On the surface, the breakthrough for the Greens should be making environmentalists cheer

At the time of writing, with the opposition parties emboldened by the latest sponsorship revelations, an early federal election seems a serious prospect. When an election is called, the Green Party of Canada is likely to be a bigger presence in the campaign than ever before. The party’s half-million votes in the 2004 election, while not winning it any seats, were enough to allow it to qualify for funding under new election financing rules – a $1-million-plus shot in the arm.

On the surface, the breakthrough for the Greens should be making environmentalists cheer. But this environmental activist, with nearly 20 years in the field, finds himself wavering between rage and despair instead. There are three reasons for my lack of enthusiasm: the party’s leader, its philosophical and policy outlook, and the impact of its vote.

Beyond leading the Green Party, Jim Harris has no environmental biography. He is a motivational writer and speaker on business management. Even that domain would be forgivable if his shtick had something to do with the environmental challenges faced by big business, but it doesn’t. Harris focuses on enhancing shareholder value by creating a managed learning process for employees. He boasts a client list that includes Barclays Bank, Centra, Certified Management Accountants, Columbia Tristar Pictures, Deloitte & Touche, European Snack Food Association, International Association of Business Communicators, Johnson & Johnson, MasterCard, NEC and Zurich.

Jim Harris’s biography on the official Green Party website says he arrived at green issues via the Progressive Conservative Party. He says he has moved from being a fiscal conservative to being an ecological conservative. But his rightward leadership of the Green Party has not gone unchallenged. At the party’s August 2004 convention he faced two challengers and retained his leadership with only a 54 per cent vote – a very poor showing for a “breakthrough” leader. Both challengers campaigned on the premise that the party had drifted too far from green values in its pursuit of votes, and one of them, John Grogan, made the claim that Harris had run roughshod over the Green Party constitution, stifled internal debate and abandoned the key principles of the international Green Party movement.

While Green Party politics got its start in New Zealand, it is the early German Greens who are generally credited with being the intellectual forbears of electoral Green politics as we know it. The German Greens emerged out of an explicitly anticapitalist, utopian political project, and drew heavily on the anti-imperialist peace movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s. German activists saw both capitalism and Soviet Communism as exploitive and warlike. There was a feeling that if nuclear war didn’t get us all sooner, ecological collapse would get us later. Old assumptions had to be completely rethought. Thus the Green Party emerged under the famous slogan “Neither left nor right, but in front!” Less well known was the line that “Green thinking is to Marxism as Einstein was to Newton.” Greens felt that Marx’s critique got a lot right, but missed some essentials. By building these essentials into left thought, the Greens gave us something entirely new.

In their platform, private wealth and high incomes were to be heavily taxed, but monolithic state-run enterprises were also to be scaled down. Decentralism was the watchword. Full employment through shorter working hours at worker co-ops was the ideal production mode. Local self-reliance was valued over global trading. Polluting and destructive technologies were to have no place. Perpetual economic growth was seen as wrong and ultimately impossible.

Nonviolence was a cornerstone. Instead of a national army they favoured neighbourhood-scale training in nonviolent civil defence. Instead of an army defending borders making invasion too costly, civil disobedience and subversion would make occupation too costly.

For the Greens, parliamentary politics was only one part of a range of political activities that included protest and community organizing. The best-known Green representative, Petra Kelly, took advantage of her seat in the German parliament to turn a state visit to the USSR into an antiwar protest in the face of Soviet cops. The Greens led marches and occupations. The first time they won parliamentary seats they snubbed traditional politics and rotated different members of the party through those seats. Half the salary of parliamentarians and a large portion of the money raised by the party were donated to community activist groups.

This orientation helped the Greens recover from their worst electoral defeat. When the Berlin Wall came down, the Greens’ commitment to decentralism led them to oppose the reunification of Germany – a victory of principle over electoral calculation. In the subsequent election they lost all their seats. But the Greens recovered, largely because they managed to build a powerful extraparliamentary movement.

Since the Greens became part of Germany’s governing coalition in 1998, the realities of power have forced them to make compromises, especially in foreign policy. But if the Greens’ idealism has been tempered in Germany, there is far less of the creativity and energy they brought to politics in the Jim Harris Greens.

A review of their 2004 election platform reveals the kind of juvenilia one would expect from a political party which is new, doesn’t expect to govern and has no deep conceptual anchor. Radical pacifism has morphed into going to war only with the consent of the United Nations, and attaching diplomats to military units. (Do they go armed? Do they rush to the front with a bullhorn and encourage everyone to stop shooting and start talking?) The platform sonorously opposes Canadian companies exporting weapons to poor unstable countries. But one must ask: what is green about permitting weapons trade with rich stable countries?

The Greens have abandoned radical decentralism for a remarkably harsh view of Quebec. They would require a two-thirds vote to enable Quebec’s separation. Rather than use the tools available to Canada to promote local production, Green trade policy would merely have the World Trade Organization report to the UN. This is hardly the message carried by the environmental contingents in the antiglobalization protests in Seattle and Quebec City.

