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Climate Justice Grows Where Imperialism is Uprooted

Where Canada's military adventures and industries go, emissions and inequality follow

by Dru Oja Jay

A Canadian soldier practices shooting on a warship off the coast of Libya.
A Canadian soldier practices shooting on a warship off the coast of Libya.
Libyan opposition leaders thank Peter Mackay.
Libyan opposition leaders thank Peter Mackay.
Cooperatives march in Venezuela.
Cooperatives march in Venezuela.
Since 2001, Canada has continually been at war. The troops we are regularly enjoined to support started fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, added a relatively unpublicized support role in the US invasion of Iraq, oversaw an anti-democratic coup d'etat and suppressed popular demonstrations in Haiti, bombed cities and government forces in Libya, and most recently reinvaded Iraq. These direct military interventions do not include military and police training provided to repressive forces in the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, and Jordan, threatening Iran and Russia, diplomatic and economic support for Israel's many invasions and bombing campaigns, or the fact that Canada's burgeoning arms trade is increasingly geared to benefit from every expansion of the US military industrial complex. And that list doesn't include the armed interventions of the ultra-secret JTF2, whose participation the government does not reveal to its citizens as a matter of policy.
Wherever Canada's war machine goes, neoliberal pillaging is sure to follow -- when it's not already leading. Canada's "humanitarian" bombing of the former Yugoslavia was inextricably tied to the destruction of state-owned and worker-run industrial infrastructure and the wholesale theft of the regions natural resources by the trans-national corporate class. Haiti's humanitarian disaster started well before the earthquake with the privatization and austerity policies Canada helped impose on the hemisphere's poorest population. Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered under neoliberal kleptocrats who have handed contracts and de facto monopolies to foreign investors at the expense of their own people. Libyans, already suffering under western-backed neoliberal reforms imposed by Qaddafi, are seeing control over their oil industry slip away, and have gained the chaos of warlordism and neverending sectarian civil war.
Canada's mining industry derives massive benefits from conflict, paramilitary killings and police intimidation. The main thrust of Canada's so-called humanitarian and development aid has been linked for decades to the imposition of austerity measures, theft of natural resources and its alignment as the junior partner of US geopolitical interests. 
Dismantling democracy... and climate justice
Climate justice is the idea that focusing strictly on reducing climate emissions without addressing massive inequalities of wealth and power -- and the economic system that expands them -- is a path to little or no progress on either one. Positively formulated, a climate justice analysis tells us that the only effective way to reduce climate-changing emissions is to radically redistribute the world's wealth by creating an economic system that encourages equality and solidarity. The market whose main function is to concentrate and expand capital and power while recklessly driving consumption irrespective of need will not be part of the solution.
The global market is constantly signalling that investing in increasingly extreme fossil fuel extraction and protecting the $55 trillion in global fossil fuel infrastructure and $28 trillion in investment in the fossil fuel-based industry are the only decisions we are allowed to make. Strategically, climate justice needs a way for people to collectively make decisions outside of the suicidal constraints that the market system places on us. For that, the best mechanism we have is democracy.
Democracy, defined as meaningful popular decisionmaking over social and economic policy, is in many respects the opposite of neoliberalism. Neoliberal governance doesn't mind elected governments systems as long as they do not try to make decisions about the economy or exploitation of natural resources out of alignment with multinational investors. When decisionmaking about the main things that affect peoples' lives is comfortably out of reach, neoliberal parties are left to bicker about who is better at managing the theft of their country's wealth and to stoke divisions around religion, ethnicity, the status of migrants and other cultural questions to gain votes.
In the Middle East, even the degraded-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness standards of neoliberal democracy are too high for Canada and the US. The stakes, in the region with 49% of the world's oil reserves, are too high. With arms, diplomatic support, investment and corporate logistics, Canada and the US have long backed the region's monarchies. We usually don't hear too much about this, but the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings highlighted which side Canadian and US elites will take when it comes time to choose between monarchy and democracy.
