History belongs to future generations

I disagree with the fundamental notion inherent to the supposed “right to be forgotten”, which is the presumption that the main and most important purpose of documenting world events is to depict your life history in an autobiographical sense. My conviction is that history belongs not to the subjects who it is about, but to the future generations who will need to use it to understand their own situations and solve their own problems. When we censor the future out of vanity or even out of compassion for errors long-atoned for, we may be denying something important to the future. We act as the benefactors of those in future generations by preserving what ordered and comprehensible information may eventually survive from our era, and we should distort it as little as possible. The world is so complex that events are impossible to understand while they are happening. The accounts and records we preserve are the clay which through careful work historians may later turn into bricks. We should not pre-judge what they should find important or what they ought to hear.

The trace we each leave on the broader world during our brief lives is important to other people, and the importance of them being well-informed to confront the unforeseeable but considerable challenges they confront outweighs our own interests as people to be remembered in as positive a light as possible, even if that requires omission and/or deception.

If your climate promise is ten years out, it’s likely bullshit that won’t happen

One of the chief ways our political leaders are dishonest about climate change is in making promises which they know will be beyond their time in office, and which they can therefore never be held accountable for.

Emission reduction targets set in the 2030s and beyond certainly qualify, as do promises that some future government will ban a harmful technology.

When the time to actually implement the ban comes, a new government subject to popular opinion and seeking to win re-election is likely to soften or ignore it. Germany right now provides an example. They had pledged to phase out fossil fuel cars by 2035, but are now realizing that the date is getting close enough to start looking like a real promise: Germany faces EU backlash over U-turn on phasing out combustion engine.

Governments need to be evaluated on what they will do right now, this year, during the term of office when they hold power. Otherwise, we are setting oursevles up as citizens to be lied to while our worst problems grow increasingly severe. A government that says it has a long-term plan to zero out carbon emissions, but which is allowing them to grow in the short term and allowing more fossil fuel projects, is lying with the connivance of its voters.

Progressive politics and “defunding the police”

While outside the area of climate change policy, the concept and slogan of “defunding the police” is revealing about important dynamics between progressive activist politics and policy-making by those who actually win power.

As The Economist reported in 2021:

The critical division is over whether or not the plan is a pretext to “defund the police”. Opponents insist it is sloganeering masquerading as policy. Shortly after Floyd’s murder, a majority of the city council appeared at a rally at Powderhorn Park on a stage in front of which “DEFUND POLICE” appeared in gigantic block letters. “The narrative all along until maybe five months ago, six months ago, was that they would be defunding the police and allocating the money elsewhere. The only thing that’s changed is the political winds,” says Mr Frey. He insists that alternatives to policing can still be funded without modifying the city charter, and that, if anything, more funding for the police is needed: “Right now, in Minneapolis, we have fewer officers per capita than just about every major city in the entire country.”

Advocates for reform have adjusted their language. As with the civil-rights movement, “those farthest on the left are what pushed the movement…we shifted the narrative from reform to defund,” says Sheila Nezhad, a community organiser running for mayor who is posing a stiff challenge to Mr Frey. Having contributed to a report on policing that argued that “abolition is the only way forward”, Ms Nezhad now avoids such rhetoric on the campaign trail, preferring words like “reinvest”. Kate Knuth, another candidate for mayor who supports the reform, says: “My vision of a department of public safety absolutely includes police,” funded at the same levels as today.

Public opinion in favour of “defunding” police departments was never high. The increase in violent crime has made it even less so.

In June 2020, 41% of Democrats told survey-takers for the Pew Research Centre that they wished to reduce local police budgets. By September 2021 that had shrunk to 25%. Among the general public, support declined from 25% to 15%.

I would say the dynamics of this movement mirror many of those in the progressive, intersectional, anti-capitalist climate justice movement. People who are sympathetic to the kind of analysis and solutions within the movement embrace them enthusiastically and selectively surround themselves to people who agree, losing touch with public opinion and losing the ability to influence people who don’t mostly agree with them already. This leads to policy proposals that over-reach what is politically plausible (abolish global capitalism!) but, because they feel swollen with moral superiority about their analysis and policy preferences, activists reject the public rather than revise their proposals. They end up powerless and isolated, but feeling like the moral lords of the universe. Because they see their opponents as so contemptible, the idea of developing an approach with broader electoral support is rejected both pragmatically and emotionally, in the first case because they can’t see how cooperating with such awful people will lead to an outcome they want, and in the second case because their revulsion and contempt makes them reject cooperation before even considering what it would involve.

