I’ll be attending Reboot Alberta this weekend. When approached about attending, I didn’t know what to make of the idea; in some manner I still don’t. A number of the blog posts thus far have been thought-provoking and insightful (particularly those by Rick Schneider and Jason Morris). So that’s encouraging. But most importantly for me, I trust the word of the organizers I know, and I believe it will be a good forum for those like myself who are concerned about the challenges, and excited about the opportunities, facing our province.
Ken asked me if I would share my thoughts on Reboot Alberta. As I said, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. Nonetheless, I shall do my best to explain.
Without getting into semantics too much, I don’t believe Alberta needs a reboot; it needs an upgrade. A reboot implies that problems exist, but the current system will suffice to handle them. I respectfully disagree. I believe the system, and most importantly, the paradigm around which we’ve based it, need to evolve. The world is changing, and what worked for us in the past is no guarantee for future success. So let’s examine where we’ve come from, and where we need to go.
Our history since 1905 can be, in an overly simplistic manner, divided into two broad periods:
Alberta 1.0 (1905-1947): A largely agrarian, rural-based province built around traditional values.
Alberta 2.0 (1947-present): Leduc 1 ushers in the age of oil that continues today in this province. The province is increasingly urbanized, with no signs of that trend abating.
The Future: Alberta 3.0
At some point, through design, necessity, or some combination thereof, Alberta 3.0 will emerge. It will be based around a new paradigm. We have the ability to set that shift in motion. I’m going to talk about the principles I see as being important to the next paradigm, because they dictate what kind of province we want to build, and how we will to do it.
What will Alberta 3.0 look like? First, that the key word in every facet is diversity. In the economy, this means that we are noted for success in a multitude of different industries, not just one or two. Socially and culturally, this reflects the differences and strengths amongst our citizens. Politically, it speaks to greater competition and options, as well as a larger number of players who take on meaningful leadership roles. The dangers of relying on one dominant industry are well-known. The dangers of embracing one dominant political group are similar; stagnation and cronyism set in, but there’s no logical place for people to turn if they are frustrated with the status quo. Empowering a greater number of decision-makers can help address this.
Second, Alberta 3.0 will be built around the belief that “we are all in this together“. This is both paramount and essential. Alberta 3.0 isn’t about one person getting ahead, it’s about everyone getting ahead. It’s about valuing community, and about using what we have been given to help those of us who are less fortunate. Homelessness, poverty, and addiction – to name three – are problems all of us must help address, not something we can ignore in good times or especially in bad times. In Street Fight, Cory Booker, on the campaign trail, says “to he who much is given, much is expected”. With that, I would agree. We should be judged as much by what we give back as by what we earn.
This may seem like a fundamental shift, but it’s not. While the myth of the individual in Alberta may currently prevail, the truth of community has a long, proud history. The value we place on small towns and communities is in large part due to the neighbourliness and mutual support they offer. Our history is shaped in large part by the resilience of minority and immigrant groups, from our Aboriginal groups emerging now from centuries of hardship, to successive waves of immigrants – from Ukranians a century ago to Africans today, who supported each other and became integral parts of Alberta’s history and of our present day culture.
The idea of community has roots in Henry Marshall Tory’s convocation address at the University of Alberta in 1906, 13 months after we became a province:
The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition, a recognition which only a century ago was denied them. The result is that such institutions must be conducted in such a way as to relate them as closely as possible to the life of the people. The people demand that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal.
The idea that we are all in this together does not just apply to those of us who are here now. It’s about recognizing the responsibility we have to future generations as well.
Which brings me to the next key point – we must value sustainability. Sustainability for me encompasses three areas – social, economic, and environmental. Ensuring our communities and social fabric are strong, our economy is diversified and resilient, and our environment is well-preserved and maintained.
I talked about the value of community already. On the economy, are we prepared for an instance where oil and gas go bust for good? What have we done with our good fortune and our success? Have many profited, or just a few? And regardless of how many profited, what have the many benefited from it?
Over the past couple of years, the plight of former manufacturing centres, notably Detroit and its auto industry, have been front and centre in the news. The decline of manufacturing in the “rust belt” states has been on-going for a few decades, as outsourcing, foreign competition, and depletion of resources combined to pose a serious threat to their existing economic model. Detroit, with its hollowed out city core, and failing flagship companies, is in dire straits. We look at them and think, ‘this could never happen to us’. I’m sure the same thing was said there during the ‘what’s good for GM is good for America’ hey-day of the auto industry.
