Environmental Culture Wars

Environmental politics in Canada overlap with regional and demographic divides in a way that makes environmental politics much less about just public policy, and much more about identity and values.

I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get another newsletter out. It’s been a hectic few weeks to put it mildly. This week’s newsletter is about a theory I’ve tweeted about and discussed before, but never fully fleshed out. Debates around environmental issues and climate change now take centre stage in mainstream discourse. But even though these debates are about narrow policy questions, that isn’t really what drives people’s feelings and positions on these things. This is true in lots of countries, but it’s even more true of Canadian politics. 

Disagreement and debate over environmental politics aren’t anything new to Canada, but the way that environmental politics in this country intersects with other regional and identity divides means that environmental politics takes on an entirely unique form here. Debates over environmental issues in Canada are no longer really about the environment, they actually form the basis for a distinctly Canadian culture war. 

Identity and New Political Cleavages  

Pretty much all politics is identity politics in some form or another. I don’t mean this in the narrow and pejorative way identity politics gets thrown around today. People’s political worldviews and tribalistic voting attachments aren’t just rational choices, they are a product of our complicated and intermeshed social and cultural identities. 

No one is entirely neutral in their political preferences and just approaches political questions and issues as a purely rational observer. The few people who claim to do so are often the most dogmatic of all. If you ever meet someone that tells you they are completely non-partisan and that they vote based on reading and assessing the various platforms of political parties you can be sure that they either hubristically overestimate their own abilities to assess the efficacy of various policy proposals, or most likely are just not being honest either with you or themselves. 

I bring this up because if you want to understand how democratic politics work, you have to begin with the premise that voters and electoral coalitions are made up of individuals with overlapping and complicated political identities, not just rationalistic voters who need to be convinced with some charts and data.

These identities and value divides coalesce and become the basis of the political cleavages around which competition in democratic regimes is built. There are many classic accounts of party system formation in political science, the one I think most plausible and still useful is the now classic account of cleavage politics posited by the political scientists Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan.

This now classic account of the formation of party systems in Western Europe argues that long existing social conflicts and divides that existed prior to the gradually universal extension of voting across Western Europe helped to structure political competition. Specifically, industrialization and nation building generated four major cleavages that structured political conflict and party systems going forward: territorial cleavages defined by a centre-periphery divide, religious cleavages defined by a church versus state divide, an urban-rural cleavage, and a labour-capital cleavage. 

Canada’s party system has long been an outlier that has baffled political scientists who study these things. If you’re looking for a good comprehensive overview of the history of the Canadian party system I’d recommend this recent book by Richard Johnston.  Since the 1930’s Canada has defied what is perhaps the single most generalizable finding in comparative politics: Duverger’s Law. Canada also defies many of the expectations of the cleavage theory of party formation. But Canadian politics can still be broadly understood in terms of cleavages, albeit idiosyncratic Canadian cleavages (regional and linguistic cleavages especially).

I won’t bog you down with too much academic explanation. There is an enormous body of literature that builds on, tests, and modifies the cleavage thesis. Much of the talk in recent decades has been about an “unfreezing” of the traditional cleavages that have dominated party politics in western democracies, and the reorganizing of politics around new cleavages. 

As traditional industrial, class, and religious cleavages have declined new cleavages have emerged and politics has been playing a catch up game. These new cleavages coalesce around educational, geographic, gendered, and age divides. This realignment, which has been in the making for decades has become the dominant political narrative since 2016, and as I’ve written in the newsletter recently these divides exist in Canada just as they do in Europe and America.

But the realignments these new cleavages produce often require singular events or defining figures to fully emerge. In the United Kingdom, the 2016 referendum produced a realignment because it scrambled the existing partisan and political arrangements so much that it gave rise to a hyper-polarized culture war around a remain/leave divide that people reoriented their own politics around this divide.

The referendum didn’t produce these new divides, but it accelerated a realignment by cutting people loose of their older tribal political loyalties and providing a clear new north around which people could cluster and define themselves. Trump had a similar impact in America, accelerating existing trends and producing a similar culture war so toxic and polarizing older tribal partisan allegiances began to shift and coalesce around this new singular event (in this case a single person). 

