Anjali Appadurai On Her Run For The N.D.P. Leadership in B.C., The Climate Crisis And More
The former youth climate activist on her bid for leadership of the N.D.P. in B.C., her vision of socialism and the future of politics.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Originally conducted on September 4th, 2022.
To begin with, what first inspired you to enter the race to become leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in British Columbia (B.C.)?
It was a lot of different voices from our movement – the climate justice movement – who saw the opportunity in entering the leadership race, and engaging with a really big system of power. We wanted to convey how we’re living in a time of crisis. And our current decision makers are pretending it is business as usual. And so a lot of folks in our movement saw the value in this run. And, I was approached by so many people in the movement – especially young people who have a clarity of vision when it comes to the moment that we’re living in. So, the inspiration was the folks in our movement and feeling like we’ve tried everything. I’ve been an activist for, what? Fifteen years now? I have been engaged in every possible way and we need to take it up a notch.
"The inspiration [for the run] was the folks in our movement and feeling like we’ve tried everything."
Let’s talk about your opponent, who is a more classical, establishment politician: popular with the older generation, more moderate ideas for policy, etc. Where you argue for a radical shift, he’s for reform. Very broadly speaking where do you think he’s lacking – or doesn’t go far enough – in his policy platforms?
It’s a funny question because I actually think my opponent is a great person... and a different kind of politician. He’s not stuck in some of the old ways that a lot of the older generation is. Because he comes from activism, he understands some of the shifts that need to happen. It’s not what he’s saying that is wrong, he’s just in the wrong state-of-mind. It’s not an emergency-mode framework. We need to make courageous changes, transformational changes. I think that when you start thinking incrementally like he does that there is a danger that it becomes more about power, about holding on to power rather than about taking a very strong stance to do the right thing. I think he has great policy ideas but he's not conveying the right sense of urgency.
One of the main critiques of your campaign is your lack of experience in electoral politics and I was wondering how you feel about that sentiment: does it hold any merit or do you think it represents an outdated vision of what politicians should be?
I think it's both, but mostly it is a hangover from a different era of politics. I think that there's a new wave of energy coming into electoral politics and into democracy. The idea that you need experience to be effective in elected office is antithetical to democracy itself because the idea is that government should be run by the people and not a totally different class of folks who are disconnected from the lived experience of the people they're representing. I think that's where we get a lot of policy that doesn't match the needs of the people because politicians have a different lived experience. I am aware that I am running for a very high office right now and it’s going to be a very steep learning curve. I don't pretend that there is not going to be hiccups along the way. But what I will bring to office is a completely different set of values that has been missing from decision making in our province and the ability to deliver on the issues that actually matter to people. So I think there is a need to sort of change our understanding of what it means to be good for public office.
As I’m sure you are aware, in May of this year, 195 British Columbians died from drug overdoses. There is a lot of research in favour of decriminalization but British Columbians are really split in the middle on the issue. Why do you think decriminalization is such a contentious issue, specifically in leftist circles, and is consensus possible?
I think it’s interesting. I think it’s a complicated cocktail of things. A lot of it stems from the fact that we– especially on the left, but also more broadly across society, don’t have a shared story of the world. We don’t have a story of how the forces that created this country and this colonial system still play out in our political and economic systems. And so, I think a lot of people think about the crisis of overdose deaths and toxic drug supply without thinking about how it relates to colonial policies. The same policies that now seek to criminalize drugs were the ones that set up the crisis in the first place.
We also don’t share an understanding of people’s inherent dignity. .. I think that we’ve – that neoliberalism has – succeeded in telling us that different people make different choices, and have different motivations, when actually most of us – or all of us – when given a choice, would choose to improve our lives. There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t choose to improve their life if given the choice, or if their dignity was respected. So I think a lot of that stigma comes into play. And there’s a lack of understanding of how the crisis was created, through the same type of thinking that created the climate crisis and these other issues we face. So, I think that not going back to the root causes keeps us from understanding the crisis for what it is.
Do you think that the plan for partial decriminalization in three years is a good idea? Does it go far enough? Or is it merely a band-aid solution that fails to tackle the root causes of the issue?
Partial approaches have failed when it comes to the toxic drug supply. They do more harm than good. And we’ve seen the evidence to show that. We have a partial safe-supply program which really, truly isn’t a safe supply. And a situation like that can turn dangerous quickly, because you’re not actually providing a full safe-supply so people have to go through the same channels they were going through before, which is putting them back in touch with the toxic supply. And so, partial decriminalization, I think is more of a band-aid solution. I don’t think it actually gets to the root cause of – the reason why – drugs are criminalized, and the economic dependency that is created by having people addicted.
A big part of your campaign is about reprioritizing the economy. What does that look like? Is it an inherently socialist vision?
It is an inherently socialist idea because it’s about drawing money down from the ultra-rich and from where it has been accumulated at the very top: it’s about taxing the rich, taxing the corporations, taxing the windfall profits that corporations have created for themselves and redistributing it into public systems. That is a socialist system that I think the party that I’m running for once supported, and no longer supports.
And how do you personally define socialism?