In Bahrain, Canada supplied a monarchy premised on the rule of a religious minority with arms and diplomatic backing as it slaughtered, jailed and tortured pro-democracy demonstrators. In Palestine, Canada has backed a brutal forty-seven-year military occupation based on land theft and punctuated by periodic bombing, to the hilt. In Egypt, the majority of the country's population calling for democracy, and a few years later, a bloody wave of repressions wasn't enough to stop the US from providing billions in funding to the military. As ISIS gained headlines for brutal beheadings, Saudi beheadings were treated as an embarrassing footnote. Qatar's little shop of horrors in its bid to host the 2018 World Cup were kept out of the public eye. We hear very little about US drone strikes in Yemen. And so on.
Imperialism, in the present-day context, is the ensemble of forces that are used to impose market fundamentalism in a way that benefits the US corporate class and its junior partners like Canada. Since Canada both benefits from and strengthens imperial intervention, it's important to understand what implications that has for people and the climate.
Suppressing secular nationalism: the unspoken cornerstone of US middle east policy
These are just the latest and most visible effects of policy that goes back decades. Though the situation has changed over the decades, US geopolitical goals in the middle east have been consistent: the oil must flow, and the governments must be stable, predictable and amenable to US interests. Through covert and not-so-covert operations, diplomatic pressure and military and logistical backing the US has suppressed moves toward sovereignty in the region. The US and UK backed the Shah as he overthrew the democratically-elected secular government in Iran in 1953, and proceeded to murder and terrorize that government's supporters. The Islamist theocracy that replaced the Shah was able to seize power decisively when the Shah was overthrown because secular democratic forces had been dismantled through unrelenting violence. In 1960, a popular government nationalized Iraq's oil industry, but was overthrown by a US-backed Saddam Hussein. With CIA support, Hussein went on a killing spree, assassinating thousands of members of the Iraqi communist party and other potential opposition. The US backed -- and armed -- Hussein when he killed thousands with poison gas and spent thousands of lives in a wasteful war with Iran, only to turn on him a few years later.
Radical Islamism is, by almost every western media account, the main threat to all that is humane and decent in the Middle East. The role of the brutal monarchies, military occupations, starvation-by-blockade and bombing is seldom referred to as a potential reason for the increase in appeal of radical religious ideologies. But what is almost never discussed is the fact that secular alternatives to radical political Islamism have been actively and brutally suppressed with the help of the west for decades. Their main crime, of course, was and is insisting on national control of their countries' natural resources. Meanwhile, the most inhumane fundamentalist zealots have often been tolerated or even actively supported. The US supported fundamentalist Islamists with arms and billions of dollars to help them defeat a secular Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. And the fundamentalists who took power there are the reason Canada took part in a decade-long military occupation of that country. There's a word for it: blowback.
Canada has reprised its junior partner role over and over again. Even peacekeeping -- our foreign policy's foundational myth if there ever was one -- was invented to broker a transition from British to US dominance in the middle east during the Suez crisis. Our collective Pearsonian hangover has prevented much of the story from getting out, but certain fact are not subject to disagreement. To wit, Canada's long-term backing of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and our country's policy of complementarity with US operations going back decades are undisputed.
The overall effect means that Canada has received its share of the spoils for its cooperation with the overall US program of suppressing democracy and sovereignty when it comes to natural resources. In each case, Canada has been rewarded. In Iraq, as elsewhere, Canadian oil companies got their share of the contracts.
As abroad, so at home (or is it the other way around?)
As Canada has done abroad with mining, military and markets, so it does at home. It's a colonial ideology that gives the Canadian and American ruling classes a sense of entitlement to help itself to other peoples' natural resources for their own enrichment -- and at a great human and environmental cost. It's that same ideology that has driven four centuries of dispossession of Indigenous lands and the theft of minerals, metals, timber, oil and gas from those lands. Murder, torture, starvation, sexual abuse, attempts to eliminate entire languages and cultures: none of these have been too extreme for Canada's colonial operations. Canada's own laws and signed treaties have forbidden much of the land theft that drove these activities. The government of the day was aware of this when, in 1927, it banned Indigenous people from hiring legal counsel or raising money for that purpose. The use of structural violence in the form of enforced poverty, environmental racism in the form of polluting industries, and the mobilization of militarized police forces (and in more than one recent case, actual military forces) and complicity in sexualized violence are all ongoing policies of the Canadian government today.