Canada hasn’t had any single catalytic event that fits this category. While these new divides exist here that resemble divides and cleavages elsewhere, our relative immunity to this realignment thus far is at least partially I think because we (thankfully) haven’t had one of these singular events. But that does not mean these cleavages can’t still realign and coalesce, even if much slower and more gradual ways. 

I’ve previously cited John Ibbitson’s column on how the new political divides increasingly take shape around education, age, gender, and geography. The story Ibbitson tells, and the story I told about forgotten people’s and places a few weeks ago focused on the economic aspects of this. But there’s something missing from this. 

While this is an economic base to these new divides, the superstructures (to use fancy Marxist terminology) on which these divides actually manifest themselves are about cultural values and identities. Education, age, gender, and geography may be the key signifiers of the new cleavages, but that isn’t how people come to form their political identities. People don’t think to themselves “I’m voting Conservative because I’m a 64 year old man with a high school diploma in rural Alberta” or “I’m voting either Liberal/NDP/Green because I’m a 27 year old women with two degrees living in The Danforth.” I’ll call these people Jim and Sarah. These demographic signifiers that shape the background values and beliefs of individuals have to find specific issues around which people begin to differentiate themselves.

The Divide Between Jim and Sarah 

Let’s play a thought exercise with Jim and Sarah. Imagine each of them separately, based on the information you’ve been given above. Just go through a list of political issues, take a guess on where you think they stand on these things. You can probably take an educated guess on what they think about a whole range of things. But that’s precisely because these views aren’t necessarily super well thought out, it’s that they come from people’s values, beliefs, and identities. People aren’t uniform and yes there are plenty of people that look like Jim and Sarah but don’t vote Conservative or Liberal respectively, but people’s politics aren’t just based on abstract reasoning and deep research. Our politics are rooted in who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be. 

 In Canada the environment maps on to these divides better than maybe any other issue or question. Most people aren’t ideological, they don’t have entirely coherent political worldviews that translate into a systematic set of political views that you could label any clear ism. But that doesn’t mean people don’t have strong and deeply held beliefs and values that translate into political attachments and loyalties. This is why political allegiances and voting patterns tend to be quite tribal. But what produces those political loyalties is that they feel their political tribe broadly aligns with their often not overtly political values. 

There’s other things you could probably guess about Jim and Sarah, not guarantees, but guesses about things that are more likely. Jim is much more likely to own a truck, have kids, not be employed in a white collar or high skilled job. Sarah is much more likely to use public transport, rent instead of owning a house, have no kids, and work in a hyper-credentialized field. 

These new divides are not just statistical and demographic differentiators, they tell us a lot about the values and identities that people hold even if they play out in different ways in each and every individual.

In Canada environmental politics acts as a low key culture war divider around which these new cleavages and divides have begun to coalesce. It’s clearly not a singular event like Trump or the 2016 referendum, but “the environment” as a singular issue maps on well to these new divides and provides an issue around which people aren’t divided over pure public policy questions but ultimately questions about values and identity.

I don’t think I need to spend much time laying out for you why these dividers (education, age, gender, geography) map out well onto environmental questions. The Jim’s of the world are more likely to work in industries that will be impacted by environmental regulations and things like carbon taxes. They are more likely to live in suburban and rural areas where they drive everywhere and like to driver bigger cars an trucks. Environmental policies and general protections aren’t just public policy questions for people like Jim’s, they feel like an attack on lots of things that make up who Jim is. 

Similarly, the stereotypical Sarah worldview is that of the kind of postmaterialist progressive. The caricatured right wing strawman of progressive environmentalism is as kind of socialist religion. Some of the apocalyptic behaviour of groups like Extinction Rebellion certainly exhibits this, but the kind of mainstream environmentalism among progressives is about social values and identity just as much as it is a pure public policy question. 

