Critical Mass Vancouver, July 2023

Milan Ilnyckyj at July 2023 Critical Mass in Vancouver, by @jordanvegbike

By happenstance or grace I ran into the best Vancouver Critical Mass in years when the library ushered me out at 6pm. It was my first bike ride in 11 years, and my first e-bike ride ever, on a rental e-bike available right beside the mustering area north of the old art gallery.

Critical Mass is one of the most brilliant forms of non-violent direct action ever devised. Today’s Vancouver ride showed me the city like I never saw it in 22 years growing up, and felt like the safest bike ride I ever took. Safe in the middle, I never worried about a single car. There were pairs of kids on the back of long e-bikes; dogs in carriers wearing goggles; several audio mixes from portable speakers in different parts of the mass; and a lot of good grace and patience — as well as a great deal of overt support — from pedestrians as well as drivers.

Open thread: The worldwide crisis for renters

When people hear about my miserable 4-month search for an afforadle, available, and non-awful room to rent in Toronto, the glib answer is often that I should leave the city. After all, Toronto’s housing market is notoriously punishing.

I call the answer glib because it doesn’t reflect much awareness of what is also happening in potential alternative cities. Vancouver is about 10% more expensive, and cities with far fewer employment options like Guelph, Hamilton, and Barrie are only marginally cheaper. The crisis for renters is both multi-causal and global.

For instance: The UK housing crisis isn’t just about mortgages – private renters desperately need help too (“Three-fifths of private renters cannot afford a decent standard of living”)

Why aren’t the NDP climate and environmental champions?

It is generally held that the existence of this socialist tradition allows governments in Canada to play a larger role than in the United States. As noted above, however, pollution regulation in this country has imposed costs on industry that are only one-third of those imposed by American governments. Despite their much more vocal commitment to the virtues of free enterprise, Americans have been much more willing to see governments intervene to protect the environment than have Canadians.

Perhaps of more significance is the fact that this socialist tradition led to creation of the CCF in 1932 and the New Democratic Party in 1961. Environmentalism has always been seen as part of the progressive agenda and therefore it might be assumed that environmentalists form a natural constituency for the NDP.

In fact, however, the NDP has been no more successful than either of the other two parties in articulating environmental policy and NDP governments have not been particularly noted for action on the issue. It would be difficult to argue that British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, in which NDP governments have held power, have introduced more stringent pollution control measures than Ontario, where, until 1990, the NDP had not formed a government. A 1985 review of the record of NDP governments in Manitoba since it assumed power in 1982 reached this conclusion: “Changes in [environmental] legal arrangements and institutions have also been minimal; not one change seems to strike environmentalists as having great significance.”

The question is not whether the socialist foundations of the NDP will lead that party automatically to environmentalism, since they will not, but whether environmentalists can draw on that party’s concern for fairness and social justice as they work to put in place policies based on fairness and justice for the natural world.

Macdonald, Doug. The Politics of Pollution. McClelland & Steward; Toronto. 1991. p. 50–1


Prohibiting eviction through fraud

One of the reasons why Toronto’s housing market is such a disaster is that landlords are basically immune from any mechanism for punishing them for misconduct.

They can abuse the ambiguity of the Residential Tenancy Act to baselessly refuse to assign someone new to a lease, as a way of forcing existing residents to leave or accept an illegal rent increase.

There is also widespread reporting on abuse of mechanisms that let a landlord evict a tenant for their own use of the space or similar reasons. I have personally — and had friends — threatened with eviction for a wide range of trivial or invented reasons, all as a pressure tactic to add stress and try to illegally force people from their homes.

The Landlord and Tenant Board system is completely jammed up, with even the most urgent hearings taking 8-9 months to happen (and then they may be inconclusive, leaving everyone waiting again).

One remedy that could improve things would be a criminal offence for evicting a tenant through fraud or abuse of process. Theoretically a mistreated tenant could sue for damages, but it’s hardly likely that someone scrambling for a place to survive would accept those legal fees and risks. Having a criminal offence would create a real stick to discourage and prevent landlord misconduct, slightly rebalancing power relations in order to make the law work more as written and less as words to be ignored and misused by those driven only be the desire to collect as much rent as possible.