But the Greens’ most questionable proposals are in the area of fiscal policy. The central plank of the Green Party platform is the so-called “Green Tax Shift.” The party wants to lower taxes on income, profit and investment, while maintaining a balanced budget and reducing the national debt. In compensation, the Greens want to “raise taxes on harmful activities such as pollution, waste and inefficiency.” While on the surface taxing pollution and not taxing profits is appealing, it’s far from being consistent with my understanding of environmentalist thinking.

First, as an environmentalist, I see economic growth (particularly in the capitalist mode) as inherently unsustainable. The central fact driving environmental activism is the impossibility of indefinite production growth in a world of finite resources. Conservation of resources demands limits to growth. Ecological breakdowns resulting from overfishhing, overfarming, overlogging and the like have shown us that we are already past these limits. A no-growth or steady-state economics has been the main tenet of environmentally minded economic thinking. The tax shift model does not imply any set boundaries: it merely imposes a marginal cost for resource consumption and contamination.

Second, I don’t see economic instruments such as the “Green Tax Shift” as an appropriate way of achieving a greener society. True, some environmentalists favour economic instruments such as carbon taxes as a short-term brake on runaway growth. However, no one ought to be able to pay to destroy common goods such as clean air. Regulation is understood as a public expression of a social or moral imperative. If we merely tax air pollution rather than regulate it away, we are effectively allowing corporations to buy the right to contaminate the air we breathe. Ask yourself how much a corporation would have to pay you to pump its pollution directly into your lungs.

Finally, I see protecting common goods (clean air; clean water; healthy, contaminant-free food) as a matter of the collective good, a matter of justice. Since the environment is a good we all rely on to live, buying and selling it for profit it is essentially unjust. In areas such as this the market has no place. Practices which benefit some and harm others should be seen as crimes, not as taxable business operations, and we should use democratic power to legislate an end to them. Polluting should be treated in much the same way as any other crime.

Not only does the Green Tax Shift fail to solve the problem of unlimited growth, but it also undermines the most critical element of fairness in our current tax system by shifting from progressive taxes on income to a regressive tax on production. This neglect or misunderstanding of economic fairness is everywhere in evidence in Green policy. Under the economic justice heading, the Greens’ 2004 platform lists a number of steps that frankly aren’t economic in nature: equal access to the courts and the media, more powers for the Human Rights Commissioner, more action on Native rights, and improved access to information laws strictly for the purpose of getting information on government spending. The Greens are so out of touch that they list action to prevent species extinction as part of their economic justice policy.

If the Greens were just a fringe party, their philosophical and policy weaknesses would not be so serious. But they are in a position to play a spoiler role in federal politics, as they did in the United States in 2000, when the Ralph Nader vote was largely credited with costing Al Gore the presidency. For voters dissatisfied with all the mainstream options, the Greens are a safe way of voting “None of the above.” In British Columbia in 2001, voters wanted to toss out an NDP that still had the ghost of Glen Clark hanging over it, but not all of them could stomach the Campbell Liberals. In that election the Greens broke out of marginal party status and gained 12 per cent of the vote.

In the 2004 federal election, the Green vote changed the whole complexion of Parliament – and not for the better, from a green point of view. Jack Layton’s New Democratic Party sits one seat shy of propping the Liberals up in Commons votes. If a few hundred Green voters had supported NDP candidates in a couple of ridings that narrowly went Tory, the NDP would have emerged in a much stronger position. New Democrats are especially bitter about Trinity-Spadina, where Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow, lost to Liberal Tony Ianno by 805 votes, while the Green candidate took 4,605 votes.

Ironically, Jack Layton has a much better green profile than Jim Harris does. As a Toronto city councillor, Layton was a strong and successful advocate on environmental issues. Most famously, he teamed up with now-Mayor David Miller to set the legal snare that eventually killed the Adams Mine garbage dump proposal in 1999. Earlier in his career, as chair of the Toronto Board of Health, Layton was instrumental in promoting the healthy city concept. That approach, which has developed a worldwide following, argues that promoting health means engaging in a wide range of health-related issues, including protecting the environment. Layton was a key mover behind Toronto getting its first windmill. He and Chow were instrumental in getting a citywide bike plan. While out of office for one term, he set up a green energy business.

On becoming leader, Layton developed a federal green transportation strategy jointly with Greenpeace and the Canadian Auto Workers, and made the implementation of the Kyoto Accord a key NDP policy plank. In pre-election report cards on the environmental platforms of federal political parties, both Greenpeace and the more mainstream Sierra Club rated the NDP as greener than the party that bears the name. In the Sierra Club report, the Greens didn’t even manage a clear second, but only a tie with the Bloc Québécois.

With its promotion of policies that are dubiously green at best, and with its siphoning of votes from the NDP, the effect of Green Party politics, Canadian-style, has been precisely the opposite of what the name would imply.