The need to suppress democracy in Muslim communities in Canada as democracy is suppressed in the middle east has also not escaped Canada's elite. Intimidation and infiltration by CSIS agents and law enforcement are a part of daily life in many Canadian Muslim communities. Antiterrorism legislation is used to indefinitely detain people without charge. Secret trials have been used to jail five individuals for years at a time. Deportation to a country where you will be tortured is a real possibility even for those with Canadian citizenship. Not cooperating with law enforcement can mean being put on a no fly list. The overall effect is to make community members think twice before vocalizing criticisms of Canada's foreign policy -- or anything else, for that matter.
Climate justice as anti-imperialism: the prospects
For those unfamiliar with the well-hidden facts of Canada's actual role in the world, all this might have the effect of making climate justice seem more distant as a possibility. Perhaps. But we must not mistake the difficulty of overcoming a deeply-entrenched mythology and ideology for a good reason to deny the reality we face.
Climate justice won't happen without decolonization. That means overcoming or dissolving the ideologies that enable violence, arrogance and theft of other peoples' land and resources. It means replacing relationships of domination with relationships of solidarity and mutual respect. A key enabling pillar of Canada's colonial ideology is the dangerous idea that it is possible to use our military as a force for good in the world. The signature of a myth is that it resiliently resists factual counterexamples dismissing everything as an exception to a non-existent rule. The idea that Canadian bombs and guns can help humanity does precisely this. All of the examples listed above have, in their turn, had almost no impact on the appeal of this myth when the next push to invade or bomb a country has come up. Every war is still World War II in our minds, and every enemy the Nazis.
The assumptions that undergird the idea that we can help, with guns, are unstated and hard to detect. For the most part, no one says that Canadian corporations are entitled to the natural resources of foreign countries or Indigenous lands. We have to wait for reports to trickle in about security forces murdering local opposition leaders or police evicting people who live on the land; even then, well-paid local supporters will be held up as evidence that this arrangement is for the benefit of all.
Climate justice -- and, not to put to fine a point on it, the salvation of humanity from the global social and environmental catastrophe currently unfolding -- can only happen when democracy and community control over resources take precedence over the dictates of the market. This is the very antithesis of Canada's domestic and foreign policy when it comes to oil-producing territories. Democracy and community control are positive things, but they can only flourish in the absence of imperial war. The path to climate justice, then, winds its way through the cultivation of an effective anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism.
Solidarity is the antidote to empire
We can formulate anti-imperialism positively as seeking consent and supporting community control and self-determination. The reason it's anti-imperialism and decolonization are negative formulations is that there are a tremendous number of things that Canada must simply stop doing before any positive role can be contemplated. Relations must be rewritten. As we have seen with countless well-intentioned volunteers in development NGOs, a premature formulation of a positive role can end up reinscribing neoliberalism and colonial policies.
No matter how legitimate it might be under the circumstances, non-stop self-flagellation has limited appeal as a political stance. That's why creating concrete links of solidarity and support with the opponents and victims of Canadian imperialism at home and abroad is centrally important to effective anti-imperialism. And because colonial attitudes can take a lifetime or even generations to shake, vigilance and a constant return to listening is essential and non-negotiable.
Canadian travellers abroad (or to Indigenous communities within the country's borders) can try an interesting experiment. Show a willingness to be steadfastly critical of your home country in conversations with locals. It might take a little while, but as often as not, caution and politeness will give way to a flood of what people really think.
Imperialism is something that most of the world experiences and feels every day. We feel it in Canada too, but for most white Canadians, it's a different kind of feeling. It's the feeling of having access to public services, a decent salary, an abundance of consumer goods, cheap imported fruit and other commodities, year-over-year record profits for banks, university endowments, and charitable contributions from guilty consciences and legacy builders. A Haitian proverb says (in effect) "who gives a blow forgets; who bears the marks remembers." We're more inclined to ignore these effects or ascribe them to another cause than those who experience them as poverty, precarious employment, curable disease, pollution, environmental degradation, police violence or a military occupation. 
The negative effects of imperialism on those who materially benefit from it are spiritual, not physical. Our complicity with the suppression of other lives for what we believe is our own benefit limits our humanity and the potential of our lives. Living in the empire means living in a subset of reality. The suffering that causes should not be underestimated, even if its not the pain of hunger, sickness or physical trauma.