Creating a criminal offence is justified for at least three reasons. Even good tenants who follow the law and pay their rent may face daily and severe stress from the knowledge their landlords are trying to get rid of them illegally. I have been personally and seriously stressed about housing, often to the point of losing sleep, almost every day since the crisis with my flatmate at my old place began years ago. Even with the extreme stress of a PhD program to compare with, Toronto’s housing market is worse.

Taking away someone’s home is a very serious matter, which is why we regulate housing so much in the first place. If the existing system cannot contain landlord misconduct, there must be one with more coercive power against them. Secondly, there is extensive evidence that this misconduct is widespread, if not routine. A significant change is needed to disrupt a rotten status quo. Finally, the potential monetary rewards for landlord misconduct are huge, especially when it has become normalized throughout the system. Only a strong counterbalance has a chance of blunting the incentive for landlords to profit through illegality and misconduct.

We are losing the global fight against fossil fuels

Three examples from today:

1) Coal shortage and heatwave spark India’s power woes:

The government says it is doing all it can do to ensure supplies. Coal India, the world’s largest coal miner, has increased production by 12%, “strengthening India’s energy security”, according to the federal coal ministry. It also despatched 49.7 million metric tonnes of coal to the power generating companies in April, a 15% rise over the same month last year. The railways have cancelled more than a thousand passenger trains to transport more coal to fuel-starved plants.

2) Hydro-Québec mounts last-ditch effort to revive stalled power line project through Maine:

The planned project would carry 1,200 megawatts of electricity over a 336-kilometre high-voltage transmission line between Thetford Mines, Que., and Lewiston, Maine. Of the 233 kilometres planned on the U.S. side, 85 kilometres would cut through a forested area. Clearing work was already well underway at the time of the referendum.

According to Maine Public Utilities Commission, the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 3.6 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of taking 700,000 cars off the road.

However, the state’s largest environmental advocacy group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, has expressed a great deal of skepticism about the real environmental benefits of Hydro-Québec energy, questioning whether the project would actually reduce GHG emissions.

3) Ontario energy grid emissions set to skyrocket 400% as Ford government cranks up the gas:

Since all renewable energy projects were cancelled when Premier Doug Ford was elected, the province currently has no other way to compensate for the looming shutdown of a major nuclear reactor in Pickering, responsible for roughly 16 per cent of province-wide power. Only natural gas is available to meet rapidly growing demand for electricity, according to the IESO projections.

The projections show that the province’s natural gas plants — which only operate about 60 per cent of the time now — will run non-stop by 2033. The additional annual emissions this will produce over the next 20 years are equivalent to a large Alberta oilsands project.

Why public promises are often irrelevant to politics

“So accept the favours, sway the key blocs, and you will get into power — ruling with actions that look contradictory and stupid to those who don’t understand the game: privately helping a powerful industry you publicly denounced, or passing laws that hurt a bloc that voter for you. But your job isn’t to have a consistent understandable ruling policy, but to balance the interests of your keys to power big and small. That is how you stay in office.” (9:48)

Ginsburg documentary

After today’s three presentations on my research — and the surprise discovery of another very pertinent U of T PhD dissertation which I will read tomorrow — I learned that through the library I have access to the Kanopy streaming service and watched the RBG documentary which was the first thing recommended. It’s rightly praised as very well done, and I learned a lot about her life.

Progressive politics and “defunding the police”

While outside the area of climate change policy, the concept and slogan of “defunding the police” is revealing about important dynamics between progressive activist politics and policy-making by those who actually win power.

As The Economist reported in 2021:

The critical division is over whether or not the plan is a pretext to “defund the police”. Opponents insist it is sloganeering masquerading as policy. Shortly after Floyd’s murder, a majority of the city council appeared at a rally at Powderhorn Park on a stage in front of which “DEFUND POLICE” appeared in gigantic block letters. “The narrative all along until maybe five months ago, six months ago, was that they would be defunding the police and allocating the money elsewhere. The only thing that’s changed is the political winds,” says Mr Frey. He insists that alternatives to policing can still be funded without modifying the city charter, and that, if anything, more funding for the police is needed: “Right now, in Minneapolis, we have fewer officers per capita than just about every major city in the entire country.”