I mean, this is a thorny issue, right? Because those of us on the left can get quite nerdy about socialism. To me socialism is about redistribution with the explicit aim of serving the public good and the explicit aim of stacking the decks in favour of the most vulnerable among us. So, creating a very strong social safety net for those on the margins. And those on the margins could be there for various reasons: colonial and racist laws, mental health issues, it could be anything. And then, building up strong public systems that are in the public trust and intended for the public good. And, that to me, is the way that our economy should be oriented: it should have values of wellbeing at the core of it rather than values of growth.
"To me socialism is about redistribution with the explicit aim of serving the public good"
Speaking of wellbeing and the public good, one of the pillars of your platform is climate action, specifically intersectional climate action. Can you tell us what substantive measures need to take place to ensure that climate justice for Indigenous peoples and the working class is brought to the fore?
It’s really related to that redistributive idea. For me, climate justice is a redistributive project. Because what climate change does is essentially worsen the inequities caused by neoliberalism. And so the first part of climate justice is protecting and reversing the inequities of neoliberalism, because when there’s a climate disaster like a heatwave or a flood, it’s those that are made vulnerable through austerity and neoliberalism that are most affected. For example, the 640 people who died in the last year’s heat dome– the vast majority of them were seniors, and a lot of them were seniors living on disability or welfare. And they were living in homes that were totally inadequate. That climate disaster made all of those vulnerabilities worse to the point where it had deadly consequences. Climate justice is about building up those public systems as a matter of priority. It is about the government stepping up and mandating industry as opposed to incentivizing or rewarding industry.
"And so the first part of climate justice is protecting and reversing the inequities of neoliberalism, because when there’s a climate disaster like a heatwave or a flood, it’s those that are made vulnerable through austerity and neoliberalism that are most affected."
And the same applies to the sunsetting of the fossil fuel industry: it’s not through cajoling industry to wind down, it’s through mandating it to do so and investing in a strong transition for working people along the way. So, climate justice to me is all about redistribution and taking a stronger stance against private interests. It is not about putting emissions reductions above people; it’s about placing the wellbeing of the most vulnerable at the core of our climate change policy.
That’s a really workable definition. You delivered a speech a number of years ago in which you told world leaders to “get the work done” in relation to climate action. Over a decade on, on a global level, do you feel as though we’re headed in the right direction when it comes to climate?
No. I actually think that since that speech we have watched climate inaction turn into what we now need to call climate violence. Because our inaction is not just passive, it is actually causing active violence against those in the Global South, those who are most vulnerable to the climate crisis and those who are most vulnerable to neoliberalism and colonialism – the root drivers of the crisis.
What we’ve witnessed over the last decade is basically the industrialized nations of the world hanging the rest of the world out to dry. We have refused to take the actions necessary to stop the crisis, which includes cutting emissions drastically and providing supports to the parts of the world that didn’t create the crisis but are experiencing it the worst. And those supports look like finance, look like clean technology, capacity building – we haven’t seen any of that happen to the scale it needs to.
There were a bunch of legal obligations that were agreed to decades ago that have not been followed through on. So, when we told them to “get it done,” they simply did not. And we’re in a much worse position now because of it.
As someone who has been engaged in climate action for a long time, what do you think of today’s youth climate justice movement. Do you see improvements in its tactics and the way that it is working?
It’s interesting because I think the generation of youth that have come in since the “Greta era” are working differently than I worked. But I’m not on the inside anymore. What I can say is – from the outside – I do think that the youth climate movement globally is much more evolved than it was a decade ago, because this generation is a lot more connected and understanding of the intersectionality of the crisis.
In the past, in the Global North – and this is why I didn’t get involved in climate activism when I was younger – the climate movement was purely an environmental thing. It was about protecting nature and was deeply rooted in conservation back then. I don’t think we realized the importance of Indigenous leadership – and I don’t think we recognized the intertwined nature of climate, and how deeply connected we are to the Global South. But that’s slowly starting to happen.
"The [youth climate] movement has evolved. I can only see it getting better"
That said, if there is one area of weakness it is international solidarity. The anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s was a real opportunity for cross-border solidarity because we understood that through globalization and trade we were connected to each other, and our fates were intertwined. The battle in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and the fighting of those early investment agreements was a radical act of solidarity. And now I feel our movements are not as strong in terms of international solidarity. We don’t have a culture of international solidarity as much as I’d like to see.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give to young people who feel disillusioned with the obvious lack of progress that is being made in regards to climate action?
It’s hard to say. Maybe: “Keep having hope! Don’t give up!” Because hope is a hard thing to maintain when you are surrounded by climate breakdown. But what I’ve learned about hope – and I’ve learned a lot over the past year, watching it in action and watching it an electoral context – is that it simply does not happen on its own. It is a little spark that you have to keep passing around in a circle. It’s like a joint: you have to share it.
"[Hope] is a little spark that you have to keep passing around in a circle. It’s like a joint: you have to share it."
It’s something you have to practice in relation to others. So, to keep hope alive you have to be in a community, and you have to be surrounded with people who mirror your understanding of the world.
I always like to think of myself as a part of a grand river of change. I’m a current in this river doing my part and when my work is done, another will come along. But we’re all moving in the same direction: it’s multi-generational work. And even if life on Earth was to end, the current would continue.