The biggest thing we need to achieve to have a chance against climate change is to split the conservative side of the population between those with respect for empirical truth who won’t dismantle climate change protections to try to win popularity and the fantasists who either deny the reality of climate change altogether or dismiss the need to act on it. The latter would then hopefully be a small enough rump to be politically marginal. Something comparable on the left may be a helpful parallel development, characterized by the rejection of the idea that everyone who disagrees with progressivism can be ignored or converted. Recognizing that multiple political perspectives can be simultaneously valid is the basis of pluralism and the foundation of the central democratic concept that the defeated must acknowledge the legitimacy of the victors. Without that, politics becomes an anarchic ideological contest in which any tactic can be justified and where a coherent and effective agenda serving the public interest cannot arise.


Guterres on additional fossil fuel production and stranded assets

United Nations secretary general’s remarks on the ongoing release of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report are remarkable for their directness and candour:

“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres during the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) news conference on Monday. “But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

“Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the report’s release Monday. “Such investments will soon be stranded assets, a blot on the landscape, and a blight on investment portfolios.”

Canada’s government, despite taking more action on the issue than its predecessors, remains firmly on the side of the production-increasing radicals. In part that is from how emission statistics treat the GHGs from fuels we export as someone else’s responsibility, along with the GHGs embodied in what we import. Avoiding climatic catastrophe requires an end to such numerical evasions and a firm commitment to fossil fuel abolition, with production falling by a significant percentage every year until the world no longer runs on coal, oil, and gas.

You can blame the government for their inadequacy, but at some level that becomes like blaming corporations for emissions rather than the consumers of their products. By continuing to select governments that misrepresent what the consequences of their climate change plans will be while dodging the question of ending production, Canadians are ensuring that they will be lied to. When both the Liberals and Conservatives promise that climatic stability and a growing fossil fuel sector can be compatible, they perpetuate the cycle where we sacrifice the welfare of all future generations and non-human nature for the sake of our short-term comfort and the temporary perpetuation of unsustainable ways of life.


“2030 Emissions Reduction Plan: Canada’s Next Steps for Clean Air and a Strong Economy”

The Trudeau government’s latest climate change announcement is a plan to cut emissions by 40% by 2030.

The plan also aims to cut oil and gas sector emissions from 191 megatonnes to 110 megatonnes, though the government says it won’t reduce production “not driven by declines in global demand.”

Whether out of political calculation, the influence of the industry, or a simple lack of understanding, this announcement perpetuates the idea that “emissions” can be cut in a meaningful and sustainable way while continuing to expand fossil fuel production. This conforms with earlier analysis of how Trudeau promises action to the public while at the same time comforting business with promises that not much will change.

As long as Canadian politicians are too afraid to acknowledge that avoiding catastrophic climate change requires abolishing fossil fuels we will keep getting plans predicated on the nonsense that we can solve the problem without addressing its chemical causes. It’s fair enough at this point to attribute some of the blame to Canadian voters, who keep proving by their electoral choices that they want the government to express concern about climate change while not even meaningfully slowing down the pace at which we’re making it worse.

It also doesn’t help that the plan’s title sounds exactly like something the Harper government would have created. Climate change isn’t an issue of how “clean” the air is, and setting up clean air beside “strong economy” sticks to the narrative that good policy is about trading one against the other. That’s at best a distorted way of thinking about a fossil fuel dependency which threatens to undermine the very basis of human civilization. For people used to playing for only political stakes, gambling with the future of the whole species is outside of their training and conventional mindsets.

COVID-19 in spring 2022

As Toronto, Canada, and the rest of the world are dismantling their public health protection measures (masks are now mostly voluntary in Ontario) it seems like people’s frustration has gotten ahead of the reality that there will be further waves and variants, in part because of unequitable and insufficient vaccine distriubution globally and also partly because of the voluntarily unvaccinated who keep the virus circulating.