The world Sarah wants, the places Sarah wants to live, and the way she wants the places she lives to look like is very different from what Jim wants. Jim and Sarah live in different places, but on environmental issues they still clash because in some sense both sides of this divides sees what the other person wants as something that is being imposed on them. Jim hates paying more for gas, bike lanes, paper straws. They are impositions on him. Sarah wants the 15-minute city, higher carbon taxes to actually deal with climate change, and bikes to work. Jim and Sarah probably even eat very different diets. Addressing the climate crisis can’t just be done by Sarah and The Danforth, it requires policies that impact everyone, and impacts Jim even more given how he lives. 

The Globe and Mail recently did a mini series on “The Future of Cities.” There were lots of interesting pieces, but notice if you scroll through the various pieces how many of them are about environmental topics - from decarbonizing urban transport to bike lanes to eliminating sprawl. There is just one piece, by Ibbitson unsurprisingly, on why “The future of the city includes the future of the suburb, which deserves a lot more respect.” The worldview of people like Sarah gets lots of representation in mainstream media, including in very centrist ones like The Globe. Jim has people who claim to talk for him in the media, perhaps like Rex Murphy, but in much of Canadian media the postmaterialist progressive worldview is just implicitly assumed and shape both what gets covered and how stories get framed.

I bring this up simply because this maps on well to the framing you’ll often see from the populist side of these divides that elite media and cultural institutions are dominated by people who have very different values and look down on Jim. Populism thrives on the perceived snobbery of a progressive urban class, and the emphasis and heavy coverage of environmentalism in Canadian media fuels this by looking and feeling like an imposition of values onto people who see it as a direct attack on who they are and how they live. 

Distinctly Canadian Culture Wars 

But the Jim and Sarah divide isn’t uniquely Canadian. Environmental divides have exposed real social and cultural divides in other places as well. Think back on the Gilets Jaunes movement in France. The movement, which began as a protest against an increase in fuel taxes, particularly on diesel fuel, became a symbol for a divide similar to the populist backlashes elsewhere. It especially reflected a core-periphery/urban-rural divide in France. But what makes the divide between Jim and Sarah distinct in Canada is how it maps onto broader regional (thus political) divides as well.

It should be pretty obvious on one side of the divide how this works. Conservatism in Canada is dominated by Western Canada, and given this the politics of natural resource development and the carbon tax are important issues to Western and base Conservatives. The dominance of the West, Alberta especially, in Canadian conservatism means the national movement ends up reflecting this. 

The petro-nationalism of Alberta fits in with this. Again, there are real substantive debates about public policy questions and legislation, but the divide here is built on a deep and powerful “petro-national” identity strong in Alberta in which resource extraction and oil have become not just about wealth, but about identity and what it means to be Albertan. Again the dominance of Alberta in Canadian Conservative politics means this petro-nationalism is not to be dismissed in the Conservative base outside of Alberta as well, and the Jim side of the new cleavage now represents more than just a cultural identity - it’s a kind of sub-national identity of resistance to a rival and ungrateful east that wants to impose and force its values on Alberta. 

Environmental issues, climate change especially, also fuels some of the more populist fears of conservatism. By its very nature climate change is a global problem which requires global solutions, but this plays into deeper populist fears. It’s not just an issue that requires global action, it’s an issue in which the technical expertise of scientists has been needed but come under question. Solutions like carbon pricing are, like any consumption tax, regressive and impact the poor the most. They especially impact rural Canadians and Western Canada, aka the Conservative base, and it’s easy to understand how many people see this as kind of bureaucratic imposition and attempt to make their lives more difficult. In Alberta especially this feels like an attack on what made Alberta rich, coming from distant eastern colonizers who have been happy to take the wealth of the West but now want to destroy the entire oil industry.

So you can see how environmentalism, or opposition to it, is a powerful and unifying force on one side of the political divide in Canada and why it might fit into a political coalition built around the new cleavages. Opposition to a kind of Laurentian green socialism is red meat for the base, and as Trudeau and the Liberals lean more and more into their plans for some sort of green recovery this opposition will only grow more fiery. 

