hear the UN IPCC, these 8,000 scientists from 800 different countries [FACT CHECK: "Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC…Currently 195 countries are members of the IPCC." (http://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization.shtml#.Umqo36VPx8s)], putting this extra emphasis on how serious this threat is, saying that they have 95 to 100% certainty that climate change is manmade and that we really do need to be reducing the amount of fossil fuels that are being extracted and burned to get us back to that 350 parts per million. We're currently over 400 parts per million. That to me is - you couldn't have a more striking kind of cry for these projects to be stopped. I can't imagine anything that you could say that would be a more serious and real reminder of what is required to address climate change. Here we are in the midst of this conversation about two different pipelines that would increase the amount of oil being extracted, at least facilitate that increase by something like 30%, either one of them. To me that is just fundamentally irresponsible, and aggressively taking us in the wrong direction. We really need to be taking that into consideration when we're thinking about these pipelines and the expansion of the Tar Sands. I think the latest IPCC report is really a wake up call for all of us and we have a special responsibility as Canadians to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem and to really get serious about finding ways to create jobs that we can all be proud instead of continuing down this old economic model from many years ago. 

 

How do Fossil Fuel Boycott and Divestment Initiatives look to you? 

 

The youth groups that are organizing divestment I think are doing fantastic work and that is really really important work. It's driving a lot of attention to what's going on right now with these various different projects, a whole range of projects and proposals not just here but elsewhere, whether it's the Keystone XL pipeline or the coal export facilities on the coast, or the fracking operations in various location in Pennsylvania and the Dakotas and elsewhere - there's a lot of people working to draw attention to the need to move beyond fossil fuels. I think this is a really interesting and quite potentially effective tool. There's actually dozens of these campaigns happening on campuses around North America and elsewhere in the world, but a really big push coming from 350.org who we work closely with to really make these campaigns successful. You can check out on Bill McKibben's website for the "Do The Math" tour they called it, which is basically the tour that they did around the math related to climate change and fossil fuels which has been the driving force behind the campaign to divest. So there's some great information on the Do The Math site. You can actually watch a film there about the whole divestment campaign and Bill McKibben's talk that he does on the math of climate change, and I think that's really critical. In fact, just today the city of Vancouver is debating a resolution to divest from fossil fuels for the whole city, and it looks quite likely that there will be some sort of divestment resolution that comes out of that. There's a staff report that basically highlights what their investments are in currently and what a resolution would like. My guess is that probably within the next six months we'll actually see Vancouver be one of the first major cities, I think the first in Canada, to officially divest from fossil fuels.

 
[October 9, 2013]
 
 
NOTE: This podcast was produced in partnership with AlternativeMediaYYC.com and the Arusha Centre with the Calgary Working Group initiative to establish a new local of The Media Co-op in Calgary
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