Well… the 2010 Olympics have finally wrapped up and, after being bombarded with images of Vancouver as a sleek and modern cityscape jutting out into glistening ocean waters amidst breathtaking backdrops of snowcapped mountains and pristine wilderness, much of the world will be left with an impression of Vancouver as the “Most Livable City in the World“, and an impression of the Vancouver Games as both the “Greatest Ever” and “The Greenest Games Ever“. But, is this image of Vancouver as Ecotopia North substantive or, at a cost of over six billion dollars to host the Games, might it be little more than the manufactured product of one of the most ambitious and costly branding efforts ever undertaken by global capitalism’s mass-marketing machine?
Beneath the shinny veneer of a West-Coast-Winter-Wonderland lies a post-industrial urban dystopia infamously home to the “poorest postal code in Canada”; a city where people are visibly suffering from severe social crises of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and epidemic levels of infectious disease; and an economy fueled by unsustainable resource extraction industries that lauds the wilderness as quickly as it is liquidated.
Since the Vancouver was first awarded the Games is 2003, the city has made systemic efforts using the police to forcibly remove the poor and homeless from the streets of downtown in order to sweep these social issues under the rug and out of sight in order to “clean up” the city’s image in preparation for 2010. Now that the municipal and provincial governments governments have taken on an Olympic-sized debt to host the 2010 Games, these governments have virtually crippled their ability to find longterm and effective solutions to these serious issues for at least the next generation.
Bread and Circus
This is the classic story of Bread and Circus – a decaying empires seeks to avert crisis and the collapse of its authority by throwing resources at a manufactured spectacle to distract from the seriousness of the issues and placate a docile populous. In the lead up to the Olympics, the Canadian Parliament was suspended for two months by a government attempting to dodge scandals related to the abuse of Afghani Prisoners of War, and its efforts to derail the international treaty on climate change in Copenhagen. In a speech to the BC legislature on the eve of the Games, Stephen Harper averted any discussion of the crises the nation faced and instead assured the country that “patriotism should not make us the least bit shy as Canadians”, and promised forgiveness for any “uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism and of our pride” during the Vancouver Olympics.
And indeed, the country responded. In a world that leaves us very little to feel happy about, six billion dollars was the price tag that we paid for a manicured taste of what real exuberance might actually feel like, channelled by the media into undulating uproars of chauvinism and jingoism. What is now being called the “new Canadian patriotism“is little more than a debaucherous spectacle of nationalism, manufactured by the corporate media and the political and economic elite of this country to funnel public resources into private hands, while distracting from the nation’s precarious social underpinnings.
Enforcing the Good Vibrations
While the “feel-good energy” and Canada’s patriotism and “Olympic spirit” has been widely praised over the last two weeks, less attention was given to fact these good vibrations were enforced by what has been touted as the largest domestic security operation in Canadian history. Vancouver by-laws passed prior to the Games attempted to restrict the display of public signs that do not celebrate and increase positive feelings around the Games, and prohibited the interference with someone’s enjoyment of Olympic entertainment. Upwards of 1 billion dollars was spent on policing for the Games, which afforded 15,000 police, security and military agents, and one thousand new surveillance cameras installed in the city, to ensure that the positive image of this carnival would not be tarnished by disenchanted dissidents. And indeed, this “Integrated Security Unit” began its work early, harassing community organizers and citizens long in advance of 2010, often by showing up at people’s homes or workplaces and knocking on the doors of friends and family seeking to gather information about specific individuals who were known to have expressed opposition to the games.
Many residents of Vancouver worry that this massive security apparatus will remain in place after the Games leave town as one of their most lasting legacies on the city.
Even the winter component of Vancouver’s winter-wonderland proved to require a manufactured illusion of winter conditions after the warmest January on record left the Olympic venue at Cypress Mountain with barely any snow. Some 600 acres of bare mountain slope were subsequently covered by artificial snow machines, and transplanted snow hauled in from 250km away by a legion of transport trucks and helicopters, In order for the Games to continue on seemingly unabated.
“We are quite happy with where we are given that we are fighting mother nature, and sometimes she can be very unforgiving”, said the head of Mountain Operations in the run up to the Games.
According to the BBC, covering a 61m square area with 15cm of snow would take 310,000 litres of water, which is the equivalent of 11 truck tankers full, and the snow amking machine’s at Cyprus Mountain are capable of converting 18,900 litres of water can into snow every minute. However, despite the enormity of the inputs required to create winter olympics in the absence of winter condition, organizers assured that this would not significantly increase the carbon footprint of the Games significantly, or undermine their claims of holding “Green Games”.
