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Blog Action Day: Embracing Post-Modernism

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual event whereby bloggers around the world are encouraged to write about a single topic. 2009’s choice is climate change.

I want to write something about the topic, particularly since this is a topic I feel passionately about. I believe we have a responsibility to, as best as we can, leave the world in a better place than we found it. Stewardship of the natural environment is a major part of this. Anthropogenic climate change threatens to transform the natural environment in ways that man never has through history before. Additionally, it brings great threats to our economic system and our social fabric – millions of citizens could be uprooted, industries dependent on the land could be devastated if the worse case predicted scenarios come to be.

I spend a lot of time thinking about why sustainability and the environment, despite polling high as an important issue to citizens, hasn’t seemed to spur a major shift in people’s behaviour. Some of it is practical – our society is geared towards consumption and fossil fuel use, and alternatives can be hard to access. Some of it is social – sustainable lifestyles, particularly in terms of transportation, haven’t been normalized in most of the world. And to be fair, the smug self-righteousness that some transit/cycling advocates approach their cause with is off-putting to some people (as much as I support public transit and cycling, I recognize some advocates are as obnoxious as the worst neo-conservatives in pushing their agenda). Some of it is the lack of imminence – global warming doesn’t just happen overnight, making the threat seem abstract. Some of it, I believe, is also the scope of the issue. If it seems so large, so impossible to tackle, why even try? The fatalistic reaction, I fear, is going to become more common.

I think there’s also a larger dynamic at play. Our world is in transition, even putting aside global warming. We are transitioning to what I will call the era of post-modernism.

You’ve probably heard the term postmodernism before, likely applied to the arts. Wikipedia runs down all the various definitions and uses, most of which figure as a reaction to modernism (from the late 19th century on).

I think you can apply the general principles of modernism and post-modernism to society, at least as far as the west goes.

For most of history, humanity faced significant limits. Technology and social norms and systems limited our capacity to communicate, to migrate, to prosper. Beginning with the Enlightenment period and accelerating with the Industrial Revolution, these traditional barriers began to break down. The printing press and eventually radio and television altered the way we communicate. The discovery and settlement of the new world discovered new resources and opened up a continuing stream of land (at the expense of indigenous peoples), to settlers. Old feudal and hierarchical systems began to reform or break down; that, combined with technological innovation, allowed people to achieve greater prosperity. We kept innovating, using up land and resources, and prospering. Run out of space? Why, there’s a new suburb being built just down the road. Oilfields run dry? Head west to the vast untapped terrain.

The modern world, for all intensive purposes, has been an age of abundance. There was always more land, more natural resources, more consumer products.

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.

Certainly, technology has a role to play, whether it’s in creating and making practical the use of renewable and clean energy sources, and in finding new ways to reduce emissions. But there are no magic technological fixes on the horizon at the moment, and hoping for a deus ex machina ending to our predicament is foolish at best, ignorant at worst.

Until such time as technology catches up to our demand, we may have to make sacrifices, doing without at times or doing with less. This is the last thing that people want to hear, but as Jimmy Carter said, “a policy which does not ask for changes or sacrifices would not be an effective policy.” In any case, the sooner we start to stress stewardship, not consumption, the less likely it is we will have to make major sacrifices. Smart use now increases the likelihood of continued use later.

This ties into another paradigm – modernism often stressed the individual. Post-modernism may have to stress the needs of the community – we see signs of this already through things like the Me to We movement. People seek out community and connections, and the presence of these can have powerful effects on one’s motives and beliefs.

I have a lot of optimism in the future, and in mankind’s ability to overcome problems. A necessary precondition, though, is understanding the circumstances and challenges we face. The dynamics of the past few centuries are on their way out; embracing a new paradigm to face new challenges is the first step to success. Responsible stewardship, coupled with continued innovation, can ensure that the post-modern era is more prosperous than the modern one.

Are we up to it? I think so.


Books I Read: Open & Shut

Canadian politics is in flux, or malaise, or disarray, depending on who you ask. We are perpetually dissatisfied with our options at the ballot box, and with the fact that we are returning to the ballot box with increasing frequency. We hold out hope for an inspirational leader to arrive on the scene. After 8 years of looking down at our neighbours to the south, we were enthralled by the 2008 election in the United States, and with the candidacy of Barack Obama. We keep looking for an Obama-like figure to arrive on the scenes and usher in a new era. We should be prepared to wait a while, according to John Ibbitson. In his new book, Open & Shut: Why America Has Barack Obama and Canada Has Stephen Harper, Ibbitson argues that Canada’s system works against the success of an Obama-like figure.