Advocates for reform have adjusted their language. As with the civil-rights movement, “those farthest on the left are what pushed the movement…we shifted the narrative from reform to defund,” says Sheila Nezhad, a community organiser running for mayor who is posing a stiff challenge to Mr Frey. Having contributed to a report on policing that argued that “abolition is the only way forward”, Ms Nezhad now avoids such rhetoric on the campaign trail, preferring words like “reinvest”. Kate Knuth, another candidate for mayor who supports the reform, says: “My vision of a department of public safety absolutely includes police,” funded at the same levels as today.

Public opinion in favour of “defunding” police departments was never high. The increase in violent crime has made it even less so.

In June 2020, 41% of Democrats told survey-takers for the Pew Research Centre that they wished to reduce local police budgets. By September 2021 that had shrunk to 25%. Among the general public, support declined from 25% to 15%.

I would say the dynamics of this movement mirror many of those in the progressive, intersectional, anti-capitalist climate justice movement. People who are sympathetic to the kind of analysis and solutions within the movement embrace them enthusiastically and selectively surround themselves to people who agree, losing touch with public opinion and losing the ability to influence people who don’t mostly agree with them already. This leads to policy proposals that over-reach what is politically plausible (abolish global capitalism!) but, because they feel swollen with moral superiority about their analysis and policy preferences, activists reject the public rather than revise their proposals. They end up powerless and isolated, but feeling like the moral lords of the universe. Because they see their opponents as so contemptible, the idea of developing an approach with broader electoral support is rejected both pragmatically and emotionally, in the first case because they can’t see how cooperating with such awful people will lead to an outcome they want, and in the second case because their revulsion and contempt makes them reject cooperation before even considering what it would involve.

The biggest thing we need to achieve to have a chance against climate change is to split the conservative side of the population between those with respect for empirical truth who won’t dismantle climate change protections to try to win popularity and the fantasists who either deny the reality of climate change altogether or dismiss the need to act on it. The latter would then hopefully be a small enough rump to be politically marginal. Something comparable on the left may be a helpful parallel development, characterized by the rejection of the idea that everyone who disagrees with progressivism can be ignored or converted. Recognizing that multiple political perspectives can be simultaneously valid is the basis of pluralism and the foundation of the central democratic concept that the defeated must acknowledge the legitimacy of the victors. Without that, politics becomes an anarchic ideological contest in which any tactic can be justified and where a coherent and effective agenda serving the public interest cannot arise.


Dissertation extract: structural barriers to climate change action

Today I saw a Twitter post with some text that governments cut from the Summary for Policymakers from the 6th Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

B6.4. Factors limiting ambitious transformation include structural barriers, an incremental rather than systemic approach, lack of coordination, inertia, lock-in to infrastructure and assets, and lock-in as a consequence of vested interests, regulatory inertia, and lack of technological capabilities and human resources. (high confidence) {1.5, 2.8, 5.5, 6.7, 13.8}

This accords with the section on structural barriers to climate action in my in-progress dissertation.

In response, I have released a draft section from my dissertation on the structural barriers that make controlling climate change so challenging. The barriers are essential for understanding why growing scientific alarm has not translated into adequate policy responses. It also raises questions for environmentalists working to control the problem, since part of the issue is their own opposition to fossil fuel alternatives.

Should Elizabeth II end the monarchy?

An impression that I can’t shake the more I learn about the personal histories of people in the British royal family is that it has mostly been awful for them, and they might benefit as much as anyone from the abolition of the institution.

That makes this argument from Polly Toynbee more plausible: Clearly Britain loses more than it gains from the monarchy. Let us be brave and end it.

The only real argument I perceive for maintaining the institution is the idea that it’s a source of unifying stability within U.K. or Canadian or Commonwealth society. It’s the old argument against the French revolution: that things hallowed by tradition have an importance understood in culture more than it could be expressed in explicit rational argument, and that those seeking to design their institutions of government from whole cloth through rationality risk veering into tyrannical violence and social breakdown.

Arguably it’s an institution that can’t maintain its dignity in the absence of deference from the press, politicians, and the public. When society’s institutions are willing to reveal rather than conceal their weaknesses (I remember the character Charles saying something snotty in some docu-drama about not intending to be the first Price of Wales without a mistress) then their ordinariness transcends the high social status conferred on them by tradition and precedent.