At their best, relations of solidarity can be the seed of the consensual economics that form the basis of our climate justice future. More often we fall short of this ideal. Perhaps the most frequent mistake is to conflate solidarity with charity. Solidarity is the understanding that despite differences in power and access, we have a shared lot, and a shared destiny, with those we stand in solidarity with. As such, it doesn't amount to much if it's not part of a primary project of self-emancipation from attitudes and power relations that rob us of our humanity, our dignity, and threaten to take away the ecosystems that sustain us. It calls us to excavate and transform our own inner imperialist shadows. It calls us to experience the whole of reality, to break out of our self-imposed limits.
Many are called, but few answer.
True solidarity can profoundly change our inner consciousness, that doesn't happen through a process of meditation or navel-gazing. Solidarity in action means sharing the burden of the struggle, and that means giving up privileges or, whenever possible, placing them in the service of something larger than ourselves or what we've been taught our lives will look like. Through acts of solidarity, a phrase like "an injury to one is an injury to all" ceases to be a slogan and becomes a lived experience. The result is an expanded sense of self, beyond the individual, family, or species. Solidarity heals the alienation of individualism and brings us closer to the reality we live in: that of a shared ecology, shared economy, and shared destiny.
As Canadians, we are, at least in principle, one democratic vote away from putting an end to our military industry and our imperialist invasions. But that, or the fractional versions we might settle for, will happen when we find a way to transform our relationships to our friends, neighbours, colleagues and families.
It gets messy: two thoughts, one head
The unflattering caricature of the anti-imperialist is someone who supports anyone who opposes the US empire: Qaddafi, Ahmedinijad, Stalin, or Milosevic. Indeed, there are a very small number of people who wholeheartedly support those leaders and their like in the name of more effectively undermining empire. These folks mistake leaning into a prevailing wind with calling for the wind to blow just as hard in the other direction. It happens. But much more often, such charges are slanderous sleights of hand that conceal imperial attitudes.
Usually what happens is that someone like (then-Yugoslavian President) Slobodan Milosevic states that the sovereignty of his country is sacrosanct, and that as head of state, he won't give it up (as he was asked to, on pain of the bombing that ensued, at the Rambouillet accord). Then a few bold souls might point out that we don't have the right to bomb a sovereign state or dictate its domestic policies. This, to the imperialist mindset, is heresy. At this point, the aforementioned anti-imperialists will be accused of supporting the "butcher of the Balkans." If the minority voices then respond that Milosevic was actually a moderate who fought with Serbian nationalists and ultimately was likely as guilty of war crimes as the US- and Canadian-backed actors, they are dismissed as apologists for a terrible dictator. The caricature from the last paragraph.
The fact is, one can oppose (for example) the multi-decade unwillingness of the US to respect the sovereignty of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and recognize that US policy helps to legitimize the reign of a terrible repressive government without being a supporter of Kim Jong Un. Anti-imperialism means holding two or more thoughts in our heads at the same time, and resisting the massive pressure to reduce that to one thought.
Repeat after me: Qaddafi was a dictator who brutally repressed dissent and also his removal by NATO bombing made things worst for the Libyan people by stoking a civil war and also Qaddafi provided an important bulwark against European, US and Canadian imperialism in Africa, notably supporting Nelson Mandela when he was still a "terrorist" and also he damaged his country by selling off oil rights and becoming the neoliberal stooge of the West when he met with Paul Martin and signed multibillion dollar deals with SNC Lavalin. 
As anti-imperialists, we have to take in all that information and make a decision about how to orient ourselves. Perhaps finding allies at the grassroots level while being careful to detect the tentacles of the humanitarian wing of imperialism. Perhaps we lack the time and resources to build relationships overseas, and mobilize as best we can to stop military strikes.
Facing the contradictions can be difficult, because pragmatism is reserved for those in charge. They get to sign deals with Qaddafi and then advocate bombing Libya a few years later, as Paul Martin did. For everyone else, the choice presented to us is one-dimensional. Either you are sick because you are worshipping this terrible dictator, or you believe that his country should be bombed followed by the imposition of neoliberalism, and that Qaddafi himself should be sodomized with a knife and then executed extrajudicially, as US allies were apparently not discouraged from doing. Such dichotomous thinking is designed to help us ignore alternatives, like the 2011 African Union proposal for a peaceful transition in Libya: no bombing required.
