Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with these inspirational words: “The fall of the Wall has shown us that dreams can come true. … Nothing has to stay the way it is, however big the hurdles are.” Merkel’s message gives hope to all who yearn for better. We can be sure she wasn’t thinking of Alberta when she spoke but her words apply to the aspirations of many Albertans that our province can change direction and move from a destructive to a nurturing path.
The moral change symbolized by the Fall of the Wall is usually thought of in terms of escape from tyranny, such as the cruel Communism that prevailed in eastern Europe, including the former East Germany. We usually associate it with better protection for human rights and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and movement. But there are other forms of tyranny and the Fall of the Wall can inspire change beyond the usual realms, however important they are.
The glory of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 should inspire those of us who yearn to see other serious wrongs righted. In Alberta those other wrongs include a vicious and unrelenting abuse of land, water, air, climate and the people – Aboriginal people and farmers and ranchers – who live in direct dependence on those natural systems.
We need a different approach to how we treat the natural world generally – from how we accommodate our expanding population (do we persist in building low-density suburbs devouring farmland in the process?) to how we extract non-renewable resources. But we also need a different way of electing our political representatives, the people who make those decisions on our behalf.
Our democracy is unhealthy, weaker than it used to be, and this must be addressed. As Elizabeth May leader of the federal Green Party writes in her latest book Who We Are, “diminished democracy undermines our best hope to avoid the worsening climate crisis, which threatens human civilization itself.” One way to strengthen our democracy is to adopt proportional representation.
(The form favoured by most Canadians who have studied the alternatives is the mixed-member system used by New Zealand and Germany. It was the form that was put to Ontario voters in 2007. The measure was defeated, most people think, because Ontarians weren’t given adequate time and information to assess fully the proposed change.)
In Who We Are May quotes an economist on the existential dilemma posed by the increasing power of corporations and their influence over politics: “This is no longer a clash between ‘isms’… It is the choice between Life and Money.” Alberta’s mad dash to ever higher carbon emissions and ever more rapacious attacks on land and water puts all Albertans complicit in this behaviour on the wrong side of this divide.
And make no mistake: as with those who stood by when the East German government shot people seeking freedom by crossing the Wall, there is a certain kind of moral degradation entailed by these environmental and cultural abuses. Those who stand by are complicit in behaviour that threatens both humanity generally, through climate change, and specific local communities through constant erosion of the ecosystems on which they depend, as well as the health of all Albertans. How good does that feel?
But as in the former East Germany where Angela Merkel grew up, in Alberta it can feel as if political change is simply impossible. After the recent four by-elections, all won by the governing party, some may feel even deeper despair that things will ever change. To them I would insist: Merkel’s message should be taken on board: “Nothing has to stay the way it is, however big the hurdles are.”
In 1987, two years before the Wall fell, Ronald Reagan famously said in a speech delivered in Berlin: “Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization — come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Albertans have to say to the PC government: if you believe that Money should not trump Life, eliminate the tailings ponds, stop reckless fracking and other inherently dangerous extractive practices, halt expansion of the tarsands, show real not token respect for the rural way of life and put in place a process for adoption of proportional representation.
The lesson of the Berlin Wall is that the social and political processes in place today are not inevitable. It really doesn’t have to be this way – not even in Alberta.
Janet Keeping is leader of the Green Party of Alberta.
This opinion piece was first published on the Troy Media web site at http://www.troymedia.com/2014/11/12/change-is-possible-even-in-alberta/