It should also be pretty obvious how, as the Liberals become a party of urban and eastern Canada and play to these divides. It’s not just the Conservatives who have become a largely regional party, the Liberals have as well. They dominate in urban Ontario and Quebec (Montreal). The liberalism of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party is a progressive one, and seemingly at the centre of it now is a green recovery and transformation that appeals to Sarah but not to Jim. The opponents to this are a backwards and anti-environmental Conservative Party and West who won’t recognize a changing reality and get with the program. 

Jim versus Sarah isn’t just an urban/rural divide, it’s an east/west one. This divide is now one of the defining clashes of Canadian politics, and poses potentially existential questions about the future of the country. These debates aren’t just debates over regulatory approval of pipelines and carbon pricing, they are clashes over identity and values. 

There’s a third, again uniquely Canadian way that this divide plays out as a regional divide. It’s not just an east-west thing, environmentalism has begun to play a strange but fascinating role in Quebec’s identity and sovereignty movement. The intensity of concern about the climate crisis in Quebec is definitely higher than elsewhere in Canada, both polling and the way parties talk about the environment reflects this. 

Shortly after forming government in 2018 François Legault said there was no “social acceptability” to transport “dirty energy” through the province, which unsurprisingly sparked substantial backlash elsewhere. He went on to say “There are some who maybe will want to talk about petroleum. I am going to talk to them about hydro electricity,” which gives you some hints why climate change and the environment play a growing role in Quebec’s identity.

Hydro-Quebec was nationalized during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, and it has become a symbol of Quebec’s desire for self-determination and a source of pride. Hydro-Quebec’s environmental record is far from perfect, but this desire for self-determination is morphing with environmental concerns to make environmentalism a growing part of Quebec’s self-understanding. 

The Parti Quebecois seem destined for electoral irrelevance, and the left-sovereigntist movement in Quebec is undergoing a sort of rebranding under Quebec Solidaire. The party is still relatively small, but it’s now the third largest in the National Assembly and looks set to overtake the PQ as the party of the sovereigntist left. Part of this rebranding is what I would call a kind of “eco-sovereigntism.” Sovereignty and environmentalism go hand in hand. For Quebec to become a truly progressive and environmentally just society it has to leave Canada. Quebec cannot meet its climate goals or obligations within Canada, sovereignty is the only way to do this. It’s unlikely QS will be forming government any time soon in Quebec, but you can see how Quebec nationalism and sovereignty has become inextricably linked with climate change and environmentalism.

The Bloc Quebecois have actively attempted to exploit this as well. Their platform in the 2019 election claimed that “Since it [Canada] is a petro-state, Ottawa runs from failure to failure with inconsistent policies that spare oil companies in the West.” The Bloc and its leader have more than once described Canada as a petro-state and have turned this into part of their defence of Quebec’s values against the rest of Canada. The real target of this is of course the West, Alberta especially, and the Bloc now actively attempt to “heighten the contradictions” by going after the West and stoking national tensions for their own benefit. Western Canada of course responds in kind by bringing up equalization and accusing the Bloc and Quebec of hypocrisy, which is exactly what the Bloc wants. It turns the Bloc’s (and Quebec’s) environmentalism into a defence of Quebec values incompatible with those of a “petro-state.” 

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the Green Party once yet. That’s my fault. It makes my argument weaker that I’m not discussing them, and an in earlier draft of this there was another 1000 words on the Greens and how they are potentially the emerging party of postmaterialist progressivism. I cut it out because I’m going to just save it for another piece at some point and fit.

Environmental debates overlap and intersect with so many other divides in Canada, not just the Jim/Sarah divide, but east versus west and Alberta versus Quebec divides, that environmental culture wars aren’t just generic cultural debates, they actually pose some serious existential questions about who we are and about our future. They represent a distinctly Canadian culture war. While technical and narrow debates about environmental policy and actions will continue to take centre stage, the way many people actually relate to and understand these debates is about something else.