I spent time last week in a couple of other “rust belt” cities. I’ll focus on one of them – Pittsburgh. Long associated with the steel industry, Pittsburgh is finally starting to get its due as a center that has transitioned to the modern economy, while holding onto remnants of the old economy as well. The excellent report “Pittsburgh: The Rest of the Story” details the city’s comeback. The full report deserves a read, but in summary, there are three key points. First, despite the fact that its old industries were shrinking, it didn’t abandon them; instead, it modernized them to the greatest extent possible. Second, the recovery effort was well-coordinated, and involved government, the community, and business. Third, intentionally or not, business and community leaders of the past had put into place many pieces that would contribute to Pittsburgh’s comeback. The old business elite, led by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, built great buildings, endowed foundations, as well as cultural and arts groups, and helped build leading universities. Pittsburgh’s emergence as a health services and biomedical research hub is in great part due to grants from foundations and the universities created during the good times.
Pittsburgh built a legacy during its golden age. What have we built in Alberta? Our Heritage Savings Fund is relatively small, and may be drawn down shortly. We have strong universities, but we are cutting funding to them when times get tough. Do we have anything approaching the legacy of other golden ages?
At home, we’re starting to get this. People such as Edmonton writer Satya Das, through his recently-released book “Green Oil”, have argued for using the oil sands to build a future base of wealth (while simultaneously making them as green as possible). This represents a fundamental shift from the past, and is incredibly encouraging. One day, perhaps, we will be judged not just by how we ourselves profited, but also by how we set up the next generation to succeed.
This brings us to the environment. On October 15, I wrote this for Blog Action Day:
So if the modern world is an age of abundance, what is the post-modern world? Is it a world of scarcity? Not necessarily. It is, however, a world of limits. We must recognize that we can’t continue to grow and consume without regard for the resources we are consuming.
Fundamentally, post-modernism will be about doing more with less. It’s about responsibility – the responsible stewardship of natural resources and land, the responsible use of public resources.
I believe this applies to Alberta 3.0. Efficiency, stewardship, and responsibility are key. How we manage our resources needs to be the new benchmark, not how fast and in what quantity we bring them to the marketplace. We must prioritize protection of the environment and wilderness, because this affects our quality of life, and because it’s often irrecoverable. Our environment shapes us, as much if not more than we shape it. We must respect it, because major changes to the environment can create major unforeseen problems.
Finally, I want to cover politics. The first, and most important principle, is that politics must be taken seriously. This applies to government, public officials, and citizens alike. I believe we get the government we deserve, for better or worse. If we drop out and don’t participate, there’s a good chance we won’t like the government we get. If we get engaged, that’s a different story. It takes time to understand the issues, to discuss them, and to advocate on them. It takes a seriousness from officials to treat each other, the institutions, and citizens with respect. It takes work to govern well, and to hold our government accountable. Politics must be treated as a serious, necessary, and ultimately worthwhile endeavour for everyone from the senior levels of government, to the citizen who tunes in simply to cast a(n informed) vote on election day, and everyone in between.
Further on politics, I worry that for some, a new political party, and/or a change in parties in power, is all we need to fix our problem. For me, it’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. History is littered with challengers who railed against the status quo and achieved power, at which point they realized the status quo works pretty good for those in charge. To achieve true change, we need a bi-partisan effort to focus on the characteristics of the system; fixing that will in time resolve any problems with the players inside of it.
Note that I said “bi-partisan”, not “non-partisan”. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing. Our parliamentary system, with a “government” and an “opposition”, is based on the concept. Partisanship can ensure different opinions are heard, a fundamental characteristic of democracy. In short, partisanship on values is a good thing, as long as it’s rooted in respect for different views; partisanship based on parties, individuals, or institutions – and independent of values – is a bad thing.
The system dictates who is in charge, and how decisions are made. If we want less partisanship, we need a bi-partisan effort, because we will only accomplish this when people on all sides of the debate, and in all parties, are demanding the same high standards.
What are the Next Ten Words?
For me, all of the above is a framework. It outlines the principles for a way forward. But it’s not even close to what we need. If we never get beyond buzzwords like “sustainability” and “engagement”, we won’t get anywhere. What we need is the next ten words.
I couldn’t think of a good real-world example to use here, so instead I turn to The West Wing.
Episode 6 of Season 4, titled “Game On” focuses on the Presidential debate between incumbent President Jed Bartlet, and his challenger, Governor Ritchie. Here is the key scene from the episode:
Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason– the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Mr. President, your rebutal.
There it is.
That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost
always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.
(Update: you can watch the clip here)
What I’m looking for is to move beyond the short answers, and to have serious, nuanced conversations about the challenges and opportunities ahead. I have some ideas to start with, and I’m hoping to connect with others who do as well. “Sustainability”, “engagement”, “green energy” are all nice words on paper, but ultimately meaningless if not understood within a specific context, and even dangerous if approached dogmatically. Conversations such as those at Reboot Alberta can be a starting point. That’s what I hope to accomplish this weekend.