That is to say, in the United States, it’s not unusual for an outsider to rise to the top of his political party by appealing to the grassroots and by bringing in disengaged voters in a drawn-out series of primaries and caucuses.. In Canada, our political parties are closed off, and leadership selection tends to happen by a small, elite group of members at one given time.

This is but the first of many contrasts Ibbitson draws between us and our neighbours to the south over the course of 160 pages. He begins by contrasting the political cultures, especially regarding political parties, then covers the civil service and foreign affairs. He then throws in a chapter about the threat of the tightening American border, before returning to the contrasts by looking at cities and education reform. The book ends with a chapter titled ‘We Should Talk”, which reinforces the fact that we have misconceptions about the United States, and encourages the reader to see what we can learn from them, and to have a dialogue with fellow citizens.

Ibbitson’s final point certainly has merit. We have always had a peculiar relationship with the Americans. Seen one way, it’s a history of antagonism and resistance to the ever-expanding American monolith. Many of our earliest anglophone settlers were loyalists to the British Empire who emigrated to Canada from the thirteen colonies following the War of Independence; we repelled American invasions in 1775 and 1812, and in recent years ‘American-style’ has been a widely used pejorative, and we took endless delight in ridiculing President George W. Bush.

But seen another way, we’ve spent 200 years balancing British and American influences, with the latter slowly and ever-increasingly becoming the dominant outside influence. The rebellions of 1838-39 were seeking American style government, but instead served as the catalyst to move towards our system of responsible government. Our Fathers of Confederation were heavily influenced by the American experience – both the positive and negative aspects. We are each other’s largest trading partner. Today, we consume American culture in spades, probably more so than our own. The American influence is everywhere; we like to pretend we reject it, but we embrace so many aspects of it.

Though I think Ibbitson paints an overly rosy picture of the American situation at times (and I’m someone who sees a lot of positives in the American system), he brings up several key points. Our top-down political culture stymies meaningful involvement. Leadership selection is just one example. Another is the referendum process. While this can certainly go wrong (California being the textbook example), it can also serve as a way to get around intransigent legislators or force specific issues onto the public agenda that aren’t receiving the attention they may warrant. Yet, when brought up in Canada, it’s routinely dismissed, or ridiculed. Whether you agree with his examples or not, it’s hard to argue against talking about what merit they may or may not have. It’s hard to have a serious discussion when ‘American-style’ is a commonly-used pejorative.

Ibbitson also contrasts the two political cultures. In Canada, we lack the “creation myth” that the War of Independence provides to the US. Canada’s evolution was a slow one – Responsible Government came to the colonies in the 1840s, Confederation was achieved 20 years later. It took World War I for us to be recognized as a legitimate independent entity in the eyes of the world, and it wasn’t until 1982 that our constitution was patriated.

The final key point, to my mind, is the benefits and drawbacks that our “closed” political system provides. We tend to lack the extremes of US politics. Leaving aside the Constitution battles and the separatist movement in Quebec, our politics tend to be stable. Save for a few periods of turmoil, our politics settled nicely into a homeostatic place. Ibbitson argues that the US is constantly changing. This change can lead to bad outcomes (deregulation of the financial markets and the corresponding financial meltdown, finding oneself mired in the Iraq War), but it also makes the creation of a solution more likely. On the other hand, the closed system makes change hard. If we are stuck in a rut, it’s harder to get out of. Change is unlikely to come from within, and the system is stacked against outsiders trying to upend it. As a result, we’ve avoided the extremes of our neighbours, but we’re stuck in mediocrity. There’s a lack of vision and action. As Ibbitson says at one point, we may lose Canada because of a lack of mandate.

The book is worth a read for anyone interested in politics, or concerned about the future of our country. To me, this book is not an endorsement of either the Canadian or American system. There are good and bad things about both, and both the good and bad should be discussed and understood by citizens. But the Canadian way has been to find balance and compromise – between different cultural groups, between warring external influences. There are things we could learn from our neighbours, and maybe even adapt to make work for us. This book is a good start that should get the reader thinking about that.

(h/t to Ken Chapman, whose blog post spurred me to read this book).