Breaking news on the yellow brick road to calamity
By Rob Wipond, December 2011
There are some compelling ideas for how to make our community more economically resilient in the face of climate change, rising fuel costs, and global financial meltdowns, but our civic leadership is so far conducting business as usual. That can put a passionately concerned local journalist in some uncomfortable positions, and raise some provocative questions about the role of news media in a time of crisis.
It’s raining radical change! Hallelujah! That’s how I felt reading some of the introductory sections of the City of Victoria’s new Economic Development Strategy. I read about revamping our local economy to grapple with “the impact of economic growth on the world’s ecology,” “climate change,” “increased energy costs,” and the ”rollercoaster ride” of the global financial system.
Amen, it’s about time!
After all, the converging crises of rising fossil fuel prices and dirtier oil, climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion, growing debts, exploitative banking, and international financial instability are real and deepening threats to our society and to this region. Faster or slower than predicted, the mathematics of this equation is mercilessly inexorable, and our economic system is the primary factor at work at the centre. I was thrilled to see the City taking the lead on tackling these issues.
Then I reached the section with the actual plans: Above all, the Strategy declared, we must therefore become more “prosperous” and “grow our community’s tax base” through boosting tourism, bolstering the marine and technology sectors, expanding the airport, and speeding development.
It was business as usual. The sudden, severe inspiration drought hit me hard. That was partly because I’d personally submitted six pages of practical suggestions to the City—more on that momentarily. First, though, I couldn’t help but simply wonder, “What happened?”
Alan Dolan explained that part to me.
Past chair of the Victoria Values-Based Business Network, Dolan sat on the City’s economic strategy advisory panel for a year—an odd bird amidst representatives from the likes of the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Victoria, VIATeC and Bank of Montreal.
But when the Strategy was released, with $1.5 million over three years earmarked mostly for an economic development office and waterfront planning, Dolan’s name was gone.
“I resigned because I think the report just falls way short of what an exciting, 21st-century, out-of-the-box economic development plan might say for Victoria,” says Dolan. “I just felt like, I just cannot have my name attached to this.”
Dolan’s most serious concern was the plan’s lack of support for “localization,” a range of approaches for strengthening small, locally-owned businesses. Dolan believes localization strategies should have permeated plans for all sectors of our economy.
“The critical thing is economic leakage,” he explains, citing big box stores as prime examples of community financial sinkholes. “It’s basically money flowing back to that executive and those shareholders elsewhere…More local, independent business means more money kept in the community and less economic leakage.” And “spin-off benefits” of stopping leakage, Dolan notes, include more unique community character, reduced environmental impacts, and greater self-reliance.
(Ex-)councillor Philippe Lucas agrees. “I was very distressed that it made only the slightest mention of localized economy,” he says, pointing out that 80 percent of Victoria (and BC-wide) businesses employ less than five people, while this Strategy is “tying the future of this city and the tax base of this city to endless broad development, and attracting mega-corporations.” But wasn’t council involved? Lucas says the project was driven top-down by City Manager Gail Stephens and Mayor Dean Fortin. “It was rushed forward so it could be available prior to the election,” he asserts.
Community economic development” dropped
Also left behind, points out Dolan, Lucas and others, was an entire, growing field of progressive economic thought called community economic development (CED), which measures economic health not just through business revenues and tax bases, but through social and environmental indicators such as fulfilling employment, equitable access to opportunities, cleaner air, and closer-knit neighbourhoods.
Localizing lies at CED’s core, and includes tax and zoning incentives to nurture green technologies, co-working hubs, entrepreneurship incubators, and home-based businesses. There are innovative methods for funnelling RRSPs and investor capital into small social enterprises, arts organizations, business co-operatives, and affordable housing. More radical ideas are also on the table: How can a municipality make its own independent monetary system work? How can neighbourhoods and companies develop tool and equipment sharing, freecycling, and other resource-saving initiatives? Can we lower living and operating costs, instead of raising revenues and incomes?
Dolan feels little of this made it into discussion partly because the City chose Jay Wollenberg of Vancouver-based Coriolis Consulting to draft the Strategy and lead meetings—and his biases were obvious.
For example, Dolan says last November Wollenberg was outlining avenues of economic opportunity for Victoria, including technology, tourism, and marine businesses.
“And then [Wollenberg] brought a PowerPoint slide up, and he said, and I quote, ‘Let’s throw a bone to the Birkenstockers and put localization in here.’”
Dolan finds the statement even more offensive in hindsight. “Sometimes the full impact and understanding of how outrageous [a statement] is doesn’t really come clear to you until after a meeting,” he observes. “If it had been totally clear to me, I probably would’ve embarrassed myself… like getting my shoe off and slamming it on the desk.”
Panel member and Tourism Victoria chair Deirdre Campbell doesn’t recall that specific remark, but suggests Wollenberg “may have used those words” in what Campbell herself regarded as an attempt to acknowledge other points of view. “I do remember that [Wollenberg] spoke a little about… if you’re trying to do any significant changes, you’re going to get ‘pushback’ from people, that some people feel like growth is not good.”
Dolan recalls that particular remark from Wollenberg being, “Many people believe that growth is the spawn of Satan.”
