Some thoughts on the civil service

More than a year has now passed since I left the public service. The most surprising thing about that is how I don’t feel like I have ever regretted the choice. There are individuals who I miss, and I certainly miss the regular paycheques, but there have seldom if ever been times when I would have exchanged my current situation as a student for a magical instant return to being a full-time civil servant.

This contrasts, for instance, with my choice of PhD program. Most of the time, I remain convinced that the University of Toronto was the best choice from among the schools that accepted me. That said, there have surely been times – living in an inhospitable city where the traffic makes me too afraid to cycle – when I ponder what it would have been like to study at the University of California, Santa Barbara – and with three times as much funding, to boot. Naturally, I have also felt open at many times to the appeal of being at the University of British Columbia and back in Vancouver.

By contrast, memories of the civil service never leave me feeling a desire for sudden transplantation. I am grateful for the time I spent there; it is certainly a good way to learn about how this country operates. Oftentimes, however, my strongest sense when thinking about the institution is about how sad and disturbing it is that our federal civil service is so inactive about climate change. Indeed, it is probably a net contributor to the growing severity of the problem, given how much priority advocating for oil pipelines and for scrapping rules and processes for environmental protection has gotten over the actual implementation of policies with real potential to substantially diminish Canada’s greenhouse gas contribution. I feel like people in fifty years will find it surprising to learn about how unconcerned our leaders were about the problem, how wilfully blind they were about the disjoint between the policies they supported and their supposed goal of avoiding dangerous climate change, and how ignorant and complacent the Canadian population at large was about the problem. The gap between our policies and what climate science shows to be necessary is so wide that it makes our present approach look like little more than a distracting facade, designed to sustain the public misperception about how insufficient our current approaches are.

As the above probably makes clear, my main feelings about the public service are anger, frustration, and sadness. Sadness because of the gap between what we are capable of, and what we are actually doing. The civil service is full of intelligent, dedicated people who are making a substantial and genuine effort to make Canada and the world a better place. At the same time, they are confronting the chasm between an elected government that has never been serious about curbing climate change and a situation in the world where the problem is increasingly evident and threatening. The full effects of today’s emissions won’t be felt for decades, so if we are to avoid truly terrible outcomes, global emissions need to start diving soon. Yet that is far from what’s on even the ambitious side of the political agenda. The real policy we are enacting is for a perpetuated status quo of ever-growing fossil fuel production, despite the clear scientific basis for seeing that status quo as suicidal.

Much can change politically if real and immediate disaster does come to pass. The general public might finally accept the argument that imposing climate change on future generations is an intolerable wrong; or they may simply perceive it happening quickly enough to seem like a threat to themselves. Politicians may finally accept that fossil fuel companies aren’t primarily generous tax-payers and contributors to election campaigns – but rather entities working hard to undermine the habitability of the planet. Something on par with a major war may blow up the issue enough psychologically for it to rise to an appropriate level of urgency.

Wherever the impulse for change comes from, it won’t be from the federal civil service, which is entirely too contented with continuing to support policies that propel us toward planetary catastrophe. It may well not be in academia either but, at least for the present moment, the latter seems a more promising place to dedicate my energy for now.

Daniel Carpenter and Andrew Delbanco on abolitionism

Delbanco’s essay considers abolitionism as a general category of political vision, one impelled by “imprecatory prophets” whose contribution is, in part, to envision what their contemporaries regarded as “preposterous” and to make it seem possible. Abolitionists render a moral case against the existence and endurance of or or more of a society’s perceived wrongs, such as slavery and racial castes. And perhaps others: alcohol, or gender discrimination, or abortion, or the hierarchy of heterosexuality over gay and lesbian lives. The abolitionist then and now requires moral clarity in the form of a sharp division between good and evil in which the viewer and reader can tell the two apart. Abolitionism also requires a refusal to settle for half-measures; it paints these compromises themselves as part of the problem, as resting firmly on one side of the binary divide. And, not least, abolitionism must conjure a world without the evil institution whose demise it seeks: a promised land.

From Daniel Carpenter’s forward to: Delbanco, Andrew. The Abolitionist Imagination. Harvard University Press. 2012.

Perhaps climate change activists should begin calling themselves fossil fuel abolitionists.

Quick Ottawa trip, July 27-8

Tomorrow I am doing a rapid jot over to Ottawa for the wedding of my good friends Andrea and Mehrzad.

It will be four and a half hours on the bus tomorrow, starting at 10:30am and accompanied by comprehensive exam reading material. The wedding is from 7:00pm until 2:00am. I will then be hanging around an all-night diner in Ottawa until it is time to head for my 9:30am return bus.

Spending a bit of time in Ottawa relaxing and visiting friends would surely be pleasant, but many projects are looming over me and I need to prioritize them over other considerations until the end of August.

Photos from the wedding will go online once I find time to process them.