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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.


Recap: Akbar Ganji in Edmonton

Sunday afternoon, I went to see Akbar Ganji speak. Ganji, a well know Iranian journalist and dissident, was in Edmonton to deliver the closing keynote address at Towards ‘the Dignity of Difference’ conference being held at the University of Alberta.

The Audience
A view from near the back of the room.

In his youth, Ganji supported the Islamic revolution, later serving in the Revolutionary Guards Corps. He eventually became disenchanted with the regime, turning to journalism. He came to prominence investigating the murder of dissident authors in Iran. He was eventually jailed by the regime, and gained worldwide attention for his 80 day hunger strike in 2005, while in prison. He was released the following year and now lives abroad.

Speaking in Farsi (with a translation delivering his remarks in English), Ganji delivered a talk titled “Iran and the West: Confrontation or Dialogue?”. Conference organizers handed out a supporting paper, which I have loaded here. Ganji remarked earlier on that he was deviating some from the advertised topic, and focused more on the situation in Iran, and the history since the revolution 30 years ago.

Akbar Ganji

Regarding dialogue between Iran and the west, he outlined some problems (such as the Green Revolution’s view of the government as illegitemate), but argued for engagement from the west regardless. He made an excellent point, noting that isolation of countries such as Cuba and North Korea hasn’t brought about change, contrasting this with the approach of the European Community with Turkey. By bringing Turkey into the fold, they can exert pressure and demand higher standards in terms of human rights, for example.

Ganji then continued to make a well thought out argument for a secular government in Iran. 30 years ago, Iran lacked the pre-conditions for a successful transition to democracy; he believes they exist now. He also believes in opening up Iran to foreign investment; he pointed out how China opened their economic borders 30 years ago and have led the world in economic growth since.

Akbar Ganji

In essence, he is arguing for a true liberal-democratic state. Secular, with free elections and the respect of human rights as a foundation. He issued critiques of governments in the middle east and the west, arguing that the fundamentalists in Iran, Israel, and the United States (until this year), in effect, kept each other in business. His claim that you can’t have dialogue between fundamentalists prompted the professor sitting behind me to audibly utter “bullshit” to his two colleagues beside him.

While most of his arguments on Iran were standard fare from academics, he made some salient points. He reminded us that the problems in the Middle East cannot be solved in isolation. What happens in Gaza affects the situation in Iran, and vice-versa. He argued for the value of social networks, which he sees happening in Iran. Without a trace of irony, given the location, he argued against filtering these social networks through a single political party, since that would be detrimental to the political culture. His most poignant criticism came at the end, when he criticized groups like Hamas and Hezbollah for winning an election, then changing the rules so future elections wouldn’t be competitive. In his words, “democracy has an expiry date”. You must be able to go to the polls and have confident that your vote will count and the government may change.

I would have enjoyed this talk much more had Ganji focused on his personal story, particularly his journalistic efforts and his time in jail. Most of the talk consisted of standard points and arguments on Iran. If there’s a takeaway from that end of his talk, it’s a re-emphasis of the value of dialogue, and of understanding the culture you’re trying to interact with and understand. I just wish Ganji had gone more in depth with that, and told us more of his story. That would have helped us understand Iran more than his general arguments did.

On Iran

I’ve been slowly working on my next blog post, but for the most part I’ve been spending my time following the fallout of Friday’s election in Iran.

Now, I wish I had something insightful to offer you about the politics of Iran, but since I don’t, I want to simply encourage you to stay abreast of what’s happening. And to pray for the safety and health of the citizens of Iran, and for a peaceful, just outcome.

The executive summary of what’s happening: protests and violence have swept the country since the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which is almost certainly a product of foul play and electoral fraud. Supporters of his opponent, the reform-minded Mousavi, took to the streets in protest. They have since been met with violence from various extremist groups and the police.

To get acquainted with the issue, and to stay up to date, here are a few excellent resources. If you’re following the situation and can recommend additional resources/websites, please do so in the comments section:

Andrew Sullivan, who blogs at The Atlantic, has been indispensable in relaying information from around the web.

– The National Iranian-American Council blog is constantly providing updates.

The Lede, from the New York Times, is also on top of the issue.

The Huffington Post and the Boston Globe have been excellent, especially for posting photos from Tehran.

Tehran Bureau was down for a while, but is back up and always a great resource.

– Also worth a read: Hitchens’ take, and this account from a Globe & Mail reporter who was beaten and detained, before being released.

– Finally, Twitter is also helpful for spreading information. The #iranelection hash tag is constantly producing news. I also recommend followed The Tehran Bureau’s twitter feed (@TehranBureau), as well as Lara Setrakian of ABC News (@LaraABCNews).

One final thought: situations like this remind me that we have it really good here in Canada. I don’t think we stop and appreciate that enough. Now let’s hope for the best in Iran.