And after he missed a meeting, Dolan says even that “bone” was snatched away. “Localization fell off the table and it wasn’t there at all.”
Dolan complained to the City’s Project Lead Jocelyn Jenkyns, and localization reappeared on the agenda in January. It disappeared again before the public consultations.
He could have been more assertive, concedes Dolan, noting personal issues reduced his own participation. However, he says, Coriolis’ public consultations were also inadequate.
“We certainly got the feeling at the couple of open houses we had, ‘Where is everybody?’” comments Campbell.
I attended one of those public consultations with about 20 others—a handful of whom were not already involved with the advisory panel.
In the end, vague encouragement is expressed in two “Strategic Focus Areas” of the Strategy for sustainability, green initiatives, locally-owned businesses and regional agriculture. However, these are dwarfed by nine focus areas determinedly heading in the opposite direction, and are undermined by criticisms pointedly aimed at environmentalism, localization, and zero growth.
Dolan points to one section: “Victoria [population numbers] will continue to grow,” states the Strategy, and therefore, “achieving a steady state is not possible[.]” Consequently, “The pursuit of sustainability… means growing at a moderate pace[.]”
“Steady state is pretty fundamental to most people’s thinking around sustainability,” comments Dolan. “There are limits to the resources, limits to the space where people can live in Victoria, limits to water and food. And so, at some point in time, the economy’s going to have to level out.”
Wollenberg couldn’t be reached before deadline but, in fairness, it’s not as if his positions weren’t well known to the City. I previously reported (Focus, May 2010) on how two successive economy discussions chaired by Wollenberg during Victoria’s otherwise fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good Official Community Plan open house developed into testy arguments about zero growth and localization between Wollenberg and public participants. Stephens and Fortin chose Coriolis over more sustainability-friendly planning consultants the City has hired for other projects, and hand-picked the compliant advisory panel. At the pre-election launch, Wollenberg announced the Strategy was “unapologetically” pro-growth.
All of which made me wonder how and why the Strategy had ended up with an introduction that was so much more progressive than its actual plans.
I traced the history of the drafts. As late as May of this year, after seven months in development, the draft Strategy mentioned possible impacts from rising fossil fuel costs only in passing, and only in relation to tourism. Global financial instability was apparently irrelevant to the local economy—it was never mentioned. Climate change was also never mentioned.
After the summer, though, lengthy commentaries on all these topics appeared in the Strategy’s introductory sections. Yet the business-as-usual strategies themselves had barely changed. It was as if those more progressive discussions had been tacked on at the last minute as greenwash over the rest—to make it sound as if these strategic plans had emerged from thoughtfully grappling with the issues.
But what had happened during the summer to precipitate that? Then I wondered with a certain discomfort if, possibly, I was reading some of my own writing in that introduction.
That’s when pursuing an otherwise straightforward news story took on whole new dimensions of significance.
Journalist or activist?
I’ll back up. After reading Victoria’s business-as-usual draft Economic Strategy, in the midst of the woeful public consultations in June, I realized I had two choices. I could play my role as journalist and write an article criticizing the process. Or, I could put on an activist hat, and try to ensure some better ideas got submitted to the City. I could be a backseat public critic after the fact, or try to help steer our civic ship now.
Which, I asked myself, was more important? And for me, this was a question of burning significance.
As regular Focus readers know, I’ve been writing ever more on economic issues, and have also been voluntarily helping coordinate events and projects with Transition Victoria’s Economy Working Group. This is because I feel ours is a small, fragile and imperilled community amidst converging global economic and environmental crises, and the options before us are few. Many hope we can keep squeezing through and our children will deal with the fallout. If not, then what? We may collapse into expanding poverty and chaos due to forces beyond our control. We may indenture ourselves to increasing Greece-like “austerity fascism” in a financial game stacked against us. Or…we may examine our community’s precarious situation with regard to food, clothing, finances, construction materials, renewable energy, and other essential goods, and employ reasoned measures towards strengthening our self-reliance.
Maybe there are other possibilities, but whatever they are, they’ll have to be fairly broad and radical to stop this train, and I’m personally not banking on our corporations, unions, or national governments providing visionary leadership.
So with this in mind, then, I kept wondering, would it be more effective for me to play journalist, or activist? On the one hand, it’s not like there is a plethora of well-organized, well-funded, local activist groups constantly battling for fundamental economic change to which I could leave that job. Meanwhile, how many prominent news media outlets provide investigative news coverage of local issues that’s intensely critical of our dominant economic system?
Consequently, I started to feel a public responsibility to do both: I felt compelled to help try to turn this ship, and to report critically on it. So that’s what I set out to do.
The City’s Jenkyns kindly extended the Strategy’s public input deadline at my request, and I brain-downloaded from Donna Morton of the Centre for Integral Economics, Nicole Chaland, director of Simon Fraser University’s CED program, Michelle Colussi of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, and others, and at the end of June submitted six pages of discussions and detailed suggestions.
