Commentary | Crisis and action

As students, we have a responsibility to mobilize

On Friday September 30, McGill professors, staff, and students marched side-by-side through campus, symbolically taping their mouths to protest the silencing of MUNACA by the McGill administration.

At the same time, emerita Professor of Economics at McGill University, Kari Polanyi, and Montreal anti-capitalist activist, Jaggi Singh, led a discussion at Concordia on activism in the context of worldwide austerity measures and predatory capitalism.

The next day, 700 people were arrested in New York while peacefully protesting the current financial system.

The world is changing, and people are mobilizing to change it. In all of these events, I was surprised to see so many different people discussing, learning, and acting together. But even though our age, backgrounds, and biographies may differ, we are all affected. We are worried about the future. We know that something is not quite right. And we feel that something must be done about it.

To focus the discussion, we need to be aware of what is at stake, what problems we are dealing with. There are three issues that I feel are most pressing:
First, the financial crisis. This crisis is not a ‘market’ crisis. It is a people’s crisis. It means debt and insecurity, fear and helplessness. It means the inability of most to make the choices they have been working for all their lives and the prospect that even fewer choices will be available for their children. Meanwhile, a small minority have all the freedom to choose where and how they live, and how their children live. This is feudalism in a globalized world.

Let’s look at it this way: One fifth of all profits in the US return to finance, insurance, and real estate. This sector is also one that has grown more than any other: from 15 to 16 per cent profits in the 1970s, to 40 per cent now. These profits far exceed the function of the services the sector provides. Meanwhile, 49 of the poorest countries, inhabited by 11 per cent of the world’s population, receive only 0.5 per cent of the global product – equal to the income of the world’s three wealthiest men. 90 per cent of the wealth on the planet remains in the hands of just 1 per cent of its inhabitants. For every dollar made by a typical worker in 1980, a chief executive made $42. In 2000, that number had grown: chief executives made $532 for every dollar made by the average worker. The world has gotten terribly unfair.

Second, a food crisis is underway. The numbers are in: despite extensive water management systems, high inputs of artificial fertilizers, state-of-the-art machines, and genetic modifications of crop species, hunger has actually gone up in the last two decades – what was 824 million hungry people 1991 has now become 1 billion. This is coupled with a water crisis, in which already-stressed water systems are failing. For example, in India, already the world’s most malnourished country, water supplies are projected to be exhausted by 2015. The Ogallala aquifier, which supplies 30 per cent of US agriculture, may run out by 2030.

Our food system is broken, and it will only get worse. According to a report published this past summer, food prices may rise to 180 per cent by 2030, and the 1 billion–and rising–hungry people will not be able to afford this. And despite what our chief economists have been saying since the 1960s, hunger isn’t just a technical problem of yield or a relationship of supply and demand. It’s a financial, legal, and structural monopoly, where a select few, intentionally or not, have been able to determine how the majority of the world ought to live, work, and eat.
Third, climate change is happening faster than we thought it would. According to most recent reports, the northern ice cap will probably melt by 2030. For the first time in 3 million years, the Earth will have an open Arctic sea. Given that humans have only been around for 175,000 years, we’ll be in for an unprecedented shock. Some consequences:  we may lose 20 to 70 per cent of all species on the planet, about 634 million people may be affected by rising waters, two thirds of all cities with populations over 5 million could be partly under water, and the world will have to start dealing with a mass influx of climate refugees.

When you graduate, the world will be a different place. Political inclination – whether you stand on the ‘right’ or on the ‘left’ – won’t mean much. The world of the future isn’t going to be socialist, communist, or even dominated by a free market. These are old and inadequate concepts for new problems. Now we have free-market communists, environmental conservatives, and tradition-oriented radicals.

We’re dealing with enormous issues that we’ve never faced before. But this doesn’t mean we should pick an ideology blindly. Every opinion must be constantly questioned; every step must be made knowing what is at stake.

Being at a university, we are both separate from and an inextricable part of human affairs. We have the opportunity to mobilize for a different world and experiment with new ways of living together. We need to practice new ways of life and create the institutions that can deal with the problems of tomorrow.

As students, we must be vigilant and aware. More importantly, we must act. As Kari Polanyi, the former McGill Economics Professor who spoke at Concordia, remarked, “It is a huge challenge. It is not an easy world. We need a lot more activists. We need a sense of imagination.”

Aaron Vansintjan is a U4 Joint Honours Philosophy and Environment student, Chair of the Daily Publications Society, member of the QPIRG board of directors, and a Former Design and Production Editor for The Daily. You can contact him at aaron.vansintjan@mail.mcgill.ca


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