Greenwashing the Games
Indeed, “fighting” against “Mother Nature” to create snowy conditions probably had a negligible impact on the Games’ environmental record in comparison to their overall ecological toll. In the years leading up to the Games, hundreds of thousands of trees were taken down to expand highways and build infrastructure, and sacred ecological sites of the region’s indigenous cultures were utterly destroyed. Further, hundreds of thousands of people flew in and out of Vancouver from across the world in advance of and during the games, dumping masses of carbon into the atmosphere. Regardless the Media-Industrial complex (much of which were official corporate sponsors of the Games) still succeeded to take what amounted to an ecological nightmare and managed to brand it as “The Greenest Games Ever.” This marketing feat was achieved mostly by ignoring the larger ecological impact of the games and focusing instead on some of the resource intensive “Green” technologies of the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, and the new environmentally friendly pop-bottles produced by Coca-Cola.
Ultimately, official corporate sponsors of the Games, such as McDonald’s, General Electric and The Royal Bank of Canada (currently financing world’s greatest ecological disaster in the Alberta Tar Sands), can now pat themselves on the back for associating with such a “green” event, while they meanwhile continue on with their destructive ecological practices.
Video: The Olympic Skating Oval: Green Building or Monsterous Infrastructure?
The Simulacrum of Late Capitalism
Sadly, as we stand here in the midst of a mass-extinction of life on our planet, and on the heels of the failure of the world’s governments to reach a meaningful agreement on Climate Change in Copenhagen, it seems as though global capitalism has little interest in attempting to improve this dire situation. Instead, global capital has resorted to dealing with our planetary crisis by doing what it does best – manufacturing the semblance that everything is happy and good while, at the same time, diverting even more public resources into the hands of a smaller and smaller global economic elite.
If the story of capitalist-modernity can be told as a gradual process of human alienation from the life forces of planet that we are integrally a part of (ecology), then it seems that late-capitalism, in this endgame of empire, has become so detached and alienated that it has even detached itself from itself. Even the image that capitalism produces of itself has no relation to what it actually is. Hence, everything becomes a spectacle of business as usual. The urban dystopia of downtown Vancouver can be marketed as an Ecotopia; the suspension of government and imposition of a police state apparatus can be repackaged as a festive moment of patriotism and national achievement; a snowless mountain in the warmest January on record can be transformed into winter with machine-made snow; some of the most ecologically destructive practices on earth can be rebranded as “Green”; and as the ecology of the earth rapidly collapses, global markets proclaim that they are on the recovery. Under conditions of late-capitalism, nothing has to be related to anything anymore. Everything is the spectacle.
Mycellial Marches, Sporulation and Open Pollination
However, the simulacrum is only surface deep. As dominant as it seems, it is fragile, temporal, and finite like all forms. The logic of modernity and capitalism might proclaim itself to be completely detached and removed from the ecological conditions of the earth, yet it can only uphold this illusion for so long. Capitalism may portray itself as moving merrily right along in accordance with its own logic, but it too remains subject to the limitations of the larger forces of life on earth that it ultimately cannot package or control. So as the picture being offered becomes further and further disconnected from what it represents, the apparatus of illusory production requires more and more resources, and more and more force, in order to retain a semblance of truth. Eventually, the weight of this production must fall upon itself.
When a fungus grows, it begins as many different strands of “hyphae” which are thin, fiberous branches. Each of the hyphae begin growing out on their own independently, but eventually begin to branch horizontally together to form mycelium and become an organic whole. The mycelium feed off and decompose the medium upon which they grow. This decomposition of the old nourishes something new. Fungi also heal damaged soils as they grow, creating conditions for healthy new organisms to thrive. This image of the mycelial mass is what stood out more than anything i for me at the 2010 Olympics.
Despite all the energies and resource that were mobilized to paint a glossy facade over this city and its games, and regardless of the one billion dollar security apparatus… thousands of people took to the streets to speak out against the games and what they see happening to their home and to their world…
each like individual hyphae with unique viewpoints and concerns, we snaked through the streets of vancouver like a mycelial mass, weaving around the concrete masses of corporate offices, under the rooftop gaze of police snipers, and in the shadow of helicopter flybys that patrolled the skies…
each strand interconnected horrizontally, sporulating and cross-polinating a diverse world of new ideas; nourishing itself from the decay of the old, and sowing the seeds of all things new.