The Vancouver Writers Fest has a well-deserved reputation for bringing outstanding fiction writers to the city. But this year it’s also hosting discussions with Canadian authors of some of the finest nonfiction books on climate change and water conservation.
“Of course, we’re paying attention to what’s happening in the world,” artistic director Leslie Hurtig told the Straight by phone. “And we want to bring to light some of the most important issues of our time. Heaven knows that at the very top are environmental issues.”
Books by two of those authors, Naomi Klein and Maude Barlow, have just been released. Klein’s latest, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, lays out in stark detail how to respond to a warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we only have until 2030 to keep the average global temperature increase to 1.5 ° C above the period just before the Industrial Revolution. Failure could lead to runaway climate change if feedback loops kick in that are outside of human beings’ control.
The Green New Deal is a proposal to address inequality while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Building on her epic 2014 bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Klein draws upon the history of the introduction of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. She reveals how powerful forces will try to derail climate justice—and how to outflank them. One of the keys, she explains, is to recognize that hard limits on consumption do not need to be associated with declining quality of life. In this regard, FDR showed the way in the Great Depression, demonstrating how publicly funded art and improved access to recreation and nature could do wonders for a community’s well-being.
“We already know that these are the kinds of lifestyle changes and leisure activities that tangibly increase happiness and fulfillment but, particularly in the US, debates about climate action remain trapped in a paradigm that equates quality of life with personal prosperity and wealth accumulation,” Klein points out in the book. “If the political roadblocks to a Green New Deal are to be broken, this equation will need to be broken too.”
On Fire also includes an extensive section on Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose unvarnished truths have inspired young people around the world to launch climate strikes as part of the #FridaysForFuture movement. “Greta’s voyage from invisible schoolgirl to global voice of conscience is an extraordinary one, and looked at more closely, it has a lot to teach about what it is going to take for all of us to get to safety,” Klein declares. “Thunberg’s overarching demand is for humanity as a whole to do what she did in her own family and life: close the gap between what we know about the urgency of the climate crisis and how we behave.”
Klein’s event will take place on October 26, when programming is being offered for free or for whatever anyone can afford to pay.
“That’s an initiative we started last year,” Hurtig said. “We want to make the festival as accessible as possible to all people in the Lower Mainland. And to be able to present an author of Naomi’s calibre to an audience free of charge—it feels good. It feels like the right thing.”
Water will be at the centre of another Vancouver Writers Fest event with Barlow, Victoria author Sarah Cox, and UBC journalism professor and anthropologist Candis Callison. Barlow’s newest book, Whose Water Is It, Anyway?: Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands, delves into the history of water privatization and how to counter it. In the book, she also explains how cities have become “blue communities” by making access to clean, drinkable water a basic human right, ensuring that municipal and community water remains under public control, and discouraging single-use plastic water bottles.
“The awareness of our collective responsibility to protect the planet’s freshwater and share it more justly needs to grow, as must the understanding of the need to take action,” Barlow, honorary chair of the Council of Canadians and chair of the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch, writes in the book.
Hurtig’s father, Mel, a publisher and author, was the founder of the Council of Canadians, so she’s very familiar with Barlow’s long-standing efforts in this area.
Barlow’s fellow panellists, Cox and Callison, have also distinguished themselves through their research. Cox’s astonishing 2018 book, Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro, is a devastating indictment of large hydroelectric projects that displace communities and trample Indigenous rights. Callison, a member of the Tahltan First Nation, is the author of the 2014 book How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. In it, she examines efforts by scientists, science journalists, evangelicals, Indigenous leaders, and corporate-social-responsibility advocates to encourage a diverse group of Americans to care about this issue.
Hurtig said that she’s looking forward to seeing these three women on-stage in discussion with one another.
“Access to natural resources becomes more fraught, obviously, in the face of climate change,” Hurtig added. “And the question of who owns the water and the land that it runs through is going to be very much at the top of our news cycle and our minds as the years go on.”
Maude Barlow, Candis Callison, and Sarah Cox join Leila Harris in conversation at Performance Works on October 23. Naomi Klein will be interviewed by Kathryn Gretsinger at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on October 26. Both events are part of the Vancouver Writers Fest.