Why Vancouver’s inner-city crystalizes the green paradigm shift

It’s often these days that we find the word problem replaced by the words challenge or opportunity. Sometimes this is appropriate and useful, but Van Jones in his book The Green Collar Economy, clearly demonstrates why the word problem should not be dropped from our lexicon. His book seems to be increasingly more relevant to Vancouver’s inner-city.

The increasing divide between rich and poor is more than a challenge or opportunity, it is a problem. Perhaps for those on the more comfortable side of the equation it’s a challenge or opportunity, but for the growing bottom percentage? Access to clean potable water in developing nations is more than a challenge, and for those struggling to find it it’s a problem far more than an opportunity. The myriad environmental, social and economic disruptions we’ve created from years of exponential production and consumption are more than just an opportunity or challenge, collectively they have become a problem of global scale.

The reason why it’s important to acknowledge that there are problems is because it creates the urgency to recognize problem solvers. Without problems how can we even have problem solvers? Challenges and opportunities are indicative of competitive language, the kind born out of free market ideologies. They denote opportunism, and that’s fine. We need opportunists to capitalize on the wealth of opportunities in the fast emerging green economy, but to Jones it goes deeper than this.  In the Green Collar Economy the challenges and opportunities that will help to create equitable wealth come from solving these environmental and social problems. It’s more than opportunities within an emerging economy, it’s about the health of human society and the living planet we depend on. Because of this, the people who are most in need of problem solving  naturally become crucial problem solvers themselves:

“We cannot afford that kind of moral shortfall. To solve our global problems, we need to engage and unleash the genius of all people, at all levels of society. Some of the minds that can solve our toughest problems are undoubtedly trapped behind prison bars, stuck behind desks in schools without decent books, or isolated in rural communities. A green economy that is designed to pull them in—as skilled laborers, innovators, inventors, and owners—will be more dynamic, more robust, and better able to save the Earth.”

Van’s book and his theories on job creation and environmentalism ring particularly true right here in Vancouver, which is simultaneously facing the challenges of rejuvenating the ‘poorest postal code in Canada‘ and  becoming the greenest city in the world.

One of the crucial points Van makes is that this Green economy should not just be embodied by the health conscientious crowd who drive hybrids, eat organic specialty foods or buy fair trade coffee.  It’s a paradigm shift where members of society at all levels have an important role to play as laborers, planners, community leaders, investors and innovators. This perceived eco-elitism can be replaced with what he terms eco-populism, whereby those who would otherwise view being green as expensive and detached from their lives can find green options more accessible. I would say the same for those who view the green economy predominantly as emerging technologies, renewable energy and other higher-order activities. This is also part of it yes, but let’s not let the large venture capital numbers eclipse the large transformative power of communities in action.

Environmentalism here in Vancouver has demonstrated elitism as it has everywhere. Looking at it as technologies and capital investment is only a fraction of this paradigm shift. Focusing on eco-chic products, organic free range specialty foods, and other consumer goods is also only a fraction, and some argue it is the more shallow fraction at that. A rethink of how we interact within and create society, including a fundamental rethink of the shapes, sizes and flow of cities is another fraction. The deconstruction and reconstruction of urban space, repurposing of materials, waste diversion, on-site energy creation, increasing of urban agriculture and a complete re-adjustment from the old industrial paradigm to a far more equitable and community-centric paradigm will take more than Soy Lattes and Hybrid cars, no slight to either. And it will take more than investment in higher order R&D as important as this is. This change is already happening here in Vancouver, along with groundbreaking technological R&D and delicious organic fair trade Lattes we’ve become renowned for.

Referring back to the list of recipients from BOB’s Consultant Fees Program we can see Jones’ paradigm shift taking form here in Vancouver’s inner-city. Two visions, one of a rejuvenated inner-city that historically has struggled with many social and environmental challenges, and one of Vancouver becoming the Greenest city in the world seem to be coalescing; where an experience of community economic development in which grassroots innovation and sweat equity are translating into problem solving is unfolding. This kind of problem solving creates opportunities and builds community capacity through and for an increasingly engaged population. If we can continue to do this here and continue to do this collectively, in other cities and towns around the planet, then we’ve created the global shift that Jones envisions. Like that old saying, “death by a thousand cuts”, the old paradigm is cast away from our disparate but collective movement. But how can we recognize and actualize a movement that is inclusive and simultaneously comprehensive? Societal relationships are complex and tense; particularly the relationships between those with seemingly little power and those with seemingly unimaginable power. Jones proposes that we recognize collective ideals that are clear and simple, yet able to bridge the complexities between diverse stakeholders, and appeal broadly.

Movements need principles. History teaches us that it is impossible to guide a complex series of deep changes without grounding efforts in unchanging ideals. Strategies can be complex, but goals and ideas should be clear. Bearing this in mind Jones puts forth 3 principles:

1. Equal Protection for All.

2. Equal Opportunity for All.

3. Reverence for All Creation.

These principles can appeal to free market enthusiasts eager for opportunistic reward, to problem solvers in inner-cities or rural areas, and to those who feel strong about either the social aspects of environmentalism or the ecological.

The challenges we face moving forward will require bottom-up as well as top-down solutions. The middle ground in this continuum is where the policy makers mix with the problem solvers and where the innovators mix with the investors. Here in Vancouver the inner-city/DTES is one of those places, and I hope that these principles will continue to become the pillars that support that middle ground here and elsewhere.

I recommend Van Jones’ Green Collar Economy to anyone interested in Vancouver’s development on the whole, and in its inner-city in particular.