There are those who try to take an a la carte approach to supporting imperial interventions. There were many who supported a "no-fly zone" over Libya to strengthen civil opposition without externally-imposed regime change or the imposition of neoliberalism or unleashing sectarian chaos. As an academic exercise, there's never anything wrong with pondering the hypothetical. But as a political position, it can only be described as a fantastic miscalculation of the power of the left. The left mired itself in debates about which nuance to uphold when it came to Libya, but the only position it was unambiguous enough to cut through the noise was a unified "no NATO intervention whatsoever". This position doesn't account for things that we would like to be the case, like the possibility that the US can bomb a country and change a regime without taking the opportunity to impose what it wants against the interests of the people who live there. The US government and its Canadian counterpart are physically capable, but socioeconomically incapable, of achieving such a feat. A unified "no" is the only thing that could conceivably have wrung such unprecedented nuance from a US-backed intervention.
That's my opinion on a specific situation, for which I've tried to examine the available information. Regardless of what conclusion someone else might draw, the underlying point is that we need to recognize complexity and contradiction and choose a single direction to push in to make our power felt when geopolitical giants start to lumber in one direction or another. The angle at which we apply pressure and the contradictions of the assessment that led us to it must be revisited constantly, each in light of the other.
What happens in the space where imperialism is weakened or absent is precious; liberation becomes possible, but not necessarily likely. It can sometimes be worse in the short term than imperial rule, especially when factions forged in years of resistance decide to fight it out with guns after the occupying armies leave. But the US has also been known to stoke those sectarian conflicts to ensure that a unified government won't challenge its interests, so we have to keep an eye on what's really happening.
Venezuela: climate criminal or source of hope?
Venezuela isn't the first place one thinks of when it comes to the struggle for climate justice. A visit to the country doesn't exactly inspire faith in its societal commitment to reducing emissions. Gasoline is sold for $0.12 per gallon (about 1/33 of the current Canadian pump price), and a good fraction of the cars on the road are low gas-mileage 1970s muscle cars that often spew acrid black smoke. 
Things don't look much better when you run the numbers. Venezuela's Orinoco Belt is called "heavy oil," but it's roughly equivalent to Canada's tar sands in the amount of toxic and climate-changing emissions that are required to convert it into a serviceable synthetic crude oil. Exploitation of Orinoco heavy oil is in the process of doubling to 700,000 barrels per day.
And also. Venezuela's social movements have leveraged their natural resources and the political space it creates to do a number of remarkable things. Democratic worker control of workplaces is on the rise, in the state owned oil company, in occupied factories, and in new cooperative enterprises. Communal councils have been set up across the country, encouraging a culture of participatory democracy. Social movements have made unprecedented gains on a plethora of social, environmental and economic issues since their candidates won the Presidency in 1999 and a legislative majority in 2000. Over a dozen new universities have been built, where students can learn Indigenous languages and environmental management, among other subjects, tuition-free. A massive redistribution of wealth, from the country's tiny light-skinned elite to its poor majority, is currently underway. 
Pressed by social movements, the government has put its oil wealth to work strengthening South American countries against US dictates and Canadian mining companies alike. The net result is a large, refreshing increase in democratic breathing room that has been a major cause of the continent's "pink tide," or turn the left. At various points, left-leaning governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Argentina have stepped into the space created by Venezuela's popular seizure of oil revenues. Alliances between South American countries have been strengthened, and new trading blocks, a multi-national news channel and a weakening of US control in the region are just some of the more visible effects.
And also. Venezuela has used its wealth and stature to support anti-imperialist forces like (pre-2013 election) Mahmoud Ahmedinijad and (pre-February 2011 bombing) Muamar Qaddafi. Then-president Hugo Chavez praised both leaders publicly in rather unambiguous terms. This was a bit of unsavoury realpolitik at best, but the reasoning behind it is clear enough: solidify alliances against the US war on democracy and sovereignty. Do the ends justify the means?