Based on conversations with friends and media from there the situation in China is drastically different. Tower blocks get routinely locked down by people in masks and full-body protective suits. Expatriots are afraid that they will test positive and be forced into an isolation facility.

Even if people would accept them, I wouldn’t say the Chinese tactics are necessary or attractive to emulate. Based on the reporting I have seen, their motives are more political than public spirited: declining to use more effective foreign vaccines out of nationalism, and insisting on “COVID zero” as an attempt to demonstrate the superirity of Chinese authoritarianism over chaotic democratic politics.

It’s obvious but worth repeating that the virus is unaffected by our emotions of exhaustion, frustration, and wanting the epidemic to be over. Measures including vaccine mandates and masking have always been justifiable mechanisms to slow the spread of disease and protect those with compromised immune systems and who cannot be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons.

As so often, I wish people had a bit more fellow-feeling and less entitlement around what they should be able to do and to refuse. Politicians and members of the public desperate for ‘normality’ are delaying it by their intransience.

Between all the global forces at work today — from climate change and nuclear proliferation to loss of public trust in all institutions — I can’t help worrying that we’ll never see pre-COVID “normal” again. We may all be bound up in a developing crisis of profound global instability, where systems disrupted from the old normal trend into a new equilibrium instead of back to what we’ve grown to consider normal. Five or ten years from now, we might marvel about how normal and stable the pandemic times were.


The antivax insurrection

For weeks or months last January, my ability to focus and be productive was sharply impaired by constant fear about what would happen in the United States.

Now it’s the less frightening but far more personal anguish about what will come of the ongoing alt right insurrection in Ottawa.

It’s painful because of what it implies about the future of Canadian politics, and because I know friends in Ottawa are being harmed. Even more, it demonstrates human beings’ deeply maladaptive tendency to amplify societal disruption through radicalization into conspiracy theories and sociopathic behaviour.

The only solution to our global challenges is to respond to disruption with cooperation while continually updating our understanding of the world on the basis of solid scientific knowledge. The path from here is there is not visible.

Always tired

I don’t know exactly why, but the insomnia which has been my normal state of life for as long as I can remember has given over to what’s more like never-ending tiredness: going to bed tired, waking up tired, spending all day tired.

It may be from the loss of academic and social non-dissertation activities that give structure and variety to life, or just from the exhaustion of watching wave after pandemic wave crest and break while we collectively flounder. No doubt it comes partly from the rage of seeing the way in which we’re destroying our world, and yet our politics simply side-steps the issue as voters and lobbyists wedded to the status quo keep us cycling between political parties and leaders that match up their inadequate ambition with unserious implementation.

Maybe more than anything my own exhaustion reflects how everyone else seems to have been eroded and abraded: turning inward, turning silent. Maintaining any kind of social connection has jumped in difficulty, even though I suspect that most people could work to reduce their feelings of isolation and hopelessness by cultivating community in the ways which are possible without close physical presence.

I feel like I need something to lay down a boundary in time — or make one day or week seem different from another — to get back to a tempo of thesis work that will let me get the thing done before the university cuts me off irretrievably at the end of the year. And yet nothing of the sort is possible. I can’t reset the location, content, or cast of characters in my days, and so life feels like April 2020 made eternal.

I know it’s one of our worst human habits to develop the pattern of entitlement and resentment: growing to feel entitled to whatever good things we have happened to get, internalizing the notion that we have them as the result of merit or a just universe, and then cursing the injustice of losing it. The habit of mind we need to cultivate is that “nothing here is promised, not one day.” If we’ve ever had the good luck to experience something positive, we should see it as an unwarranted boon from a universe that is indifferent to all our notions of deserving or fairness, and if we should lose it we should hang on to the gratitude for having ever had it.

We’re all going to lose more than we can guess — maybe everything — as the full consequences of our fossil fuel civilization work their way through the planetary system. If our collective response to loss continues to be anger, resentment, and turning against each other, it’s hard to see how we will achieve the cooperation that has the sole prospect of saving us.