Four blackboards, already full of words by the time I had arrived, sat covered in terms like “capitalism” and “carbon credits,” under headings like “root causes” and “fake solutions.”
The group of 20 had been brainstorming for an hour. After another had passed, they mused what $1.4 billion in government fossil fuel subsidies could do elsewhere. Education, sustainable infrastructure, and organic farms were suggested.
This was the first workshop of the weekend, called “We Are PowerShift.” It was on Saturday morning. It was mandatory. It laid out the values of the conference, and “how to approach community and climate organizing in a way that is anti-oppressive, inclusive and strategic.”
The conference was a success, says Cameron Fenton, the director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and one of the head organizers, and it restored his faith in the environmental movement.
“Before PowerShift I referred to something called the youth climate movement in Canada, and now I actually believe it exists,” said Fenton. “I’ve always known there’s something there, but it’s been so long since we’ve had something like PowerShift in this country.”
On the first day alone, there were 87 workshops and panels. The pace was frantic and the excitement palpable.
Silence in science
After “We Are PowerShift,” I attended a panel on “the muzzling of scientists” or, how increasingly difficult it is for journalists to interview federal climate experts.
Alana Westwood, a Dalhousie Biology PHD student, led the discussion, and she says she spoke to as many scientists as she could when preparing for the panel. None would go on record and almost all of them had at least one story about being threatened with losing their jobs if they spoke to the media without supervision.
“It’s like the 1950s Soviet Union,” said Westwood.
To speak to a scientist now, she says you must contact the media relations person at the department you want to speak to. This person puts the request through, which is then discussed amongst superiors in the department. Sometimes it goes all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The process can take at least two weeks, and sometimes there’s no response at all, says Westwood. When there is, journalists are asked to submit a list of questions prior to the interview, and the scientist is given a list of suggested answers. If their answers differ from those given to them, they put their job at risk.
This is one tiny scale on the complex and ravenous monster of capitalism that PowerShift is trying to subdue.
The activist spirit of the conference eventually permeated the discussion — what could be done to change this? The arduous and bureaucratic process, said Westwood, is susceptible to simple overload — if many people put in requests at once, it would highlight the system’s absurdity. No action was planned.
The panel disbanded just past noon. Zigzagging through the University of Ottawa halls between workshops was like buzzing through a hive. The workshops were all were honing different skills — communication, investigation, campaigning, activism and policymaking — but held a common goal.
Two more rounds of workshops came before the evening’s keynote speeches, with something for any skill, interest or degree program.
“Just showing up is no longer enough. This is a war for the future.”
– Naomi Klein, environmentalist
The speeches began at 7:30 p.m. The excited hope of a day spent learning was pragmatically stifled by a heavy and honest message from the speakers. The environmental rhetoric of young people tends to have a naïve sense of fate — the good guys always win. The speakers reminded the audience of how things really work.
Naomi Klein, renowned environmentalist and author, says society has sunk into a misguided industrial progress.
“How did it become more reasonable to change the colour of the sky, rather than ask someone to take the bus?”
“Just showing up is no longer enough. This is a war for the future,” said Klein.
Bill McKibben, with flailing arms and lanky figure — not unlike an excited Kermit the Frog — said to the crowd, “I don’t know if we can beat ‘em, but looking around this room, I really like the odds.”
Since writing The End of Nature in 1989, widely considered the first book about global warming geared towards a mass audience, McKibben has co-founded 350.org, a world-renowned and well-regarded climate change organization.
A community advocate and co-director of Honor the Earth and the White Earth Land Recovery Project, Winona LaDuke, said climate change is affecting her Aboriginal community in northern Minnesota, U.S. The fix won’t be quick, she said.
“Things take a while to get messed up, and they take a long time to fix.”
Her speech ended with a standing ovation.
It was 10 p.m. by the time people had left the auditorium. Fatigue was setting in. Despite a collective will to maintain the day’s energy, people were needing sleep for another early day.
Ninety-five workshops and panels awaited the group on Sunday, plus regional meetings to discuss how to bring the new knowledge home.
If only there was more time.