[Update: Do read Geoff’s comment at the end of this post. Powerful and provocative.]
SFU Vancouver – the downtown campus – is now 30 years old since SFU came down from the mountain. It’s what President Andrew Petter says helps make SFU the engaged university.
Engagement is the particular work of the Centre for Dialogue, Public Square, City Conversations and the City Program – all of which had events happening on Thursday, and two of which featured Mary Rowe, the speaker for this year’s Warren Gill Lecture. They certainly engaged me, with more questions than I had a chance to ask. Here are some.
INEQUALITY AND DIVERSITY
When considering the rural-urban divide in Canada, Mary began with two points that are pretty much taken as self-evident in academia: diversity is good, inequality is bad. Policies for healthy cities should encourage the former and reduce the latter.
But what if inequality is a measure of diversity?
Since a diverse city is one in which there are many different kinds of people and pursuits, do those differences of equality become magnified with greater diversity? In fact, is increasing inequality how we know the city is more diverse?
Let’s say public policies were effective at reducing inequality by redistributing benefits, by building the infrastructure, physical and cultural, to build a stronger middle class. Isn’t the result a more homogenous city, perhaps less likely to generate the cultural and economic energy we associate with places like New York in the 1970s, London in the 1800s, Florence in the 1500s? Does equality mean boring and less diverse?
MAKING CHOICES IN A CLIMATE EMERGENCY
At noon, at City Conversations the topic was the climate emergency, with Councillor Christine Boyle (who introduced the climate emergency motion at council and is interviewed here on PriceTalks); Atiya Jaffar, digital campaigner for 350.org; and New Westminster Councillor Nadine Nakagawa.
I had three ‘tough questions’, with the opportunity to ask only one – itself somewhat facetious:
Given that there are three women speaking on the same topic, and only women, what about gender diversity?
Would the question have been asked if there were only men on the panel? Probably, but it likely wouldn’t have been needed. ‘Manels’ are just not done at events like this. And, as City Conversations director Michael Alexander clarified, there was originally meant to be a male speaker who had to cancel at the last moment.
The question was really meant to probe why there are so many women leading the charge to deal with climate change, from AOC to Greta Thunberg to Christine Boyle. I doubt it’s a coincidence.
WHAT’S VOLUNTARY IN AN EMERGENCY
The next two questions were meant to be tougher. One of Christine Boyle’s slides was a simple sentence, to the effect that response to the climate emergency will not be voluntary.
But how involuntary should it be? Should democratic norms and legal constraints be suspended to deal with an existential threat, a true emergency and the catastrophes that are already underway?
We already accept that someone in charge – a general in name or effect – may have to suspend rights and give orders when a wildfire requires evacuation. What other orders may have to be given, what rights suspended, what property seized as the emergency worsens?
For instance, many call for a halt to fossil fuel production, even it devalues the resource and threatens immediate economic growth. Necessary expropriation? That’s nothing compared to the responses called for when thousands, perhaps millions, of climate refugees are on the move.
So: Will we give sufficient power and resources to those with the mandate to save us – even if it means rolling over the rights and interests of ourselves and others?
WHEN REALITY DOESN’T FIT THE NARRATIVE
The third question is the toughest, in part because it’s specific, mostly because it departs from the narrative of our time – the one evoked at the beginning of every SFU event when, rather like a prayer, we acknowledge that we are on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-waututh.
Each panelist noted the imperative of including indigenous peoples in any process, any plan, any consequences when dealing with the climate emergency. First Nations, it’s believed, will be better able to respond to this imperative if included and have more legitimacy than the colonialist settlers.
Unfortunately … one of the first examples we have of choices being made by a first nation with full possession and rights to the use its land is one of the worst: Tsawwassen Mills and Commons – a giant auto-dependent single-use shopping complex constructed on paved-over agricultural land, on the Fraser Delta, on the Pacific Flyway, on land below sea level.
A single example of almost everything we shouldn’t and wouldn’t do, and yet for which there is no doubt that the Tsawwassen had the right and the economic justification to do so.
So now, would you object to an extension of the Tsawwassen Mills development on more of the delta lands if it set the bar even lower?
It’s a question most prefer to avoid. The dissonance is too great between rhetoric and reality.
But these questions and others have to be part of the conversation that we say we need more of. Especially when they don’t fit the necessary narrative.