Things get more complicated when you try to wade through the claims and counter-claims of the domestic opposition in Venezuela. Things are so polarized that it's hard to conclude anything other than one extreme or the other. Either the government is relentlessly suppressing freedom of speech and the country's oppressed economic elite are suffering inhumane treatment, or the movement-backed government is operating with remarkable constraint given that they have been consistently threatened with the real threat of a coup d'etat (the elite-led military coup of 2002 was succesful for a few days before it was overturned by street protests).
My own opinion is that Venezuela's elite has completely decoupled itself from reality and entered a US-funded bubble of delusional self-affirmation. While Venezuela's anti-imperialist calculus is non-ideal at times, it, on balance, weighs in on the side of humanity. Iran and Libya also demand our careful deliberation in the context of climate justice. Have we bombed anyone into democracy yet? While the deeply democratic movements that are still evolving don't have any plans to phase out oil production, I'd rather try to convince people who say that they're working to "put the oil industry at the service of humanity" than a CEO who reports to investment banks. 
Venezuela's approach has been mixed. Before his death, Chavez declared climate change to be an existential threat caused by capitalism. But his government also moved to increase heavy oil production. With the largest oil reserves of any country in the world, Venezuela's direction could tilt the scales in one direction or another. Could it propose a "leave it in the ground" scheme, as Ecuador did? If we are somehow successful in transitioning away from fossil fuels, it's hard to imagine Venezuela's democratic movements not playing a major role. 
Venezuela isn't showing many signs of decreasing oil production to address climate change. Geopolitically speaking, that's the answer but not the question. Is there a greater possibility that a victory by the elite opposition will lead to a greater likelihood that that could happen in the future? From a climate justice perspective, a democratic, redistributive Venezuela has a much better likelihood of acting in defiance of the market in cooperation with strong pro-climate forces (which have yet to emerge on a geopolitical scale) than a US-aligned neoliberal government serving an elite minority. 
It's everyone's job to wade through the details and come to their own conclusions. And then comes the tough decision. Having taken the whole situation into account, in which direction will you push, and what vision will you carry? Agnosticism is a necessary starting point for analysis and a full moral account, but political action demands that we make our tally and come to a decision. Staying out of a game of tug of war means that the stronger side will win.
But it would be a mistake to think that the reasons behind the push can be reduced to the measurable effects of a given effort. Why we push in a direction, and the intention and communication that goes into that push, are central, not marginal. It would be a mistake to think otherwise. Market fluctuations caused by a computer glitch in a big wall street firm can reduce oil production or consumption more than any number of victories by environmental campaigns. But the latter are much more important to the extent that they build momentum toward a visionary end point: climate justice.
Love and rockets
How will we respond when democratic movements break through in Saudi Arabia? If there's a coup in Venezuela, will we act swiftly? Will bombing ISIS within the limited frame of advancing US interests in the region lead to self-determination? What role did the US play in stoking sectarianism in Iraq in the first place? Has the 13-year occupation of Afghanistan improved prospects there relative to other options? The answers to questions like these have real implications for millions of lives. 
It's best to start with the easy cases. Stop selling arms to monarchies in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Stop backing post-coup governments that gun down demonstrators in Haiti and Honduras. Stop backing anti-democratic coups at all. But the "hard cases," from Libya to North Korea, also deserve our attention. Before any action can be taken, an accurate understanding of the situation is required. Resistance to media disinformation and the insistance that complexity boils down to one thing is crucial.
The deeper our understanding of other peoples goes, the more our sheltered imperialist ideas melt away. The more we understand the unfolding history that we're a part of and our role in it, the less we'll be content to steal the land and lives of our brothers and sisters, and the less we'll be content to let our friends, neighbours and governments do the same. If we can live the truth that we're all in this together, we will be.
Because it points to the global and local simultaneously, climate justice is its own paradox. The practice of solidarity calls us to total specificity; no detail of our lives is untouched by the transformation it entails. And yet, we are called to continuously make decisions that boil all that irreducible complexity down into one direction in one moment. If we want to practice political action small enough to remake our relationships and big enough to address the climate crisis, it can be no other way but both ways at once.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Member since January 2008


Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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