An Interview with Elizabeth May, leader of the Canadian Green Party
by Birgitta Jensen
Elizabeth, born and raised in the U.S., and moved to Nova Scotia with her parents in her teenage years. She has deep connections to both the U.S. and Canada and thus possesses considerable insight and knowledge of both cultures.
She learned about environmental challenges and activism early in life. As she writes in her book Who We Are; Reflections on My Life and Canada, “My childhood was marked by my mother’s campaigns against nuclear testing.” Many readers might recall that Stephanie May was a prominent anti-nuclear activist during the 1950s. She successfully facilitated a nuclear test ban treaty; a remarkable feat which demanded her full-time attention and long-term commitment.
Therefore it’s not surprising that Elizabeth walks her life’s path dedicated to the well-being of our planetary biosphere and all that lives. She is an environmental activist, lawyer, author, and politician.
In 2006 Elizabeth brought her wealth of knowledge and experience to her position as leader of the Canadian Green Party. She decided to step down from the leadership position in 2019 but remained politically active as Member of Parliament. She was re-elected as party leader in 2022.
Elizabeth May on the Campaign Trail of the 2019 election.
Photo: Courtesy of the Green Party of Canada.
When my phone rings late in the afternoon on February 22, 2023, I know it is Elizabeth. Our conversation flows with ease and her manner is personable as we speak at length about matters of deep concern to us both. We cover a wide variety of topics; consumption, economics, corporate power, politics, the role of the media, and what can and needs to be done.
Elizabeth minces no words as she emphatically states. ”We need to dramatically decrease consumption because we are eating the planet. We need to stop talking about economic growth. Full stop.” The problem is that currently a sound and successful economy is defined as an economy that grows continually. This is measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which reflects the movement of money by consumers, corporations, and governments. If the GDP doesn’t grow, CEOs and politicians worry, journalists anticipate hard times, experts volubly debate the problem, and economists try to figure out how to stimulate growth and make it all happen again.
Meanwhile Elizabeth has the opposite concern. Growth depends on consumption, but when consumption surpasses the ecological limits of our planet it will eventually destroy the biosphere that all life depends on. She comments on how we view ourselves as consumers and not as citizens, which is a subject that she elaborates on in her book: “We are bombarded with advertising telling us what to buy. We are swept up in a maelstrom of consumer enticements. We have become addicted to them. This anesthetizes us to the more important questions.1 Do we ever remember to ask ourselves, “How do I want to live my life? What gives my life meaning or purpose?” Instead we run ourselves ragged to keep the economy going, even as we sense that this isn’t the life we had in mind. How much time do we have for family meals, for spending time together, for putting our feet up at the end of the day?2 The GDP does not measure this; it is not concerned with our quality of life.
The Green Party’s platform supports the concept of a steady-state economy which refers to an economy that is stable or only mildly fluctuating but not dependent on economic growth to be viewed as successful. In order to be sustainable, a steady state economy should not exceed ecological limits. Elizabeth believes that we do not lack the science, technology, policies, or the economic solutions to improve overall prosperity. “But we lack the will to make it happen. We lack the political will, from our leaders and from ourselves.”3
Elizabeth feels strongly that our best hope for the future is a well-functioning democracy. “Politics is about the art of the possible,” she says, “but we have to do the impossible. We no longer have time for baby steps. We need a massive transformation.” She mentions that Petra Kelly, the founder of the German Green Party, once said, “We, the generation that faces the next century, can add the solemn injunction: ‘If we don’t do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.’”4
But the question is, do we currently have a well-functioning democracy? Elizabeth sounds frustrated: “We now lurch from one political power to another. In the States we’ve gone from Obama to Trump to Biden. This means that politicians are always constrained by the politics of the moment.” Elizabeth comments that politics have become less and less about the broad public interest but more about appealing to a small fraction of the electorate. Politicians are always thinking about the next election and are not doing enough to address environmental issues. The current practice of politics, such as the culture of attack ads, is also not helpful.
Part of the problem, as she also points out in her book, is that many citizens are disengaged from politics. She views politicians as bearing the brunt of the responsibility for that. “Our political culture is a toxic swamp, which turns citizens off from politics.”5 Engagement requires trust and respect for political institutions, but many citizens have become cynical. “Sadly, the polls show that politicians are less respected or admired than those in most other professions.”6 But a well-functioning democracy requires an informed and active citizenry.7 Can this be realized when citizens have become distrustful of governments and are preoccupied by a consumer oriented lifestyle?
Elizabeth maintains that, “Over my lifetime, I have witnessed the rise of corporate power and the shrinking of the public sphere.”8 “Everything without a monetary value falls off the chalkboard. Those things include the atmosphere, oceans, future generations, and other species”9 What has significantly increased the issue of unsustainable growth is when the World Trade Organization was created in 1995, the power of the global corporations increased. They now exert more power than governments.
When we discuss the role of the media, Elizabeth explains that “The media also have a huge influence. But currently we have very little solid journalism. As you know I grew up in the States. I remember that there were rules that regulated the media at the time. The news was required to be fair and balanced. Listening to the evening news, like Walter Cronkite, was a shared experience. I used to listen together with my grandmother. Everyone listened to the same news. It was trusted and shared. Well, that is what used to be. Ronald Reagan got rid of the rules that regulated the media. Now we have a lack of social cohesion and a number of different news channels. We have the echo chambers that reinforce ideas that are not science based and scientifically proven. The media are fractured now and undermined by competitions and social media.”
Another problem that Elizabeth comments on her book, is that so many newspapers, radio-stations, and television networks are owned by a handful of corporate players resulting in an inadequate level of coverage and analysis.10 She feels that it is important to revive a healthy news media in order to have a functioning democracy.11
Elizabeth emphasizes the need for citizens to become politically engaged. It is important to demand a change in the current electoral system (used in both the U.S. and Canada). What we have now is referred to as “First Past the Post (FPTP), which means that the candidate with the most votes in a riding (district) wins a seat and represents that riding (district) in government. A party can win a majority of seats without receiving the majority of the votes that are cast. It usually favors the largest party as well as parties with strong support in a particular region. A smaller party without a regional base will have difficulty gaining representation. The current system as it stands is flawed because it is vulnerable to gerrymandering and wasted votes. Elizabeth views representative government as much less about short term thinking (which appears to be the current situation) and more about long term political strategy.
Elizabeth is clear on what needs to happen, “We should not grow our industrial or economical footprint, but we can grow our political footprint. We need to localize as much as possible, the power of transnational corporations needs to be curtailed, and politicians need to regain the trust of citizens.
Birgitta Jansen currently resides in British Columbia and is a managing editor of the Desert Report. She has written previously on a number of environmental topics and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP.
1. Elizabeth May, Who We Are; Reflections On My Life And Canada; Greystone Books Ltd., 2014, p. 189
2. Ibid., p. 196
3. Ibid., p. 19
4. Ibid. p. 151; https://www.idlehearts.com/authors/petra-kelly-quotes; accessed March 30, 2023
5. Ibid., p.189
6. Ibid., p. 167
7. Ibid., p. 196
8. Ibid., p. 2
9. Ibid., p. 79
10. Ibid., p. 197
11. Ibid., p. 200