When the final Strategy came out in October and I saw how some of those ideas had apparently been misappropriated and most others ignored, while none of the actual strategies had changed, I felt especially frustrated. And the municipal election was scheduled to occur long before any discussions could appear in Focus. So I and some of those same experts drafted a “Consensus Statement” criticizing the Strategy and proposing alternatives, which we distributed online. During that process, I contacted Dolan to ask why he’d quit the advisory panel, and he simultaneously agreed to join the Consensus and be interviewed for my Focus article. Soon afterward, the election occurred and one of our signatories and experts I’d been consulting, Lisa Helps of Community Micro Lending, landed on Victoria council. When I contacted Helps for an interview, she reiterated her commitment: “I’m going to put my energy into creating a sustainable, resilient, local economy, including community economic development.”
When the editor and publisher of Focus read the first draft of my article, they asked me, “Has this gone too far? Are your personal perspectives, journalism, and activism too intertwined? Will our readers trust our fairness and accuracy on this issue?”
They seemed like reasonable questions. Notwithstanding the full disclosures, even I was feeling squeamish about my shape-shifting roles. Then, the more we discussed it, the more it seemed our questions struck to the core of how we understand the role of community journalism. And so we decided to invite our readers into that dialogue, and ask you how you see it.
Community journalism in a time of crisis
Many of us, including me, carry around a romanticized notion of the “objective, independent, investigative news rag,” inhabited by rabble-rousing journalists with high moral values questing only after truth and not beholden to political parties, corporations, institutions, unions, activist organizations, or advertisers.
Today, though, fewer and fewer people are willing to actually pay anything to support that type of journalism. So journalism has been changing.
After years of unfettered corporate media conglomeration, there is only a smattering of news outlets left in Canada that regularly offer serious or socially critical investigative journalism, and scarcely a handful that pay independent journalists more than a glorified honorarium for what is extremely time-consuming work.
Along the way, news stories steered by vested interests, public relations firms, and corporate values have multiplied. Local investigative journalism has diminished dramatically as profit-hungry owners have turned to syndication and newswire services to generate generic content for all their news outlets at once.
And based on the staggering list of still under-researched, underexposed scandals I alone have under piles on my desk, I’d say unpaid citizen journalism and social media have not bridged the growing gaps.
Meanwhile, alternative models are struggling. Victoria’s own Sean Holman shut down Public Eye recently due to lack of sufficient financial support and, with him, we lost arguably this province's best muckraking BC politics journalist. (Notably, Holman also did a number of exposes on different local news outlets engaged in suppressing content and firing journalists at the behest of advertisers.) In recent years, Holman survived mainly on private donors to his website, and it worked—for a while. Holman told me that as long as he was exposing Liberal party scandals, he was getting donations from NDP supporters; but when he began exposing dubious NDP activities, he lost those donors in droves. And when a paid advertisement for a campaigning MLA ran on Public Eye’s website, Holman got angry letters from indignant readers questioning his non-partisanship—even though those same protesters weren’t offering a penny to help Public Eye remain independent.
Today, most independent investigative journalists in Canada have supportive spouses, or second incomes. In my case, apart from Focus’ financial and moral support, my local journalism is currently subsidized by occasional teaching, other creative writing, and living cheaply, and fuelled by my passion for learning, giving voice to lesser-known perspectives, and nurturing social change. The end result? You get an article like this, where community activism and journalism are intertwined—instead of something like the Times Colonist’s coverage, which was essentially a slicker pre-election promotional press release for Fortin and the Economic Strategy than the City itself put out. (And undisclosed therein: The TC got $192,000 in advertising from the City of Victoria last year; Focus got $0. Coincidence?)
Yet all of this in turn raises bigger questions: What, really, is the role of news media in this community? And what should or could that role be?
Here’s one way I’m looking at that lately: Major local media and the Provincial Emergency Program have some basic agreements for emergency public communications in the event of an earthquake. That makes sense. Do you want to be sitting in rubble and finally get your radio working, only to hear repackaged news from Vancouver between commercials for the hardware store selling batteries at 100 times their normal value? You’d likely need to know where to go for free food, water and assistance, whether government was functioning adequately, and how to join a search crew. You’d expect your local journalists to be guiding lights, fusing their journalistic passion for finding and evaluating important information with their fervent activist desires to connect, help, heal, hold to account, inspire, and rally people towards rebuilding our community from the ground up. Beholden to no one, but committed to everyone.
To me, that’s a good analogy for the kind of local media we urgently need more of right now, and that I want to support and be a part of. Because when it comes to these converging crises of environmental depletion and destruction, rising oil costs, financial instability, and climate change, we’re arguably in an emergency already. And I don’t believe corporate-owned media are ever going to give us truly good, penetrating coverage on any of those issues; at least, not consistently. Regardless of how any individual staffer may feel, they’re confined by an institution that is too embedded in the existing dominant power structure. So what are we going to do?
But this isn’t something any journalist or news outlet can resolve in isolation. At a time when so many are hurting financially, I wouldn’t suggest news media are more worthy of help. Nevertheless, our sources of information and outlets for public discussion are foundationally important, aren’t they? As a community, we need to start asking, “Are we satisfied with the news media we have?” If we’re not, then we have to start grappling with what we’re going to do together to help get the kind of news we truly value, and need.
What do you think?